Have you been listening to the StartUp podcast? If you haven’t, you should. The first episode of season one, which aired in September of 2014, begins with Alex Blumberg (formerly of NPR’s This American Life) pitching to Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor Chris Sacca. The pitch is really awkward to listen to, something that Mr. Blumberg, who’s wonderfully open about the whole process and his own naivety in building a company, freely admits.

It does get better for Mr. Blumberg who, over the course of the next 14 episodes, finds investors, a partner, formally creates Gimlet Media, hires employees, sets up a physical office, executes a round of crowdfunding and creates a second podcast (Reply All). It’s a wonderful journey made only richer by the transparency with which it all unfolds.

One thing that struck us about this story is the speed with which it transpires. The 14th episode aired in February of 2015, six months after its debut. We suspect there are two things going on here. First, there’s Mr. Blumberg’s expertise—his ability as a radio journalist to create compelling content (we expect him to succeed in this venture)—and second, there’s his social capital—the networks he has access to and his ability to parlay this into an opportunity to further his venture. Just think, in episode one he is pitching to one of the most influential investors in Silicon Valley… in episode one!

What if this was you? Do you have rich social networks you could tap into that could open doors, or make opportunities available? Do you have access to individuals who are building and creating interesting projects that you could ask for advice or guidance?

At its annual "Science Careers in Search of Women" event in 2009 Argonne National Laboratory demonstrates to 350 young women from Chicago-area high schools why a career in science might be right for them. The day-long Science Careers in Search of Women conference puts students face-to-face with scientists from a wide variety of disciplines and provides an opportunity to interact with positive female role models. (Source: George Joch/Argonne National Laboratory via Wikimedia)

For many underserved communities the answer to these questions is no, and it represents a systemic disadvantage experienced from earliest childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood. The effects of the lack of access to social capital start early, and can have profoundly limiting outcomes. Consider the following: if you are a student from an underserved community, your notion of ‘a scientist’ might be skewed towards white and male. In 2015, this is simply unacceptable.

Our mission at ‘Connect With STEM’ (CwS), an organization we co-founded earlier this year, is to increase both the visibility of a variety of STEM careers and the diverse types of people doing those jobs in a way that doesn’t place additional burden on already strained educators. In doing this, we hope to introduce students to professions that they can see themselves undertaking in the future. It is not that we think everyone should be a scientist. Rather, we think everyone should be able to see himself or herself as a scientist or working in the STEM fields.

Our model is a simple one: Each of our partner schools is paired with a Connector. Our Connectors are individuals with a passion for service and a proven track record of using their smarts for something bigger than themselves. The Connector learns of the focal STEM areas of interest to their partner school and then thinks about whom, from within their personal and professional networks, they can approach to engage the students, either in person or virtually. Our use of software (tele- and videoconference tools) lowers the barrier to participation – all we need is a slice of a speaker’s time, no travel needed. Connectors relieve the school system of the burden of logistics by coordinating with educators and members of their network. They are wizards at managing schedules and timing.

 

By utilizing Connecters’ networks to introduce students to a wide range of individuals with various careers and journeys, we are opening their eyes and minds to the possibility of what they can achieve. While K-12 schools are increasingly focused on the delivery of STEM content, they are not organized to attract the breadth or depth of talent that CwS Connectors bring into classrooms.

We readily admit this is not a panacea, but we already know that it is a great start in creating awareness for the students our program serves. CwS represents an effort to scale a pilot activity that began three years ago with our first partner school, the New World High School in the Bronx. As a result of our work with the NWHS, the school has instituted student-led curriculum shifts based, in part, on the enthusiasm generated by past speakers. Due to the introduction of this program, and exposure to world-class scientists, the students wanted more structured learning about physics. Now they have a physics program. Introducing these speakers to the students led them to select many more schools/majors when applying to college and even in their CollegeNow courses at local universities. Student feedback also revealed that they were profoundly inspired by the personal stories that presenters shared about their professional trajectories.

This year, we are taking this program beyond the NWHS. We have found seven other partner schools in NYC and have hosted our first ever search for CwS Connectors. This process completed in May; you can read more about our amazing inaugural cohort of Connectors here. With our Connectors in place, over the course of this coming school year, we’re looking to increase the potential impact of CwS by approximately 10-fold, providing almost 1,000 hours of Connector driven exposure to world-class scientists (in all guises, from academia and industry). We will continue to measure other facets of impact by working with our schools to learn how the narrative is changing through exposure to the CwS network. Preliminary work indicates that this will happen through involving guidance counselors in the process as early as possible. Who better to help explore the evolution of students’ dreams than the person tasked with helping make them become a reality?

For children from families with low incomes there is a 36 percentage point gap between their aspiration to attend college and their expectation for it to happen, versus a gap of only 14 percentage points among children from families with high incomes. Our work with CwS is an effort to close this pernicious gap by increasing awareness and building vibrant and growing networks of access.