Empoder: Inspiring and Preparing for a Future in Tech

April 26, 2016

Panoramas interviewed Marissa Elena Yáñez, from Los Altos Hills, California. Marissa is a first generation Latina descent of a Peruvian father and a Panamanian mother.  She holds a B.S. in mechanical engineering and materials science and engineering from the University of California, Berkeley and a PhD in bioengineering from the University of Washington in Seattle, WA. 

In 2013, Marissa abandoned a successful health and science policy career in Washington DC to pursue her passion for STEM education. She is thrilled to finally pursue her passion full time and is grateful for the opportunity to initiate her pilot programs in East Palo Alto, a community that is very close to her heart.  As the fierce advocate that she is, Marissa strongly believes in designing programs that make a meaningful and measurable impact. She founded Empoder, a non-profit organization that focuses on alleviating poverty in low income communities by teaching its children to code.  For her, Empoder is the realization of a lifelong dream to empower low-income communities through strategic computer science education.  


Marissa, how do you describe what you do?

The work I do is aimed at empowering the most vulnerable students and people in the world and in our country today by teaching them the tools they need to succeed as the future “techies” of tomorrow.  We teach kids to create and develop socially relevant technology that empowers both themselves and their communities. Socially relevant  technology is technology such as websites, mobile apps and computer algorithms that address and solve relevant problems in the world today, problems that affect our lives, problems that affect our community. We teach kids first and foremost by inspiring and engaging them first, by making them fall in love with technology and computer science, by making them want to learn the subject. We teach them how technology empowers lives and gives them a voice to say and do something in this world that matters. And how to use that voice to make an impact. Next, we teach the tools they will need to make an impact through technology through high quality highly engaging and holistic computer science education programs that we deliver in the form of summer intensive, weekend, after-school and evening programs for elementary, middle and high school students. 

Describe the nature of your programs.

Currently, we deliver four to seven week summer intensive programs, and year-round weekend, after-school and evening programs for elementary, middle and high school students, and their parents, in Mountain View and East Palo Alto, CA and in Puebla, Mexico. Additionally, I support a program for high school girls in Accra, Ghana this year in partnership with a non-profit organization in New York City.

Our flagship summer intensive program, Empower Girls through Code, is a full-time four to seven week program a for middle and high school girls that qualify for free and reduced lunch (four weeks for middle school girls and seven weeks for high school students). Students learn web and mobile app development as well as some Arduino based electronics, and develop websites and mobile apps that solve problems in their lives and/or in their communities. As a follow up to our Empower Girls through Code summer programs, we keep our students engaged through weekend and after-school programs that are run for and by alumni of our programs, and by volunteers in the tech industry. We also run after-school programs for both boys and girls and elementary and middle school. And we run an evening program for more advanced high school students (all of whom are the first generation to go to college) that prepares them for the AP computer science exam.   

Hwat is the motivation for the work you do?

My work essentially addresses what I believe is the greatest issue facing our nation and the world today. This is the fact that we have a huge deficit of talent that has the skills and abilities to work in the tech industry. Throughout our history, our country has led the world as a global economic leader because it was a leader in science and technology advancements. However, things have changed dramatically in the last 25-30 years. Whereas in 1975 we produced 40 percent of the world’s scientists and engineers, today that number has shrunk to 15 percent. Only about 20 percent of our graduates graduate in STEM fields, whereas in Japan and China 53 percent and 63 percent of their graduates graduate in STEM. President Obama has said that by the year 2020 we will have a deficit of one million jobs, meaning there will be 1 million jobs in this country with no one to fill them because people will not have the appropriate engineering and computer science skills to take these jobs. We have an urgent and dramatic need to immediately increase the number of students going into engineering and computer science or we risk no longer being a global economic leader in this world. And it isn’t just our country that will suffer, it is the tech industry everywhere, because all the largest tech companies in the world are right here in our country. 


Take the fact that we have a deficit of 1 million jobs in the next five years in tech and now let’s look at where we have the biggest potential to train a new workforce to go into tech. Currently, the low income population in this country makes up a third of our country. And then we have the Hispanic population which by the year 2040 will become the majority in this country. However, when you look at diversity in the tech industry right now, the numbers are dismal. Google and other tech companies in Silicon Valley are 2-3 percent Hispanic and 1 percent African American, despite the fact that California is nearly 40 percent Hispanic! Think of all the diversity of ideas and innovation we are missing out on by shutting out the fastest growing population in our country. We must engage low-income and Latino students today, actively and turn them into the techies of tomorrow if we are to remain a global economic leader in the world today. And we must do this with urgency; an urgency that is failing to be recognized today. 


