When Nancy Mwirotsi transitioned her girls’ dance class into a STEM space — studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics — for refugee students, she knew her group’s own funding model would have to live up to the spirit of innovation she wanted to build in students. 

Today, Pi515 is preparing to host its second Jumbo Jenga Tournament fundraiser on Nov. 2 in the Windsor Heights Community Center— registration is available at www.pursuitofinnovation.org — and is welcoming students back into the rhythms of school, study and occasional competition. 

Pi515 has served 94 students in the last year through programs like the Youth Innovation Summit in June, drone building classes and the Building the Tech Pipeline initiative, which aims to involve 100 new students in 2018. 

Mwirotsi went to school in the tech field but never finished her degree, instead working full time in real estate and business management before founding Pi515. Today she works full time on the program, with about 21 volunteers who provide mentorship and teaching to Pi515 students in computer science and related fields. 

Mwirotsi was named one of Iowa’s leaders of innovation in the Technology Association of Iowa’s Catalysts project, which culminates on Dec. 4 with Mwirotsi and several other Iowa women in an event at the downtown Des Moines Tea Room. Until then, Mwirotsi will continue her usual work with the students of the Pi515 — and if any area businesses have a few unused computers lying around, she’d like to hear from them. 

Can you describe Pi515 and your role?
I am the founder and executive director. We started about April 2014, and my role is everything. 

I knew my area target map, which is the area code 515, that neighborhood in and around the MLK area, some specific neighborhoods deep down in Des Moines that I felt we needed to target. I came up with “pursuit of innovation” [Pi515], and I hope these kids are pursuing innovation. That’s the underlying thing. We have to push kids to start thinking, so that was the reason why I wanted to do a program that was STEM-related but really pushing kids to think outside the box, to think outside the norm. Think outside your comfort zone, because most kids are very comfortable where they have not been exposed outside. 

What’s your background?
It came from a dance group. I’ve been working with refugees for about 15 years now, and I realized that boys kind of had soccer, and the girls did not have an after-school program. I decided to do dance. Through that, we were going really well, and I figured why not transition that into something STEM-related.

What have you learned since launching Pi515?
Listen. When you launch something, especially when you’re young, you’re a woman — actually, I think everybody experiences this — when you launch something, you’re always going to have people who are going to tell you “Don’t do it” or “You’re doing it wrong.” “Oh, maybe have so-and-so do it, they could probably do it better.” There’s always so many voices that tell you maybe you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing. I’ve learned to listen and make judgments for myself, because I feel that it’s important that I speak to what I feel and what I feel my vision is. Not everybody can understand your vision. 

The lessons that I’ve learned, I’ve learned by doing things, by being rejected. I’ve learned so much from that, and I’m glad that I started learning to accept rejections earlier on. In asking myself after every single rejection, what is the lesson that I’m learning from that particular rejection? Some, when I look back today, I am incredibly happy that some rejections happened. We’ve not had it easy, right? We’re not government-funded or anything. … We want to be able to be sustainable and innovative. And to do those things, you have to also rethink how nonprofits are usually done. 

Can you tell me a bit about the kids who join your program? 
We’ve got some funding from AT&T, we’ve got some funding from Best Buy, we’ve also got some funding from Facebook. We want to make sure that every single child that comes through our hands actually does a good project. … Ninety-nine percent of all our kids do not have access to good technology at home. We want to make sure that they have access to technology at home. 

This year we are actually pushing and asking companies. My challenge to companies is do not throw out your old computer. Recycle it, and give it to a child in the city or even in rural Iowa. So many kids don’t have technology at home, and it’s important that they get that. Kids have to learn basic skills like how to attach a document. … A whole lot of them can use emojis, but cannot do the basic work that is needed for basic office skills. Part of what we’re trying to do is also identifying those who lack those skills, and equipping them with soft skills and digital literacy skills early, so that they know how a workforce works. 

When I talk about partnerships with these companies -- for example, with American Equity, the kids could job shadow. Kids cannot be what they don’t see or what they don’t relate to. And most of the kids I know have never really been in a business setting. … The tech companies have to realize that they have to give some support to groom the talent. 

Has it changed at all since you first envisioned it?
You have to adapt to changes, because your environment decides how you should go. What I like with my team, my creative programming class team, we actually sit down and say every year, what’s the best thing we can work for next year? So last year, we decided building the tech pipeline was a big one for us. That is where we came up with we must be in schools. … That’s been our biggest push this year, building the tech pipeline, asking the tech companies to come with us into the classroom — we’ll get you maybe 10 kids; could you teach them how to build a website? 

How else we’ve evolved ... our focus mainly was around refugees. And we’re still very heavy on refugees. We have 75 percent refugee [students], we want 65 percent of our class to be girls. But 25 percent of that can be anybody. We realize we’re very good at low-income students and let people know that our programming, it costs zero dollars to the kids. … We couldn’t do it without good volunteers. Having those workforce tech people coming into class for us is really helpful. 

You’ve had so much community support. Can you talk a bit about those partnerships?
Brad [Dwyer, CEO of Hatchlings] did a fundraiser for us last year; our biggest individual fundraiser came from Hatchlings, actually. … This year Dwolla did Monetary for us, which is quite an honor. Having men champion women — you’re constantly fighting with so many things that are so biased against you, having those men stand by you just provides you ... energy.

... They support me without stepping in and controlling what we do. They’re like, “We believe in your creativity, we believe in your innovation, go ahead and do it.” People need that. People need people who can fully support them without really stepping and directing or wanting to manage everything they do. 
When we talk about diversity and inclusion, these amazing friends of mine have been incredible, in terms of proving that to increase diversity and inclusion is to support women, and to support women like me. 

What challenges is Pi515 facing right now? 
Space has always been a big challenge for us. It’s good to be here [Zion Lutheran Church of Des Moines]. … We need space where we can put our equipment, store it and know we have it there. Of course, funding is always a challenge. We don’t go with your usual nonprofit model of funding, so we have to really be creative, and that’s why it’s important to have friends like Dwolla and Hatchlings.

Do you have any personal or organizational goals for next year? 
My personal goals — I’m looking to make a website that maps African talent in the diaspora, like in the U.S. A lot of people don’t realize that African immigrants are some of the most highly educated folks, so I want to map that talent so we can show people were those talents are. I’ve also realized we really don’t have good books that talk about culture, like children’s books. I really would like to venture into an African storytelling, children’s interactive book as part of this project. Those are my two biggest things — having this website were it’s mapping a community ... so that we’re providing a different story about Africa. 

When you talk about Africa, there’s always a lot of misconceptions. ... A lot of people don’t realize a place like Congo has so much money, they have over $3 trillion in untapped wealth, and some of that is mostly minerals — like the thing that makes your phone vibrate is actually mined in Congo. Part of doing what we’re going to do is also empowering young people to realize that those resources are back on the continent. Just telling a better story about Africa that is never really told on TV. 

What have you been reading/watching/listening to? 
I watch a lot of TED Talks. I’m reading a book right now, it’s called “Girl, Wash Your Face” [a nonfiction lifestyle guide by Rachel Hollis]. … Personally, I feel like it’s a great book, but the only thing is, I feel like the writer is from a different world than I am. I have some other friends who have read the book, and they’re saying, “Man, we don’t feel it the same way.” But I told them, “I want you to not look at it that way. Look at it in terms of the points she’s making.”