Written by Shelley K. Mesch
Winnie Karanja wants to help break down barriers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) for girls and students of color. She wants to help kids imagine themselves in these fields, just as they imagine themselves as firefighters or actors.
To help youths in Madison and Dane County learn about these fields, Karanja, 29, founded Maydm. The nonprofit, a sort of portmanteau for “made by them,” teaches summer programs and workshops on computer coding and other STEM subjects. The programs focus on girls and students of color, as women and people of color are underrepresented in STEM professions.
Karanja said she sees access to STEM jobs, which pay above-average wages, as a way to lift up disenfranchised or marginalized communities.
“I’m really passionate about making sort of deep change in a community and improving people’s quality of life in ways that are substantial and addressing generational poverty,” Karanja said.
Karanja, who immigrated to the U.S. from Kenya with her family in 1999, formed Maydm in 2015. Since then, the organization has helped more than 1,900 area students.
Because of her work with Maydm, Karanja was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list of social entrepreneurs in 2019.
What are your hopes for Maydm?
What we’re creating is an environment where there’s a sense of belonging in this space. When you look around, there are other students who look like you and have had similar experiences. Really changing the narrative around who belongs in STEM. What’s really important right now is really bringing in certain voices and certain people and making our students and the community aware of the fact that people of color are pioneers in the STEM field.
What have been some of the biggest challenges?
It has been being able to raise the support to grow it well, to have the resources to be able to grow our program and work with more students. That’s been one of the challenges. Another is changing that narrative. For me, I want students in every ZIP code to say, “Hey, I want to be a mechanical engineer or computer engineer or computer developer,” just as they’ll very quickly say, “I want to be a teacher or a firefighter or a nurse.” I would say that’s an underlying narrative that we’re trying to, and I’m personally trying to, change.
What have been some of the best moments working with Maydm?
I would say some of the best moments that I’ve experienced have been the moments when our kids are coding and their code works, or they’re seeing that code reflect what they’re trying to build. Those “Aha!” moments of like, “Oh my word, Miss Winnie, I got it to work.” … The excitement and where those students are like, “I can do this, and this is my space.” You can see it in their eyes. Those have been some of the most amazing moments.
Can you talk more about coding? What are the students actually making?
Our students are learning different programming languages. We do have a course where students are building websites, but students building mobile applications, they’re programming hardware like Raspberry Pis and Arduinos. They’re also programming robots to do different tasks like navigate mazes. They’re learning about AI (artificial intelligence), cloud computing, cybersecurity.
Why do you think it’s important to have this kind of program in Dane County?
I think this program is really important because of our growing tech jobs. What we’re doing is saying, “Hey, you don’t need to wait for people who are going to come in from the East Coast and West Coast, there is brilliance in our community.” And how do do we make sure that the brilliant students, the brilliant students of color and female students, that they’re having access to this field? … We’re positioning students for these high-wage jobs.