What is your overall goal? 

My overall goal is to engage, inspire and train as many low income and underrepresented minorities in this country as possible, (and eventually around the world) to become computer science literate and innovators of technology. In Silicon Valley, we have a unique opportunity to actually do something groundbreaking. Silicon Valley is a unique microcosm of the world where we have the most powerful tech companies in the world all concentrated in a very small area. At the same time we have, largely due to the strength of the tech industry, the largest income gap in the nation here in Silicon Valley. This means we have the largest gap between the rich and the poor. This is because the poor, despite being right in the middle of the tech mecca of the world, have little to no access to high quality tech education. If you go into the low income schools all over Silicon Valley, you find that the majority of students in school after school have never had an engineer or computer scientist talk to them about technology. They have no exposure whatsoever to the industry despite the fact that they are living smack in the middle of it, it’s crazy! 

I want to partner tech companies with local low income schools all over Silicon Valley, so that all low income K-12 students attending public schools in Silicon Valley have access to high quality highly targeted after-school, weekend, and summer programs that can engage students and keep them engaged in learning, creating and building technology throughout their K-12 careers. What I am proposing is doable. I’m not saying let’s fix all broken schools throughout Silicon Valley, that’s a massive problem with no easy and viable solution. But I’m saying let’s provide free high quality computer science education programs for low income students all over Silicon Valley. If we are able to partner the tech companies all over Silicon Valley with the few local low income schools that exist in each of their communities, we could feasibly provide these programs all over the valley. And I truly believe that if all low-income students had exposure to the types of highly engaging computer science education programs that Empoder offers, we could convert this entire generation of low income students in Silicon Valley today into the techies of Silicon Valley tomorrow. And in so doing, we could eliminate poverty within one generation in Silicon Valley.    

How did you get into doing this?

To make a long story short, I identify with the students we serve because I was one of them. I was completely bored and unmotivated growing up in school because I couldn’t see how everything we were learning related to the world around us. But when I attended community college, I got an internship in mechanical engineering and NASA Ames that completely changed my life. Through that internship I saw how concepts in math and science related to actual things, machines, and technologies in the real world that were amazing! And once I could relate what I was learning to real world stuff around me, it changed everything. Suddenly, I became extremely interested in school. I went from getting Bs and Cs to getting As. I went from never studying a day in my life, to having my nose in the books non-stop, all because a program got me interested and engaged in engineering. I ended up transferring to UC Berkeley where I graduated with a double degree in mechanical engineering and materials science with honors, and then got a PhD in bioengineering from one of the top BioE programs in the world. All this from a community college student that was completely uninterested in school until she the opportunity to learn how engineering, math and science applied to her life. That is the type of opportunity I want to give others. 


What do you consider the secret to your success to be? In other words, what sets you apart?

Well, to begin with, I think a big thing that helps us connect with the population we work with, is that unlike most other programs available today, we are “minorities inspiring minorities.” I am Latina and I am from the community I serve. I have a unique insight into the community I am working with because they are my family, the people I grew up with; I literally have family members spread throughout the communities we work with. I speak the language, I understand the culture, and I am able to connect with students and parents alike in a way that resonates and gets them thinking in ways they hadn’t thought before. Also, the majority of my staff, speakers, mentors and volunteers are also minorities who have achieved great success in science and engineering. They are the friends I went to school with and we have grown up to become a very unique network in science and engineering in that we are highly accomplished in the field and we are minorities ourselves. It is a network that if you just look at the numbers, we don’t exist in this country. We are small in numbers but very very close and we make a conscious effort to create a pipeline for our kids whereby they are inspired by “people who look like them.” I know this matters because it was the simple act of meeting a Latina who was in the bioengineering PhD program at UC Berkeley that made me realize that I too could do the same thing. Before I met her, I never imagined myself as a part of such a prestigious program. But when I saw that there was another Latina who could do it, I realized I could do it, too, and at that very moment my goal became PhD. 

We are also unique in that our programs are highly holistic in nature. Because we understand the communities we serve so well, we know that to convert our most vulnerable kids today into future  successful “techies” of tomorrow, we have to deliver programs that teach not only computer science, but also address the whole problem, what keeps these kids and their families stuck within a cycle of poverty, and how we can address some of these issues through our programs. Additionally, we know that to get students invested in learning computer science, they have to get how it relates to their lives and to the issues they face on a day to day basis. 

