Women in STEM Symposium Illuminates the Path Forward for a New Generation

Dean Jelena Kovačević flanked by student entrepreneurs

NYU Tandon pitch competition participants onstage with Dean Jelena Kovačević at the Women in STEM Symposium

A staggering gender gap still exists at the nation’s engineering schools: classes at most of them are only about 20% female — and even more distressingly, women face a similarly proportioned STEM workplace after graduating.

The NYU Tandon School of Engineering is making strides to correct that imbalance:  female students comprise 43% of the Class of 2022, and this past summer, 59% of the participants in Tandon’s K-12 STEM program were girls.

Much of that success is due to Tandon’s deep focus on female-centered initiatives like the recent Women in STEM Symposium, which drew hundreds of students and faculty members from NYU Tandon, representatives from companies both large and small, and groups of girls from local high schools. The theme of the event — which was co-sponsored by a group of iconic firms that included AT&T, 3M, IBM, Con Ed, MasterCard, and JPMorgan Chase — was “Engineering the Path Forward,” and its aim was to celebrate female engineers and scientists, network with them, and learn from them. With topics ranging from STEM education to mid-life career changes, the path forward was, indeed, being illuminated.

“What the numbers tell you is only one part of the story,” Dean Jelena Kovačević declared in her opening speech, referring to the increasing percentage of the NYU Tandon student body that is female. “The other part of the story is creating an environment in which everybody can thrive and realize their dreams.”

The first panel to take the stage featured women who were not only realizing their dreams, but helping other women realize theirs. Kristen Titus, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer for New York State and the former founding Executive Director of the nonprofit group Girls Who Code, has spent much of her career making sure young women have access to the tools they need to succeed in STEM careers. She explained that when the New York State government started efforts to better prepare students for STEM learning, they had no data to support the contention that students needed to study computer science, for their own future and for the sake of the economy. Like many people, they turned to Google for answers — not typing their query into a search bar, but surveying the engineers there. Ninety-nine percent of engineers working at Google told Titus’s team that they had studied computer science in high school. As a result of that survey, Titus and her team began immediately implementing relevant STEM curricula in middle and high school classrooms in order to encourage economic and job growth in STEM fields.

The Women in STEM Symposium, which featured several other panels and discussions, was brought to NYU Tandon by another woman determined to lift others up: Dede Bartlett, a former executive at the Mobil Corporation and the Altria Group, and an NYU alum. “This 160-year old school is in the middle of a renaissance,” Bartlett told the crowd in her introductory remarks. “Brooklyn is in the middle of a renaissance. And women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are in the middle of a renaissance.”

The Symposium culminated in a pitch competition for Brooklyn-based, women-led startups. Four female-led startups (each with a connection to Tandon) introduced their products and services to a panel of female venture capitalists and CEOs, including Hahne Alexander of Sole Power; Liz Hamburg, President of Upstart Ventures; Ita Ekpoudon of GingerBread Capital; Whitnie Narcisse of First Round Capital; and Beth Ferreira of First Mark Capital. After their pitches, the Tandon entrepreneurs received feedback from the panelists about their pitches and products in a mini-mentoring session.

“Really great job delivering and getting me interested in something like this,” Ita Ekpoudon told Myriam Sbeiti and Daniela Blanco of the startup Sunthetics, a sunlight-fueled service that transforms plant waste into materials needed to produce nylon. “I think you’re speaking to the times in which we live in which we’re seeing Millenials/Gen Z  going out and starting businesses. But talk about who you want to be in the future — who is that competitor and how you’re going to take them down.”

Andrea Crawford, an alum and Chief Technical Officer for IBM, gave the closing remarks at the event. Like other speakers, she stressed the need to be aggressive and step out of one’s comfort zone. “Growth and comfort do not coexist,” she explained, “We are all intersections and products of our family life, professional life and school life. We must not let others define who we are or what our potential and what our success will be.”

Annie Brinich
NYU Tandon School of Engineering
Master of Science in Integrated Digital Media, Class of 2019