We have been lucky enough to partner with Eisa Nefertari Ulen who has done a wonderful interview with Tamecca Tillard, Founder of Learning Curve. Learning Curve is a start-up accelerator program for teenagers interested in STEAMD (the D is for Design).  Tamecca is also a wife, mother, and a graduate of the University of Virginia (with a BS in Planning) and of Harvard University (with a MPA). Tamecca is one of the pioneers in our city right now, working vigilantly on changing things for generations to come. Please, read this interview to acquaint yourselves with the efforts and changes taking place.

Tamecca Tillard

I know that you are a busy Brooklyn mom, with a number of critical balls that you have to keep in the air. Why did you decide to take on another project and launch Learning Curve? 

Prior to Learning Curve, tackling education inequity was important to me so I served on PTAs, Community Boards, Education Councils and as a charter school Trustee. I learned convention would likely prevail over innovation and widespread progress in the public school system. So, I set my sights on making a movement outside of the constructs of the school day and focused on the underlying problem — poverty.

What exactly does Learning Curve do?

Fight poverty. We fight poverty with the best social program – a job.

Learning Curve is a STEAMD (STEM +Art & Design) entrepreneurship accelerator and impact investment fund. Learning Curve seeks to tackle financial insecurity faced by vulnerable/undervalued young people by rethinking how to best prepare and propel a latent workforce for economic and social opportunities in the STEAMD economy.

How?

We accelerate the development of human capital and entry into the STEAMD economy by teaching young people how to make and monetize inventions that matter.

Learning Curve is a STEAMD (STEM +Art & Design) entrepreneurship accelerator and impact investment fund. Learning Curve seeks to tackle financial insecurity faced by vulnerable/undervalued young people by rethinking how to best prepare and propel a latent workforce for economic and social opportunities in the STEAMD economy.

Most parents are familiar with the acronyms STEM and STEAM. What is STEAMD, and why is that D important?

STEAMD = STEM + Art & Design.

Design is HOT – higher order thinking. Design is a discipline that starts and ends with solving problems faced by people. Design thinking is solution-driven and intent to yield improvements. Design is part of Learning Curve’s DNA, and a key differentiator.

I know you had a great interest in science and technology that was kind of derailed a bit when you were in college. Is this part of the reason why you have been driven to support young people’s dreams for their own futures? What in your own personal experiences has made Learning Curve such a passion project for you?

The prevailing culture of the academy is to devise “weed-out” STEAMD classes. Instead of jump-starting careers, the academy serves as the first major career barrier, especially for women and people of color. At Learning Curve the “start-up” is the child. Our job at Learning Curve is to cultivate a mindset for growth and evidenced-based entrepreneurship in STEAMD, not weed-out people and ideas. Learning Curve equips our teen entrepreneurs to be “founders” and actualize ventures that make them creators vs. consumers, job creators, not just jobseekers and inventors of a culture and economy not built on oppression and inequities. I didn’t earn a science or engineering degree, but I cultivated a 20 year career in tech and design as both an employer (Founder of Element9.com) and employee (Founding CMO Qello.com and other ventures). I wanted to help the undervalued be more “investable” and investors in charting a new STEAMD economy, culture and workplace that is authentically inclusive, which requires accelerating our children’s learning and readiness for an access point/opportunity.

Despite those setbacks, you’ve steamed on. How has the journey been for you since college? Have you continued to encounter obstacles as a Black woman innovating in the world of STEAMD? 

The greatest obstacle I have faced in STEAMD is being underestimated. Women and Blacks are rarely perceived as thought leaders in STEAMD. Because of this sexist and racist defect in our society, women and Blacks are not regarded as solution makers, which also precludes us from being considered as stewards, gatekeepers, influencers and power brokers in STEAMD. Women and Blacks confront a world that tells them you cannot fix your problems let us control your thoughts and trajectory. I always rejected these beliefs; I credit my grandmothers for the possession of an alternative mindset and for planting defiance.

I am glad that Science and Engineering classes weeded me out UVA because I think my 20’s would have been spent struggling in the academy and my 30’s would have been spent under-mentored and under-sponsored on the job. I salvaged my undergraduate experience by transferring into the School of Architecture. Under the leadership of Dean William McDonough, UVA’s A-School offered strong ties and rigor to environmental science, engineering and sustainability. The Planning major got me keenly interested in web design, CAD, GIS, statistics and finance/econ. I managed to get an amazing offer at an environmental science and engineering firm in the DC suburbs, but declined.

