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Empowering the next generation of female leaders in STEM and entrepreneurship

We sat down with Tiara Wheatley from the Chicago Tech Academy, a DRW grant recipient, to discuss how their Young Women's Leadership Society is creating a brighter future for young women through education, mentorship, and community.

What led to the creation of the Young Women's Leadership Society, and what was the inspiration behind it?

The Young Women’s Leadership Society (YWLS) was established as a means to cultivate a deeper connection with the students I served while in my role as Senior Director of Philanthropy & Corporate Engagement at Chicago Tech Academy. Initially, students would gather near my workspace before and after school for casual conversations, a number that steadily increased each week. To formalize and expand these interactions, I decided to create a structured program open to all young women in the school focused on a subject that repeatedly piqued their interest -technology.

At its inception, YWLS was not driven by specific expectations but rather by a desire to provide a safe and supportive environment for young women. The goal was to foster community, forge connections, and create sense of sisterhood, all while empowering these young women, including those with backgrounds similar to mine, by recognizing and nurturing their boundless potential and possibilities for the future.

How is the curriculum for the Young Women’s Leadership Society developed?

The curriculum for the Young Women's Leadership Society (YWLS) has undergone significant evolution in response to the evolving needs of our community and our commitment to serving young women effectively. Developed by the organization's leadership team, which includes myself as the YWLS Founder, Imani Strong as the YWLS Lead Sponsor, and LaTrease Davenport as the Real World Learning Manager, our curriculum development process is collaborative and dynamic. We closely monitor student needs and industry trends in technology and entrepreneurship to ensure our curriculum remains relevant and impactful. Additionally, we are responsive to the changing needs of our school community, continuously adapting our approach to meet students where they are and prepare them for successful futures in STEM and entrepreneurship.

What are some of the key topics or skills that the program focuses on to prepare young women for careers in STEM and entrepreneurship?

  • Technical Skills: Introducing fundamental technical skills like coding, data analysis, and engineering concepts through interactive and engaging activities.

  • Entrepreneurship Skills: Cultivating entrepreneurship skills by guiding students through the process of developing business ideas, creating business plans, and understanding basic financial principles.

  • Leadership Development: Fostering leadership qualities through activities that promote decision-making, effective communication, and problem-solving in a team setting.

  • Networking: Providing opportunities for students to connect with professionals in STEM and entrepreneurship, helping them build a network of support and inspiration.

  • Mentorship: Pairing students with mentors who can offer guidance, support, and encouragement as they explore STEM and entrepreneurship.

  • Professional Development: Conducting workshops on resume writing, interviewing skills, and workplace etiquette to prepare students for internships and future careers.

  • Social-Emotional Learning: Incorporating elements of social-emotional learning to help students develop self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

  • College Exploration: Assisting students in exploring college options, understanding admissions requirements, and preparing for college applications and interviews.

  • Career Exploration: Providing exposure to various STEM and entrepreneurship careers through guest speakers, field trips, and hands-on projects, helping students make informed career choices.

By focusing on these areas, we aim to empower our students with the skills, knowledge, social capital, and emotional intelligence necessary to succeed in STEM and entrepreneurship.

Could you describe the purpose and objectives of Little Black Dress Night?

Founded in 2014 by the Young Women’s Leadership Society (YWLS), Little Black Dress Night (LBDN) has become an annual tradition. This event serves as both a friend-raiser and fundraiser, uniting the Chicago tech and business communities alongside executive thought leaders. LBDN provides a platform to address pressing diversity challenges, including the stark underrepresentation of women and lack of advancement opportunities, particularly in African-American and Latinx communities in STEM fields and entrepreneurship. Through open dialogue and collaboration, we strive to confront systemic barriers and advocate for inclusive pathways to success. Moreover, LBDN is a celebration of our advocates and allies in this work, recognizing their invaluable contributions to driving positive change and fostering a more inclusive workforce, and world. Together, we are committed to creating a future where everyone, regardless of background, has equal opportunities to thrive and contribute in the tech industry.

The funds generated from ticket sales, donations, and sponsorship contributions serve as vital support for the Young Women’s Leadership Society, providing essential resources for our program offerings and advancing our mission to educate, empower, and connect a diverse next generation of diverse STEM and entrepreneurship leaders. The funds generated also enable us to uphold our commitment to educational equity, facilitate real-world learning experiences, provide mentorship opportunities, and much more. Additionally, through initiatives like Little Black Dress Night, we directly contribute to sending 20 female students to college, furthering our dedication to fostering academic and professional success for young women in our community.

For those inspired by YWLS, what are ways that they can support young women pursuing careers in STEM?

There are several ways individuals can support young women pursuing careers in STEM inspired by the Young Women's Leadership Society:

  • Become a Mentor: Offer guidance, support, and advice to young women as they navigate their STEM journeys.

  • Make a Financial Investment: Contribute financially to organizations and programs that provide resources and opportunities for young women in STEM.

  • Host an Intern: Provide internship opportunities for young women to gain hands-on experience in STEM fields.

  • Host a Career Workshop: Share your expertise and insights by hosting workshops that focus on career development and skills building in STEM.

  • Advocate for Inclusion: Advocate for policies and practices that promote diversity and inclusion in STEM fields.

  • Volunteer: Volunteer your time and skills to mentor or tutor young women interested in STEM subjects.

  • Share Resources: Share resources, such as books, articles, and online courses, that can help young women further their STEM education and career goals.