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These 4 Pittsburgh women are making STEM careers inclusive for all

March 26, 2018 | NEXT Pittsburgh

By Emily Stimmel, NEXT Pittsburgh

When Erica Peterson launched Moms Can: Code last August, she wanted to reduce barriers for women in tech. But the startup quickly evolved into a thriving network of women seeking professional mentorship, advice — and even friendship.

With members spanning the globe, the Moms Can: Code community includes stay-at-home mothers and women charting new courses in their careers. Members bond over their shared experiences, from mastering a tricky line of code to striving for work-life balance.

That sense of connection — and the learning experiences that come with it — is the most important metric to Peterson.

“It started from me wanting to find and connect with other moms who are interested in the same thing,” says Peterson, a mother of two, the founder of Science Tots and a former president of Pittsburgh’s chapter of the Association for Women in Science.

Today, “moms are finishing projects and courses, updating their portfolios and resumes, teaching each other to code and creating study groups,” she says. “For me, that means we’ve succeeded.”

That success also impacts the children these women are raising. Peterson — who wanted to brush up on coding to keep pace with her kids’ homework — believes moms can send a powerful message as STEM role models in their homes.

“Something like code isn’t easy and that’s OK — it requires you to try again and again,” says Peterson. “Coming back to it? That’s a huge example for your children.”

Her persistence is already paying off.

Moms Can: Code was among 50 startups — out of 600 applicants — selected to participate in this year’s Accelerator Pitch at South by Southwest. She competed, and was a finalist in the Social and Culture Technology category.

Erin Oldynski and E. Louise Larson of Prototype PGH

Peterson says she’s inspired by other local organizations with women at the helm, like Prototype PGH, the feminist maker space that opened in the Bloomcraft building in North Oakland in January 2017.

“Women in Pittsburgh are extremely proactive about seeing a need and creating something to fill that need,” she says. “It’s exciting to see that kind of space open up and encourage women to use tools.”

At Prototype, self-identified women and feminists — nicknamed “Protobabes” — can learn woodworking, programming, soldering, 3D modeling and a host of other maker skills.

“What we hope to do is create a place where women of all backgrounds primarily feel safe and supported in our environment and workshops,” says Erin Oldynski, who co-founded Prototype with E. Louise Larson.

In just over a year, Prototype has become a destination for women to learn manufacturing, fabrication and tech skills, all while expanding their professional networks. According to Larson, “Protobabes” have hired each other for illustration and graphic design projects.

And then there’s Anny Chen.

Years ago as a student, Chen left an architecture program feeling unsupported. Ten years later, she discovered Prototype. “It helped her reconnect with the parts of herself she left behind at architecture school,” says Oldynski.

Rebecca Harris of Chatham University 

That support for women is critical, something Chatham University recognized when it opened its Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship (CWE) in 2005.

“Women need to be part of all strategic business decisions and investments — they can’t be left on the sidelines,” says Rebecca Harris, executive director of the CWE.

Two years ago, the CWE established the Women’s Business Center through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Small Business Administration, which recently named it the 2018 Women’s Business Center of the Year. Last summer, the CWE expanded into a 3,000-square-foot Entrepreneurship Hub at Chatham’s Eastside campus to support women and other underserved populations through accessible skill-building.

The Hub’s Prototyping & Design Lab features state-of-the-art tools and equipment like a 3D printer, sewing machines and robotics kits. Beyond the Chatham community, they’re available for any women entrepreneurs who are interested in fabricating physical products.

From its flagship six-week training program, Concept to Launch, to the new IncubateHER business incubation initiative, the CWE is contributing to what Harris calls Pittsburgh’s “collaborative, dynamic and inclusive” entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Inclusion and representation are driving forces behind Moms Can: Code and Prototype, too. And these women-led initiatives are changing lives.

“It is important for people learning a new skill to see themselves in the instructor,” says Oldynski. “If you can’t see something then you can’t become it.”

About Catalyst Connection

Based in Pittsburgh, Catalyst Connection is an economic development organization dedicated to helping small manufacturers to improve their competitive performance. Catalyst advisors, consultants, and instructors offer training, consulting and administer financial programs that can provide funding for equipment, machinery, or capital improvements. As a nonprofit 501 (c)3 firm, the organization has been supporting Southwestern Pennsylvania manufacturers for more than 25 years. For more information call 1-888-887-7472 or go to www.catalystconnection.org.