Marriage and motherhood in the late 1990’s propelled me into what was then a less traditional career — tech and new media. In 1996 email was not the de-facto medium of corporate communication, a website as a deliverable to a client was radical and user-generated video content was plain crazy, but that was the stuff that I got to do before 2000.

My blackness and gender has been a paradox. Some of my non-black work colleagues have attempted to eroticize me and make me “other/multi-racial” because they are uncomfortable with Blackness. However, my racial composition morphs from mixed/exotic/other to all Black when I am perceived as an opinionated, strong-willed and dogged woman, this syndrome is not limited to non-blacks, Blacks are equally guilty. Both the ancient and the modern STEAMD industries attempt to negate the contributions of Black people (in general people of color) and women. It is idiocy to believe that all the advancements and inventions we enjoy as a society can only be intellectually attributed, harnessed and monetized by white men, this line of thinking is dangerous and destructive.

Let’s talk a bit about gender, socio-economic, and racial disparities in access to STEAMD learning and how that relates to future careers. According to a 2013 US Census report, there are great disparities in STEM careers (https://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/acs-24.pdf). What are the impediments in place that deny women, people of color, and low income people across gender and racial lines access to these high-paying careers?

There is a “fitness” or litmus test for entry into high-paying careers based on mastery and application of 2 to 3 things: credentials (e.g. degrees), culture and currency. In my experience, race more so than, gender is a greater impediment to high-paying careers. At the macro level political agency, policy, taxes and test scores determine what is delivered to a child’s community. Race and zip code determine the quality of a child’s housing, school and healthcare. Race more so then gender also determines how a child will be rated on intellect, behavior and socialization. On a micro level, meaning in the classroom, educators possess the greatest amount of influence over a child’s curriculum, content and confidence around STEAMD. All of these factors are determinants for who we want to see enter and thrive in STEAMD jobs. For women and people of color these forces or factors are oppressive, not constructive and supportive to entering STEAMD. You can attempt to discredit this theory by making a case that Asians are thriving, but it would negate the labor statistics about the “Bamboo Ceiling.” Asians have a greater likelihood to plateau and stale in their STEAMD careers because of a lack of social capital, the reduced social capital results in barriers to executive roles and reduced earning power. This is why I make the case for the humanities and social sciences, which are rooted in language skills.

In what ways does Learning Curve help to fill those gaps?

America is segregated in the classroom, church, doctor’s office, workplace and even camp. Learning Curve offers a FREE alternative to the for-profit startup and STEAMD bootcamps that typically cost $15,000 for a single immersive class. Learning Curve fills the gap by creating a FREE “real stakes” work and learning experience that transforms and informs a child’s thinking for a lifetime. I would like to believe that we create the first (and hopefully not the last time) utopic work and learning environment that is rich and diverse. Learning Curve affords our teen entrepreneurs the opportunity to construct a collaborative space free from the oppressive conventions. Learning Curve’s program interventions focus on delaying exit from formal education, accelerating work experience and strengthening ties to work networks. Our operational and pedagogical framework is based on make, monetize and matter. As an accelerator there is heavy emphasis on teaching young people commercialization – which is currency for a successful STEAMD career. We make it possible for our teen entrepreneurs to break into STEAMD by leveraging their existing “cultural” assets. A good example is helping a teen that has a large Instagram following get paid work as an influencer or a teen selling on Etsy scale up or diversify to other e-commerce or marketplace platforms or helping the studious teen pitch themselves to colleges that should invest in their future.

How can people who value your vision support you at Learning Curve?

Become an impact investor (vs. a donor) into the movement – invest in the “startup,” which is the child and the vision of the child to launch/propel into a venture, work and scholarship. We are encouraging our impact investors to invest a day of wages or $16 to fund the 2016 cohorts.  Stem2

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Eisa Nefertari Ulen is author of the novel Crystelle Mourning. Her essays and articles have been published in Health, TheHuffingtonPost, Truthout.org, The Washington Post, Essence, Ebony, and numerous other publications and anthologies. Founder and Director of Camp Fort Greene (and super excited about this summer’s new program for older campers, Tech Fort Greene!), she lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn. @EisaUlen CampFortGreene.com