The following is a conversation between Eli Kennedy, the Chief Executive Officer of SMASH, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: SMASH was one of the earliest STEM education programs created in the United States as a way to prepare students of color for STEM college studies. Their vision is an ecosystem where every student, regardless of their zip code, has the opportunity to participate in and thrive in the global economy. And here to tell us more about it and how they’ve adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic is Eli Kennedy, the chief executive officer of SMASH.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Eli!
Eli: Thank you for having me, Denver. It’s an honor and a pleasure.
We needed to level the playing field for students of color, students from underrepresented communities who are getting into STEM, so that those students have the same enrichment opportunities, the same summer programming, the same types of supports, the same community that folks were paying for when they lived in affluent communities.
Denver: As I’ve mentioned, SMASH was one of the first STEM programs to prepare students of color. Tell us how the organization got started and a little bit about its history.
Eli: For sure. So SMASH was founded, I think, like 18 years ago now by Mitch and Freada Kapor Klein. If you know anything about the couple, Mitch was the founder of Lotus 1-2-3. He’s really one of the great innovators of our recent time. He and his team invented the spreadsheet and Lotus Notes and things like that. One of the things that Mitch credits for his success is his participation in an enrichment program, where he got to be immersed in STEM, learning with young people like himself a million years ago in a way that really propelled his career and gave him the confidence to innovate. Freada has been a long-time researcher and champion for diversity and inclusion in the corporate sector, and she’s also a well-renowned researcher.
So, they were philanthropists. They wanted to start a program. They leaned on some of Mitch’s experience and a lot of Freada’s thinking to design this program. Launched in partnership with CAL many, many years ago, that was the startup program, a program we still have today that’s very successful. And the whole theory was that we needed to level the playing field for students of color, students from underrepresented communities who are getting into STEM, so that those students have the same enrichment opportunities, the same summer programming, the same types of supports, the same community that folks were paying for when they lived in affluent communities.
Denver: That’s a great overview, Eli. Before we get into how you go about that, give us a current picture of the representation of people of color and women in the STEM careers and particularly, in the tech sector.
Eli: So, sadly, Denver, there has been so little headway made over the years when it comes to real diversity and inclusion.
So we saw some numbers, I think, recently, and I apologize that I can’t cite these directly. But essentially, the number of African-American engineers across Google, Facebook, sort of the large tech companies was still less than a few hundred. So, all of these years, all of this work and still, there were so few folks that were actually making it through and staying within these organizations, that the percentages of African-Americans, of Latinx professionals that made up the hard sciences was still in the single-digit percentages, far lower than what we’re seeing societally, obviously, in terms of the composition of the country.
So, there still are really, really tremendous disparities between what our population looks like and who’s actually driving decisions, doing the design work within tech, and doing the deep research more broadly within STEM.
So, you could literally have the next Einstein sitting in West Oakland, and their family may not have the resources to continually cultivate that genius in the same way that a young child in Atherton who is recognized as having an interest in STEM… will have summer camp, after-school program, toys, online applications, all of these different things.
Denver: I get your point. A lot more talk than action when it comes to this issue, that’s for sure. There are a host of reasons why this is the case, but one of the major ones is a lack of educational opportunities in schools where underrepresented and low-income students attend. Would that be right?
Eli: That’s absolutely correct, and that’s a multifaceted problem. So, when we look at the quality of teachers, the STEM teachers, that are in the public schools that tend to be largely African-American, Latinx, tend to house most of our low-income students… Many of those teachers are not even qualified to teach the math, the science that they’re teaching.
When we look at the availability of computer science courses, there are massive disparities between what is available at the prominent schools where these young people can be confident they can be Google engineers like Gunn High School in Palo Alto, and what’s happening just across the tracks, in East Palo Alto. There’s just less availability. So, the availability of resources within traditional public schools — there’s a gigantic gap. That gap, unfortunately, is accelerated by what happens during the summers for these young people.
