Build a strong team — What I mean by “strong” is that your group works well together and is excited about what they are doing. Being the Executive Director of a nonprofit has taught me a lot about leadership and about how having a strong group/team of people working with you makes all the difference. However, this does not necessarily mean that a strong group has to be the most skilled, book-smart group of people; it means that they have a good personality, good morals, and are willing. I learned about having a strong team before I started my nonprofit. My dad used to own a pizza shop, and over the years, the “strongest” employees were not always the ones who had lots of skills, but more the ones willing to be a team player.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Juliette Palacios.
Juliette Palacios (say pull-AH-see-ohs) is the founder and executive director of Computing Minds, which she created at age 14 and transformed into a nonprofit at age 15. Computing Minds teaches and inspires girls aged 9–12 about the fundamentals of coding, providing positive first experiences in the field of computer science. From their time at Computing Minds, students move toward their future with a strong coding base, positioning them well for a college major in computer science or a successful STEM career.
When she’s not working on her nonprofit, Juliette is a high-school student who runs cross country, enjoys knitting, and serves as the founder and president of her school’s Philosophy Club. KCBS radio acknowledged Juliette as one of their featured “East Bay Difference Makers.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I chose to start Computing Minds when I was 14 years old. The day before my first day of high school, I wanted to make sure I knew where my classes were, so when I was walking through the campus, I happened to run into my new computer teacher. We started talking and he told me that he was happy that more girls were joining the class that year. He still wished more girls would sign up because the ratio was not yet 50/50, but he did not know what else they could do to get more girls. The next day, I walked into the new classroom to find that the class mostly had groups of boys sitting together, and there were some girls scattered throughout. And as the year went on, the class developed a culture that was very male-dominated. There even became a class saying — “boys in the back” — that referred to the big group of boys at the back of the class who were always being loud. This is not to say that the problem was with the boys being loud, but the main problem with this dynamic was that only the boys had a big presence in the class; the girls in the class felt like it would be more socially acceptable for them to be quiet than it would be for them to speak up in a male-dominated environment. I thought about how not only in my class, but also in the technology industry today, women are underrepresented and there is a bro-culture. After thinking about this for a few weeks, I realized what I could do about it: I could start an organization that would support girls getting involved in computer science at a young age, before they had too much of a chance to learn about (and accept) our current society’s gender stereotypes.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
When the pandemic happened, I realized that I would need to switch over to having my nonprofit start teaching our coding classes online via Zoom. Prior to this, I had been getting rides and taking the bus to schools to teach students. However, when we went online, I realized that I could start teaching students farther away because I no longer had to drive around to teach coding classes. But getting students farther away meant getting more schools, so I started “cold-call emailing” people at different schools to see if they would be interested in working with my nonprofit. This was very interesting because I was able to learn about writing “cold-call emails” and playing around to see what would get the best response. I was told “No” most of the time at first, but the more experience that I got with how to partner, the more I heard “Yes.”
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?
When we were in person and I had to provide all of the technology, one day I forgot the Chromebooks, so all of the students had to share one iPad. At first, I thought that it was going to be a disaster because nobody could work on their own project, but then the students actually ended up having a ton of fun because they all came up with a project together and took turns coding. After that, I made sure to have opportunities for students to work on projects together.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes my nonprofit stand out is my intersectionality. I am definitely not the stereotypical person interested in computer science; I am a Mexican American female. This really translates to how I run my nonprofit because I know from personal experience what it is like to have a different intersectionality from the stereotypical computer scientist, so I care a lot about working towards more diversity. (However, I could go into a whole new discussion on why it is a societal problem that other people do not care about this cause for diversity because lack of diversity does not negatively impact them, so they believe that they do not have to care). Diversity includes having people from all socioeconomic statuses in coding, and one way to do that is to make the classes as accessible as possible by making them 100% free.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Currently, I am involved in the Computing Minds College Scholarship to support women pursuing computer science. I am also working on getting more instructors and curricula for different levels of students because currently, we only teach two levels of coding classes (beginner and intermediate), and those classes are only for students age 9–12. If we start teaching all different levels of computer science, then there will be more opportunities that would work for different people.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
One of the biggest challenges faced by women in tech is how hard it is to become a woman in tech. At a young age, people start learning what is culturally acceptable for genders, and it is more culturally accepted to have men in computer science. Being a computer scientist is typically considered a well-paying and respectable job, so it is the exact type of job that boys growing up are told they should have. It is often expected that women will be the caretakers and that men will be the moneymakers. This is implemented by societal norms, so to address this we need to change what kids are told growing up.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Have a reason — When I was a sophomore in high school, I started a philosophy club. When I began to study the influential ancient Greek philosophers (like Plato and Socrates) in more depth, I started to relate some of what they were saying to myself. I began to realize that my purpose is to achieve “good,” but then I needed to think ask myself, what is “good”? For me, “good” is working for equity to help others reach equality. Asking yourself what “good” is to you can give you a strong sense of purpose for what you are doing. Then, if you find purpose, the work no longer feels like work because instead, it is passion.
