Engineering revolutionary after-school programs for girls in science and building the hottest smartphone on the market today both require commitment, grit and a willingness to take unconventional action.
A maverick in the consumer electronics industry with a keen eye for quality and a laser-focus on continuous improvement has ignited a synergistic relationship between Techbridge and this month’s funder in the spotlight: Samsung. A look into the histories of these two organizations highlights a common value system around quality, placing end-users at the center of innovation, and gender equity.
Techbridge was founded in 2000 with the vision of sparking an interest in science among girls from communities in need. Techbridge’s founder Linda Kekelis saw girls in Oakland living right on the edge of a technology revolution, but they were counting themselves out of participating in that revolution. Girls were saying they felt like they didn’t ‘belong’ in science classes and clubs, and believed that they weren’t any good at engineering before they even tried.
From the beginning, Linda knew that in order to make a significant impact on girls’ attitudes about themselves, she was going to have to do something radical. Something that fundamentally flew in the face of ‘business as usual’. Although Linda and her team brought years of education and experience to bear on Techbridge’s program model, they put their own ideas and opinions to the side, and put the girls in the center of everything Techbridge would become.
Linda describes the first year of Techbridge after-school programs, when the organization was based out of the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland. “We saw that girls really enjoyed the engineering challenges in Techbridge, but at the end of the school year, they still said that they couldn’t picture themselves working in science or engineering careers,” she says. “Something was missing.”
Something similar had happened seven years previously, when Samsung Chairman Kun Hee-Lee travelled the world to find out how consumers felt about Samsung products. A popular story about Chairman Lee’s worldwide tour includes his great dismay upon spotting unsold Samsung televisions gathering dust in the back of an electronics store. Later that year, a new Samsung phone that promised superior coverage were distributed as holiday gifts to the chairman’s business associates. When he heard that his company’s phones didn’t work, Chairman Lee gathered thousands of employees around a massive pile of the useless devices. The phones burned in a bonfire that day, and the Samsung corporation became singularly focused on building the highest quality electronics in the market.
At Techbridge, Linda and her team also faced their failure to impact girls’ attitudes about themselves and science head-on. “We asked girls what they needed in order to picture themselves working in science or technology one day. And they told us that they needed role models. They wanted to meet women who work in engineering and technology, to hear about their jobs, and to see where they worked.”
“It meant changing the way we looked at our programs,” Linda remembers. “We had to let go of a lot of our own ideas in order to make room for what the girls wanted from us. We also had to let go of the idea that we knew best. We had to become willing to try something different.”
Trying new ideas and styles of management is something that Samsung has become known for in their industry. Part of Chairman Lee’s radical new approach to producing quality products included a focus on promoting women throughout the company. While Silicon Valley’s gender disparity became a topic of national concern in recent years, Chairman Lee identified the low number of women working at Samsung a crisis soon after he became head of the company in 1987. Right after assuming his leadership position, he pointed out the gender inequity at Samsung and throughout South Korea. He equated a workforce comprising of only men to “racing with a bicycle with one flat tire.”
In 1992, Chairman Lee instated the first of many initiatives to promote women at Samsung. That year, 250 women joined the company through his special female-recruitment program. The next year, twice as many women were recruited. In the years to come, Chairman Lee would insist on equal pay and treatment of male and female workers, ban uniforms for women at Samsung, build child-care centers on site for working mothers, and create ‘moms rooms’ for mothers to have a quiet place to rest during the workday.
In recent years, several women have been promoted to top management jobs at Samsung from within the ranks. What we find notable about these changes at Samsung is that they have taken place slowly and steadily over the years, while the quality of their products has steadily improved and taken over as the new industry benchmark.
At Techbridge, we find that our most successful partnerships are the result of a shared vision. Samsung understands the importance of promoting women in technology and engineering. From hosting our girls on field trips, to providing tablets for Techbridge programs, to technology that keeps our national offices connected to our headquarters in Oakland, we are proud to partner with Samsung as we work towards our common goal of supporting women and girls in STEM.