Everything starts with young people. STEM culture needs to reach out to young people in underrepresented communities. As a matter of policy, we need to fund K-12 science programs, broadband access, computer labs, and event infrastructure like transport to museums equitably. We should be investing in technology for schools — robotics clubs, coding classes. These resources will make STEM exciting for kids, but only if they have them. That access shouldn’t be bounded by how rich their parents and neighbors are.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Maynard Okereke.
Maynard Okereke, better known as the Hip Hop M.D., graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in civil engineering. His passion for science and entertainment, along with his curiosity for new innovation has taken him through an incredible life journey.
Noticing a lack of minority involvement in the STEM fields, he created the Hip Hop Science Show with the goal of encouraging minorities and youth to pursue more advanced career paths. His background in engineering, acting, business, and credible work within the music industry as an artist, make him uniquely qualified to engage on a wide variety of topics from an entertaining perspective.
Now, Maynard is one of the Founders of the STEM Success Summit, a free virtual event designed to connect young people underrepresented in STEM fields to a network of peers and mentors. Taking place over three days, and featuring speakers from NASA, the Consumer Technology Association, and more, plus keynotes from Iddris Sandu and Tatyana Ali, this event is designed to foster community and illuminate the path to success in STEM.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
For me, it was a blend of two passions: music and entertainment (I’m an artist myself) and science. I grew up loving Bill Nye and Steve Irwin, reading National Geographic. I’ve always had a passion for science, biology, and engineering, and initially, that was the professional path I chose. I went to college for civil engineering and started working in that field, but as I started “adulting,” I found my other passions as a musician and entertainer calling to me.
I wanted more opportunities to explore my creative side, so I moved out to L.A. and began exploring ways to break into the entertainment industry. Hip Hop Science began as just a character: the Hip Hop M.D. As I created more Hip Hop Science content, though, I discovered a real need.
There was such a lack of involvement and representation for Black and brown people in science and technology. The gatekeepers may not see people who look like me as scientists — and they may not see themselves that way either. I saw that I could do something about that. I could make science entertaining, stir excitement, demonstrate the energy and newness of a fresh perspective. Once I saw that people were really learning from my videos, I understood my purpose: to present a whole new vision of what a scientist could look like and be. I could embody a nerd at heart who was still strongly connected to music, fashion, pop culture, life. I could embody my whole, authentic self, the scientist and the entertainer, and inspire others to do the same.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
It’s interesting — and rewarding — when you realize that other people see you as you see yourself. I recently won the Asteroid Award from Skeptoid Media for Best Streaming Content. To be recognized as a science communicator in that way was an important validation. The science community is not just acknowledging, but awarding my vision of what a scientist can be.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Becoming the Hip Hop M.D. was a journey of self-discovery for me. I didn’t always understand the purpose that has come to drive this character. So at first, I pursued some ideas that were a little…NSFW — exploring the science behind some more adult topics. I was focused on being an entertainer and blending scientific discourse and hip hop culture. These videos were popular and entertaining, but once I saw my youth audience growing, and realized what I could accomplish for them as a role model, I saw I had to take that content down. It was great stuff — but it wasn’t the Hip Hop M.D.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
This year has made the racial injustice and cultural barriers facing Black and brown people undeniably clear. When the future seems so dark, it’s really important to shine a light on representation and show young people a path into STEM fields. These communities may not see themselves and scientists — or if they do start a STEM career, they may be the only Black or brown face in the room.
It’s become part of my mission to showcase minority voices in the sciences. These people are out there doing the work — they just need to be forged into a community. That’s why I helped found the STEM Success Summit. This is a free event, aiming to foster community among young people who are currently underrepresented in STEM fields. We bring together a diverse group of scientists, engineers, and educators who know through lived experience how hard it can be for minority workers to find and maintain a career path in STEM. Together, we offer inspiration, networking, and mentorship to people considering or starting STEM careers. At the first STEM event, we reached a thousand young people, and this year, we’re aiming to triple that. I’ll also be sitting down for a keynote Fireside chat with Tatyana Ali. You can learn more about this year’s event from the STEM Success Summit website.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
As my reach has grown, I’ve begun corresponding with teachers around the country. This year, a teacher from Minnesota reached out to me. With everything that has happened there, from the killing of George Floyd and the social justice movement that followed, to the pandemic and start of virtual schooling, she has had an extremely tough time getting students interested in school. They are just very disaffected. We’ve had an in-depth correspondence about how she can galvanize these kids to invest in their education. As a result of our connection, I’ll now be speaking to teachers in the entire district about how they can reach and motivate their students.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
As a matter of policy and community action, we can have the greatest impact on representation in the sciences by increasing access to education. This needs to happen at all levels.
