Words by Phernegize Manigat
I’ve always very much been a maker.
I started out as an Industrial Design and Sculpture major in college. Initially my thoughts after graduating were that I would work as an interior designer for a company for some time — but I knew I really loved working with kids so, it seemed like being a part of the STEM and STEAM field was a great option. While attending college and after graduating, I started working with lots of youth in Boston, primarily in the art or STEM spaces. At first, it was just a mentorship opportunity but I then began teaching students how to build prototypes and how to use equipment found in a makerspace and in Fab Labs. I was teaching high school students to build products for their own businesses as well as learning software in our own makerspace. I helped them prototype, taught them Computer Aided Design (CAD), and other Fab Lab-related software that would later be applied to their business ideas.
I believe, if you have an interest in the arts, you can also take part in tech. So, for me, it was a really good match to work in a space where working with technology worked hand in hand with creating something that could be considered an art piece. We now are seeing several schools applying the concept of STEM/STEAM education to their curricula and building lots of makerspaces or Fab Labs into their spaces. This change is getting kids more interested in tech while showing them you can also be creative in it. I’ve had the greatest honor being able to work in these spaces not only with kids but now creating programs for entrepreneurs that want to build their startups or businesses.
I do, however, have to be honest: When I initially started working in these spaces, I definitely didn’t have as much confidence. I was a newbie out of college, and I’m one, a woman, and two, a black woman attempting to break into a “male-dominated” space. I’d go to conferences and would be the only woman in the room or the only black person. I knew I had the skills, but when you do see yourself[t2] in these spaces or are always looked at in a weird way as if you don’t belong, you begin to doubt yourself.
I thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t be in this space.” But then I’d snap out of it and think, “Wait, you know what? No, I know what I’m talking about!” There is still a thought in the back of my mind at times though, where I think, because I am a woman, I have to make sure that I do know what I’m talking about. The last thing you want is for a man to come into the space and try to tell you how to do your job or assume you don’t know how to get a piece of equipment up and running — which people have tried to do on multiple occasions.
For some folks — not all folks like for instance my mom — the world can look a tad intimidating, especially to women entering a space where they know they will face some sort of scrutiny. Fortunately, I was taught to stick through it. In our fab lab at the Roxbury Innovation Center, there are times when a male or even females get confused by the fact that I’m the point person for the space. I have learned to be very aware of it and be prepared to roll with it — and still be kind and informative. So, I think it‘s very important to home in on your confidence and not be afraid of being who you are. And in this space, just make sure you know what you‘re doing along with that confidence so that all folks can walk into your space and look at you with respect as opposed to making any assumptions.
We need more women in this field! At the moment, it isn’t a field marketed to us. At a very young age, boys are taught to say they’ll grow up to be engineers, but girls aren’t. I always say that what’s most important — if you‘re interested — is that by all means, you have to do the research and be motivated to educate yourself. Listen, platforms like YouTube are a huge resource where folks will show you how to do just about anything step by step. If you know someone who works in this space, contact them. All the folks I know who work in either fab labs and makerspaces or even have tech backgrounds are always willing to share the knowledge because it‘s something we love. Even though it’s work, we enjoy it. Being around the space or taking a tour is a good way to spark more interest.
I am fortunate enough to see young women or girls learn about the software, building, prototyping, 3D printing and all the rest while getting to walk away with something in their hands that they can say, “Hey, I designed this. I learned the software and I got to do this myself.” After that experience, these girls begin to think about the option of going into a STEM/STEAM field. That, for me, is a very proud moment. The other side is seeing entrepreneurs in makerspaces creating, then selling their products. Now that‘s just cool!
I can’t say this enough: The world is constantly changing and moving into or already is in a space where technology is vital in all that we do. There are so many ways to be exposed to tech, so we have to not be afraid of it.