Cool Women

There is no avoiding rejection. Arianna Huffington on surviving a low point.

Arianna Huffington was cool enough to blurb by book. Thank you Arianna! This memory of painful rejection mirrors so  many of the women I profiled. Rejection is daily. Constant. But these women superheroes don’t hear no as an edict. Just a word. And a challenge to keep going.

Our social media feeds are often a non-stop highlight reel of our successes. This week, I wanted to share a different kind of #tbt, one about rejection. One of the low points in my life was when my second book was rejected by 37 publishers. By rejection 25, you would have thought I might have said, “hey, you know, there’s something wrong here. Maybe I should be looking at a different career.” Instead, I remember running out of money and walking, depressed, down St James Street in London and seeing a Barclays Bank. I walked in and, armed with nothing but a lot of chutzpah, I asked to speak to the manager and asked him for a loan. Even though I didn’t have any assets, the banker – whose name was Ian Bell — gave me a loan. It changed my life, because it meant I could keep things together for another 13 rejections. And then I got an acceptance. In fairytales there are helpful animals that come out of nowhere to help the hero or heroine find a way out of the dark forest. Well, in life too, there are helpful animals disguised as human beings — bank managers like Ian Bell, to whom I still send a holiday card every year. This photo was taken when I was living in London around that time.

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DIY Girls: These 12 Teens Built a Solar Tent for the Homeless

The DIY Girls

How 12 teens invented a solar-powered tent for the homeless

by Brittany Levine Beckman

As Daniela Orozco picks off excess plastic bordering a 3D-printed box, she recalls how many homeless people she saw on her way to school when she was a high school freshman.

Just one.

Four years later, the number has multiplied. People live on a main thoroughfare near the school, at a nearby park, and below the off-ramps and bridges in her hometown of San Fernando, which is about 20 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. In the San Fernando Valley, homelessness increased 36% to 7,094 people last year, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Agency’s annual count. Daniela and her friends wanted to help, but giving money wasn’t an option.

“Because we come from low-income families ourselves, we can’t give them money,” the high school senior says.

“We wanted to offer something besides money,” her classmate, Veronica Gonzalez, chimes in.

That was the starting point for their invention: a solar-powered tent that folds up into a rollaway backpack. The girls and 10 others from their high school had never done any hands-on engineering work before, but with the help of YouTube, Google, and trial-and-error, they got it done.

They hope that one day, their tent will improve the lives of people experiencing homelessness in their community.

Paulina Martinez zips up the solar-powered tent as the team works on final sewing touches.

Left to right: Kassandra Salazar, Paulina Martinez, and Paola Valtierra, help DIY Girls Executive Director Evelyn Gomez set up the solar-powered tent.

The teen girls from San Fernando High School worked on their invention over the course of a year. Come June 16, they’ll present it at MIT as part of a young inventors conference. The teens, none of whom had coded, soldered, sewn, or 3D-printed before they joined forces, won a $10,000 grant from the Lemelson-MIT Program to develop the invention.

They were recruited by DIY Girls, a nonprofit that teaches girls from low-income communities about engineering, math, and science, to go after the grant.

“I knew I wanted to apply for it, but I needed a team,” says Evelyn Gomez, 29, the executive director of DIY Girls. “I went back to my calculus teacher at my high school and did a hands-on recruitment activity.”

Most of the girls didn’t know each other before, but they quickly became close friends.

When DIY Girls was founded in 2012, the nonprofit worked with 35 girls in one elementary school classroom. Last year, it served 650 girls in elementary, middle, and high schools throughout Los Angeles County. The small nonprofit even keeps a waitlist because demand for its services is so high.

Hands-on STEM education at schools, especially for girls in low-income communities, is severely lacking, Evelyn says. Women make up just 29% of the science and engineering workforce, according to the National Science Board, a federal agency. Around 6% of female working scientists and engineers are Hispanic or Latina.

Prinsesa Alvarez shows off the solar-powered tent in its rollaway backpack.

When packed up, the tent looks like a “big blue sun,” Prinsesa Alvarez says. A clear opening on the backpack lets sun shine through to charge the solar panels.

I was often the only girl in the class and definitely the only Latina in the class. It felt like kind of imposter syndrome.

“I studied aerospace engineering. When I was getting my master’s degree, I was often the only girl in the class and definitely the only Latina in the class. It felt like kind of imposter syndrome,” says Evelyn, who got her master’s from UCLA. “It’s such a farfetched idea: You’re going to represent the Latina community in a bad light if you ask a stupid question or you’re going to represent women in a bad light if you ask a stupid question, and of course that’s not true. But I felt that.”

And she doesn’t want the girls working on the tent to ever feel that way. None of their parents are engineers. Some of them will be the first in their families to go to college.