- Everything starts with young people. STEM culture needs to reach out to young people in underrepresented communities. As a matter of policy, we need to fund K-12 science programs, broadband access, computer labs, and event infrastructure like transport to museums equitably. We should be investing in technology for schools — robotics clubs, coding classes. These resources will make STEM exciting for kids, but only if they have them. That access shouldn’t be bounded by how rich their parents and neighbors are.
- We also need to recognize that not everyone learns in the same, standardized way. So many people have all the aptitude they need for science, but their passion will only be ignited through the arts, or hands-on learning, or personal discovery. We need to give young people multiple pathways by increasing school choice in minority communities. We should invest in charter schools and alternative education programs like coding bootcamps, rather than trying to stuff everyone into the same mold.
- We have to make college affordable. I was blessed to attend college on a scholarship, but you shouldn’t have to win any kind of competition or lottery to access a quality education. STEM jobs are some of the best, highest-paying jobs in the country, but there’s such a high price tag on the minimum education requirements that many people never even have the opportunity to try. It’s just not an option. You want a more diverse STEM workforce? Make college free.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
True leadership means embodying the qualities you want to inspire in others. You have to lead by example. There’s a lot of talk about the importance of representation in STEM, but true leaders get out there and embody their goals, organize ways for others to join them, and execute on that plan. That’s what my co-founders and I have done with the STEM Success Summit: we’ve created a platform where we can inspire and motivate young people. I use platforms like the Summit and the Hip Hop Science show to embody my passion, which makes it transferable. Once the audience has caught that passion from me, they can use it to build their own careers.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Starting a career in media is not easy. It may seem like to just need a selfie stick and an idea, but it’s nowhere near that simple. It’s a process that takes time and diligence. You have to have patience, and give yourself grace.
- Consistency is key. People need to get to know you, or at least the persona that you’re building. If you’re changing tactics every week, they never get the chance. I would have grown a lot faster if I had known that earlier on.
- You never want to be the smartest person in the room. Really, we’re all only as smart as the people we’re surrounded by. They are the ones who can challenge our perspectives and teach us something new. Take advantage of the networks and communities around you — that’s where true insights are going to come from.
- Stay true to yourself. There may be other people you admire, but when you try to impersonate someone else’s moves, you smother your own voice. What you’re really about is what will bring you momentum.
- Branding matters — not just in terms of design, logos, and all that, but in terms of your unique voice. Know what makes you distinctive, what’s unique about what you have to offer. Own that. Value it.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I want to start a movement of people self-identifying as scientists. Anyone can be a curious, thoughtful, critical observer of the world around them. I want everyone to understand that they have the capacity and the right to lay claim to that kind of authority.
Even if you’re an artist, or a musician — someone who doesn’t normally think of themselves as scientifically or mathematically inclined — what you’re doing when you practice your art is controlling the variables that contribute to the outcome of your artistic process. Expertise is part of your identity.
I want every person to know, regardless of their background, that they can be that foremost authority, that top academic, that brilliant innovator. We are all worthy.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When you find your passion, it becomes your purpose, and you can no longer be passive.” Whenever I find something that I’m passionate about, I seek the purpose within it — and that allows me to focus, set goals, establish a trajectory, and pursue my path with diligence. Once I have that passion and purpose as an underlying foundation, I can adjust, retool, reshape, and still stay fixed on those goals.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to meet Neil DeGrasse Tyson! I’ve been so close to sharing a stage with him in the past, but we’ve always wound up just missing each other. He embodies deep critical thinking and wisdom — I would love to pick his brain about how he maintains the energy to think deeply and build such a deep and wide knowledge base while also remaining such an impactful communicator.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow me on Instagram and Facebook @hiphopscienceshow, or by subscribing to my YouTube Channel. Also follow @STEMedia across platforms for updates on the STEM Success Summit.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!