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2020 Young Alumni Award

Tackling Injustice in Tech: Adamaka Ajaelo, MBA '09

HNU Alumna Adamaka Ajaelo

For Adamaka Ajaelo, MBA ’10, there is no better way of dismantling systemic racism and gender injustice than by introducing young girls of color to possibilities in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—whether it means setting their sights on college or prepping them to become Silicon Valley programmers.

“Tackling (injustice) happens not only in the law or in the school system,” says Ajaelo, founding executive director of Oakland based Self-eSTEM. “It’s a multi-faceted approach, and my fight is in the STEM industry.”

Ajaelo has worked doggedly to transform the predominantly white, male industry since 2014, when she launched SelfeSTEM (see: HNU Today, Fall 2018). Her ongoing efforts, including introducing a new robotics program and expanding career opportunities for older girls, earned her a 2020 Holy Names University Young Alumni Award. The honor recognizes outstanding professional or personal achievements by an HNU graduate under 40.

“Self eSTEM is a nonprofit changing the face of and culture of innovation,” she says of the organization she leads as executive director—while also working full-time as a senior program manager for software company Adobe. “We provide culturally appropriate STEM training. We’re moving beyond the limitations of today and adapting to skill sets of the future.”

Through hands-on workshops and—during COVID-19—remote education sessions, 1,200 girls (ages 9 to 17) have learned about the chemistry behind make-up, problem-solved in a design thinking workshop to combat hunger in their schools, and prepared to bring home the judges award from a regional LEGO robotics team competition. Following an annual STEM Exploration Camp, 75% of participants reported a realization they could pursue a career in STEM and nearly 80% expressed increased interest in working in STEM fields.

The experience of one participant, a 16-year-old from Hayward named Sania, illustrates the power of Self-eSTEM to shape individual lives.

“She was on a (single-minded) track: ‘I’m in the arts,’” Ajaelo recalls Sania saying. “But she didn’t realize that art intersects with STEM. Just from attending one of our camps, she stepped out and applied for an engineering internship—and got it.”

It’s the kind of work that earned Ajaelo 2019 accolades from Congresswoman Barbara Lee for her contribution to diversifying the tech workforce. Ajaelo’s industriousness has further propelled her into expanding offerings to young women in their late teens and early 20s. Ajaelo wants to make sure that when they are old enough girls have ready access to internships, career coaching, and mentors. “It’s missing in the market,” says Ajaelo, noting what distinguishes Self-eSTEM. “There’s not [another] organization that provides that wrap-around support and truly understands the demographic they’re serving.”