Kristina Smith, Founder of HYPE
2018 HYPE International Experience Video Recap
1. Kristina, you are the founder of HYPE, a nonprofit organization focused on providing hope for youth through empowerment and education. HYPE emphasizes STEM education, which refers to science, technology, engineering, and math. You, yourself have a professional background in technology, as an engineer and information management consultant. What first sparked your interest in technology?
My interest was sparked by exposure to technology and computer science, which I unfortunately didn’t get until I went to college. My decision to major in Computer Engineering was encouraged by dad – who saw my capability in math and my attraction to problem solving (and playing on the computer). I actually didn’t even know what a computer engineer was! Had it not been for people in my life and in my corner to encourage me to pursue something that I had limited understanding of, there is no telling what I’d be doing today.
After learning computer science and working on engineering projects in school, I really loved it – and was good at it! This is what motivated me to continue along that path as a career.
2. What as the most valuable lesson you’ve learned while working in the field?
It’s not all about what you know. It isn’t even all about who you know. It’s about having a willingness to learn the things that you don’t know and reach out to the people that you should know.
Jumping into a career for the first time can be a scary thing! It’s easy to believe that you have to be perfect in order to be successful, or that you have to step on others in order to climb to the proverbial “top”; but what I’ve learned is that there are more people who are willing to teach & mentor you than those who aren’t. As a result, I’ve also become more aware of my responsibility to be one of those people. Living a life of significance and leaving a legacy are directly related to the people whom you choose to pour into both professionally and personally.
3. In 2013, you left your corporate role to pursue a mission trip called the World Race which aims to serve under-served communities in multiple countries around the world. What inspired you to join the mission and what is the greatest piece of information you’ve gained from your travel experience?
To be completely honest, I became unfulfilled with just going to work. The “American Dream” wasn’t my dream and working in Corporate America wasn’t my destiny. I believe that we are all called and wired to do something specific – something that no one else in the world can do quite as well as you can. The nagging sense of unfulfillment was enough to cause me to search for the path that was meant for me.
The World Race allowed me to live a life of service and sacrifice for 11 months in 11 different developing countries. The biggest thing that I gained from it was perspective and an understanding of how to not only live with people who are different from you, but to also love them. After that year, I came back to the States with a new perspective of what makes me come alive and what type of work I wanted to dedicate my time towards.
4. Upon returning from the World Race, you sought to teach for Girls Who Code, in addition to underserved students in Metro Atlanta schools. Is the STEM curriculum regularly taught in our public schools and if not, how can we ensure students are receiving supplemental STEM education?
The World Race helped me to realize my passion for the marginalized, unexposed, and underexposed. My education and professional experience helped me to realize my potential for coding and technology. So, working with Girls Who Code just made all the sense in the world.
Women represent less than 25% of the technology workforce – and this is an increase from how things were even 5 years ago. Minorities in lower income communities don’t have the same access to STEM education and role models. It either isn’t offered in the school, or there is a lack in resources to provide a quality educational experience.
I don’t know the answer for how to ensure that they are receiving supplemental STEM education, but I do know that I have a role to play in the solution. It starts with me, and others who have the capability, to provide exposure. I mentioned earlier that my entire career was a result of encouragement and exposure. There are many students who are like me – not even knowing what they don’t know and making uninformed decisions about their life and future.
I decided to work with Girls Who Code and later start my own non-profit, HYPE. However, that isn’t everyone’s role. For some, it may be volunteering or speaking with your company leaders about starting a high school internship program. It may be supporting organizations like HYPE financially or serving as a mentor. I don’t know the answer to solving the problem of diversity in STEM, but I know that no one person or organization can do it alone.
5. HYPE offers a unique curriculum and teaches students courses such as program and web development, user experience design, and computer programing. But, in addition to the curriculum, soft skills are emphasized. What are soft skills and why is it essential for students in the program to understand these skills?
Communication. Team Work. Problem Solving. Public Speaking. These are some of the main soft skills that we emphasize. However, one of the most important ideas that we teach and get our students familiar with is TAKING RISKS. Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code and one of my mentors, did a Ted Talk called “Teach girls bravery, not perfection”. One of the things that she says is “We teach our girls to be perfect, but we teach our boys to be brave”.
