Winnie Karanja wants to help break down barriers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) for girls and students of color. She wants to help kids imagine themselves in these fields, just as they imagine themselves as firefighters or actors.
To help youths in Madison and Dane County learn about these fields, Karanja, 29, founded Maydm. The nonprofit, a sort of portmanteau for “made by them,” teaches summer programs and workshops on computer coding and other STEM subjects. The programs focus on girls and students of color, as women and people of color are underrepresented in STEM professions.
Karanja said she sees access to STEM jobs, which pay above-average wages, as a way to lift up disenfranchised or marginalized communities.
“I’m really passionate about making sort of deep change in a community and improving people’s quality of life in ways that are substantial and addressing generational poverty,” Karanja said.
Karanja, who immigrated to the U.S. from Kenya with her family in 1999, formed Maydm in 2015. Since then, the organization has helped more than 1,900 area students.
Because of her work with Maydm, Karanja was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list of social entrepreneurs in 2019.
What are your hopes for Maydm?
What we’re creating is an environment where there’s a sense of belonging in this space. When you look around, there are other students who look like you and have had similar experiences. Really changing the narrative around who belongs in STEM. What’s really important right now is really bringing in certain voices and certain people and making our students and the community aware of the fact that people of color are pioneers in the STEM field.
What have been some of the biggest challenges?
It has been being able to raise the support to grow it well, to have the resources to be able to grow our program and work with more students. That’s been one of the challenges. Another is changing that narrative. For me, I want students in every ZIP code to say, “Hey, I want to be a mechanical engineer or computer engineer or computer developer,” just as they’ll very quickly say, “I want to be a teacher or a firefighter or a nurse.” I would say that’s an underlying narrative that we’re trying to, and I’m personally trying to, change.
What have been some of the best moments working with Maydm?
I would say some of the best moments that I’ve experienced have been the moments when our kids are coding and their code works, or they’re seeing that code reflect what they’re trying to build. Those “Aha!” moments of like, “Oh my word, Miss Winnie, I got it to work.” ... The excitement and where those students are like, “I can do this, and this is my space.” You can see it in their eyes. Those have been some of the most amazing moments.
Can you talk more about coding? What are the students actually making?
Our students are learning different programming languages. We do have a course where students are building websites, but students building mobile applications, they’re programming hardware like Raspberry Pis and Arduinos. They’re also programming robots to do different tasks like navigate mazes. They’re learning about AI (artificial intelligence), cloud computing, cybersecurity.
Why do you think it’s important to have this kind of program in Dane County?
I think this program is really important because of our growing tech jobs. What we’re doing is saying, “Hey, you don’t need to wait for people who are going to come in from the East Coast and West Coast, there is brilliance in our community.” And how do do we make sure that the brilliant students, the brilliant students of color and female students, that they’re having access to this field? ... We’re positioning students for these high-wage jobs.
Know Your Madisonian 2021: Profiles from the Wisconsin State Journal's weekly series
They're your neighbors, co-workers or friends you may not have met yet. And they all have a story to tell.
Lessner started out in the laundromat business when he was about 10 years old helping his dad.
The Madison Police Department's new public information officer Tyler Grigg wants to be timely, open and maybe even a little creative in his new position.
Rowan Childs, 44, wanted to fill her home with books for her own children to enjoy but knew not all children are able to have the same experience.
“I did find my passion," says Sally Zirbel-Donisch, "... it was working with not only students and families but staff and partners in the community."
In 1992, Kathy Kuntz enrolled in UW-Madison, expecting to earn a PhD in history, but it was a temp job as a receptionist at a nonprofit that led her into what would become a career in energy.
Michael Graf has written five screenplays: "Winter of Frozen Dreams," "The Last Indian War," "Throwing Hammers," "Venice of America" and "Picket Charlie," a just-finished environmental action picture tackling climate change.
A poll worker and volunteer interviewer for the Fire Department, Pranee Sheskey says she enjoys being part of making democracy work.
John Adams and Michael Moody founded the nonprofit Catalyst for Change in January 2020 to eliminate human suffering one life at a time by placing human dignity and development at the forefront of poverty, addiction and homelessness.
Harambee Village Doulas is trying to improve infant mortality, maternal health.
For more than two decades, the Droids Attack front man has refurbished games at his business Aftershock Retrogames. Now, he's looking to open an arcade bar.
Tiffany Olson owns 120 plants, a Willy Street greenhouse store and a loving Havanese named Mia.
Matt Reetz has spent years studying birds, doing postdoctoral research around the United States, Australia, the Caribbean and southern Chile.
Tony Gomez-Phillips' prairie-inspired planting connects Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture with a garden style that embodies his views of nature and how it interacts with humans.
Since 1962, the McCann family name led efforts to make sure Hilldale shopping center is clean and safe. Now Tom McCann has retired to fish, hunt turkeys and catch Dungeness crabs.
Out Health, run by Dr. Kathy Oriel, is in a former dentist's office on University Avenue.
Ken Fager turned pandemic boredom into a popular public art campaign of 3D-printed miniature state Capitols placed throughout Downtown.