Nyamekye Wilson, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Black Sisters in STEM, shares her talk, “Rags to Riches, Inspiring Tales of Triumph and Resilience.” She discusses how her story leads to tangible, actionable steps for you, your community, and all of us as a global society. She discusses her journey, life, roots, family, and culture.
My hero now and probably forevermore is going to be my mom. My siblings and I like to define her Genesis story as $20 and a dream. She is a Ghanaian woman who immigrated to the United States of America at the ripe age of 19 years old. She had $20 and a dream. Much like any other immigrant, she came to this country hoping that she could do a lot with the little she had. Statistics and history show that when women think about impact, we don't think about individuals.
We don't think about ourselves. We think about communities. We think about large-scale impact, whether it be our family, generations, local community, town, or village. That is how women are wired. My mom came here and sacrificed her dreams, gifts, and talent to do something she knew would work. It would bring her an income that could serve as a foundation and a springboard for my siblings and me. She was a registered nurse for over 30 years, working the graveyard shift. That's the shift where you get the most money. That's the shift she could still see us in the morning and the afternoon, and she would have to have someone take care of us that night.
My mom sacrificed all that she could have been to be able to fuel and finance my siblings and me with our dreams. I never forgot that. Growing up, I always held it as a burden on my shoulder, as if I was standing on my mom's shoulders. She decided to be the person that not only my siblings and I stand upon but our entire family stands upon for socio-economic growth.
As I went through high school and was constantly selected for awards and academic achievement, I always saw it aligned with getting to places so that other black women could get there faster. I learned from my mom that once you blaze a trail, you make it easy for others to follow behind you. It's not always the sexiest thing to be a trailblazer, but the impact lasts beyond you.
When I got a full ride to the University of Virginia from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, that was another defining moment for me. I had no financial ties to getting my education. Every semester, I would receive a lump sum of money to support my living, accommodation, etc. This came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional scholarships I had also earned in high school. I took that as the ability to go far fast. I was at one of the top universities in the country at that time.
I had nothing to pay to learn. I was not going to take that for granted. I built relationships. I joined organizations. I was the only freshman on the executive board of the Black Student Union at the University of Virginia. I was maximizing my time at UVA. I even won the standout first-year award for my entire class. It was a very strong, defining moment as well. I could see progress. All I could see was continued celebration, awards, and increase. I was on cloud nine from my senior year to the end of my freshman year. When sophomore year came around, I thought everything would go the same way. I believe a unique phenomenon happens between the summer of freshman year and the fall of your sophomore year. Most students start to think about the rest of their college career. They start to make some defining decisions.
I didn't know that all the people and women of color surrounding me, as we were all pursuing this finance degree, would soon come to campus and say they had switched majors. It baffled me how many of us had already begun to drop out of STEM majors. I continued at first. I thought nothing would go wrong. As I continued my second year, I realized I might not belong. No one else who looks like me was there. There were no role models. I didn’t feel good enough. You cannot name five trailblazing black women in STEM.
It's not because we haven't been there, but we've been hidden. Many of the stories of our success were never written down. For a young first-generation Ghanaian American, low-income student at the University of Virginia, there wasn't anyone I thought I could look up. That led to what we all now define as imposter syndrome. When I was going through it, it seemed like a really good explanation for why I shouldn't be in that room. I left. Like every human being who doesn't feel welcomed, we tend to leave rooms that we should be in, can be in, and deserve to be in. I left from pursuing a finance degree to pursue sociology and women's gender sexuality studies. There, I saw women who looked like me. I had professors who looked like me. People could easily give me role models.
How many Black women do you know who have been civil rights leaders, social justice leaders, or social leaders in general? Most people can name at least two. I found role models, hope, and a pathway there. Some Black women had more of an amplified story within the social sciences and the world of women, gender, and sexuality studies than probably any other major at university. Luckily for me, though I was no longer pursuing a very technical major, or what they called a technical major, I had still built the social capital and the relationships to help me pursue what I initially came in to pursue, which was to go into business.
With the help of a strong community of black women, I wasn't allowed to give up on myself completely. They made sure that I walked into UVA with the amount of energy, belief, and confidence I didn't forget who Nyamekye was. With their support, their hand-holding, or what I would like to call their dragging, I applied to so many programs I never thought I was qualified for. I got into many, if not all, of them. I interned and did programs with top companies like PwC, McKinsey & Company, and JP Morgan, and finally got a full-time offer to Google for my postgraduate career. Since I got it very early into my senior year's fall semester, I had time to do what the guidance counselors, all the deans, and everyone always told me to do in my senior year.
