Across the World and Across Disciplines, Two Leaders Converge on Equity in STEM

For this entry in the Logitech MX #WomenWhoMaster series, we are pleased to introduce a pair of business leaders who each, in her own way, incorporated a talent for STEM with a desire to build an equitable world. 

An educator and engineering enthusiast, Lavanya Jawaharlal grew up in the U.S., where she works today as president and co-founder of STEM Center USA. This innovative tech education company offers bilingual courses to students between the ages of 4-18 in subjects like virtual reality, coding, 3-D modeling, engineering design, and creative robotics. In Switzerland, Nadia Fischer complemented her long-standing passion for software building with knowledge on language AI and created Witty, an app that educates workers about inclusive language as they write.

Read on for an in-depth interview with these STEM leaders. 

Q: Let’s start at the beginning: your childhood. Was tech always an interest for you? Did you have mechanical inclinations growing up?

Lavanya Jawaharlal: I always loved to take things apart (smiles), but not necessarily put them back together. My parents were supportive about giving my sisters and me things we could break. They would give us old electronics, computer boards, old phones, and they would help us use screwdrivers and other tools. We got to take these items apart and see what was going on under all the plastic components. So I would definitely say I was a tinkerer. I’ve been a proud tech nerd since the beginning. 

But I had a passion for education that also started when I was young. My mom owns her own Kumon center, so she’s always been in the education space, and my father was a professor. After completing my bachelor’s in engineering, my interest in education grew as I worked with students through my company. This led me to my master’s in education and now my PhD candidacy in K-12 education and equity.

Q: That’s the perfect lead-in for our next question: what was it like to start STEM Center USA with your sister?

LJ: It was daunting. I started doing STEM Center full-time after graduating from college, around 2016. A degree in mechanical engineering from UC Berkeley tends to come with certain expectations, and this business was definitely a departure from the normal career path for students in that program. 

When my sister and I began to pursue the idea of STEM Center, it was just a hobby. Once we decided to devote more energy to it, people would look at us — we were in our twenties, with no formal business or administrative experience — and they would think, Who are these people? We faced a lot of skepticism about our age and our credentials, but we always had the support of our parents and STEM Center families.

Q: Now that you’ve been through that process yourself, do you have any advice for a young woman who’s looking to start her own business?

LJ: I often hear people telling entrepreneurs to plan everything out. But when I actually talk to small business owners, and when I think about my own experience, one of the best pieces of advice that emerges is if you have an idea you are passionate about, you should go ahead and do it. Don’t wait for everything to fall perfectly in place, because it never will. 

There’s always going to be a reason why you shouldn’t pursue an idea. Whether that be funding, or logistics, or something else, there will always be uncertainty. If you have the idea, if you’re passionate about it, then go ahead and execute.

Q: Fantastic. Our last question for you today is this: imagine it’s the year 2100, and the granddaughter of one of your STEM Center students is pursuing the same career as you. What do you want her career to look like or her future to look like?

LJ: I hope that she has equitable access to education. I remember in engineering classes in college, I would look around and see a room full of men, very few women, and even fewer women of color. And that has roots in experiences that happen way before students are in college. So I hope students in the 22nd century encounter a system built on core values of equitable education for all, and education that looks responsive to their needs. 

The work we do to provide equitable education for students early on, today, will be repaid tenfold in the future. And I hope by 2100 we’re seeing the results of that work.

Just like Lavanya forged a unique path after getting her degree in order to start STEM Center USA, Nadia Fischer changed direction after university to apply artificial intelligence to the problem of achieving inclusive language in professional organizations.

Q: Were you always interested in tech? Did you think that you would go into a STEM field as a young girl?

Nadia Fischer: No, not at all! My parents don’t have a tech background — my dad was an accountant, and my mom was a teacher. And in the 80s, tech wasn’t what it is today, so there was a lot more doubt about computer skills as a viable career. I studied international relations and actually wanted to become a war journalist. But what I realized, once I went into the workforce, is that change through diplomacy happens very slowly. I wanted to do something that would have more immediate impact. 

In tech, innovation is big, and fast, and constant, which I’ve always thought is very exciting. It took me a long time to figure out, but this is where I’m supposed to be. 

Q: So when were you first exposed to AI, or when did you start becoming interested in it?

NF: Again, not too long ago. When I started working as a Scrum product owner, around 2017, I started hearing about all these new technologies that would learn by themselves. And around the same time, I listened to a presentation by a very cool guy who discussed the interrelationship of AI and human beings, and how it was important to train our AI in a way that captures humanity, because otherwise we end up learning machine-like behaviors from our creations. I’ve always thought the whole subject was very interesting, especially from a philosophical or ethical point of view, rather than a technical one, since I’m not a developer. 

Q: Did you have a mentor or a specific person who encouraged you and supported you when you took the leap from a career in policy to one in tech?

NF: Not really a specific person, but at the third company where I worked, everyone was very supportive. At that time, because I had switched careers, I was less far along than most people my age, but everyone I worked with said, “It doesn’t matter. You’re a pragmatic person, and you’re trying to solve problems, and this is the right place for you.” So they were very supportive. I think I gained the confidence that I can succeed in the tech industry during my time at that company. Before, I was always a little bit unsure, “Am I at the right place? Am I doing this right?” Also, they had a lot of women in technical professions and that helped. We were not this big exception, we were just professionals like everyone else. 

Q: That’s great. One last question: what would you say are the top skills that we should be teaching the next generation to set them up for success in this new world we’re entering?

NF: Creativity. Because there are so many complex problems out there, and our school systems in many cases place too much emphasis on rote memorization instead of making the solutions. Also, self-confidence.

We should be teaching people that they have what it takes to solve problems, we should teach them to take initiative, and we should teach them not to fear failure. 

Lavanya and Nadia are leading the charge toward a future where STEM education is freely available and STEM professions harness the combined power of diverse minds. 

Connect with Lavanya on LinkedIn and Instagram to learn more about how she’s transforming STEM education for K-12 students. Find Nadia on LinkedIn and Twitter to stay informed as she works to broaden STEM opportunities through language. 

Women Who Master puts a spotlight on women who have made outstanding contributions to STEM fields. The goal of the series is to celebrate those contributions, inspire future leaders, and help close the gender gap in technology.

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