Ep 72: Stephanie Espy: Exposure to The Possibilities

Diva Tech Talk was delighted to interview Stephanie Espy, Founder and CEO of MathSP (https://mathsp.com/) and STEM Gems (http://stemgemsbook.com/).  A leader, engineer and author, Stephanie shares a common goal with Diva Tech Talk (www.divatechtalk.com) to educate, support and serve female STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) practitioners as well as inspire the next generation of female STEM leaders.  

Stephanie is lucky.  “I think it is important to note that both of my parents are engineers,” she said.  One of four siblings, “all of us are connected, in one way, shape or form, to STEM. Growing up in a home where both of your parents are creators, problem-solvers, builders,” was a distinct advantage. In her extended family, “I had aunts and uncles who were in STEM as well.  Engineering and science are two main career paths my family has taken.” She fondly recalled family gatherings where “we would play a lot of chess; do board games, logic-type puzzles.” Stephanie was also influenced by “really fabulous teachers” as early as elementary school, extending through secondary education and college.

After high school, Stephanie moved from Georgia to Massachusetts to attend the prestigious MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: www.mit.edu ). There she “thrived because of the community” and obtained her Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering.  “MIT brought engineering to life,” for Stephanie, since she could implement “hands-on projects,” and collaborate with other brilliant students. “We were able to take an idea from inception to creation” repeatedly.  Her penchant for bonding with others in her dorm, in her major and “with other women of color on campus” got her through the “difficult moments.” Supplementing her academic program, Stephanie successfully completed research projects, and worked at many internships (“they are absolutely critical.”)  Internships “helped solidify my understanding of how engineers make a difference in the world,” and acquainted her with post-graduation career options. “My first two internships were in a manufacturing plant,” and helped her apply fundamentals of process design and engineering in a real-world application.

She matriculated to the University of California, Berkeley (https://www.berkeley.edu/) for her graduate degree in chemical engineering.  Stephanie’s work there was more independent. She implemented a variety of approaches to “get my experiments to work;” published her research, (“that was exciting,”); and built another supportive community on campus.  “Having community leads to confidence, empowerment, and helps you believe you can get through any challenge that comes your way,” Stephanie said.

As she proceeded in her education and career, Stephanie accrued significant experience, working with polymers; using various rubber-producing plants at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to improve quality and yield of U.S.-grown natural rubber; and as a chemical engineer in the oil and gas industry at BP (www.bp.com).  Along the way, “I saw the value of having an impact at the highest levels of an organization.”  So, she decided to get a business degree to complement her graduate degree in chemical engineering.  “Engineering is its own language,” Stephanie exclaimed. And she “wanted that other set of skills,” so she completed a joint program at UC Berkeley’s HAAS business school (The Management of Technology – a certification program combining engineering and business).  Then, “I landed at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School” (http://www.goizueta.emory.edu/) where she earned her MBA. At Goizueta, Stephanie “shifted gears; I got this entrepreneurial ‘bug’ and it came down to my experience as being one of the few women of color in the room” in her engineering and business environments. “That drove me to want to create something, my own way of helping to close the gender gap in STEM.”

Throughout her career, Stephanie said “most of my experiences had been in male-dominated environments. I yearned for more representation” by women of color.  “In thinking about my legacy, it really came back to my desire to help to fill the pipeline with more girls, young women, and people of color.” To accomplish this, she founded MathSP a decade ago. “S stands for strategies; and P stands for problem-solving.”  The company’s premise is that “in order to enter a STEM career, you absolutely must have a solid foundation in math and science.” Her venture helps male and female students at all levels “find their gaps in education, and close them, helping them become more ‘STEM-fluent:’ better problem-solvers, independent thinkers, and self-sufficient learners.”  

She also saw a need to serve girls “in their own special way.” To that end, in 2014, Stephanie founded STEM Gems (http://stemgemsbook.com/) which began as a book but has morphed into “a movement.”  Its aim is “to expose girls and young women to careers and role models in STEM.”  It offers its audience exposure to career opportunities that “they did not even know existed.”  Stephanie lamented that movies, television shows and other communications channels don’t offer enough female engineering role models to young audiences.  “So many of these careers go unnoticed!” In addition to a variety of career choices, STEM Gems also give girls exposure to role models, working in science, technology, engineering and math. The basic premise is “these careers are not only for boys, only; these are things you, as a girl, can do!”  The STEM Gems book features 44 different careers. “I brainstormed careers that I had never heard of when I was a tween/teen but I wish I had,” Stephanie said. They include a wide variety like data science, global health science, environmental engineering, archaeology, entomology, biotechnology, animation and a plethora of others. “There are so many careers out there that people don’t really think about, especially girls,” Stephanie exclaimed.  STEM Gems is shining a light on many of them.

“A lot of research went into finding STEM women leaders, highlighting their accomplishments and advice, interviewing all of them,” and spotlighting the biggest thing: “how they make a difference in the world and help people.”  A challenge was also to put those stories into the language of children “so a 10-year old girl could pick up the book, read it, and understand!” Stephanie noted how grateful she is to the women who participated. “It has touched so many lives, both through the book and through the STEM Gems Clubs!” The clubs focus on groups of girls (boys welcome too) reading the book and following a curriculum (with adult community members leading).  They began in the last 12 months, and have spread throughout the United States. “It is a ‘tribe setting,’ and shows you that you are never alone in your pursuit of greatness,” Stephanie said. “Girls who were singularly uninterested, before, have transformed through these clubs.”

Stephanie has learned many leadership lessons in her own educational journey, through her career and creating MathSP and coming to know her STEM Gems role models.  They include:

  • “Never, ever, give up, despite the odds.”  The common theme is that the successful women Stephanie has profiled have a “prove them wrong” attitude.

  • Do not be intimidated. “These women have walked into a room and pulled up to the table…” invariably letting their voices be heard. Speak up and speak out.

  • “You cannot shy away from a challenge.” Get comfortable “being a trailblazer.”

Stephanie’s parting tips for women and girls to succeed include:

  • “Be a part of a community. You can’t do much alone.”  To that end, she recommends membership in many of the national and regional professional associations that offer resources, support and fellowship.

  • “Be a mentor to the next generation. Be a role model to many; and pick a few for whom you can really have an impact on their journey.”

The inspirational Stephanie can be reached via LinkedIn at  https://www.linkedin.com/in/stephanie-espy/, via Twitter/Facebook, and Instagram @STEMGemsBook, and via her website at www.STEMGemsBook.com.

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