As a scientist, there are many women working in labs, leading labs, directing centers, and advocating for the importance of discovery and innovation. I believe the idea that STEM only looks one way should be counteracted by showing girls that STEM includes them.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Adrienne Starks.
Dr. Adrienne Starks founded STREAM Innovations, Inc., in 2015 in Birmingham, AL. Under her leadership, their mission has been committed to helping students develop and explore their passion in Science, Technology, Reading, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STREAM) by providing exposure, experiences, and engagement with high expectations for their success. Dr. Starks is a native of Fairfield, AL and received a BS in Biology from Alabama Agricultural & Mechanical University (AAMU). She received a PhD in Biological Sciences from the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). She is also currently an American Association for the Advancement of Science 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?
Igrew up wanting to explore science without knowing that it would lead me to become a scientist and later run a nonprofit, STREAM Innovations, that champions students to explore Science, as well as Technology, Reading, Engineering, Art, and Math (STREAM). When I was in maybe the 3rd grade, I asked my parents for a microscope for Christmas, followed by any other type of science education product that you could find in the holiday catalogs that every kid would study, tag, circle, and highlight. I attended summer science programs in high school as well as college and it allowed me to envision myself doing the things I loved: exploring, creating, and discovering.
I always thought experiments were cool, and the idea of solving problems by thinking through facts and coming up with new ideas was exciting. I later went to Alabama A&M University for my BS in Biology, University of Maryland Baltimore County for my PhD in Biological Sciences and completed postdoctoral studies at the National Cancer Institute in Cancer Disparities. After all those years of studying and sacrifice in various research fields, I decided to return to Alabama to give back. I didn’t plan to start a STEM based non-profit as a kid, but I definitely had a desire to see more kids enjoying finding their passion and pursuing it relentlessly. So, in 2015, I started STREAM Innovations because my community, Fairfield, AL, did not reflect the values that I was raised around which allowed me to become the woman I am today. I felt a responsibility to return and do something that was within my wheelhouse and that I could connect to my passion through science.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
The most interesting story was one day that I had planned to end our programs. It was a challenging summer with limited capacity for staff and finances and I just felt defeated in my ability to reach my vision for how the company could support our Innovators. I was going to Pleasant Grove library (Pleasant Grove, AL) to provide our Check Out STREAM program and I just felt depleted. Our college intern was setting up the activity for designing and building bridges. We completed the activity as normal and the Innovators enjoyed themselves. I was packing up and a white mother came to my black female intern to say, “Thank you”. Thank you for being the image of a girl that likes science for her daughter. Before today she always hated science and they only came because her brother really wanted to attend. The mother asked her daughter to try it (STREAM) this week and if she hated it, then she could read in the library the following week. The moment she came to the STREAM Innovations table she went out to inform her mom, “There is science all over that table and I don’t think it’s going to work.” Her mom pointed out a few items on the table that were similar to the crafts she did at home and the girl reminded her mom that “she always loved a good craft”. After learning about the different types of bridges and building her own bridge, the daughter ran out to her mom in excitement saying that she really liked science now. The mom thanked my intern for the example that she provided for her daughter and urged me very strongly to never give up on providing this program. She explained how hectic her schedule was with an autistic son and working at a nearby school. The flexibility to come to her community library to give her children the opportunity to learn something new meant that she was a full supporter of STREAM Innovations and the importance of the work we do in communities to inspire children. Needless to say, I didn’t quit and felt even more determined to push through non-profit challenges to continue to serve Innovators across the city.
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?
The funniest mistake I made when first starting STREAM Innovations was believing that I could run a non-profit from a different state. I initially believed that I could move back to Maryland and run a startup from afar. Big laughs and the need to be honest about what it would take to get everything off the ground. We decided to take two years to plan our mission and core programs and develop a launch plan with different communities.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
STREAM Innovations stands out in a number of ways starting with our acronym (STREAM), which adds Reading and Art to the STEM based lexicon. We are intentional about providing programs in under-represented and under-served communities which allow us to engage with Innovators, parents, neighborhood associations, business owners, schools, libraries, community centers, legislators, and individuals that want to support Innovators. We work to bring the entire community along with us as we provide hands-on programs that are fun, exciting, and challenging. We are intentional about finding ways to develop curriculum that is interdisciplinary.
One story: Our first year we partnered with Inglenook (a community in Birmingham, AL) by attending the neighborhood association meeting to ask for permission to host programs in their community and to make ourselves available for questions regarding the mission and intentions of our organization. We then partnered with Inglenook K-8 school for our STREAM Coding Boot Camp. We partnered with Inglenook library for our Check Out STREAM program. And we partnered with Inglenook recreation center for the STREAM Saturday program.
