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Melinda Gates Wants More Girls and Women in STEM. Here’s How She’s Working Toward That.

4 minute read

For proof of just how dedicated Melinda Gates is to creating opportunities for future generations, look no further than her mission to help girls and women get into STEM careers.

With her position as the co-founder Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a passionate philanthropist, Gates highlighted the importance of investing in organizations who “empower young girls and women.” One such organization is Girls Garage, a non-profit that seeks to encourage more young women to enter STEM careers.

Girls Garage, which works with youth from the ages 9-17, says that their mission is for students involved in their after-school summer programs to “learn to use their unique, creative voice to transform their communities and go forth confidently into higher education and careers.”

When she met the program’s founder and executive director Emily Pilloton and learned more about her work, Gates knew this was a leader “who was thinking about everybody else around her, and how can you create and summon moments of lift for other people.”

The 2017 TIME 100 honoree caught up with TIME during the San Francisco leg of her book tour for The Moment of Lift, which hit shelves earlier this year. Gates invests in groups like Girls Garage through her organization Pivotal Ventures.

The Berkeley, Calif.-based program is an extension of the 501(c)3 organization Project H Design, which Pilloton founded in 2008, and it enlists an all-female staff. Pilloton created Project H to “celebrate and cultivate the raw brilliance of youth through rigorous, hands-on design and building projects in the classroom and in their communities,” according to the group’s website.

Pilloton, whose background is in architecture and construction, says Girls Garage’s instruction centers on carpentry, welding, architecture and screen printing, though the organization does more than just teach girls how to use their hands. “Our motto at Girls Garage is fear less, build more,” she told TIME in Berkeley. But she recognizes that nobody is truly fearless, Pilloton says Girls Garage teaches “that together we can be stronger and act in spite of that fear.”

Watching a young girl learn to weld is one of the most exciting things to see at Girls Garage, Pilloton says — for a 10-year-old to realize she has the power to combine two pieces of metal into one is a “super human” feeling.

“I want my girls to take over the world,” she says. “I think that on an individual level, I want every girl who comes in the door to leave feeling a little bit stronger.”

Pilloton wanted to create a program like Girls Garage, now in its sixth year, because of gender dynamics she experienced herself firsthand — and saw happening among students in a high school she taught at. “I didn’t want younger generations to experience those same things,” she says.

Additionally, the students enrolled in Girls Garage come from diverse backgrounds. 69 percent of participants are people of color, the organization says. Some attend private schools, some public; some are recent immigrants and some have lived in their neighborhood forever. As many as 55 percent receive full or partial scholarships, according to the program. “They just represent such an incredible breadth of experience and family and race and class,” Pilloton says, “and that’s really important to me.”

By investing in Girls Garage, Gates believes it won’t just help girls succeed, but help their entire communities improve. “I hope these girls can keep their self confidence up,” she says, as they enter fields that are still more represented by men than by women.

Pilloton says Girls Garage also seeks to teach girls to ignore the noise of those who question them, follow their passion and learn how to remain confident. “I think any time that a girl or woman does anything that has historically been predominantly male, it’s always a ‘thing,'” she says. “It’s a thing you have to justify, it’s a thing you have to make sense of for yourself and then also have a reason that you dare to do this.”

As the program’s students go out into the workforce and face those kinds of barriers, Gates is hoping the lessons they’ve learned at Girls Garage will help them “lift other girls up” — and that they will become role models themselves.

And Gates says that you don’t need to be a billionaire investor and advocate to make a difference. “I believe that every one of us influences those around us,” she said. “And so we need to all look at how can we help lift others up.”

Watch the full video, which shares more details about Gates’ connection to Girls Garage and the work Pilloton’s program is doing, above.

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Write to Rachel E. Greenspan at rachel.greenspan@time.com