Prioritize the human aspects of leadership. You can be technically brilliant, but unpleasant to be around. But to accomplish any dream, you need other people around you. Just as much as we build our technical skills, we have to build social and emotional skills. As leaders we must be well-rounded and care about people first.
As a part of my series featuring accomplished women in STEM, I had the pleasure of interviewing Yamilée Toussaint Beach.
Yamilée is the Founder & CEO of STEM From Dance. She has personally experienced the extraordinary benefits of a STEM education and dance. After studying mechanical engineering and being an avid dancer for over 25 years, she switched gears to teach high school algebra in an underserved community in East New York, Brooklyn through Teach For America. She started STEM From Dance eight years ago with the hope that a strong dance and STEM supplemental education would help to increase the number of underrepresented minority girls across the nation who pursue a future in STEM. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree from MIT and a Master of Science in Teaching from Pace University and is a recipient of Teach For America’s Social Innovation Award and AnitaB.org’s Educational Innovation Award and is an AAAS/IF THEN Ambassador.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for the opportunity! My story begins with being a young girl who loved dance, played violin and participated in a lot of different activities — and I always used dance as a way to express myself and connect with others. It was how I found my place no matter where I was. I was also into math and that interest compelled me to want to be an engineer. My father, an engineer himself, was a big influence — I grew up thinking engineering was really cool because of him.
I went on to study engineering at MIT and found that I was one of very few women of color, especially black women, in the program. From that point on, I wanted to create the opportunity for more women of color to study STEM. I became a teacher to learn more about what was happening in the K-12 space and understand why there are so few black women in university STEM programs. I was trying to answer the question, “What happens before girls go to college that leads to so few of them at MIT?” What I found is that confidence was a big issue for girls of color when it came to math and science in middle school.
So, just like I’d always done in life, I thought about dance and how it may relate. Could there be a way to bring the confidence, fun, and community that happens in dance, into the STEM space? If these are the things that a lot of STEM environments lack, could I bring the two together to cause change? That’s where the idea for my nonprofit organization, STEM from Dance, came from. I created it for the purpose of recruiting the next generation of women in STEM. Our programs give girls of color access to a STEM education by using dance to empower, educate, and encourage them as our next generation of engineers, scientists, and techies. We take something fun like dancing, and translate it into lessons in STEM. Our students build their confidence through creating challenging, technology-infused performances — ultimately building the skills needed for a future in STEM.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
The start of STEM from Dance was very grassroots. The first group I worked with was 8 girls in the school where I had previously taught. I spent hours in a classroom in Brooklyn getting to know this group of girls. What I learned from them is that dance and STEM can’t just exist side by side in order to make an impact. They have to be integrated in order for it to make sense. That was an important lesson for me to learn early on, and it’s what prompted us to start having the girls do the coding for the lighting technology that is used in their very own dance performances, for example.
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?
It wasn’t funny at the time, but for our very first performance, none of the students showed up. They skipped their own performance! So, I had to scramble to cancel everything at the last minute. Fast forward to our most recent performance — we had 50 girls performing with 300 people in the audience. It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come since our small beginnings. What I learned from that was that many of the parents were unaware of their daughters being in the program. It became clear that the parents play a big role in influencing their daughters, and we can’t thrive unless we partner closely with the parents, which we have done ever since.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The use of dance in STEM is the thing that’s most unique about us and definitely gets people interested. Whenever I give a high-level description, people always want to know more about how it works, and it’s what draws our students in. So many of them have shared that they would have never joined a coding club or a robotics camp otherwise — but because they were introduced to STEM through dancing, they are now more interested in joining other clubs. These students are the future, and they are noticing computer science because of our use of dance.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re trying to think of more integrations between technology and dance, and use technology that is relevant and new — like machine learning and AI. This addresses the conversations about the importance of including marginalized voices in the creation of technology. If it’s mostly white men creating new technologies, then the voices of women of color will be excluded. It’s important for our students to be familiar with new technology and to be comfortable exploring it — because they will potentially be the next group of people informing how these technologies will be developed.
Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I think it’s important to make it clear that there’s not just an underrepresentation of women in STEM, but a significant underrepresentation of women of color (Black and Latino), and that needs to change. In order for change to happen, women of color need to not only be heard, but they need to learn from an early age how they can connect with STEM — which is a big part of our approach.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive? What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
As a leader, I really focus on bringing my whole self to my work and my leadership. Even if that means doing things that are less traditional. For example, I usually present myself more casually so that I’m more approachable. I care about people feeling like they can be honest with me and know that I’m their partner. So, my advice is to be comfortable with being you and bringing your values to the spaces you lead in. I think it’s those things that make my team feel satisfied and excited to work.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My father — the one who introduced me to engineering. Not only that, but he is the reason for my interest in building and fixing things, and being creative and unique. It has informed so much of what I do and what I care about. So much of how I live my life is because of how he carried himself. He was an engineer, ran a nonprofit, was a jack of all trades — and still managed to be at all my dance recitals and concerts. He has always approached life with a sense of possibility and balance. I appreciate having him as an example of not just what to do, but how to do it.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Through the hundreds of girls in our programs. My hope is that they go on to create things that impact the world, and that they are more informed and become empowered women leading change. I hope that they pass along what we’ve given them, that they carry forward the sense of encouragement and joy that they get from our programs.
As an American Association for the Advancement of Science and IF/THEN Ambassador, I do a lot of speaking engagements to share the message more broadly. There are so many discouraging messages in the world and I hope when I’m speaking, that people in the room can have a sense of hope about what they are capable of. I hope that we see more people stepping out and taking risks — like leaving behind an MIT degree to help young girls become more represented in STEM. I want to see people making choices like that.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Always lead authentically and sincerely.
- Critical thinking is a really important skill — don’t overlook it or assume that you should know all the answers immediately.
- Prioritize the human aspects of leadership. You can be technically brilliant, but unpleasant to be around. But to accomplish any dream, you need other people around you. Just as much as we build our technical skills, we have to build social and emotional skills. As leaders we must be well-rounded and care about people first.
- Be open to and ASK for feedback. People tend to be hesitant to give me constructive feedback because of my position of leadership. But in order for me to grow, I need that feedback — so I always ask for it.
- Know the importance of small wins. When I started off, I had this vision that we’d touch hundreds of students in 2 years — but it took much longer than that. Be open to testing a small aspect of an idea, seeing if it works and modifying it. “All or nothing” isn’t always the best approach. 8 years ago, I would have never thought it would have taken 8 years to get to the place we are now. But if I would have stopped after we didn’t hit our goals in Year 2, the organization wouldn’t exist now. It required a willingness to do things bit by bit and have the patience to see things come into fruition.
You are a person of great 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.
We’ve found that the first time some of these girls hear about STEM is in high school. That has made me think a lot about how we talk to our girls of color about STEM. I want them to hear from a young age about black women who have accomplished great things in STEM. I want them to hear these messages on a regular basis — at home, in school, in music they listen to. I want them to get the message that they are capable of succeeding in these areas. That is how we will see a change in the face of engineers in so many careers. Imagine turning on your TV and seeing a black female scientist. Imagine going to the doctor’s office, and the doctors are women of color. That would be the difference between telling them they are capable, and them believing that they are.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” — Benjamin Franklin. Personally, I experienced being raised by someone that was an engineer and it led me to be one. We can’t just put a poster in the classroom about STEM — we need to find ways to help students experience it. In STEM from Dance, the girls are performing on stage with the technology that they made themselves. There is nothing like seeing the sense of pride that they feel from knowing they created it. That comes from having them do what they are capable of and not just telling them they can do it.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Beyonce! But not just because she is Beyonce. A goal of mine is to elevate STEM careers that are not obviously STEM. There are the common careers like being a chemist or scientist, and then there are the engineers that produce Beyonce’s shows. Imagine talking to a student about being a chemist versus being the head of technology for Beyonce’s tour. That’s a different conversation. If you think about Beyonce’s dancers and set makers, sometimes our girls aspire to be the dancer because that’s what they see — but they don’t think about the people designing the sets. It’d be really cool for them to hear from Beyonce that she needs her engineers just as much as she needs her dancers.
If I could have lunch with Beyonce, I’d want to ask her about the ways that STEM is being used in entertainment and other fields that can be really compelling for a teenaged girl. And I’d talk to her about the power that happens when you bring together women of color to produce something big. I can definitely picture Beyonce and I working together to advocate for our girls.