So many professionals are devoting time to making the world better. At Boolean Girl, we have an Ambassador Network, a group of female and non-binary STEM professionals who talk to our students about their careers. Role modeling is incredibly powerful for our students, and we get great feedback from parents (and kids, too!) about the strong impression it made. In these terrible times, there are lots of people helping others.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of my series about how women leaders in tech and STEM are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Eastman.
Sarah Eastman is the co-founder of Boolean Girl, a startup whose mission is bringing diversity to tech by teaching girls and under-represented groups to code and build engineering projects. Before Boolean Girl, Sarah spent her career writing code, as a software engineer specializing in Big Data and internet analytics, with stints at The Washington Post, Prudential, in consulting and the startup world. She has a degree in computer science with a minor in mathematics from Georgetown University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Thank you for the opportunity! I studied computer science and math in college, and I spent several years as a software engineer. While I loved the work and the companies I worked for, I was often one of few women in the room, which was hard. I became interested in trying to understand tech’s diversity problem and co-founded Boolean Girl, a startup whose mission is diversifying tech. Our flagship product is the Boolean Box, a build-it-yourself-computer kit, designed by girls for everyone.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
When the pandemic closed schools, I needed a way to keep our son occupied. He had just turned eight, so I figured I should get out a Boolean Box, and he could learn to code and build engineering projects. He loved it! I told him that the Boolean Box was made by Boolean Girl, the company I co-founded. He refused to believe me, unwilling to grant that his mom could create something he considered cool. I couldn’t tell if this was a professional win or a parenting loss. Maybe let’s call it a draw…
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
In addition to selling the Boolean Box, we also run a nonprofit that teaches girls, under-represented groups and low-income kids how to code and build. When the pandemic erupted, we launched Full STEM Ahead Plus, a series of live, instructor-led, online STEM classes for girls and boys.
It’s been really exciting to see the kids learning (and having fun!), especially when schools are closed, and they’re missing out on so much. We read up on the profound harm caused by school closures, and we gave a lot of thought to making distance learning enjoyable and successful. After experimenting and tweaking and iterating, we’ve hit upon a strategy that’s highly effective. 95% of students at our virtual sessions plan to attend another one, and 93% would recommend us to a friend.
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?
I feel tremendous gratitude toward Brian Moran, my co-founder. Brian was a successful startup veteran when he began looking for a new venture with positive social impact. A colleague happened to ask him how many female engineers he had worked with during his long career in tech, and the answer shocked him: two. With that, Brian found his mission. He set out to build a company that could diversify tech, and I’m forever grateful for his vision, commitment and determination.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?
The biggest challenge is the lack of school. Our eight-year-old misses his friends, and he’s bored. Our toddler is obviously too young to articulate it, but we want him to be active and engaged as well, which is hard to maintain in quarantine.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We’ve been setting up conference calls for our eight-year-old to talk to his friends. It sounds crazy, but I act as his administrative assistant and manage his social calendar. I think children need time with their friends, so doing it virtually was the only way we could make it work.
For our toddler, it’s more difficult. I try to come up with fun stuff in the house, but I’m running out of ideas! Throwing paper towels down the stairs is a big hit. He finds it very funny (I find it less so, but it is entertaining to watch him crack up). It becomes difficult when I have to keep him occupied so I can work, but I have a few go-to tricks. If I have a conference call, I fill up our kitchen sink with water, dish soap and a bunch of spoons. It keeps him in one place for a pretty long time. Pro tip: get a towel out before he sprays you with water. I don’t want to say how I figured that out.
We also shifted our kids’ sleep schedules later, so our toddler would nap around the time of one of my standing meetings. Our pediatrician said it’s fine for kids to go to bed later, as long as they can sleep in later, so we took that and ran with it. Plus, our eight-year-old thinks he’s getting away with something, which is always a bonus.
Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?
The biggest work-related challenge was closing all our in-person programs. Pre-COVID, we were hosting our Clubhouse, a monthly meeting of girls and non-binary children who want to learn to code and build engineering projects. It’s a really fun way for the kids to learn STEM skills in a welcoming, collaborative environment. We’ve hosted summer camps for years as well, and we’ve reached over 7500 kids. As soon as the guidance from the CDC and local officials indicated in-person programs would be too risky, we canceled all of them. I’m a mom, and the thought of a child being at risk was too much to bear. It was logistically complicated to reach out to all the parents, answer their questions about transferring to virtual camps, etc., but we wanted to make the transition quickly to help our families as much as possible. We know our in-person programs will happen again one day, but it was sad to see them postponed.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
While there is something special about the in-person experience, we were determined to make our virtual camps great as well. On our Board of Advisors, we have a former teacher and ed-tech expert named Kathleen Sheehy (she was voted “Teacher of the Year” in DC, in fact!) who gave us great advice about how to optimize distance learning. When you’re in a difficult situation, reaching out to your network of advisors is invaluable. Thankfully, we also have an awesome communications team who updated parents via email, posted on social media and sweated all the details to keep our community informed.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
I think I need advice much more than I can share any! Does a link to my coffee maker help? In seriousness, I keep thinking about how people say you should never look down when you go some place high, because the distance will overwhelm you. You only become scared of heights when you realize how high up you are. Similarly, when I think about how long this could go on, it feels overwhelming. So, to the extent possible, I try to stay focused on today and “never look down”. That helps me a bit.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place for long periods with your family?
Serenity is in short supply when you’re living with a toddler, so I can’t say I have a ton of strategies to share. Laughter is good, and there is a lot of funny parenting content on social media right now. The primary thing that helps me manage stress is working out at night once the kids are asleep. I always feel better afterwards.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- More young people are committed to equity and justice than ever before. They want to work at companies that support their values, and their dedication will propel us toward our highest ideals.
- So many professionals are devoting time to making the world better. At Boolean Girl, we have an Ambassador Network, a group of female and non-binary STEM professionals who talk to our students about their careers. Role modeling is incredibly powerful for our students, and we get great feedback from parents (and kids, too!) about the strong impression it made. In these terrible times, there are lots of people helping others.
- If you want to feel hope, just look at philanthropy. I’m always inspired when I see the generosity of our donors, in good times and otherwise. We have corporations that give large donations to establish multiple programs, but we also have individuals who give $135 to fund a scholarship for one child to attend Full STEM Ahead Plus.
- There are more ways to reach people than ever before. At last count, we’ve had kids enrolled in our virtual classes from 44 states and 7 countries. With so much suffering in the world, the fact that we can connect with people so far away gives me hope.
- Everything, for better or for worse, eventually ends. This will, too.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I’m a big believer in leaning into uncomfortable feelings, rather than avoiding them. So when our son says he’s sick of quarantine, I don’t try to remind him that we’re lucky to be healthy or that things could be worse. I just tell him I get it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Confidence is built by doing.” That’s one of my favorite quotes. It’s the best and worst news. It’s awful, because it means you have to struggle your way through things. But it also means there is a way to get good at something and feel confident… you just have to take the first step.
I think about this in my career as I take on new challenges, but I also think about it when we’re developing our products. When we get the girls engaged in coding and building, their confidence skyrockets. As they build their code, they build their grit… and crave more complex projects. We take them on a journey from beginner to advanced coder (we call it our Mission Map), and it’s really inspiring to see the girls make progress along our learning path. They start with assembling the computer, then they’re coding, and the next thing you know they are building gadgets.
How can our readers follow you online?
I tweet @SarahJaneHoya, and you can read more about the work we do at Boolean Girl by following @BooleanGirlProj. We’d love to hear from you!
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!