Melyssa Barrett: Welcome to The Jali Podcast. I’m your host, Melyssa Barrett. This podcast is for those who are interested in the conversation around diversity, inclusion and equity. Each week I’ll be interviewing a guest who has something special to share or is actively part of building solutions in this space. Let’s get started.
Adamaka Ajaelo is an Oakland native, mathematician, and STEM trailblazer with an unshakeable passion for the social, emotional and economic empowerment of young women of color. She’s the founding executive director of Self-eSTEM, a nonprofit organization on the mission to ignite pride, purpose, and possibility among BIPOC girls and women through STEM by providing culturally relevant education, training and mentorship, and a network of support to thrive within the talent pipeline.
Since 2014, Self-eSTEM has unleashed the brilliance and self-esteem of more than 1200 girls through STEM. The motivation to start her own nonprofit was driven by personal experiences of encountering resistance and adversity as she moved through the STEM pipeline from high school to college and later into her career. Often the first and only within her classrooms and meeting rooms, her vision to transform STEM is rooted in the lived experience and strength of BIPOC women. She believes fighting racial and gender and justices is a multifaceted approach and her fight is within the STEM industry. She’s on a quest to disrupt the status quo and ensure BIPOC women are recognized as top talent and innovation in STEM.
Adamaka, as if that wasn’t enough, she’s also the director of strategic Workforce planning and analytics at Visa and she provides insights and recommendations influencing global workforce plans and talent development strategies. She’s worked at large companies such as Kaiser Permanente, Cisco Systems, Workday, Meta, Facebook and Adobe in the areas of finance, workforce planning and analytics and business continuity. She’s a social entrepreneur with a proven talent for advancing women of color exposure and competence in STEM. And she’s an angel investor via pipeline investors. She received her BA in mathematics from Occidental College in Los Angeles and her MBA in finance and leadership management from Holy Names University in Oakland, California. When she’s not working, which is probably not often, she enjoys attending Warrior’s basketball games, local wine tasting and trying new restaurants and laughing with her husband again.
I’m excited this week to sit and talk to Adamaka Ajaelo. I did say that right?
Adamaka Ajaelo: Yes.
Melyssa Barrett: I just want to make sure. I have had the pleasure of knowing Adamaka for now it’s probably been years and years. We met at a common employer and she continues to just be one of those people that I truly love to stay in contact with because she’s doing amazing things in the world. So I couldn’t have the podcast without having her come on and talk about what she’s working on these days. But I wanted to just start off, now you are and have been the Self-eSTEM founding executive director. So tell us about why you got started, how you got started, what was kind of your inspiration for beginning Self-eSTEM?
Adamaka Ajaelo: That’s a great question. Thank you for the introduction. So the vision behind Self-eSTEM actually came through my own journey throughout the STEM pipeline. My father came to this country to study chemical engineering at UC, Berkeley and worked for the oil companies, and STEM really provided a platform to really transform the social and economic trajectory of my family. Father coming to this country from Nigeria, from a rural village area. It provided a lot of opportunities.
Growing up, STEM was part of my everyday life. I did a lot of STEM activities with my father. He would take us to museums. We just had hands on engagement of doing math and physics problems early in my childhood. And as I matriculated from high school, being part of the engineering academy and going into college was the first time where I felt opposition where there was resistance in the pipeline for me, a Black woman or African American woman in the STEM field. I really saw that my support system was really pulled out from underneath me and there was just so many obstacles and just people really not supporting me on my career journey.
And so for me, I thought, “Well how many young girls who are interested in STEM, but maybe they don’t have that solid foundation?” The foundation that my father provided for me really set me to really thrive and navigate some of the obstacles and challenges that were placed on me as I transitioned from high school to college and college into my career. So that was really the vision behind Self-eSTEM because I know if I didn’t have that solid foundation, that I probably would not have a degree in the STEM field and would not continue on my career path and career trajectory.
So at Self-eSTEM, really our mission is really to ignite pride, purpose, and possibility among BIPOC women through the STEM pipeline by providing them culturally relevant education, training and mentorship, and just really an access to a network of support to really feel their personal and professional development throughout the STEM pipeline.
