By Nancy Mwirotsi | Founder and executive director, PI 515 (Pursuit of Innovation 515)
"Women, on the other hand, had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations." -- Margot Lee Shetterly, "Hidden Figures"

Recently, Pursuit of Innovation 515 (PI 515) was fortunate enough to take 18 girls to the Iowa Women of Innovation Awards Dinner. This was the first formal function any of the girls had ever participated in and the very first time for some of our kids to visit a movie theater.

Before we went in for the Women Innovation Dinner, two of our volunteers -- Emma Budd, a Grand View student, and intern Lauren Gorski, a Drake student -- gave the girls a quick pep talk, explaining what they might expect at such an event. Immediately following the dinner and reception, one of the girls was retelling their dining experience. When she started explaining her meal, she jokingly nudged her cohort and said, "Yeah, it looked like you were trying to kill the chicken, you were stabbing it so hard!!"

We all got a good chuckle but it demonstrates a very real disparity in some of the social or "life"skills that so many low-income youths face. PI 515 teaches refugee and other underserved students how to computer code and program, as well as other life skills. Our hope is that these tools can help them gain access to higher education or job placements. Most of our students receive free or reduced school lunches and have moved here from war-torn countries, experiencing violence that most Des Moines residents only hear about in the news.

There is a large component in our program that we place on females. Many of the female students have come from the societal norm that they are the lowest class. This obstacle can be extremely difficult to surmount when moving to a new country where parents might not speak English, money is tight and they're trying to learn the culture.

Attending the Women of Innovation Awards Dinner was the first time these girls were given a chance to dress formally and feel like they were deserving and that they too belonged in that space. Today, these young ladies are cutting up metal, soldering, printing parts from a 3-D printer to build a car that they are determined to showcase in February.

Des Moines is fortunate to be the home of community with an abundance of technology and innovation. Business and community leaders put an emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, which greatly contributes to the startup culture and our technological advancements. We want to see that same emphasis made in each community, across socioeconomic levels, race and gender.

As we continue to discuss innovation, my hope is that we continue to realize that diversity complements innovation. Innovation can continue to flourish by having different perspectives present and engaged -- that means individuals of different race, ethnic background, gender, age, income level, rural, urban and more.

As our state continues to emphasize and strengthen innovation, STEM education and a tech-conscious community, I urge all involved to challenge the status quo and recognize the importance of diversity in this space. The empowerment our PI 515 students felt simply by being invited to the Women of Innovation Awards is a testament to the value inclusion has in our lives. Meeting all the accomplished women that night reminded the students they too can be one of those women. I know next time my students are faced with cutting up chicken, they'll be well equipped.

Bring on the prime rib!
Nancy Mwirotsi is the founder and executive director of Pursuit of Innovation 515. Learn more about the organization online.