So, if you’re in an affluent family, or I guess I’ll use my own experience as an example. I have a 10-year-old daughter. She’s had some STEM exposure and augmentation from the time she was five- or six-years-old. She had her first experience in coding at a camp. She had Legos. She has kits in there that she can use to build different things. That interest, that knowledge, that genius is being cultivated from the time she’s just reaching childhood in some ways. And unfortunately, what we’re seeing in low-income communities is those same resources aren’t available. So, you could literally have the next Einstein sitting in West Oakland, and their family may not have the resources to continually cultivate that genius in the same way that a young child in Atherton who is recognized as having an interest in STEM… will have summer camp, after-school program, toys, online applications, all of these different things.
The reality is that if you think about who’s really ending up at Google, sometimes those young people have had $300,000, $500,000 more invested in their education than what you would see in a low-income community, between the disparity in what happens during the day in a regular school education and the different programming that they get on a supplemental basis.
Denver: Now, that concern is even heightened because now, the summer slide is turning into the COVID slide, so it’s just exacerbating itself.
Well, your program is truly transformational because of its comprehensive approach. And let’s discuss a few elements of that program, starting with the SMASH Academy. What does that look like?
Eli: So, again, one of the programs that I mentioned earlier that Mitch participated in was like a summer program that was deeply immersive, and there’s another program that also formed the design of SMASH called MS2. And essentially, what we do is we immerse our young people in a college environment for three whole summers of their high school careers. So they will live on a college campus for five weeks at a time. They stay there the whole time, and they’re going to get a holistic education that’s going to support them on their STEM journey.
So, it starts off with classes and workshops that really bolster their core STEM skills, their ability to do math, the hard sciences, computer science. It goes on to expose them to different careers by bringing in folks from the outside, often who look like them, who can talk to them about: What does a computer science engineer do? What does it look like to be a research scientist? What is that life like? And also give them the confidence like “Someone who looks like me has walked this path and has traversed all these different challenges and made it.”
Denver: Makes all the difference.
Eli: Like that, sort of if-you-see-it-you-can-be-it, that element. So, we really work on that exposure, which helps the young people match this amorphous STEM education to something practical. Where do I want to be? And again, most of these young people don’t have that within their network. They don’t have family members because the students that we serve… 80% are low-income; about 75% would be first-generation college students. They don’t have folks in their network who are doing these sorts of things. So that exposure is really important.
We also work a lot on different issues like social justice and the students themselves. So we really work on their public speaking skills. We work on exposing them to what the college application process and the college-going process is going to look like. We want our young people to be able to be resilient and traverse these highly competitive STEM environments. STEM environments are unlike other environments. I took the easy path. I went to business school. We lost 5 of 900 in our incoming class. In STEM, that’s one of those professions, “Look to your left, look to your right. Only one of you is going to be here in three years.”
So it takes some additional resilience, confidence, knowledge of self to traverse those environments where there is going to be much, much higher pressure to make it through. And one of the things that we really work with our young people on is the things that it takes to be successful in high school are different than the things that it takes to be successful in college.
We do a lot of project work. Our students work on solutions, really applying STEM so that they not only are learning concepts, but really learning how those concepts have influence in the world.
Denver: And that would be SMASH Rising, would that be correct? There’s more focus towards the college-aged students
Eli: Actually, SMASH Rising is more focused on the transition into the workplace. So the Academy is really about that work into college, and then we have alumni programming that also more specifically works on that element, but we talk a lot about that.
And then the other element of SMASH Academy that’s essential is this community element. They’re immersed, like living in dog years, for five weeks at a time with people that are going to be their friends, support network, business partners, colleagues for the rest of their lives. So it’s really important to have that network that you can lean on as you’re going through these different places, who are your peers, who you trust, who you can talk to about your experiences and ask questions like, “Should I take two AP classes next semester or not? What was your experience?” All of that sort of community element is another thing that’s tremendously important.
We do a lot of project work. So our students work on solutions, really applying STEM so that they not only are learning concepts, but really learning how those concepts have influence in the world. And that’s kind of what the Academy looks like. So we do that five weeks, each summer of their high school careers, and then we do a bunch of Saturday programming actually as well during the school year.
Denver: Eli, give us a snapshot of who your SMASH scholars are and the impact that these programs have had for them.