The STREAM Saturday topic was Plants and Agriculture for this community. Each STREAM Saturday includes breakfast, yoga and meditation, and 2 hours of hands-on activities, and a boxed lunch. We had Innovation Stations that included: flower dissection activities, Touch and Smell (Explore 40 + fruits and vegetables), germination, hydroponics, and a reading theater. Each of these activities allowed Innovators to be creative through their exploration of plants, acting out books that focused on agriculture, and understanding the science behind the plant cycle.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are currently working on launching a student run tech company with the Innovators that have completed 3 years of our STREAM Coding Boot Camp. These Innovators have attended our programs since the 7th and 8th grade. They have had three summers to learn web design (HTML, CSS, Java Script, and J query) App Development (Python) and Computer Repair (prep for CompTIA A+ certification). We are very interested in supporting them to run a business that can provide tech support to their communities and to become game changers in the tech space in Birmingham.
I believe this next phase will bridge the gap between learning a skill and hoping someone will hire you. We challenge our Innovators to consider solving problems in their communities through tech and to use that knowledge to change the world around them. So far, I have been impressed with their work ethic and the ideas they present during our program. I believe they will change our world for the better.
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?
Definitely not; however, I don’t believe your question left room to celebrate the advancements made in STEM regarding women, either. As a scientist, there are many women working in labs, leading labs, directing centers, and advocating for the importance of discovery and innovation. I believe the idea that STEM only looks one way should be counteracted by showing girls that STEM includes them. Many of the girls that have attended our programs don’t believe that STEM is for them, even if they excel and out-perform the boys. We don’t celebrate women in STEM and their beauty, creativity, and leadership enough. We have to link the successes of women in STEM with the journeys that led to their passion in STEM. This is why I’m honored to serve as an AAAS If/Then Ambassador, which is so important for our girls and increasing innovation for our future.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
I would tell other female leaders to find a STEM Tribe that knows how to support you and hold you accountable for your big ideas as well as holding your feet to the details of your vision. The movie “Hidden Figures” showed the importance of support systems needed in STEM because it has always been a team sport. Support to thrive in STEM may come from having a tribe of women, men, or a mixture of gender, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. The important part is also having a balance between work and enjoying life at each stage so that you don’t believe that your work is the sum total of your existence.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I would suggest that you think about your leadership style and find a good leadership coach. Consider leading in ways that reflect how you would want to be respected. Identify and hone the leadership tools that work best with your personality. Don’t be afraid to terminate a team member because holding out could damage and shift the culture of your company.
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 mother, Maxine Starks, has been my rock as I transitioned to the non-profit world. She is a retired RN and we both believe that STEM careers can provide a solid foundation for career advancement and financial security. I stepped away from the many safety nets that I had spent over a decade building as a scientist. I cried on her shoulder many nights questioning my choice to start, run, and grow a nonprofit and shift my focus from working at the bench, which I still enjoy. Both of my parents have been instrumental in helping me to get where I am, from having a concept for an organization to serving well over 1,000 Innovators across 10 different communities in Alabama.
My mother helped me to set boundaries to support a better work life balance by making sure I didn’t miss family vacations and reminding me to find life outside of STREAM Innovations. She also continues to believe in my vision by volunteering with our programs and being one of our biggest donors.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am proud that STREAM Innovations has inspired hope in hundreds of Innovators to enjoy various aspects of STREAM. The goodness I hope to have contributed to the world is helping the next generation of creatives, problem solvers, innovators, and solutionists change our world to become better then how they inherit it.
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.)
- Live the Life you’ve always dreamed of. (even if the dream changes)
- Be fearless in the face of adversity. (don’t regret giving up)
- Never stop learning. (children can be your best teachers)
- Use your imagination whenever possible. (sometimes what is needed has never been created)
- Remember where you came from, but never lose sight of where you are going (experiments, career choices, hometown, all apply)
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. :-I would change our daily greeting to “And How Are the Children?”
A Quote from Michael Gove in a speech at the Spectator Conference in June 2012:
“Whenever one Masai greets another they ask a question — Kasserian Ingera? Not “how do you do” or “how’s it going”, but “how are the children”? It’s wonderfully revealing about the values of Masai society — their first concern is the next generation.
And the hoped-for reply is equally revealing: “all the children are well”. Not my children. Not some of the children. All the children are well. For the Masai, society cannot be well unless all the children are well.
The question the Masai ask each other is revealing not just of their society — but of ours.
Whatever tests we set ourselves — and whatever achievements we boast of — the question that goes to the heart of the health of our society should be the same — how are the children?”
I believe we can change how we see our world by changing what or who we value most.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My dad would quote Winston Churchill quite often in conversations with me while I was in grad school at UMBC. “Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
He wanted me to remember the importance of perseverance on days I believed that success was unattainable, and failure was the worst thing that could happen to me. Somehow my father knew that research comes with peaks and valleys in order to test ideas and concepts. I didn’t always appreciate those words on hard days, but it was a mantra that reminded me to keep going.
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 🙂
I would love to have a private meal with people that have worked in their passion to become a game changer and trailblazer in STEM and to showcase their work with the thousands of Innovators that we work with through STREAM Innovations. I’m very interested in connecting with people in the AI, IOT, AR, and VR fields to make sure our Innovators are exposed to these fields to help cultivate inclusive communities of innovation.
A few rock stars names include:
Laura Weidman Powers
Jessica O. Matthews
Maria Luisa Pineda