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There are so many brilliant and inspiring aspects of Winnie Karanja’s entrepreneurial journey that it’s hard to know where to start.
While she is known for her work as a young entrepreneur — having founded Maydm (a contraction of the words “made by them”) in 2016 to connect coding and STEM education to more girls and kids of color — she is a teacher at heart. So I’ll start with a story Karanja shared with me when I asked her about research showing that women and girls are more likely to pursue technology careers when they can envision them as opportunities to make the world a better place.
One of Maydm’s first programs worked with third- to fifth-graders and middle schoolers in the low-income Meadowridge neighborhood. The students learned the basics of coding with programming hardware called Arduino.
“They were programming Arduino to light up different sequences and even respond to sensors so they change colors if the temperature in the room is above a certain degree,” says Karanja. “Because we are very much about bringing it back home to our students, I asked them, ‘How would you practically use it?’ One student said, ‘My grandmother has diabetes and her medicine needs to be at a certain temperature. So when we go camping, we can put it in the cooler and we can set the temperature to a specific level so we would be able to look at the Arduino to know if the medicine is still good.’
“Another girl was in school support classes for math and reading. She was flourishing in this class. I asked her, ‘What do you think you want to do in the future?’ and she takes a second and she’s like, ‘I want to be my mother’s helper.’ It was interesting because she had thrived in this program, but she couldn’t make that connection between hardware and helping people.”
The teachable moment continued.
“There were a couple boys next to her, so I’m like, ‘How can I influence everybody in this space?’ So I began talking about how after a tsunami — because there had been a recent natural disaster — they fly drones above the rubble to detect body temperature to keep people alive and rescue people.
“All of a sudden, the boys are like, ‘What? That is so cool!’ and she was like, ‘Really?’ So we’ve been very intentional about how we teach. It’s about making those connections and not just talking about it as robotics or building a website, but it’s really ‘how do you use these tools to make a change?’ That’s been something that’s been a foundation for me because that’s how I’ve used my tech skills.”
The longtime Madison resident says her passion for coding began as a student at McFarland High School. She took it as an elective class and was one of only two women and students of color. She went on to college and graduate school in the United Kingdom — Wales and London — and returned with degrees in education and international development and an early career combining data architecture and international development.
Karanja’s simple yet powerful vision is to break down barriers. Maydm is creating access and equity for students who walk into classrooms filled with people who don’t look like them. But because they’ve learned the technical skills, they feel ready to learn — and perhaps more importantly, they feel like they belong there.
In 2019, Maydm will sharpen its focus on career pathways, expand popular summer programs to include year-round sessions for continued learning, tutoring, hack-a-thons, internships and more. Thanks to support from Rockwell Automation and Northwestern Mutual, Karanja says she made strides expanding programs to Milwaukee in 2018.
“Our mission is really focused on building a diverse STEM workforce,” says Karanja. “Where Maydm makes a significant impact is creating a safe space to explore and foster interest … there’s so much intelligence in this community, and we just don’t tap into it.”
Brennan Nardi is communications director at Madison Community Foundation and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.