On Education, Equity and Inspiring Young Minds in Business and STEM

Inclusivity is key to doing sustainable good.” Tracie Dean Ponder.

You’ve probably seen the cartoons demonstrating the difference between equality and equity. Three kids — one tall, one medium height, and one short — want to watch the ballgame, but they can’t see over the fence. Equality gives each of them a wooden box to stand on. Now the tall kid can see over the fence, but his siblings, although higher up, still cannot.

Equity is different — it provides everyone with assistance in proportion to their differing needs. In the cartoon illustration, equity hands a bigger box to the littlest kid. Now everyone can see over the fence equally well.

As the privileged argue over the fairer system, a considerable division in American politics has opened — delivering equity of outcome or equality of access. It’s often made to seem an either/or question. While it might seem fair to treat everyone the same, regardless of their race, if you’re an inner-city black kid in Atlanta, you simply aren’t starting from a level playing field.

In the fields of business or STEM, the situation is heightened. Failing public schools in deprived neighborhoods don’t provide the same fertile ground for young minds as uptown private schools might. The COVID-19 pandemic has in many ways exacerbated these inequities. Kids forced to work from home can only do so in a peaceful home environment, with reliable WiFi and equipment that works.

Fortunately, kids from less privileged backgrounds do have a few champions within their own communities willing to make a difference. Tracie Dean Ponder, Founder and Executive Director of the B-STEM project, is one such. An educator, tech entrepreneur, writer, and filmmaker, Ponder has made it her life’s work to help raise talented kids interested in business and STEM.

She’s had to fight to get to where she is now. In our conversation, she tells me about a challenging meeting at Disney where the corporation’s initial enthusiasm for promoting her inclusivity program dissolved in the face of the challenges of implementation. Ponder talks about her sister, who is a teacher in a public school, and whose daily struggles with underfunding give her powerful insights into how the deck is stacked against those without birth privilege.

Educational curricula are partly to blame. Boredom breeds a lack of engagement and methods for teaching foundational subjects including maths, physics and biology need to be re-examined for the 21st century. Inspiration begins at school, but encouragement is also needed within the home and in communities to show kids with latent talent how lucrative and fun business and STEM can be. There are ever-expanding opportunities in UX/UI design, for instance, a field that requires a unique combination of visual and logical thinking.

As Malcolm Gladwell famously pointed out, it can take 10,000 hours to become an expert in any field. How do you rack up those necessary hours if you aren’t exposed to an educational environment that provides the experience?

In 2021, funding equity projects remains challenging. There is much talk about a “reckoning” around race in America. Yet 98% of non-profit funding still goes to white-fronted organizations. Ponder’s main source of frustration has been the lack of commitment to real investment, actual hard cash, rather than sloganeering or token gestures.

Tech itself can be to blame, too, as Ponder points out when algorithmic bias discriminates unconsciously against kids from impoverished backgrounds. Entry requirements for courses may require whole checklists of items some children cannot provide.

The problem doesn’t lie with the technology itself but with the way it is used. Ponder does believe technology, rightly constituted, can help people become more altruistic. The sharing of intellectual property for community gain through Innovation Villages is one such scheme. We ought to be engendering an expectation that those who have made fortunes in business and technology become more proactive in “giving back”, rather than non-profits coming cap in hand to billionaires and corporations who pay only lip service to social justice and equity.

In our far-ranging talk, we cover many of these challenges. Ponder also tells me about her own habits for developing patience, including never taking anything personally and focusing on the here and now, rather than dwelling on what should be. We get spiritual by discussing various lessons that Buddhism can provide in terms of developing a positive mindset and an appreciation of what one has. As Ponder puts it “don’t make a monument of your own pain.”

Self-control and focus are key too, which is why Ponder hasn’t owned a television for 15 years. She found it was all too easy to lose herself in mindless entertainment when the time for achieving her goals was at a premium.

We talk about what can be learned from older generations, including how to be less selfish and insular and what a real-life legacy consists of. Ponder has some salient advice for those seeking mentors and other forms of assistance. She suggests going in with no expectations and being open to whatever help is provided. In many cases, you may be surprised by how willing others are to help if you don’t let yourself be disappointed when a fixed goal isn’t immediately attained.

Ponder is an inspiring and entertaining guest. I’m sure I’ll have her back since we’ve only scratched the surface of the life lessons and inspiration she imparts.

Please listen on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and check out the links and show notes.