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Houston-area nonprofit helping build young girls' futures with STEM

Founder and CEO Loretta Williams Gurnell is equipping underserved girls and women with skills for life.

HOUSTON — A stone’s throw away from NASA inside a lab room at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, Loretta Williams remembers back about nine years ago when the former educator and recording artist had a question.

“I recorded a song called ‘Superlady,’ and that’s been out about 13 or 14 years now… I was traveling across the country, having fun, developing women and ladies as Super Ladies. And we came back to Houston. We started doing these professional development trainings. The women and fathers would bring their daughters. And so I would talk to the girls. I would encourage them – talk to them about STEM and education. And so the concept came… how can we be Super Ladies without raising up Super Girls?” Williams said. 

So, Williams began a conversation about girls and the opportunities they weren’t getting – specifically in STEM. 

As a former teacher, she said when she looked around, she didn’t see simply didn’t see people who were representative of her. 

“It didn’t look like me. That’s for sure. It didn’t look like women of color," Williams said. "We said, 'How are we going to change the economics for the new majority?’ We have to get the skills in their hands early,” Williams said. 

In 2016, she was granted non-profit status for her foundation SUPERGirls SHINE – an organization focused on developing, building and equipping underserved girls and women through STEM mentorship, internships, scholarships and entrepreneurship to strengthen the workforce and career pipeline. 

She’s helping to build girls and women who can be examples for their peers and communities. 

“If you teach a subject, I learn it for a day. But you see, we’re trying to teach them how to eat for a lifetime. So we have to teach them how to fish,” Williams said.

And that’s exactly what Williams is doing through boot camp-style days planned throughout the year where girls in grade school and older get the opportunity to learn in computer labs and real-life applications. 

Fourth-grader Dahlia Holmes has been part of the program for a few years. She’s learning coding that can be applied to her dream of being a designer. 

“I like coding because it also involves math and science,” Holmes said.

Her mom and dad Shaunta and Darrell also have two older sons and recognize the opportunities this foundation is giving their daughter that she otherwise might not have. 

“I think people naturally assume that boys are going to get involved and things like science and STEM or sports. Whereas with girls, a lot of times opportunities either aren't presented or they're harder to find,” said Darrell. 

Opportunities that mentor and SUPERGirls SHINE intern Marwa Elawik is helping foster. She’s originally from Lebanon and has a bachelor’s in biochemistry and a master’s in food science. 

She's seen first-hand how women like her teaching lessons impacts the girls as both students and people. 

“I feel like they, they want to be like me, they want to do something to be in my, in what I'm doing,” Elawik said. 

Alief ISD Principal Kelli Upshaw was at the event with over 30 of her students. She said she's excited to see the impact it could have on them. 

“Here's the road that you can go down, and just giving them the opportunity to exposure because you can't know what's out there unless you've seen it.”  

Right now, the foundation has three “contact” days for girls ages 7 to 12 and an entire year for middle school and high school girls. But her big focus next is to partner with companies and people who can influence even bigger opportunities for these girls and women in the future.

“Invite us to your offices, invite us to your ERGs, invite us to be part of your philanthropic endeavors," Holmes said. If you are an individual person and you’re in a leadership role invite us to your organization. Let us be your nonprofit of choice so that we become a budget line and not a sponsored monthly or opportunity to write a check.” 

For more ways to help, check out SUPERGirls SHINE's website.

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