Eli: So SMASH is partnered with 11 universities. We have 10 programs across the United States. We have four programs in California — three of them are in the greater Bay area, one is in Southern California. We have one program that spans the state of Illinois. We have two in Michigan — one in Detroit and one at the University of Michigan. One in Northeastern, one in Philadelphia, and one i in Morehouse in Atlanta. So I just pointed that out for the geographic diversity that we’re dealing with.
The students themselves are young people that have demonstrated an interest in STEM and are really committed to thinking about how they can use STEM for change. They are largely low-income; about 80% will qualify for free and reduced lunch. They are largely… will be first-generation college students… about 75%. Our programs on the West Coast tend to be a little bit more Latinx in representation, so it tends to be about two-thirds Latinx, one-third African-American. We serve underrepresented Asian communities as well — Vietnamese students, Cambodian students. Our programs outside of California tend to have a higher representation of African-Americans rather than Latinx.
So that’s a little bit of who they are. They come to us beginning in ninth grade. We measure ourselves really by the four North Star metrics. They are college-going, in which more than 90% of our students will go on to four-year colleges. STEM entry– so 75% will major in STEM. The quality of college they go to: about half of our students will go to top 50 colleges. And then, their resilience once they get into college: And I think it’s 86% of our students will graduate from college within five years, and that’s like more than three times the national average for these communities.
Denver: That’s sustainable impact, that’s for sure.
Eli: And the other, just to be clear, they are roughly half and half young men and young women. We do have one program at Morehouse College, which is an all-male college, and that program is all-male as well. But all of our other programs tend to be about half young men, half young women.
Denver: And I know that girls were not completing this math program with the same level of confidence about computer science as were the boys. What did you do to address that?
Eli: Yes, that was an issue we were wrestling with a few years ago. To your point, we do a bunch of research in the interim beyond those North Star metrics to understand what our students are doing, and our young women were just not as confident. And you could see it a little bit anecdotally when you would go to a class and whose hand would shoot up when you’re visiting.
So the next year, we gendered our classes. We put our young women and our young boys in separate classes. We worked really hard to get a bunch of teachers who were young women who could teach the students in computer science, and we saw significant increases both from a data perspective and then anecdotally as well. When you walked in, just the energy of the young women in talking about what they were building using Python or HTML, or the different languages they’re working on what they were building. Just the level of excitement they had about that and their desire to do that… we saw significant increases.
Denver: Is there any kind of fee that’s charged to SMASH scholars or their families?
Eli: No. All of our programs are free to the young people that participate in them.
Denver: How many are you forced to turn away every year who apply to the program?
Eli: So we accept about a quarter of the young people that apply every year. As I mentioned, 10 programs, those programs will bring in somewhere between 35- and 45 students per program. So if you do the math on that, we turn only about a quarter of those who apply eventually that we’re able to serve.
Denver: Speaking about your programs, how have you had to pivot and adapt to COVID, and what adjustments have you been able to make to accommodate this reality we all live in now?
Eli: When this all started in March, I recall we began to have the conversation as the whole world was. It was like, “What’s about to happen?” And there were some people who were like, “Well, let’s just assume we’re going to be back to normal really quickly.” And we did. We spent about a week with like, “OK, let’s plan for things to go back to normal. Let’s plan for the kind of come-back-to-normal, and let’s plan out for they-don’t-come-back- to-normal, and we’re going to have to do this virtually.” And about a week into that process, we literally were overwhelmed by that and just decided like, “Look, we’re going to have to do this virtually.”
And our team, our chief programs officer at the time… who’s now our president, Danielle Rose, and her curriculum director, Zorel Zambrano, began in concert with our entire team a dramatic pivot from a program that has traditionally, again, five weeks in person, 24 hours a day together, to one where we were going to be on screens for four- to six hours a day. And really beginning to think about not like “How do we fill up all of the waking hours of these young people?” But like, “How do we cram as much as we can into a shorter amount of time?”, being cognizant that the kids get screen fatigue… they get Zoom fatigue. I’m sure we’ve all experienced that. “What can we do during this period, this summer, that’s going to drive a big impact for our young people?” And they began that process.