Melyssa Barrett: I love it. Pride, purpose, and passion. I love it. I love it. So then in terms of… Tell us a little bit about what… I mean, the name, of course Self-eSTEM, which I love. And then what do you all do? Because I had the pleasure of being with you guys, now it’s been several years, but during one of your summer programs. And it was phenomenal, but I could not believe how many kids you’re serving.
Adamaka Ajaelo: Yes. Yes. So I definitely will answer that question of some of our program services. But I do want to take you back to really kind of think about our calls or the issue that we’re trying to address. As some people may know, STEM jobs are the highest growing occupation over the last three decades. And if we look at the future trajectory of 10 to 15 years, just any outlook into the future, STEMs are projected to grow the highest. Just from 2020 to 2023 alone, the Department of Labor Statistics projected that STEM jobs will grow by 11%. And then we’re aware that most jobs in the future require some type of STEM literacy or digital skills. However, we think about the overall increase in STEM programming and career pathways, one of the things through my own personal journey is that I’m realizing that BIPOC women are still being kept out and pushed out of the STEM talent pipeline.
And so that’s where Self-eSTEM comes in and where we look to serve as a conduit as well as a platform to help BIPOC women not only enter in the STEM pipeline, but also focusing on retention, how do we help them to thrive and remain within the pipeline.
Melyssa Barrett: Wow.
Adamaka Ajaelo: So our organization has a three core strategies. What we have is what we call one pillar is our network building. And really the goal of the network is to build a network infrastructure that supports BIPOC girls and women as the new facing culture of STEM innovation. And we do this through events, volunteer drives, as well as institutional partnerships and collaborations. Another part of our pillar we have is the narrative change. And then the goal with this is to really provide counter-narratives that shift the mainstream perception of BIPOC girls and women in STEM. We’re really seeking to inspire them to be future change makers. And how we are looking to do this through program and initiatives is really launching more of social media campaigns to help provide that counter narrative. And then also too, through some of our awards gala and programming to acknowledge and provide BIPOC women a platform to be recognized.
The third part of our pillar, and this is where you seen us in action and this is where we have a lot of activity in historical track record of making a transformative impact in our community, is in our STEM education pillars. So this is what we are doing of fostering personal educational and professional development for BIPOC girls in pipeline. And we do this through our early STEM Immersion program, which is a free program for young girls age 7 to 17 with the goal to really spark their STEM curiosity, and I’ll come back and go into details about that program and the activities that we’re doing.
The other program and we’re looking to launch and pilot this in the future as we think about the demographic age 7 to 17 as they age and matriculate to the next part of the talent pipeline, which is the 18 to 25 year old demographics, we’re looking to launch an emerging STEM Leaders program where we’re equipping them through workshops. We provide them the resource and the training to not only enter and navigate their career pathway but also thrive. That’s a key component that we’re seeing that is missing in the market or missing that is top of mind is, “Yes, we can get this demographic into the pipeline, but how do we address some of the systemic barriers that we’re seeing once they enter in the pipeline that also creates this diversion from STEM where they’re exiting out of the pipeline?” Those are our core strategies that we’re focused on.
For our early STEM Immersion program, we have an annual STEM camp, and I believe you volunteered at our annual STEM camp. That’s a one week STEM camp that provides them culturally relevant project-based activities, leveraging some product design principles for the girls to leverage technology to build and create solutions for challenges that exist within their community.
And then we also have a robotics program. Our robotics program has won awards and made history as the first all girls underrepresented minority team to compete in a North Cal robotics competition through the FIRST LEGO League competition. And then we also have touch points throughout the year where we provide role models, intimate and curated conversations with professionals to really help for them to really see themselves in the STEM career fields. So that’s our three core strategic pillars around networking, building, narrative change, and STEM education because we realize that, “Hey, one pillar’s not enough to actually solve the key systemic barriers that BIPOC women face as they navigate the STEM pipeline.”
Melyssa Barrett: Wow, that is awesome. First of all, where do you find these girls? Second of all, I mean I can’t imagine how excited they are to be involved because it sounds like they could literally have years with you all to grow and develop in this program. And then to be able to expand into the 18 to 25, it seems like a natural place for you all to go, which is awesome, really creating that community and that network that people can continue to connect with even as they grow in their careers, which is awesome. Where do you find the girls and what’s the reaction been? Because I know you’ve been doing it now for a while.
