One woman’s international STEM journey to empower melanin genius
Ruth Agbaji is the founder of an online community for black millennial women in STEM and although her journey started in a different area of study and a different continent, her whole career has been leading up to this.
Growing up in Nigeria, Ruth Agbaji was surrounded by STEM. From her parent’s work in chemistry to her family’s Commodore 64 computer that was always available for tinkering, Agbaji grew up in one of the few families at the time with the opportunity to dive into cutting edge technology.
She saw her mom be the “handy-man” of the house and took after her, experimenting with and destroying a few electronics, which led her to Ahmadu Bello University where she majored in electrical engineering. However, Ruth decided she wanted to take a pivot. She loved engineering, but wanted to focus on a different area.
“Towards the end of my degree, I was feeling very unfulfilled,” Agbaji said. “I found the approach my college took to electrical engineering was very theoretical and I was not feeling it.”
Agbaji loved being hands-on and creating concrete useful things and knew this is what she wanted to focus on going forward.
“I got really interested in learning something practical,” Agbaji said. “Something I can build with just a laptop. I could create something out of nothing with a few keywords and a laptop. I was sold.”
As a result, life took her to a new continent and led her to a different adventure at Tufts University in the United States, studying computer science, and then a job working at Microsoft as a software engineer. At Microsoft in the self-proclaimed highlight of her career, Agbaji worked on a range of projects, designing and developing tools, testing products and spending a lot of time fixing bugs.
“Software engineering is a lot of times showcased as this glamorous profession where you’re hacking and creating Facebook-like platforms every day that can change fortunes overnight,” Agbaji said. “At startups, this might be true but for older organizations, there is a ton of legacy code that needs to be maintained. Some people love maintenance work, some don’t, but it’s not something many people know when coming into the ‘sexy’ world of programming.”
During her time in industry Agbaji noticed similarities between her time in industry and academia and the situations women face in both of them.
“There are so many parallels between women in industry and women in academia,” Agbaji said. “I felt we could do a better job of using social media and technology to bond and support each other.”
This thought resonated with Agbaji. She mulled over this as she worked to develop ideas of how she could create a community to strategically support the group that she most identifies with, black millennials. Out of this, Grad Spark was born and now Agbaji is using it to empower melanin genius. She achieves this by sharing STEM stories and hosting deep talks on various topics that help encourage the Grad Spark community to be their best selves.
“Telling stories of black women in STEM in particular is very important,” Agbaji said. “It encourages those who are in the grad school and industry grind to keep going because they are not alone. Their struggles are shared by most people on similar journeys and it inspires those coming behind to aim high because they can see people like them blazing trails.”
In the few weeks Grad Spark has been active so far, they have already shared stories about everything from overcoming dyslexia to rising above teachers comment that they will never do well in science. In addition to these stories, Grad Spark is also hosting Deep Talks as a place to discuss relevant topics through webinars about everything from dealing with high pressure situations to investing. They are also starting accelerator programs that can assist students in transitioning from college to life after college.
Overall, Agbaji is using an internet community and social media to build Grad Spark because she sees the key to increasing diversity in STEM is utilizing technology, social media and innovation.
“I believe that key sectors and companies that have identified they have a diversity problem need to try innovative ways of reaching the community,” Agbaji said. “Just the way they have used innovation to make millions of dollars, they need to start thinking out of the box and stop relying on old methods.”
For Agbaji, the new way to do this and reach millennials is social media and, according to Agbaji, so far it been working. Reception to Grad Spark has been good with 5000 hits on their blog in the first few weeks and a quickly growing Instagram community. And this is just the start. Agbaji’s goal is to make Grad Spark the largest online community of college educated black millennials that are supporting and empowering each other, and then work to expand to other groups as well.
“We started with black women in STEM because those are the people I most closely identify with,” Agbaji said. “But as we learn more about other demographics, their needs and how the Grad Spark can best serve them, we will be opening it up. We have a ton of ideas for how we can add value to the community and we’ll be rolling those out as we grow.”
If you want to be a part of Grad Spark’s mission to make this happen, check out their website and follow them on Instagram.
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