By Julie Kantor
At Twomentor, we like to share bi-weekly thought leadership from phenomenal executives and social entrepreneurs focused on: a diverse skilled workforce, social impact entrepreneurship, mentoring cultures, sponsorship and elevating women in STEM careers. Today we had the privilege of catching up with Rose Kirk, Chief Corporate Social Responsibility Officer at Verizon. We think she has an extraordinary job! We asked Rose what she most loves about her job. “Verizon is a tech company. We deliver on promises of digital world and make access available to those that need it most. I get to do this in my job everyday— bring access to those that need it the most,” shared Kirk.
Julie @Twomentor: Rose, we so applaud your work and the fact that Verizon is focused on reaching youth in schools. Why is it important for young people K-12 to understand the opportunities available to them in STEM fields?
Kirk: Our world is changing rapidly and the need for jobs in science and technology are increasing by the day. At the same time, other jobs, such as those in manufacturing, are decreasing. It’s important that we ensure the next generation is prepared for the world that they will step into when they enter the job market. And the first step to preparing them is through education. Today, there are a staggering 9 million STEM jobs available and over 4 million unfilled jobs in science and technology. These jobs aren’t being filled because there is a gap in education – including access to technology and hands-on learning – particularly in underserved communities. We need to inspire more kids around these opportunities so that they see themselves in these roles and understand the doors that a career in STEM can open for them. And we need to ensure that they have access to the technology and hands-on training needed to fuel that interest and ensure they can compete for the jobs of tomorrow.
Twomentor: There is a particularly wide gap in STEM interest among underserved communities. What do you attribute this to and what do we do about it?
Kirk: When a child doesn’t have access to internet, mobile technology, mentorship or hands-on learning opportunities, it can make it very challenging for them to see the world of possibilities available to them in STEM. It also makes it difficult for them to gain the knowledge and skills they need to pursue higher learning or jobs in STEM fields. I visit schools across the country and you wouldn’t believe how many classrooms don’t have the basic technology needed to properly educate kids in science and technology. Or how many kids don’t have basic access to the internet or the tools they need to complete their homework. In fact, about a third of households earning less than $50,000 a year don’t have high-speed internet at home. In today’s world, this is a significant disadvantage and it perpetuates a situation where kids can’t get ahead because they are on an uneven playing field in terms of access. And technology is just the beginning. These kids are also less likely to have role models in STEM fields or to see themselves in a STEM job in the future. I think the most important thing we can do is work to inspire these kids and ensure they have access to education and resources that will put them on a path to success. That’s something we all have a role to play in – whether you are a parent, teacher, STEM professional or part of a large corporation. It’s about understanding the challenges today’s kids face and doing what’s in your power to change their trajectory.
Twomentor: What happens when kids who haven’t had access to technology finally get it? What have you seen in your work?
Kirk: It’s amazing to see kids who once saw only a narrow path to success – becoming an athlete or artist, for example – begin to see the world of possibilities available to them in fields like science and technology. Given the right tools and opportunities, kids can picture themselves as engineers or entrepreneurs. I’m reminded of a team of middle school students from the Bronx Academy of Promise who won our annual app challenge a few years back. The experience of developing a concept for an app to solve a community issue, in this case helping to increase students’ interest in math using Greek mythology, helped a group of C students gain the confidence and skills needed to imagine a different future for themselves; one particularly shy member of the team went on to become student body president. We’re also seeing impressive results from our Verizon Innovative Learning schools initiative, which equips children and teachers at select middle schools across the country with a tablet and two-year data plan. We execute this program across 46 schools nationwide, reaching more than 28,500 students and 2,500 teachers. And the results are inspiring. The students feel more confident by using this technology, and find STEM subjects more appealing. More than half of our students believe that working with technology makes science more interesting.
Twomentor: What role can corporations like Verizon and business people play?
Kirk: I think we all have a responsibility and an opportunity to give kids access to technology and hands-on learning. This has been an important focus of our work at Verizon and we know that as a technology company, we can make a big difference, particularly when we work in partnership with schools and non-profits in local communities. I would encourage more businesses, large and small, to do the same; talk to community organizations, non-profits and schools to see how they can work together to improve opportunities for students. We all bring different expertise and assets to the table, and we can make the greatest impact when we come together. Educating the next generation is a responsibility we all share, and it’s an issue that impacts all of us.
Twomentor: How do we best reach and engage youth in STEM learning? What role does gender play?
Kirk: We best reach and engage kids in STEM learning by marrying technology, role models and hands-on learning. This is especially important for kids of both genders who are overlooked by existing STEM education programs and underrepresented in science and technology fields. Our Verizon Innovative Learning minority males initiative takes young minority men to Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Hispanic-serving institutions, introduces them to STEM students and professionals, and teaches them skills like coding, 3D design, robotics and entrepreneurship. We’re also launching a program this summer for middle school girls in rural areas, where they’ll learn design thinking, social entrepreneurship and augmented reality through courses on community college campuses.
Twomentor: Can you explain what the #weneedmore campaign is all about? Is there a new video out? We love your past videos about girls in STEM
Kirk: The #weneedmore campaign is a rallying cry that “we need more” kids to see the world of possibilities that are waiting for them. We need our nation’s kids to see that as much as they admire celebrities like LeBron James – and for good reason – the world doesn’t need more LeBrons. What we really need are more students like the ones participating in our initiatives who are learning skills like coding and otherwise readying themselves for success in the science and technology jobs of tomorrow. That’s the message of our new television commercial, which debuted during the NCAA Men’s Final Four Championship. We hope people who see the commercial are inspired to join us at weneedmore.com.
Twomentor: How was the strategic decision made for Verizon to focus on middle and high school students with their programs versus college and graduate students who are closer to the hiring process?
Kirk; It’s important to reach kids while they are young and inspire them from an early age so they can see the world of opportunities open to them. Many kids aren’t even aware of all of the fascinating and important STEM jobs out there, so we need to help them envision their future in these fields from an early age and put them on the right path while they are still in school. This is such an important age for exploring, growing and learning. Studies show that middle and high school students have an enhanced ability to think about the future and develop personal goals. It’s also important for us to consider the changing jobs landscape. As the need for more STEM jobs increases, we need to think about how the way we educate our young people also needs to change. Education is the equalizer and we need to ensure that kids have the necessary skills to compete in tomorrow’s market.
Twomentor: Is HR and Diversity engaged in this work with the foundation for pipeline building of Verizon’s future workforce?
Kirk: Diversity and inclusion is at the heart of our business. And it starts at the top, as seven of 12 Board members are women or people of color. I’m proud to work for an employer that so highly values diversity and inclusion, and that is so committed to diversifying the workforce of the future by building STEM education initiatives from the ground up.
Rose Stuckey Kirk is currently the Chief Corporate Social Responsibility Officer at Verizon, a provider of wireless and global wireline communications. As Chief CSR Officer, Rose also serves as President of the Verizon Foundation and leads a team focused on the programmatic delivery of mobile and cloud technology to underserved populations around the globe.