- Build a strong team — What I mean by “strong” is that your group works well together and is excited about what they are doing. Being the Executive Director of a nonprofit has taught me a lot about leadership and about how having a strong group/team of people working with you makes all the difference. However, this does not necessarily mean that a strong group has to be the most skilled, book-smart group of people; it means that they have a good personality, good morals, and are willing. I learned about having a strong team before I started my nonprofit. My dad used to own a pizza shop, and over the years, the “strongest” employees were not always the ones who had lots of skills, but more the ones willing to be a team player.
- Be confident — This is a hard lesson for me to accept because although I like being confident, I know a lot of people who would do amazing jobs in leadership roles, but they are too shy. However, confidence is very important in leadership because people trust people who are confident that they will do a good job.
- Set goals (and goals to reach those goals) — I have found that it is a lot easier to achieve goals if you break them down into small parts; then it feels more attainable.
- Create a timeline — When I started Computing Minds, although I had some goals, I did not have a clear timeline, so I moved slowly at the beginning. Now that I have more concrete timelines, I am able to easily follow what has to be done and do them “on time” according to the timeline.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Team-bonding is key. If your team does not work well together, it is a lot harder to get things done. During team-bonding, you do not have to talk about work. In fact, in most cases it would be best if team-bonding could be done outside of the workplace (like going for a hike or having a barbecue). This develops a strong sense of community within the team.
What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
It is important to make sure everyone is on the same page. This goes into creating goals and timelines so that there is not confusion on what is happening.
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 high school teacher, Mr. Mattix, helped me get to where I am today. Although the classes I have been in with him have mostly had boys, he has done an amazing job being supportive of his all of his students. When I was 14 and a freshman in his class, he would put his favorite projects in his “hall of fame.” He ended up putting almost all of my projects in that file, and it motivated me to try my best. I have him again this year of APCSA and he is a very encouraging teacher. Now, Mr. Mattix is one of our amazing board members.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
This is an important question. I define success for myself as bringing goodness to the world. I have been successful in creating my nonprofit dedicated to changing the lack of women and bringing more diversity to computer science. Some of my favorite successes are when more students join and say they love the class. Additionally, I believe that a big personal success for myself would be a CEO of a company someday because I would want to help the company change their policies to bring more good to the world. A great way to affect change is by being involved.
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. 🙂
Another movement (besides the one my nonprofit works to help) that I care about would be immigration-related. I am Mexican-American, and where I grew up, there were a lot of other Mexicans and other immigrants, and it was hard for me to see how much they would have to work compared to other people whose families have been in the United States for many generations. As a related topic, I cannot stress enough how important it is for everyone to remember that everyone is born under different circumstances that they have no control of, so for someone to reach a certain level of socioeconomic success, it will be a different level of difficulty for someone else.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“An unexamined life is not worth living.” — Socrates
It is so easy to get caught up with everything going on around you and what society is saying you should want, so examining your life to see what is working, what is not working, and what you want in the end is necessary to really get to live life.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 🙂
I would love to talk to Dolores Huerta. She has done amazing work for change and is someone I strive to be like.