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When Aisha Bowe started classes at Washtenaw Community College in Michigan she had planned to study international business, but a change of heart – inspired by her father’s decision to go back to school for electrical engineering – upended her trajectory. “He brought up this idea that maybe I could be an engineer, too,” says Bowe.
She buckled down, started succeeding in math classes, and began to imagine a future where she would pursue aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan and then work at NASA. And she did exactly that.
After six years at NASA Ames Research Center in the San Francisco Bay Area where she was surrounded by Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs, Bowe decided to take the leap herself and in 2013, at age 27, founded STEMBoard, a company that solves technology challenges for government clients and designs educational Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) products and workshops for all ages. STEMBoard now has close to 20 employees, a growing portfolio of federal clients, and has launched their first commercial education product: a coding toolkit that teaches STEM fundamentals by having learners build a backup sensor for a driverless car.
In honor of Women's History Month and the launch of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s #LightASpark campaign to inspire young girls to pursue careers in STEM, we spoke with Bowe about her rapid rise to business ownership, the challenges facing minority and female entrepreneurs, and why she keeps STEM outreach at the core of her company. What follows has been lightly edited for clarity:
Did you always do well in STEM classes growing up, or did studying math and engineering in college present a completely new challenge for you?
It was definitely a challenge. I strongly encourage individuals who are struggling with math and science to find somebody who can teach them the subject in a way where they can learn it. For me, I didn't do well in the high school environment. It wasn't until I was in community college, where I was older, more focused, and had instructors that wanted to teach me in a way that I could pick it up, that I started to succeed. At first, I wasn't thinking “I'm going to be a rocket scientist.” I was thinking, okay, maybe there are some things about myself that I need to explore. I surely was not expecting for that to snowball into an engineering degree from the University of Michigan.
When did you get the idea that you could be a rocket scientist?
Growing up, the idea of people like me was totally abstract. I did not know any engineer/rocket scientist people, let alone who were women, or minorities of color. The idea that I could be that person started taking shape toward the end of my first year in community college. I started to succeed, and I really had to take a step back and look at myself and think, if I’m going to allow myself to be whatever it is that I want to be, who is that person? I came up with a list of lofty aspirations: I'm going to leave community college; I'm going to matriculate at a four-year institution; I’m going to study engineering and the focus is going to be aerospace because aerospace is cool and I like space; from there I’m going to NASA – that was my game plan. But at that time, it was just a fantasy. I did not think it was literally going to happen. But I spent so many years not believing in myself, so I said, the heck with it, why don't I just spend one year believing in myself and see what happens?
Where did the idea for STEMBoard come from?
While at NASA, I was part of a program where I would go out and talk about what I was doing at schools. I thought I was ready – I was a NASA engineer equipped with astronaut ice cream. But half the time the students couldn’t get past the fact that they were talking to a 20-something aerospace engineer. They fundamentally just did not believe me, so I had my college degrees in the trunk of my car for two years because the students would say, “show us the paper.” I started to think, wait a second, if I can go to a school and I can put in someone's mind that they can be an engineer, why would I not want to keep doing that? At the same time, I was living and working in Silicon Valley, which has such a strong ecosystem geared toward empowering entrepreneurs. I met a number of 23-to-25-year-olds who had gone out and raised millions of dollars and were starting to run their own companies. I kept running into entrepreneurs everywhere. I had this idea for an organization that is rooted in the principle of giving back and empowering those who have traditionally been underserved, but I also wanted to work on cutting-edge technology. When those things collided, that became the idea for STEMBoard.
What did the company look like in its earliest days? How did that vision grow into an actual company?
STEMBoard was founded in Virginia as a limited liability company, and when we were a young company, we spent a lot of time developing educational workshop content. We partnered with Fayetteville State University, which is an HBCU, supporting their summer STEM activities. We supported camps in the Bahamas that were focused on exposing students to STEM content. On the technology side, we started out by supporting initiatives underneath the Department of Defense. We were fortunate to end up in a mentor-protégé agreement through the DOD with Millennium Engineering and Integration Co. and from there we were able to leverage more resources to really grow in our ability to contract. Now we have close to 20 employees, and we just received our 8(a) certification. We’ve spent the last five years focusing on being a subcontractor, learning how to deliver, how to innovate, and how to drive value for our clients. Recently, we've been really focused on growing into being a prime government contractor.
What kind of solutions do you provide your federal contracting clients?
One of our key differentiators is our ability to rapidly prototype and provide advanced solutions for people who are tackling issues related to data, data management, and cloud modernization. That's truly where I feel we excel. We are also constantly helping organizations make data-driven decisions. We are taking data that an organization may have gathered, and delivering it back in a way that’s valuable to them. For example, an organization gathers data about employee’s attendance and productivity. We help them turn that data into information: your employees are more productive on the second and third Wednesdays of the month because those are the days when the CEO gives a town hall and they feel energized after that. We can also help visualize data, because some people understand things better when they see them.
The vision for STEMBoard included a mission to educate young people and to give back. How do you keep that a core part of the company as it continues to grow?
At STEMBoard we have a division called the Education Directorate, which focuses on our educational workshops and content. Specifically, we provide STEM curriculums for national nonprofits; we have workshops all over the country where K-12 students can participate in multi-day sessions led by our instructor; we train teachers to be able to teach our content; and we now have products that can be bought by the public for anyone who wants to learn coding fundamentals in their home. We focus on traditionally underserved communities, but we also partner with community colleges and universities. We’re all over the map, since we feel there isn’t an area that doesn’t have this need. The nation is beginning to embrace the fact that most of the jobs that our youth are going to engage in in the future haven't been created yet. And more than likely, today’s youth are going to create them. So we’re focused on equipping them with analytical reasoning skills to help them build their futures.
What still needs to be done in the business community to embrace women and diversity in business and in STEM?
For me, cross-collaboration is really powerful. Many of the best mentors I've had in my life have been men, and they’ve been what many people would consider to be your traditional “men working in federal contracting.” But what I’ve loved about them is that they understood that we go further together. They made it a point to introduce me to people, to show me things, and to always set an inclusive tone. Focusing on women and minorities should be highlighted because as we develop as a society, the idea that you can bring in a new viewpoint that may not have been heard before is resulting in organizational growth. It’s resulting in increased market share. You don't have to look further than Harvard Business School studies to show that.
What does the entrepreneurial landscape look like today for a minority female entrepreneur?
Today I'm seeing an increase in funding opportunities. A few years ago there was a lot of noise about the lack of access to capital for minorities in business. I wouldn’t say the problem has been solved – there's still a lot of work to be done – but you're seeing more attention placed on it and you're seeing more women, and more women of color, raising money and building fantastic businesses. African American women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the country, and I think that says a lot about the space. When I started, I didn't see very many. Now more people are willing to throw their hat in the ring and want to grow a business. That, to me, says that people see they have resources, can build a community, and can be successful.
What does business mean to you? Answer with “business is…”
For me, business is about changing lives. The most important thing that we do as a company is change lives. Whether it's the lives of the people who come into our workshops or camps, or the lives of the people who work for me as employees. If I, as a business owner, can make sure that you're able to make a wage where you can send your kid to their dream school, I consider that to be a success. If I can show students in an inner-city school that they can be computer scientists, that’s a win. My idea of business isn't so much driven by profit, it’s driven by impact.