Statistically, girls start to lose interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects when they’re in middle school. This is problematic, because many of the most in-demand and well-paying jobs will be in this sector.

However, as Cristal Glangchai, PhD, understands it, kids will have jobs in the future that we can’t even imagine today, and she’s on a mission to develop the next generation of creative leaders and entrepreneurs.

Glangchai, a scientist, entrepreneur, mentor, and author of Venture Girls: Raising Girls to Be Tomorrow’s Leaders, founded VentureLab to provide an opportunity for girls to learn about the STEM fields and to apply those concepts to create new products and companies. So far, VentureLab has been such a success in connecting STEM with entrepreneurship that it has since added programs for boys to learn as well!

She founded VentureLab in San Antonio, TX, in May of 2013. “I was inspired to launch the company by my own experiences as a woman in STEM, and my frustration with the lack of women in these fields and many others.”

At the time, she was teaching at Trinity University in San Antonio, and discovered that it was difficult to get female students to take her entrepreneurship classes – and those who did would often end up dropping the classes. “They seemed intimidated and unconfident in their abilities, both in STEM fields and as potential business leaders,” Glangchai explains.  “I thought about my experiences in college, being one of the few girls in mechanical engineering, and I reflected on my time doing investor pitches for my nanotechnology company.” In these male-dominated settings, women were a rare sight.

Challenging Gender Stereotypes

But instead of just wondering and reflecting, Glangchai decided to take action. “From my experiences, I realized that girls really need a certain type of confidence and risk-taking that’s not specifically taught to them.” So how did she manage to be successful?  “I feel like I had learned this entrepreneurial mindset and immigrant mindset from my dad, who had 3 daughters, but had always wanted sons.” He ended up treating his daughters as though they were that son he always wanted. “We grew up playing sports, building things, fixing cars, etcetera, and never realized girls ‘should not’ do certain things — because we always thought we could do anything.

As a result, Glangchai was never afraid to ask questions in school, didn’t hesitate to join the engineering club, and thought it was normal to be different.

In fact, when she was teaching in San Antonio, Glangchai started sharing entrepreneurial concepts with her daughters and sons, who were all under the age of 8 at the time. “My daughters’ teachers would come up to me after school and ask what I was teaching them,” she says. “The girls were more confident, speaking up more in class, trying new things, and coming up with creative ideas and solutions to problems.”

This is when it dawned on Glangchai that kids in general, and girls in particular, must be taught to be creative and confident at a young age – before they are exposed to preconceived notions of what girls and boys should be and do. “I wanted to teach them to have confidence that they can create things, and yes, even create their own company,” she says. “I wanted to teach them to have the courage to get in front of an audience and show their accomplishments – and overall, I wanted to create an environment that felt safe for girls to reach their fullest potential.”

She knew she was the perfect founder for VentureLab. Previously, Glangchai had founded NANOTaxi, a drug-delivery company that developed disease-responsive nanoparticles for cancer therapy. While at Trinity University, she was director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and assistant professor of Practice. Currently, she is the director of the Blackstone LaunchPad at the University of Texas at Austin, and director of the Texas Entrepreneurship Exchange. Founding VentureLab was completely in her wheelhouse.

VentureLab works with schools and nonprofit partners to provide free K-12 curricula, programs, and teaching training.  The curricula integrates ESTEAM (Entrepreneurship, Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) concepts, and VLab helps young people learn how to harness technology to turn their concepts into real-world products and services, or pursue other ESTEAM-based careers.

Why Girls Need to be Involved in STEM at a Young Age

STEM skills – especially technology – are critical in a variety of industries ranging from healthcare and manufacturing to education and hospitality. “Unfortunately, we are leaving girls behind: in elementary school girls excel at math and science, and 74% of girls are interested in STEM,” she says. “However, by the time girls reach their teens, only about 20% are interested in pursuing STEM careers.” Even as tech careers increase, she says the gender gaps are also increasing in these industries.

But if girls can be taught STEM principles such as curiosity, creativity, and solving problems at a young age, she believes they’re more likely to retain these traits when they reach the peak of peer pressure as teenagers. “That is why we need to give girls the confidence to believe that they can do anything; they can 3D print an engine, create software, or start a company beginning in pre-school.”

Glangchai doesn’t think every girl needs to pursue a STEM career, but she does believe that all girls should feel comfortable around STEM and have a basic understanding of these subjects. “And it is critical that we engage them in STEM at a young age, so that we have a world where both boys and girls are creating the future.”

Entrepreneurship is a fun way to introduce girls to STEM and STEAM. “To me, entrepreneurship isn’t just about starting companies — it is a skillset and a mindset that includes the ability to seek out opportunities, create opportunities, problem solve, and think laterally and creatively.” A variety of skills are needed to bring products and services to market, including website design, financial analysis, etc. And, as Glangchai explains, “It’s all of these attributes that make [entrepreneurship] the perfect gateway into creating STEM-curious and confident girls.”

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