Fifteen-year-old Gitanjali Rao is proud to call herself a STEMinist, a term she defines as “any female, especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, and especially in male-dominated fields, who sees a lot of these issues are being underrepresented and goes out there and makes an effort.” The idea is to be an inspiration to others — something Rao has certainly achieved.
An inventor, scientist, author, and engineer, Rao was named Time Magazine’s first-ever Kid of the Year in 2020 and won the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge for her work on a device that detects lead in water more quickly than any earlier methods. She regularly leads innovation and technology workshops for elementary schools around the world.
Recently, Rao spoke with Devi Thomas, Salesforce.org’s VP of insights and social impact marketing, during a fireside chat that also included three participants from Project Scientist, a nonprofit that aims to remove obstacles for girls and women who want to work in STEM fields through hands-on after-school enrichment programming, summer camps, and mentoring.
Their discussion touched on the power of failure to inspire and motivate us, the systemic changes that are needed to increase girls’ success in STEM, and how Gen Z and younger generations can help get more girls and women into the C-suite. Here is some of their advice for anyone who wants to change the world:
Be curious. Rao’s parents encouraged her to expose herself to new things, so she was involved in many activities from a very young age, including ice skating, baking, and even football for a short time. The deal was that she had to go to one class or practice or meeting, and if she didn’t like it, she could quit. In this way, she said, “I was taught to be a natural-born risk-taker.” Because of that instinct, now when she sees a problem, she wants to solve it. Her curious mindset helps her innovate.
Don’t be afraid to dream big. Young people have their whole lives ahead of them to work toward turning their dreams into reality, so their dreams should be big ones. When Grace, one of the Project Scientist participants, asked her what changes need to be made to the education system to increase student success in STEM, Rao suggested that the virtual learning that has developed as a response to the pandemic be expanded and used to reduce global inequalities in education. She believes much more could be achieved if schools with plentiful resources simply connected virtually with underprivileged schools around the world to ensure every student has access to the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. “Imagine if every single school did that one day. We could probably get rid of the education inequality crisis once and for all.”
Don’t be afraid to fail. When asked, Rao said she values failure more than success, because when you fail after taking a risk, you take a step back, but then you can move forward more quickly. “The reason I am where I am is because of my failures, not my successes,” she said. “All failure is, is messing up when it doesn’t matter — not when it does.” She said it’s important to cultivate the idea that failure is a natural part of the learning process, rather than stigmatizing it as has been done in the school system. She also provided an inspirational acronym for FAIL: First Attempt In Learning.
Be a role model for others. One of the Project Scientist participants, Bennett, asked how Gen Z can help to ensure that more women become CEOs at STEM companies. Rao said women who are working or want to work in STEM need many more role models to inspire them to push forward and visualize themselves in these high-level roles. She pointed out that the CEOs of YouTube, Waze, and 23andMe are all women who have inspired her, but that more work is needed in order to cultivate the next generation of innovators and CEOs.
“I’m 15 years old, I’m female, and I am South Asian, all of which you don’t necessarily see together when you think of a scientist or engineer. What I’ve learned is: You’re not going to see anybody else like you, but by being the one person in the room that looks like that, I am a trailblazer for everyone else out there,” Rao said. “One day we’re not going to be calling it Girls in STEM. We’re going to be calling it People in STEM.”