STEM subjects (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, FYI) are pretty hard. But they’re made even harder when your teachers tell you you’re not good enough to study them. That’s exactly what happened to Jessica Okoro. But she didn’t give up. Instead, with funding and support from our friends at O2 Think Big, she set up Be Science, a project to help open up the world of STEM to the community. In between giving TED Talks and getting awards from the PM Theresa May (no biggie) Jessica is committed to changing the way we see the STEM industry, and recently held a conference to encourage thousands of young students to consider getting involved in the industry.
We caught up with her to find out how she overcame negativity to conquer the world of STEM…
Hi Jessica! You were told that you wouldn’t be able to make it in the STEM industry because of your dyslexia, how did you overcome this?
“I’m not gonna stand here and say that initially I ignored what they said, brushed it off and continued. It was a setback. It was constantly imprinted in my mind and it did lower my confidence levels. So, yeah it was a hit. But then when I overcame it and realised how much I can actually do. I did so much better. I think you just have to continually believe in yourself, as cheesy as that sounds! Carry on pushing to do what you know you can do, and do not let anyone tell you what you can do, because they’re not you.”
Love it! You are a woman and an ethnic minority in STEM, do you think we still have a lot of work to do to make the industry more diverse?
“Yeah, definitely. But I don’t feel like it’s a case where we should give a woman a job because she’s a woman. I feel like people should be offered jobs based on their skills, and we should give women the opportunity to show those skills and show that they’re capable. Diversity is where creativity flourishes and I think we’re hindering ourselves from innovation by not having a diverse workforce. With black women in STEM, the issue I have is that I don’t feel like we get the opportunities. And to be quite frank, when they’re promoting women in STEM, the pictures that I’m seeing online are of the same ethnicity: Caucasian. Although we are letting women in STEM, I don’t feel like they’re opening it up completely and letting it be as diverse as it can be. I think the more diverse it is, the more creativity and innovation will come out, and the sooner we can advance.”
You’re opening up the world of STEM through your very own conference, tell us more about that!
“STEM Social is a conference for GCSE and A-Level students. We’re exposing them to the STEM industry, we’re giving them a taste of how diverse the industry is, and teaching them that there’s other ways to get in. They get to find out how there’s loads of roles they can go into, and that nothing should really stop them, they should go for it, take the different routes that are available and explore!”
You also have a project called BeScience STEM, what’s that all about?
“We bring STEM into the community and we make it more interactive, fun and enjoyable, rather than rigorous and boring. We try and make it more creative!”
“We’ve done quite a few events which are tech-focused. People just came and explored how tech relates to their everyday life. We had 3D printers, and then they explored how they used 3D printers to make limbs and stuff like that. Recently we started this new programme called ‘The IT Clinic’ where we had people that the job centre referred to us. It’s a six week programme that’s open to the community; people that are struggling to get jobs or find new skills. We do a two-hour coding session and support with their CV and cover letters.”
Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into STEM?
“Find a passion, find something, even if it’s the smallest topic like different types of plants or cactuses. Just find a topic that you really enjoy and thoroughly learn about it. Become the best you can in that topic. Then, when you’re going for job interviews, they have to employ you because you’re the best! And try to enjoy it. I feel that science, maths, technology and engineering are very creative subjects and you should try and enjoy that creative essence of it, don’t feel pressured to be very serious about it, just enjoy it!”
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