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Maydm: Where STEM futures are “made by them”


Grant from Steve Stricker American Family Insurance Foundation helps Maydm bring technology skills and opportunities to students of color.

Despite the cancellation of the 2020 American Family Insurance Championship due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Steve Stricker American Family Insurance Foundation continues to have a charitable impact by making direct donations to primarily local non-profits, including those providing COVID-19 relief. This is the third in a series on local organizations that are grant recipients.

As an advocate for equity and opportunity and a professional in the technology space, Winnie Karanja experienced a reality she knew had to be addressed: the lack of girls and students of color exploring STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education and, subsequently, the opportunities being missed for future careers in these promising fields.

So five years ago, Winnie founded Maydm (a play on the phrase: “made by them”) with the objective to engage girls and youth of color in grades 6-12 in STEM fields by providing the technical skills, exposure to industry professions and mentorships to normalize and realize their academic and professional futures.

Today, Maydm offers a combination of workshops, after-school programs, and summer immersive programs designed to engage Dane County students, particularly girls and students of color, in the areas of computer programming, coding, app and web development, CAD modeling and more. Maydm wants to show these students they are the builders, innovators, creators and technology leaders of the future.

Maydm sees a world of possibilities

Maydm envisions a world where all students know a career in STEM is possible for them, where all students are equipped with the skills to elevate their quality of life and can pursue their dreams as entrepreneurs, developers, engineers or professors. We appreciate the support from the Steve Stricker American Family Insurance Foundation and others, who are helping us get closer to that world,” said Winnie, who also serves as Maydm’s executive director. 

Programs, mentorships, career exposure

During the multi-week summer programs for both middle and high school students, a typical day involves working on a fun, tech-based project like creating a website. Volunteer mentors come in once per week to encourage the students and assist with projects. Mentors help students make the connections between their passions like sports or the arts, and where a STEM career might fit with those interests. Mentors are students in STEM disciplines or professionals in computer or machine learning, engineering, programming or project management, to name a few. During the academic year mentors meet with students once a month to keep these conversations going.

For high school students, mentors also offer assistance with resume writing, college applications and choosing college courses. Mentorship is a core component of having someone support and advocate for the student in a one-on-one space, said Winnie. When possible, mentors are women or people of color so students can see people who look like them excelling in these fields.

Technical skills are extremely important, but another essential part of what Maydm provides is exposure. “You don’t know where you want to be unless you’ve had a chance to see it firsthand,” said Winnie. Maydm has corporate partners (including American Family Insurance) where students visit to learn more about potential careers. Exposure allows students to see the environment in which they may be working and how the company uses technology. They can also participate in different exercises and activities alongside employees from those companies. “This is where the connection of what’s happening in the classroom to what’s happening in the workplace really comes together,” she said.

And here is where the light bulb goes on. “Oh, here’s a developer who is using the same programming language I’m learning at Maydm to build this technology,” Winnie said. “Students can begin to see themselves in those positions; we hear them say, I want to intern here, or I want to work here in a few years.”

Making STEM accessible for all

Maydm wants to see more products developed by women or people of color to serve the whole of the community. Right now, many technology products are rolled out without taking into consideration the differing needs of people. These are biases that emerge – in artificial intelligence, in product design, and beyond. Maydm has made a concerted effort to hire female instructors and seeks mentors who are women or people of color as well.

“Because of the current demographics in computer science and engineering, it’s a challenge,” said Winnie. “There are not many women and people of color in these fields right now, so that’s going to be reflected in the mentor demographics. However, that’s also why we’re here – Maydm’s mission is to change that,” she said. “I think it’s important for them to see me – a woman, a person of color, a self-taught programmer, an entrepreneur who started this organization – and know that’s all possible for them, too,” she said.

As their high school students head to college, many are choosing computer science and other STEM degrees, or choosing STEM-related courses. Many of these students had the interest and the ability, but never pursued it before because they didn’t see themselves being able to do it.

Now they do.

Winnie said to hear the stories of someone telling these girls “you can’t be an engineer,” and their response is, “oh yes I can, I did robotic engineering this summer at Maydm. I can code a website and use JavaScript, and I did it with a lot of other girls who support me and look like me,” proves these experiences are powerful. “Hearing girls talk about the world of opportunity that’s opened up to them, seeing them believe it is a possibility for them – a girl, a student of color – is why we’re here,” she said.

Foundation grant helps funds the future

Maydm depends on the support of corporate donations, foundation gifts and individual donations, including grants from the Steve Stricker American Family Insurance Foundation for the vast majority of its funding.

“The support from the Steve Stricker American Family Insurance Foundation has provided us the opportunity to introduce more girls and students of color to educational programming and opportunities in STEM, supporting them in their brilliance and helping them to see a future in STEM,” said Winnie. “The support of our community partners is essential as we work to close the equity gap in education and the Steve Stricker American Family Insurance Foundation is a valued partner in our work.”

To learn more about Maydm and the good work they are doing in the community, visit their website.

In its first four years, the American Family Insurance Championship provided proceeds of more than $7.1 million to 280 charitable organizations through the Steve Stricker American Family Insurance Foundation. This year's contributions bring the total to more than $10 million.