How Two Young Women Are Making STEM Accessible to Girls in New Orleans

Photo by The Distillery

When Flor Serna was a senior at Loyola University, she was conducting research on her senior thesis project, which was focused on why women tend to leave STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields.

She was intrigued by what she learned. As she continued her research, Serna discovered that the time period when girls begin to lose interest in science and technology is during elementary and middle school.

She wanted to change that.

Serna believed there was an immediate need for a space where young girls could discover and foster their interest in STEM fields, particularly in Louisiana and the South.

After finding that several factors including mentorship and single-sex classrooms were key to creating a space where women and girls could foster their interest in the STEM field, Serna took her thesis one step further.

Serna developed and implemented a pilot program in several New Orleans schools where girls could build electronics and work on independent electric programming projects.

After creating and conducting the first classes, the pilot began to gain traction. She was asked by more schools to implement similar programs.

Serna then teamed up with her fellow Loyola University classmate, Maya Ramos. Together, they developed a niche space where women and girls of all ages could convene to learn about STEM.

Electric Girls was born in March 2015.

Next semester, they plan to have programs in five schools across New Orleans. We caught up with Flor and Maya in between classes and specialized STEM camps to find out more about their experience building and growing Electric Girls.

What is Electric Girls in your own words, and what is the philosophy behind it?

MR: Electric Girls is a place where girls and women can come together to learn about electronics and programming and gain confidence in technology together.

FS: It really is girls and women, even though it sounds more like girls on paper. It’s a huge spectrum. Our girls are from elementary, middle and high-school, college students, recent college graduates, young employees and adults.

The programming is geared towards certain age groups. Is that something you consider when developing programming?

MR: There’s something for every age, except for ages 0-4. If you’re 5-14, you can do normal programming, and if you’re at least 16, you can apply to be a counselor. You don’t have to know anything about STEM to be a counselor because we teach you, and you learn as you go.
FS: We were originally ages 9-14 and we had a lot of demand from parents for programming for the younger kids. Only in the last year did we start offering programs for ages 5-8.

How do you create programming for 5-8 year olds, especially with short attention spans?
FS: We have to give them more free time and permission to play around with stuff. Ages five and six are your early years of playing. Electric Girls is adaptable for each girl and that makes it easier to work with different age groups.

When you started Electric Girls, it sounds like a lot of building blocks were developed through your thesis work. Was it overwhelming to get the ball rolling with the structure of the program?

FS: It started really small. Our first summer camp was only six kids.

MR: It was just me and Flor for a long time. I remember everyone got there and said, “Is this the whole summer camp?”

Can you tell me about the Electric Girls programs?

FS: We have summer camp, after school programs, and a weekend program where we meet every Saturday for five weeks.

It sounds like all of these classes are different ages and different levels of expertise. What would a typical class look like?

MR: We are about to start our second Saturday program right now with girls ages 9-14. It’s a lot of girls building stuff with instruction. They learn about circuits and the concept of electronics and programming. Once they have a certain level of skill and expertise, we let them loose and guide them in designing a project. The goal is that they all come out with their own invention. Towards the beginning of the program you will see more teachers teaching and by the end the girls are asking, “Where are the buttons? I need this! I’m building this!”
FS: They become a lot more self-sufficient.

What is one of your proudest moments with Electric Girls? What are the skills girls receive?

FS: One of our girls has been in Electric Girls since the very first summer camp. She has always stuck with it. She has never really been the star Electric Girls example, even though she does every program. She always needs to be refreshed on how to do things. But she has a great attitude. She’s hilarious. She’s the weirdest, funniest, coolest 11-year-old kid ever. Her science teacher told me that she put together a proposal and brought it to her principal at Sacred Heart.

She proposed a new electronics elective with a list of all the materials they needed to buy. She sat down with the principal one-on-one.

She’s a very shy girl, so just to hear that she had the initiative to go talk to the principal is a really big deal. They approved it with a budget, and now she has her own electronics class that she’s basically leading. There is an adult sponsor, but she observes as the student leads the rest of the girls, which is really cool.
That is the sort of thing that we hope for, that they demonstrate leadership skills, confidence and self-sufficiency.

What are some of the issues or challenges that you’ve faced as an organization and on an individual level?

MR: I feel like I’m not currently a good enough leader to lead Electric Girls or to put together the programming, especially now that it’s getting pretty big. The first time that I ever soldered, I learned from Flor when I was helping start Electric Girls. I feel this personal incapacity to bring Electric Girls to the place where I want it to be. That’s probably my biggest struggle right now.

FS: It’s cool because you’re always learning with the kids, which is a really good way to learn. I also think it’s really cool because it shows you that you aren’t that far ahead of them. There isn’t this huge barrier between a girl in Electric Girls and Maya, this expert in electronics. It’s cool to be able to tell a girl, “I don’t know how to do that. Let’s look it up.”

MR: So much of Electric Girls is feeling like you have a mentor in the room, even if that person isn’t an expert in anything. Learning together, working together and supporting each other is a huge part of it.

FS: Because Electric Girls has grown, we’ve had to develop into bigger roles that have specific responsibilities and expectations. When I started this, I had no idea I would be spending so much of my time fundraising, meeting people, and treating everyone as if they are a potential donor. I was no longer just an instructor at Electric Girls.