We also have what we call a “social empowerment” hour. This is aimed at helping kids become aware of and get in touch with issues that are affecting them and their communities. So many kids carry around so much stress and baggage and they aren’t even aware of where it comes from. We create a peaceful environment where they can begin to share and reflect upon their emotions privately, then in small groups, then eventually build up the courage to share in larger groups, and eventually online. This is where we empower our students to identify the issues that are affecting them and then get in touch with and find their voice to speak out on them, in the form of some type of technology. For example, through these sessions, kids identified issues from bullying, child abuse, fear of homelessness that were affecting them personally, to issues such as affordable housing and teen pregnancy that were affecting their community. Then, through our exercises, kids found the courage to speak about these issues online, and then eventually, to create websites and mobile apps that address these issues, and provide a way to empower other people in the world and in our community who are affected by the same issue. We basically teach kids to take their deepest and darkest issues, the stuff that is causing turmoil in their life, and instead of acting out from it, to channel it into the the creation of some type of technology that empowers themselves and others going through the same thing. 

Our social empowerment hour is also very effective because we teach kids how to correlate how they are feeling and their emotions to colors, and an artistic expression of their emotions. This teaches kids a lot about branding and advertising and how colors and specific designs are used to correlate to specific emotions, situations and feelings. We teach kids to design products, content, websites, apps etc. in a manner that correlate with the subject matter that they are representing. 

Another part of our program is our daily Health and Wellness Hour or what we call #EmpoderSalud. This focuses mainly on daily yoga and meditation, stress management tools and nutrition. The majority of our students come from environments where they share a room with one or more people, and often times even share a bed with siblings or family members. They have little to no “quiet time” of their own, or solitude to calm themselves and manage the stress in their lives. Therefore, we give them that quiet time and teach them skills such as yoga, meditation and journaling so that they are able to teach themselves to calm and center themselves, and focus, even in the most stressful environments. 

Healthy eating is a big focus of our program because we cannot expect our students to focus on subject matter like computer science for six to seven hours a day if they aren’t eating healthy balanced food that helps them focus. Since all our students qualify for free/reduced lunch, we provide healthy snacks and lunches throughout our summer program and expose them to food that they aren’t necessarily familiar with. For example, all of the food we serve is healthy and primarily vegetarian, which our students are not used to. However, by providing them no other alternative than to eat healthy, they get used to it quickly and even start craving the healthy fruits and veggies that we serve throughout the day. We also do our best to serve healthy alternatives to food that are culturally relevant to the community that we serve. For example, tahin is a very popular spice that is used in the Mexican-American community. Therefore, for snacks we serve watermelon with tahin or carrot and celery sticks with tahin, or apple slices with tahin and the kids love it! In fact, one of the most surprising outcomes of our program is that 86 percent of parents reported that their kids developed healthier eating patterns throughout the summer and that they began asking for fruits and vegetables as snacks, instead of the junk food they were eating before. Whoever would have thought that a computer science program could make such an impact improving healthy behaviors?! But that is the kind of magic that happens when you approach your programs holistically and take advantage of every opportunity to make a positive impact with the population of students you are working with.  

In order to truly impact our communities, parent engagement is also a huge part of our program. We hold parent meetings and parent days to keep our parents involved with the work our students our doing and to address the types of issues that come up in our social empowerment work that parents can help address at home. We also hold free family yoga and health and wellness hours in a park on weekends so that our parents can also participate in our yoga and stress management work and learn nutrition and health and wellness information that can help them feed themselves and their kids healthier food long term. We also do things such as work with our families who don’t have access to the internet at home by helping them sign up for programs that provide discounted internet to low income families, so that our kids have access to the internet at home. This is hugely important for our kids to have an opportunity to keep learning at home.  

Have you been able to feel/notice any impact?

In East Palo Alto, where more than 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, 8 percent our students were interested in learning computer science before participating in Empoder’s after school program. Ten weeks later, 100 percent of our students had an interest in continuing to learn computer science. In our summer program, 12 percent of children were interested: and I mean, their parents basically forced them to enroll in our program. After four weeks, 98 percent our students want to continue not only with computer science, but with their education in general.  88 percent of our students report increased motivation to do well in school and to do well in math and science because of our programs. In just the first year that we have been in existence, we have been able to impact nearly 250 students. Less than 10 percent of our students even wanted to participate in our programs at the beginning. After our programs between 96 percent to 100 percent of our students want to continue learning with us. That is huge. We are inspiring and preparing a new generation of students, one that is almost entirely shut out of tech today, for a future in tech tomorrow.

About Author(s)

marisapr's picture
Marisa is a third-year law student at the University of Pittsburgh. She is pursuing certificates in Health Law and in Latin American Studies. She is interested in gender and race issues and how they affect immigration and immigrant communities. She also does research in public health issues. She has been contributing with articles for Panoramas since 2015.