Adamaka Ajaelo: Yes. So we’ve been doing this since 2014. We really have strong roots and rooted in community in the Bay area. So most of our participants are from the Oakland/East Bay area. However, we do have people who travel as far as Sacramento to our programs and then some participants that are coming from the Antioch and Pittsburgh area. But most of our participants now are through word of mouth, that parents have been really seeing an impact with just a short interactions or touchpoints with us.
We received a lot of feedback from the parents that they’ve really seen a transformative impact in their young daughters really seeing themselves and really anchoring into what we call their STEM career identity. Really having a sense of belonging and pride in the STEM fields and it’s really aligned to our unique approach where we don’t look at BIPOC girls as a deficit model, meaning that, “Hey, we need to just teach you how to code.” But we also understand that and that capability exist within you and it’s our job and role to really once bolster your self-esteem and then all of the learning will follow.
We really try to align to our core values and all of our touchpoints, which is around community and self love, helping bolster their self-esteem and confidence. And then also too around innovation, really trying the girls to really imagine and create the world that they yearn for and then focus on creativity. We really just encourage curiosity and their creative genius for them to just really put no limitations and bounds on things and ideas that come top of mind to them. And then we really lead with purpose. We have authenticity, intentionality with all of our program and curriculum designs to ensure that we are culturally relevant and mirroring content that reflects our demographic group.
And then the last part is really about equity. I would say drawing people who have our core values, but we really focus on improving their life outcomes through STEM, that they really see that from our organizations that our missions and our values are aligned to their core values within the community.
Melyssa Barrett: That’s awesome. I mean, I wish I would’ve had a group like this when I was that age. So it’s phenomenal. I can’t wait to see you all expand nationally.
Adamaka Ajaelo: Yes. We’re looking forward to that too.
Melyssa Barrett: The vision. The vision. That’s awesome. I just really applaud all the work you’re doing because I know you’re holding down a day job as you continue to expand, which I mean can be really challenging. I mean for you to have made even thus far so much of an impact in the community almost as a side hustle, but I’m sure it’s almost like you’ve got probably three, four jobs to keep it all going. So I mean, I’m excited to see all of the work that you’re doing. You actually call yourself a mathematician.
Adamaka Ajaelo: Yes.
Melyssa Barrett: And I will tell, I mean math was not the subject that I enjoyed when I was in school. Even though I went into financial services and payment technology, it was not my favorite subject. I mean you talked about your dad and how he gave you a kind of foundation to go into STEM. How did you know that you wanted to get connected with math and kind of work in the field?
Adamaka Ajaelo: Yeah. Actually this kind of goes back to the earlier story about the vision starting Self-eSTEM. I actually didn’t start on the journey to become a mathematician. I became a mathematician. I got my degree in math by accident or by default. So as I’m in college, I was initially on a track to do… They had this 3-2 or 4-2 program with other universities in the area of engineering. I actually wanted to be a structural civil engineering major in… I wanted to really design bridges and more of large scale architecture or infrastructure. That’s where I really peaked my interest. However, throughout my journey, I had advisors who did not support me and kind of guided me off the path. They really didn’t encourage me and they were actually discouraging me in my engineering degree and education pursuits.
So I was just taking many math courses. So I said, “Hey, the math department seems cool. They seem inviting. It seems like I have support of a lot of my math professors. I’m going to become a math major.” And so that’s how I actually selected my degree in math. I was good in math, I was good in many of the STEM fields and math was one of the areas in which I just naturally gravitated towards it. And it really came from the solid foundation that my father provided for me in my earlier years. So that’s really what Self-eSTEM, is really trying to ensure that these participants have a solid foundation, that they’re receiving the support and training and the engagement to really not only increase their interest and engagement in STEM, but really for them to thrive and have sustainability throughout their STEM career path journey.
Melyssa Barrett: Wow, that’s awesome. And I would’ve never known that, see if I hadn’t asked a question.
Adamaka Ajaelo: Right.
Melyssa Barrett: Because you’re good in everything you do. It’s amazing to me how you keep it and pull it all together especially when it comes to strategy, analytics. I mean you’re kind of everywhere and all over making the dream work.