I 100% agree with this statement and work towards fighting this stereotype. No one who ever accomplished anything truly great did it without taking risks and experiencing failure. Our students are given opportunities to fail in safe spaces and then coached on how to bounce back from that failure.
Getting this realization that the world is not going to end if we don’t get it right, partnered with the other soft skills that our students build, will help set them up for success in the future. They will take more risks, try more new things, dream bigger dreams, and become the person that they were once afraid to admit they wanted to be.
6. Mentorship and advocacy also appear to be a key component of the program. In what way is mentorship beneficial for students? How is advocacy used to empower students?
You can’t be what you can’t see. Our youth need us more than ever to mentor them and advocate for them. Millennials and Gen Z get such a hard time and have an unfair reputation of ruining our future, but Abraham Lincoln said it best that “the best way to predict your future is to create it”.
Like it or not, these children and young adults are our future! When mentors publicly and regularly advocate for them, it establishes trust and a position of influence. The ability to influence a young person is major.
To empower literally means to give someone the authority or power to do something; to make someone stronger and more confident. By believing in our students and giving them opportunities to lead, we are saying that they are competent, that we trust them, that they can do anything that they want. Our advocacy for them empowers them to believe in themselves, this belief leads to hope, and hope is the key to unlocking their future. In fact, it’s what HYPE (an acronym for Hope for Youth through emPowerment and Education) was founded on.
7. In 2018, HYPE launched its first HYPE International Experience in Nicaragua. The program accepts a cohort of young women and allows them to teach the skills they’ve learned in the HYPE programs. What inspired you to provide students with an international experience? What is the benefit of teaching internationally?
Well, my experience on the World Race is what first inspired me to incorporate an international travel component to the programs that HYPE offers. I mentioned before that the Race gave me a new perspective on life, but it also dramatically increased my capacity to dream. Because I’d experienced so much more in reality, my hopes and dreams automatically followed suit.
The benefit to teaching internationally is two-fold. Statistics tell us that we retain 90% of what we teach others. STEM exposure and education is one of the main goals for HYPE; without retention, however, exposure only does part of the job. So, I knew that we’d want to give our students the opportunity to teach and increase the likelihood that they would remember these new, difficult concepts.
Secondly, international travel is something that most of our students have never done, and maybe even no one in their family. Our hope is that this experience will do the same for them that it did for me. Give them a new perspective, a different reality, and a bigger dream.
8. Is there a need for more women in STEM? What are some ways to bridge the gap?
Absolutely! It’s interesting what women bring to the STEM space. Not only our perspective and voice, but women are known to be more empathetic and caring. This has long been considered a weakness. What I’m learning in working with women and girls in STEM, is that when we create, we create things that benefit the world at large. We tend to really think about others more than our male counterparts – not that men can’t be caring or only create with themselves in mind – but women bring a balance that is definitely needed. 😊
Ways to bridge the gap include working with our youth to expose the next generation to STEM. Showing girls that this work is cool, fun, and collaborative. Lastly, we can’t do it without our male allies. Bridging the gap isn’t a “women vs. men” issue, it’s about doing what is best for society as a whole, so accomplishing it needs to involve everyone.
9. What can we expect to see from HYPE in the next coming year and how can individuals get involved?
We’re so excited to be partnering with South Atlanta High School and Booker T. Washington High School to bring our HYPE after school program to their students this Fall. There is a lot of momentum on the tail of 2018 HYPE International Experience, and we can’t wait to introduce the next cohort. Our high school students will be participating in hack-a-thons and leading coding workshops for elementary/middle school students and other non-profit organizations. We’re also planning our 2019 HYPE International Experience with the Salter’s Hill All Age School in Jamaica!
If you’re looking to get involved, we are looking for volunteers to serve as mentors, guest speakers, field trip hosts, and financial partners. Please visit our website at gethype.org for volunteer opportunities and ways to get connected!
10. What advice would you give individuals interested in working in a STEM field?
Find people and resources to help get you connected. There are a lot of free resources available online to learn, free programs to join, and people who are willing to help. In the next 5-10 years, STEM will be a part of just about every job and career path – so just get started with exposure and see where it leads!