Four young women are out to change the STEM landscape with a little help from WE.

By Jesse Mintz

Sal Sabila loves numbers. Her early childhood memories are of afternoons spent sitting with her father, practising arithmetic problems like they were puzzles. Years later, she speaks in math.

But for many bright young women, full of ambition in the sciences, subtract support and mentorship and what are you left with? “It’s hard to equal much,” says the first-year University of Toronto student with an exasperated laugh.

To illustrate her point, she describes a graph featuring a simple X and Y axis with columns measuring the number of girls and boys she’s shared science and math classes with over the years. From left to right on this graph the columns for boys climb ever higher, eventually dwarfing the number of girls. “I was the outlier,” she says. She feels her female classmates were never welcomed into the world of numbers.

Sal only held on, in large part, thanks to the support of her father, a doctor, who shares her love of math. By Grade 12, most of her female classmates had internalized the message that STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is the realm of men and boys.

Now, Sal—along with her friends Aisha Chohan, Swikriti Ghimire and Vharshaa Punithechelvan—wants to rewrite that message and encourage more young woman to pursue their scientific dreams. And they want to do it with a splash, organizing an inspirational conference featuring women engineers, doctors, tech leaders—even astronauts.

Their goal—connecting young women with female mentors in STEM—is what brought the foursome to the WE Global Learning Center’s Incubation Hub for the second round of its Social Entrepreneurship Program. Launched last fall, the program works with young innovators to help them develop their world-changing ideas, providing leadership training and mentorship.

The foursome, members of a Toronto group called Youth Gravity that organizes activities for kids in their Regent Park community, found their way to the hub largely by chance. “They came into the WE GLC one day to ask if they could host an event here,” says WE Program Manager Kaila Muzzin. “Ever since, we have been supporting them with hosting monthly youth-focused gatherings.” WE recommended the girls apply for the Social Entrepreneurship Program to further develop their initiatives.

With the promise of support and mentorship through the Incubation Hub, Sal, Aisha, Swikriti and Vharshaa launched S.H.E.—standing for STEM Her with Equity—and proposed a website with a roster of successful women in the field for young girls in need of guidance.

“It makes a huge difference when you see someone in the same boat as you,” explains Sal of the project. “It makes you feel empowered, like your goals are possible.”

WE’s Social Entrepreneurship program taught Sal and her friends how to map a business plan, pitch a project and where to seek funding. They developed budgets, talked about how to engage youth, designed a website and created a detailed a marketing strategy.

Then came their biggest lesson.

“Our mentor, Julia [McMullin], asked us point blank about how we’ll get the word out, how we’ll get people excited. And we thought it came down to social media,” says Sal.

Instead, Julia suggested holding a conference featuring women leaders in STEM, and inviting young girls in need of mentorship.

“Immediately, a light bulb flashed in our head,” says Aisha. “Even if [girls] don’t know if they love STEM just yet, if they’re the least bit curious, if it’s a possibility, this conference is for them.”

The conference will be held on October 13, 2018, at the WE Global Learning Centre. The girls have secured partnerships and funding. Now they’re seeking speakers, and already have some heavyweights on the list, including Canada’s first female astronaut, Roberta Bondar, as well as women executives from Microsoft and TELUS.

For Sal, the conference and website are more than an opportunity to get girls into STEM—they are a chance to right personal wrongs.

Sal’s father and uncles—hailing from Bangladesh and immigrating to Canada over the past decade—are all engineers or doctors; none of the women in her family were able to study the sciences. When her father supported her passion for math, he was breaking a strong familial and cultural taboo.

“I’m lucky to have had my father’s support, but I wish I’d had someone to look up to who’s a woman, who set an example for me,” says Sal, who now dreams of becoming a science and math teacher so she can provide mentorship to young girls like her.

As for the WE Incubation Hub, the training and mentorship she received were invaluable—both for this project and beyond. “It made me fly,” says Sal. “It made me feel like I’m capable of achieving anything.”

The Social Entrepreneurship Program at the WE Incubation Hub is open to 14–19-year-olds who are taking action and making the world a better place. It will be accepting applications for Cohort 3 in late summer and early fall. Please check out the WE Incubation Hub for more details on how to apply and to take your world-changing idea to the next level.

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