Adamaka Ajaelo: I would say that math and how I like to describe math to our participants and even something it’s a principle for me, is I call math universal language of the world. There’s just certain principles and approaches to addressing and solving problems that mathematics provides what I call this problem solving framework where you can tie that same approach to almost any task or industry that you’re in. So my math background really has lend itself well to really help. To your point, thinking about what I’m doing in strategic workforce planning and also analytics. It’s helping to bridge answering and solving problems from what I call a data driven perspective.
Melyssa Barrett: I love it. I love it. That’s fantastic. Let’s pause for a moment. We’ll be right back.
So then, what are some of the things that you would like to leave with these girls? Because I know there is testimony from them. So from your first or second class or cohort, I’m sure by now you’ve seen them kind of grow some of them into their college careers and how are they doing and what’s the reaction been?
Adamaka Ajaelo: Yes. So since founded in 2014, Self-eSTEM has unleashed their brilliance and self-esteem for over 1200 girls, BIPOC girls, throughout the Bay area and beyond. However, there are two stories that really have jumped out for me. One participant, her name is Sierra, and she joined our organization at the age of 7. And she has matriculated. Now she’s in… I’m sorry, not age of 7. She joined us I believe when she was at elementary school.I’m not sure the exact age, but now she’s in college and she’s majoring in the STEM field. Currently she’s looking to do some medical research, that’s her area and her focus. However, when Sierra came into our program, she had all of the knowledge. She was a highly intelligent student, advanced academically. However, she lacked the social skills. And one of the things that we know and we think about STEM skills, it’s also 21st century skills and collaboration is very important.
Even if we think about tech, which is a big pillar in STEM, when people are launching new apps and new products and new enhancements, it’s a team, it’s a collaborative effort with software engineers, product managers, content designers, UX designers to really actually ship a product or app that we see. So through our program, the parents shared our program was very transformative because they had some challenges were breaking through with their daughter around collaborations and working well with others. So it was the social skills. So we really strengthened and honed in on her academic ability challenger through our robotics programs and some of our camps. But she also got that full wraparound services that’s part of our culturally thriving model. And this is our unique learning model to really accelerate the learning curve in drive utilization and adoption of new concepts rapidly and very quickly. That was one thing that we received positive feedback from the participants as well as the parent.
And then we had another one, and her name is Sarah. Sarah joined us also too in elementary school. She’s in high school, soon to be a senior. Sarah was actually sneaking into our program. Her mom heard about our program through school. And it was just word of mouth again. She says, “I need to get my daughter in this program. I’m hearing so many great things about Self-eSTEM.” However, there was a misalignment between priorities of the parents where one parent had more of a traditional view that the daughter would just come home, no extracurricular activities. And the mom was sneaking her into the program. However, her father just said, “Hey, there’s something that’s changing about my daughter. She’s more confident. We’re seeing her stepping up and seeing more of a leadership role.”
And so the father actually said, Hey, what’s going on with my daughter? I’m seeing a change in a positive way” but he wasn’t aware of her attending the program. So from our program, what we did, we really impacted Sarah by really giving her the confidence to believe that she can and she can be a STEM leader. This was through our robotics program.
And so in elementary school, Sarah not only self taught herself how to code through some of the guidance that we provided her, but she also was a leader of our robotics team that went off to a FIRST Lego League competition in Northern California. That was the team that I mentioned that made history as the first all girls underrepresented minority group to participate in a robotics competition in Northern California.
And so Sarah also went on to work with our COO of our organization to teach robotics training and principles to educators at a local university, Holy Names University, to really show them like, “Hey, here’s a program model that’s really working. Let me show you the impact of how I came, how I learned how to code through the Self-eSTEM robotics program.” So it’s really was transformative in the sense that the father didn’t know that she was coming to our program and he was able to see the impact of our program in his daughter’s self-esteem and her academic abilities.
Melyssa Barrett: Wow, that is an awesome story. There’s so many different things in there related to just providing access early. There’s so many people that don’t have the opportunity to get access to what you’re giving. So it’s awesome that you’re able to work with the schools and really get such an audience to bring them to things that maybe they never thought they would be. So then tell me a little bit about… Because I know even in your own career as well as these girls, the process for mentorship has to be so important. How are they reacting to mentors and how has it helped you in your own career?