What does being a non-profit mean from the business side?

FS: It’s actually a pretty huge move. From the beginning, even in our first year of summer camps, we had girls and families contact us asking if we had financial aid because they couldn’t afford the program. We didn’t formally, but we said we could make that happen. We didn’t want to turn anybody away. We were undercharging for our programs and accepting girls at no cost or a very reduced cost.

MR: We started asking families, “How much can you afford a month?”

FS: That was just coming out of our budget – we were just eating that cost. The decision to become a non-profit was a great decision because now the scholarship costs can be sponsored by donors or by grants. We can still operate the same in that we still charge for programs and we still get revenue from tuition fees, which helps in part pay for scholarships. But we can also ask, “Would you like to donate $50? It will go toward a student’s scholarship?” Or we can ask an organization, “Can you donate $2,500? That will pay for five scholarships for the summer.” That’s where most of our fundraising needs are. Right now, around 50% of the girls are on scholarships in Electric Girls.

How does recruiting work?

MR: It’s everything. It’s through schools and we attend a lot of events. Any way we can reach the parents directly is the best way.

FS: It’s a lot of word of mouth too.

How do you navigate receiving advice and opinions about where the business should go?

MR: I remember when we were doing 4.0, it was really hard not to take everyone’s advice and not to think because they started a non-profit that they have all the answers and know Electric Girls better than us. They were telling us that we should be for-profit because we could charge X amount, so we got a lot of advice from business experts at the beginning and we were easily swayed because we didn’t really believe in our ability to run the organization. There were a lot of people who were skeptical of our decision to become a non-profit. I would say that was one of our decisions that was the most controversial, because we were being told, “You can charge $1,000! People will do it.” A huge part of this is making sure it’s accessible to all girls. That’s a part of our mission.

FS: The whole purpose of it is equity. If you can’t do equity financially, which in this city often translates to racial equity, then you’re inherently not achieving your mission. It was weird, especially with people from out of state who don’t really understand New Orleans or the importance of that. We could have made the decision to be for-profit, and I’m sure that Electric Girls would still be running. We would be excluding a huge portion of girls in this city, and arguably only be reaching girls who would have access to it regardless (whether it be through their school or their economic freedom to purchase the equipment themselves). It was a crucial decision to stand by that. I’ve been doing this for two years and there are still people who tell me, “Flor, you really shouldn’t offer scholarships because you’re just not there yet. You need to spend a few years making money and then you can offer scholarships.” That’s not something that I’m willing to compromise now.

FS: Chevron put out a call to fund 10 Fab Labs across the U.S. A Fab Lab comes from the Fab Foundation, and it is a standardized space for professional digital fabrication. It has a full computer lab, a CNC router to engrave and cut things, woodworking materials, electronics, laser cutters, 3D printers, final cutters, a computer embroidering machine – all this equipment and space. Delgado got one, which is great. Chevron has very specific goals of what they want to have happen in each of the spaces they are funding. The goals are different for each city. For the one in New Orleans, one of the three things they wanted to support were girls in STEM education K-12, which is really fitting for Electric Girls. We were invited to be one of their community partners, which means that we can use that space at no cost.

Why did you decide to change your business model to a non-profit? What were the pros and cons? 

FS: We were created initially as an LLC but we have always operated like a non-profit. The decision to be a non-profit was really based on making donations incentivized as tax deductible.

Did you face challenges incorporating as a nonprofit in Louisiana? 

FS: We had a lot of problems with the non-profit certification. In general it’s difficult because the IRS wants to make sure no one runs away with money that they are not supposed to have. If you have a for-profit business, and then you decide to change to a non-profit, they’re going to be super skeptical. It was a lot of documentation, and we had some bumps in the road in terms of our application, and some mistakes that other people made on our application. It took almost a year. It was a good lesson. 

Do you have any advice to someone who may be thinking about starting a nonprofit in New Orleans or elsewhere? 

FS: Make sure you understand the need to have diversified revenue streams. Just like starting any business, you need a really strong but specific mission that you are able to carry out.

How has Electric Girls been able to achieve a diversified revenue stream?

FS: We will be able to charge for our services and through grants and corporate sponsorships.

How did you fund Electric Girls initially? 

FS: I had 800 dollars that I had received from Loyola. That was honestly the only initial funding.

What has been the most difficult challenge you’ve faced so far with Electic Girls?

FS: Probably the non-profit application, because there were a lot of small things that went wrong and just the amount of time that it takes. It was really daunting.

What’s next for Electric Girls?

FS: What’s next is solidifying Electric Girls. I would like to meet the demand that we have in this city, which means partnering with more schools in after school programs, doing more events with schools directly and solidifying our financial model. We’ve been able to sustain scholarships through outside funding, so I want to maintain that for as long as possible. Slow but steady expansion.
MR: Flor’s going to be full-time, which is going to be huge. I’m going to graduate in six months, which will allow for us to spend more time working on Electric Girls.

Emily Field

Emily Field writes about the real experiences of entrepreneurs in New Orleans. ​She is currently a senior at Tulane University double majoring in Communications and Political Science with a minor in Spanish.

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