In the beginning, the team depended on Evelyn for guidance, but they quickly started doing everything on their own. If they had an issue with a solar panel not functioning properly, they watched YouTube videos. If they couldn’t figure out a stitch pattern, they Googled it. The girls even developed their own inspirational hashtag: #wegetitdone.

If your parents miss X amount of bills, you can fall into homelessness, too.

“You’re learning new things you’ve never even heard of or even thought of,” says Chelly Chavez, who learned the programming language C++ to get the technical aspects of the tent to behave. The tent has button-powered lights, two USB ports, a micro-USB port, and the girls have even tested a sanitizing UVC light on a countdown timer.

“We’re just like, ‘how do we do this,’ ‘how do we do this,'” notes Prinsesa Alvarez as she helps Chelly with a mess of wires during a recent team meeting.

The girls work on their project six days a week, getting together even through their winter and spring breaks. They often come home after hours of sewing to find loose needles falling off their clothes. They made two prototypes of the tent, but the first one is now in shreds. They put it through the ringer during quality control tests, tearing it with a knife, dousing it with water, and stomping on it.

“When they were hitting it, my heart dropped,” says Paulina Martinez as she stitches one of the tent’s edges. They destroyed their finished product, just to start again. It was yet another tough engineering lesson the girls would learn.

Left to right: Wendy Samayoa and Prinsesa Alvarez chat about the project over their laptops.

The LED lights the team has been testing before finishing their final product.

Paulina Martinez sews material for the tent.

Left to right: Patricia Cruz and Veronica Gonzalez inspect a 3D-printed box.

Before settling on their tent idea, the team had tossed out other options. They wondered: What could they do about pollution or water quality? But they realized they wanted to invent something that would help their community more directly.

“Because we live here, we see it growing constantly,” Maggie Mejia says of the homeless population. For her, it even hits close to home: “If your parents miss X amount of bills, you can fall into homelessness, too.”

Maggie and the others don’t have concrete plans for the future of their invention after the MIT presentation, but they hope it could eventually be mass-produced.

Maggie Mejia explains why she joined DIY Girls.

The team tested several materials before deciding what to use in their solar-powered tent.

The $10,000 grant from the Lemelson-MIT Program could only be used on the invention itself, not traveling to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to present the award. So DIY Girls fundraised an additional $15,000 to send the team to MIT, an expense the girls’ families couldn’t otherwise bear.

But they’ve made it, and it’s a success story that could make a really big impact. Already featured by local TV stations and Ryan Seacrest on his morning radio show, the team wants their accomplishment to encourage other girls to pursue STEM careers.

“Me and her, we’re the only two junior girls in our AP Calculus class, which has way more guys than girls,” says Paola Valtierra, pointing to Kassandra Salazar, who dreams of being an astronaut and has a tiny, metal one on her keychain. “But we’re gonna change that.”

The team won a $10,000 grant to invent the solar-powered tent.

A Women in Economics Problem (and Answer)

Our country has a women in economics problem. Harvard professor of economics Claudia Goldin studied gender and the choice of majors at a selective university (on par with Harvard, she says). Between 2005 and 2013, there were twice as many males majoring in economics. She uncovered that women ditched the major when they did not get A’s in the introductory course at a much higher rate than men. Women who got B’s left the major at 2x’s the rate of guys with B’s. Females who earned a C jumped ship at 4x’s the rate of the males who earned C’s. When women got A’s, they majored in econ at a higher rate than the males. Women are more sensitive to any negative feedback, a sign that they may feel they do not belong. This sinks with a trend of women worrying so much about grades, it harms them in the work world (“Why Girls Beat Boys at School and Lose to them at the Office” –NYT, Feb. 2019)

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Stanford University Graduate School of Business has a compelling new program to counter this issue. Launched in 2014, the Stanford GSB Graduate Fellows is a unique 2-year program focused on improving the pipeline into business fields. Program Fellows — many of them women and underrepresented minorities — train in complex data analysis, take PhD-level courses to deepen their preparation and round out their transcripts, and receive faculty mentoring. They then apply to PhD level programs in business fields.

When the program began, there were three students in the first cohort. That number is expected to exceed nine this summer. Three recent graduates are all headed to prestigious economics PhD programs—Helena Pedrotti to NYU, Sylvia Klosin to UC Berkeley, and Sara Johns.Screen Shot 2019-06-04 at 1.54.26 PM.png

My Cool Daughter

This is the start of a blog about cool women. I’m not sure how proper it is to start such a column with a post about my own daughter. But here goes. The week before last, Elliot went on KQED forum and made herself very vulnerable talking about teen mental health.

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She shared her experience with depression and anxiety, first in middle school and now as a high school junior. She did it to start working to combat the stigma around a problem plaguing as much as one-third of adolescents, disproportionately girls.