Adamaka Ajaelo: For the participants, the mentorship is a critical component of the program model. I remember one of my moments in which we did our annual conversation in STEM career panel with some individuals, the Black woman group at Facebook. And through that panel discussion in the chat, one of the girls said, “Oh, she looks like me. She’s a product manager and she looks like me. Look at her hair. Her hair looks like mine.” And so just to see that instant connection of, that, “I am seeing someone that I can self-identify. I’m seeing someone telling and having the same shared and lived experience as me in early in their STEM journey. I instantly have that connection that this is something that I could possibly be.” And so we understand. In our program and all of our touchpoints, we are very intentional to ensure that from our speakers and from our teams reflecting the demographics that we’re looking to serve since inception. From the beginning, this is something that we have integrated into our program model.
Melyssa Barrett: That’s awesome. That’s awesome. And then in your own career, from a mentorship perspective, I mean I just want people to see, it’s like you may be mentored as a young adult or in school, but mentorship lasts forever.
Adamaka Ajaelo: Yes. And for me, one of the things that we’re… Although in a mission, we use the term mentorship, but what we’re looking to also do is to kind of strengthen a sub-program, a pillar called Championship or Champion. And so for me, mentorship was very critical in my career because mentorship really helped me to avoid some of maybe the pitfalls or learning things the hard way throughout my career journey.
One of my mentors shared with me is always ask questions. If you’re new to the job, don’t use that opportunity to kind of what he said, float, but use that opportunity to get information and to learn. Always be in this space of being a continual learner to hone your skillset and your tools within your toolkit. So that was one of my mentors shared that with me. But I also think that some of these systemic barriers that BIPOC women face within the pipeline and similar that I face as it relates to career growth and navigating my career path for new opportunities, it’s really that champion. So someone else will provide that. Also look for a mentor who’s also a champion. And this distinction that they provided as a champion is someone that will provide you that mentorship and that guidance. But then also a champion will also be someone who’s an advocate who will remove roadblocks so that you can get those opportunities. This is someone that whether you’re in the room or not, that advocating on your behalf for any type of new opportunities.
So I was blessed earlier in my career. I had mentors and I also had champions where most of my, I say my career journey. I necessarily didn’t have to apply for a position. A lot of people would say, “Hey, you worked at many great companies.” But all of those opportunities really came because I had champions, that was someone just tapping me on the show and say, “Hey, I’m about to go here. I have this great opportunity. Are you interested?” Or, “I think that this will fit your needs.” And so that’s how I was able to necessarily navigate my career mobility up without necessarily always saying, “Hey, it came through a promotion.” It was always some leaders that says, “Hey, I want on my team. I have a new opportunity. Let me champion and advocate for her to come and join whether it’s the team or join a new organization.”
So that’s something that I think is also critical. And Self-eSTEM also serves as a champion really through our programs to provide those opportunities to remove road barriers by not charging for our program services, eliminating one barrier, which is a financial barrier. But there’s other things that we provide through our program that really focuses on the root cause or some of the key challenges that BIPOC girls and women face throughout the STEM career journey. And that’s something that I’m just really, really proud of because that championship is very, very critical and it has helped me in my own personal career and throughout my career journey.
Melyssa Barrett: You are just doing such awesome things. I’m so excited to continue to stay connected to you because there’s just… When you meet people and you know they’re changing the world… I think when we met, I don’t know, it’s been maybe-
Adamaka Ajaelo: It was 2015 maybe, I think. It was 2015 or 2016.
Melyssa Barrett: It could have been, I mean, it’s like with the pandemic, I don’t time frames anymore.
Adamaka Ajaelo: Pandemic.
Melyssa Barrett: But I mean it has just been such a blessing to see you and your work grow in such a phenomenal way and impact the world in such wonderful ways. So I’m always talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion. When we think about companies and corporations that want to get involved and change the systemic issues that are out there and change the infrastructure in a way that is much more positive and inclusive, I’m constantly just trying to connect organizations and corporations because I do think that we have to have combinations of private companies, non-profit companies, community organizations that are actually transforming those dollars that corporations can provide in a way that is meaningful and impactful. And Self-eSTEM is absolutely one of those companies. So I do want you to tell people how they can connect with Self-eSTEM if they’re interested because I know fundraising is always in the issue for nonprofits. So tell us how to connect with you all.
