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Lee Ann Kline

STEM Advantage — Huntington Beach, California


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Photo by Stephen Voss

When I began my career as a computer programmer, I was keenly aware of the lack of gender and racial diversity. As the problem persisted, and even worsened, I decided it was time to do something. In 2012, I founded STEM Advantage, a nonprofit organization that provides science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) career opportunities to California State University students. It’s the largest and most ethnically diverse four-year public university system in the nation. Over the last 11 years, we’ve maintained a 100 percent graduation rate and seen most of our students get an entry-level job with a $75,000-to-$80,000 average starting salary.

The problem I’m trying to solve

​​STEM Advantage strives to achieve gender and racial equity through education and career development. Most of our students are first-generation college students from low-income families. They have little access to professional or personal networks that will help them secure a high-paying job after graduation.

One way we can help level the playing field is to mentor, prepare and inspire them to go into STEM fields. These are fast-growing occupations that pay more on average than other professions. Our goal is to support these young people as they gain confidence and provide them with networking opportunities to help them advance in these fields. Many of the students that we’ve helped have been able to get starting salaries that are four times what they made before they went to school. It allows them to pay off debt, save to buy a home and build wealth that they can eventually pass down to future generations.

The moment that sparked my passion

​​I began my career as a programmer at IBM. Over the years, as a consultant, I was able to see firsthand the lack of gender and racial diversity in the technology industry. I could literally count the number of Black and Hispanic/Latinx professionals on one hand in every company I worked with, which included most of the major New York financial institutions. After years of seeing this, I decided that I had to do something. I leveraged my network and connections to create STEM Advantage in 2012.

What I wish other people knew​

​When it comes to education, don’t just give to the elite universities. There are so many individuals and philanthropists who give their money to universities that already have significant endowments. All this does is help them become more elite, and racial wealth gaps grow even wider. If you donate $100,000 to a prestigious university, you’ll help one student. But you could transform the lives of 40 to 50 students if you donated that $100,000 to an organization like mine.

The students in our program are so grateful. Many of them need to work full-time so that they can afford to go to school full-time. If they miss one day on the job so that they can study, they won’t be able to pay their tuition. STEM Advantage provides scholarships so they can attend school without having to work full-time, as well as paid internships so they can gain real-world experience. We hear the same thing repeatedly from our students: “You will never understand how much your program has changed my life.”​​​

Why my approach is unique

​​We focus on talented students who attend public universities and offer them opportunities usually limited to students at private or elite public universities. These include paid internships, one-to-one mentoring, scholarships, professional and career development and community. Our efforts pay off when our students graduate with a STEM degree and go on to careers in technology and engineering. And when they graduate, they “pay it forward” as role models and mentors for siblings and younger students.

Advice to others who want to make a difference​

​It’s as simple as reaching out to an organization that supports a cause or population that you’re interested in. Ask them how you can get involved. When you volunteer, you give them the benefits of all your skills and experience. Sometimes, however, it’s not possible. Your plate may be full — for example, you work, raise a family and serve as a caretaker for one of your parents. Recognize that you don’t have time now, and that’s OK. You can always support the organization with a donation and volunteer later, when you have a more flexible schedule.​​​​

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