I had time to reflect on what I had learned and how I had grown. I thought about who I was and who I wanted to be. I couldn't get over my success. Not in a prideful way. I couldn't wrap my mind around my success. No other Black girls I knew of from my class were going to Google. There were very few, if any, Black girls who had a trajectory and a resume like I did.
There's likely someone with more grit, passion, and desire than me. Not only just one person, there are likely a lot of Black women I went to school with at UVA who would have wanted to work at the same companies I did, or at least similar competitors. There were so few of us who stayed in STEM. I started to put my sociology and women's and gender studies learning into practice. I knew that this wasn't an issue about Nyamekye. This wasn't a micro issue.
This was a macro issue with many stories that are felt on a micro level. I just happened to be one of those stories. I was lucky and blessed enough to have people around me who ensured I didn't end up like most Black women who dropped out of their STEM major by their sophomore year. Almost 50% of Black women drop out. We're losing almost half the number of women who have already indicated interest. We're losing half of those stories, innovations, hopes, and dreams over those capacities. This is not just a problem on a social level. As the founder of Black Sisters in STEM, an organization that aims to fix this issue, I always like to bring the data. I like to ensure people understand that we stand as an organization with a rightful cause. There is a very tangible political and economic need that we're solving.
Black women have some of the highest indications of declaring a STEM major at university. Black women also have some of the highest dropout rates in STEM majors. Black women are students who are likely to be classified as low-income students. Of low-income students in the U.S., less than 20% complete any degree within six years of starting. The number one reason why low-income students who tend to be Black women drop out is financial hurdles. Black women are also the fastest-growing female workforce demographic in the world. I hope you are starting to see the socio-economic importance.
Black women will be one of the most powerful levers of change in the next century, economically, politically, and socially. With the world and all of its industries asking questions about AI, I'm sure you wouldn't argue with me that some of the most prominent lucrative and open industries will come out of STEM. Whether it's in agriculture, healthcare or education, everything is going to be affected by STEM. If we continue not to support Black women and ensure that Black women have the access, the training, and the safe space to believe they can, we are losing enormous contributions that will unlock economic opportunity. Black Sisters in STEM is here to be that bridge, the catalyst that makes sure that we are on the side of history that will make us proud. For so long, the history of Black women in this country has been riddled with pain and trauma.
We may not have been a part of setting up those systems and structures, but we all are a part of bringing them down. At Black Sisters in STEM, we see ourselves as the organization that will be the ones to help bring those down. We don't want to do it alone. We want to do it with the help of every single human being on this planet. Each of us is writing the future. Our actions and our inaction lead to the future that we're going to have.
At Black Sisters in STEM, we are launching a three-year initiative called the Turning Point Fund. This fund is a fund led by Black Women for Black Women. We want to remove some financial hurdles that have kept Black women from an industry they want to be in, and the world needs them to be in. Equity in STEM is no longer a philosophical hope. It's an economic strategy.
It is beneficial for the growth of our nation. Nations like China have recognized this. They have very strong levels of gender parity in STEM. They've worked in the public, private, and social sectors to make that happen. Statistics say because of their unified efforts to raise a STEM workforce, they will likely have up to 20 times as much of a STEM workforce as some countries worldwide. The US, though known for its STEM workforce, is trailing behind that by a lot. We are set to have the most economic loss of any country if we cannot effectively equip and train a workforce that would be able to use and understand the skill sets of the future, which are mostly in the fields of STEM.
Our three-year campaign to make sure that we support Black women to get there is to support every single Black woman. Our goal is 1,000, with $4,200 that would help her support her certification needs, internship stipends, conference stipends, and abilities to get the technology she needs, like laptops or software, to be more effective and ahead of her industry.
If you would like to join us to bring forth the dreams and the capacity of a demographic so left behind, hidden, and a lot of times forgotten, you can join us at blacksis.org, where you'll find everything that I just said on a webpage and the ability to be a donor. We're looking to have 300 people commit just $500 one time to be able to raise a huge amount of money to support Black women, support Black futures, and support economies around the world. When we talk about rags to riches, it's a story of hope. It's a story that we will one day be able to let the talent, the gifts, and the great minds across the world, regardless of skin, color, race, or gender, have the opportunity to utilize those gifts, talents,, and great minds without any limits.
Guest: Nyamekye Wilson, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Black Sisters in STEM
Producer: JL Lewitin, Senior Producer Press and Communications, Women Who Code