Adamaka Ajaelo: Yes, no, it’s so funny that you mentioned that there are investments being made by corporations in the DEI space. And if corporations are looking to really support and give back to the local communities while also achieving at the same time the benefit for the corporations is achieving their DEI strategy or initiatives, Self-eSTEM, they can go and visit our website at www.selfestem.org to connect with us. In addition, they can always shoot an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to connect with us. Our organization really put together a strategic plan for what we call targeted system change. And this is really addressing systemic level around STEM education, talent acquisition and talent development within the US. And so we’ve put together a high level plan and investor deck where we are co-creating an infrastructure that provides what we call the holistic support to really drive demand for diverse talent and just really shift the mindset about BIPOC women in STEM as a key talent pool.
And so with our plan, what we’re looking to do is really form a network by and for BIPOC women. This kind of goes back to the three core strategies that I’m previously mentioned before and really leaning into activating that network to create change and then growing the network to scale impact. So we really encourage organizations to reach out to us to learn about opportunities to become a sponsor of our current award-winning programs to really help us scale and drive impact and change.
And then also too, if there are also new opportunities as we think about one of the things that we’re working on is we’re also looking for funding and partners to collaborate on really launching the emerging STEM Leader program. So that’s really that 18 to 25 year old demographic group and how do we provide them training on them to not only enter into the workforce, but to thrive and remain within the talent pipeline.
And so we believe that through collaboration and partnering with organizations, we can drive change that will lead to better outcomes for Black women, greater diversity of STEM professionals, and then also to increase in innovation and value creation for all. So these are some of our targeted system change and our theory of change that we believe in collaboration and partnership with organization that we can really scale and accelerate impact within our communities.
Melyssa Barrett: Awesome, awesome, awesome. I cannot thank you enough Adamaka for joining me for this conversation. One of the principles that I always talk about when we’re talking about Kwanzaa is making it these principles that are practiced every day. And Ujamaa is one of those principles that I feel like there’s never enough of when we talk about cooperative economics and just highlighting people and businesses that are just doing such phenomenal things. I always just am trying to amplify whatever I can so that people know some of the great work that’s being done out there. Because sometimes people just don’t… They don’t know. I hope in any small way, this has been helpful to just highlight all of the phenomenal things you and your team are doing, because I know you’ve got a team of folks that assist you as well. And I just am so grateful and thankful for what you’re doing in the world. So with that, I will leave the last word to you if you want to give us any final thoughts.
Adamaka Ajaelo: Yes. There’s one thing that I wanted to say. This Giving Tuesday, which is November 29th, 2022, we’re going to start kicking off our gift equity to equity fundraising campaign. What we’re looking to do is to raise $1 million to power the largest network of BIPOC girls and women in STEM. This funding will be used to help scale our program operation, launch powerful narrative change campaigns to generate demand for diverse talent pools, and just grow our existing educational programs to serve more girls and women throughout the STEM career fields. So I just wanted people to also follow us on our social media platforms @selfestem on Instagram and then @selfestem on LinkedIn as well as Twitter and Facebook, to really follow our platforms just to stay connected on updates about ways you can support us in achieving our fundraising goals.
Melyssa Barrett: And I promise you all, you will not be disappointed because she is awesome. It’s so wonderful to see leaders like you out just making sure that girls have access to information but they walk away just transformed with some self-esteem and confidence and all of the things that I think parents wish most of the time that they can instill in their kids, but sometimes it takes a village. And so we’re just happy that you’re doing what you’re doing. So thank you so much for being here on The Jolly Podcast.
Adamaka Ajaelo: Thank you for having me. This has been great.
Melyssa Barrett: It has been awesome.
Adamaka Ajaelo: Thank you for this opportunity.
Melyssa Barrett: Yes. And we will stay in touch. Maybe you can come back and even tell us more about some of the impacts as your girls continue to grow. You are awesome.
Adamaka Ajaelo: I would love that. I would definitely love to come back.
Melyssa Barrett: Awesome. Awesome. Thank you so much. And make sure you check out selfestem.org.
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