Bringing kids into the STEM fold

Vancouver’s Deena Pierott wants to give all kids a chance to thrive in the workforce

By Stover E. Harger III, Columbian neighborhood news coordinator

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iUrban Teen Tech

www.iurbanteen.org

Ebony’s Power 100

Check out Deena Pierott’s appearance in Ebony magazine’s 2013 “Power 100” list in 2013 on Ebony's website.

Deena Pierott wants to help guide youth of all backgrounds toward a brighter future, with a helping hand.

The Vancouver entrepreneur and diversity champion has seen her iUrban Teen Tech nonprofit flourish since she founded it in 2011. The mission then, as now, is to break down the barriers for teens to embark on lucrative careers in STEM fields, standing for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Through yearly educational summits at Washington State University Vancouver, regional workplace tours and technology-related workshops, iUrban focuses on outreach to black and Latino male teens, the same ones who are traditionally underrepresented in such careers. However, iUrban welcomes all to be involved, not only those demographics.

Kids are sometimes unengaged, and Pierott, a black woman, said it’s her mission to give them a chance to thrive and reach their potential. The single mother has two sons of her own, one 28 and the other 19, and thinks about them when she strives to open doors for other youth.

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“This is truly a project of love,” said Pierott, an active member of the Vancouver-area community who also runs diversity recruitment company Mosaic Blueprint and organizes an annual well-attended Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast in town. “If I had a mentor in my 20s, I think about where I would be now.”

The native Californian moved to the Northwest around 1990 and has been in Vancouver since 1997. For 16 years she worked for the city of Portland in various roles, eventually becoming an administrative manager in both the Bureau of Housing and Community Development and the Bureau of Transportation.

No matter where she has worked, Pierott said she’s always taken an interest in diversity, wanting employees to work in an inclusive environment.

When her position was cut at the city, Pierott founded Mosaic Blueprint in 2007, working from home so she could also take care of her ailing mother, who was diagnosed with dementia. Mosaic Blueprint helps companies with branding, outreach and recruitment so they can reach a more-diverse customer and employee base.

When her mother died in 2010 — the day after Pierott won a Minority Business of the Year award during the annual Minority Enterprise Development Week in Portland — she says she went into shock.

For a few years, her life slowed down.

“I wasn’t being successful. I was barely bringing in enough income to keep a roof over my sons and my head,” she said.

But she kept working through her grief, deciding last year to give her all to promoting diversity, not only through her for-profit Mosaic Blueprint, but iUrban and its many teen education programs.

“It was like everything was steering me in that direction,” she said.

Now Pierott spends about “40 to 50 hours a week” on iUrban, which generates no income. She hopes it will continue to grow so she can one day pay herself a reasonable salary and keep up that full-time pace.

“It was my true calling to do this work,” she said. “I’m not rich, but I’m rich in what I do.”

Pierott’s efforts to make STEM fields more inclusive through iUrban has garnered her a bounty of big honors last year. She was invited in August to the White House where she and others were heralded as “Champions of Change.”

She also made it on Ebony magazine’s 2013 “Power 100” list, celebrating “Black America’s foremost movers, shakers and leaders.”

Pierott is excited about those accolades and more — including hobnobbing with stars such as Motown Records founder Berry Gordy at an Ebony party in November — but it’s iUrban’s success stories that really makes her smile. One of the very first teens to take part in an iUrban summit — which is attended by nearly 150 a year — found his path in life through the program, she said. Now he is enrolled at the Lake Washington Institute of Technology in Kirkland.

“I was very pleased,” she said.

The goal of iUrban is not only to expose youth to science and technology, she said, but steer them more toward being producers of products or innovations, not merely consumers.

Teens have been given “Tech Tours” of companies as varied as Mercedes-Benz, Nike and a local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office so the students can see how technology plays a role in the business world.

But iUrban isn’t only about technical education. The program also emphasizes communication skills, often a necessity to succeed in a career.

Many of those involved with iUrban also take part in its Youth Speaks club, which gives them practice speaking in front of others.

“Whatever you do, you need to articulate your thoughts,” Pierott said.

She said about 75 percent of kids who take part in an iUrban event continue on with other programming. Pierott sees the yearly summits as creating a spark in youths to let them realize their potential and find inspiration.

The fact that kids feel a connection not only to iUrban’s lessons, but their peers, is a testament to the power of reaching out with a supportive hand, she said.

“The beauty of it is how well these kids get along,” she said.

In order to help ensure the lessons of iUrban continue once each program ends, parents are invited to sit in and take part with their kids.

“A lot of parents aren’t knowledgeable about STEM stuff. It’s exposing not only students, but parents,” she said. “Parents need to be aware of it so they can continue the conversation at home.

“I feel like you honor the family by bringing them in and letting them be the lifelong teacher for their child.”

Since its founding, iUrban now has a board of directors and a STEM Industry Advisory Council, made of up business leaders in the community. And with plans to branch iUrban’s reach into other communities, Pierott sees a big future for her organization, as well as the kids it mentors.

“I see nothing but growth,” she said.

Deena Pierott