In the end, what we really focused on was this project-based learning aspect of what we do. And we had already begun a huge pivot around that a few years before. But essentially with the idea being that like, “Let’s focus our young folk on smaller groups with a coach, give them tools that they can use to actually design, collaborate, build things. Let’s actually give them some incentives so that we can make them really excited about the outcome.” We had a giant pitch competition. We had regional pitch competitions with prizes at the end of the year where our young people presented what they built, the apps that they built.
Denver: So a team-based competition can go a long way, it sounds like.
Eli: And we talked to a lot of people as we were doing this design work, and that was one of the things we heard. OK, Teams in competitions are one of the things that provide additional incentive, will drive up interest and what-not.
We shrunk our student-to-teacher ratio, so our coaches were working in much smaller groups traditionally. And we were able to do that financially because we’re not housing and feeding kids for the whole summer. But our students were working with coaches in 5:1 to 10:1 groups, which allows for a lot of personal interaction, a lot of collaboration time, a lot of discussion, which really increased the engagement.
So, our team just did a great job, dealing with the reality of “We’re going to have to be virtual. We are only going to be able to have a certain amount of time in a given day. What should we do during that amount of time? What should we do to increase the interest of the students and their cohesiveness and their work from a team perspective”… to get the outcome that we wanted to have, which was for them similarly to increase their STEM knowledge, drive up their interest in STEM careers, and really strengthen their position overall?
So that’s what our team set about doing, and they were, to be honest, very successful in doing so. Our attendance rates were like 97% last year. Denver, just being honest, when we were walking into this thing, our experience doing virtual stuff was not great before this. Like we really struggled. We’d sometimes do virtual stuff–low attendance, low engagement. And that’s really where we started from a metric perspective. It was like, “Let’s get high attendance, high levels of engagement. Let’s build programming that focuses on that. And then drive that towards outcomes. A lot of things work when it comes to education, but you have to show up. You have to be engaged, and then you have a much higher chance of success. So that’s where the work is being started.
Denver: Despite this horrific time, this sounds to me that you’re going to come away with a silver lining or two in terms of how you’re going to undertake this program. What do you think is going to be specifically what you’re going to take away from this experience that you’ll keep on doing once everything returns to its semblance of normal?
Eli: I think we’re still learning, to be totally honest. Last summer was different because only 40% of our young people had any education at all in between the first shutdown and the summer. So our young people came in, fired up, they had no options. They wanted to learn. They were excited to see their friends. And they brought such an incredible energy as well. And I think some of the things that we learned, we will take forward from that summer.
This summer, we have to be virtual as well just because of what’s going on in Higher Ed. This summer is going to be way harder because now, we’re competing with places opening up. There are things that are happening outside. A lot of people are burned out over looking at their screens. So, I think this summer, we’re going to learn a lot more about what offering virtual programming looks like in an environment that has a full set of options, not a sort of very, very much slimmer set of options, which is what we experienced last summer.
But I can tell you, from what we’re seeing, the collaboration and doing team and project work is very possible in a virtual environment. I think you do have to be cognizant about how you support that, how much time, what you do. But there are a lot of tools as we’ve all seen, all of us have been working virtually to do, approximate well over 80% of what in-person work looks like. So I think that part we’ve done a lot better on.
I think another thing we’ve learned is like one of the opportunities associated with being a virtual environment is those geographic boundaries of having students that are 3,000 miles apart… those don’t exist anymore or not to the same degree. So there also is lots of potential to do: a) events across the SMASH geography; b) create connection for our young people using connectivity tools that can connect our young people in the Sacramento area to the ones that are in Atlanta. And they’re really interested in that. These kids are going all over the place for school. So they’re really excited about that. So I think that’s another big thing we learned.
I’ll say similarly, a lot of the work that we do around career exposure, I think that replicates pretty well into a virtual space. Traditionally, in our summers, there’s a thing we call speaker series, which looks like a lecture, bringing in someone from the outside to talk about themselves. And that replicates really well online. It’s pretty easy for a computer science engineer to talk about their experience and get most of it whether you’re sitting in a college classroom, or you’re sitting online. You can approximate most of that.
And then even the work that we’ve done we do around what we call networking nights, where the students get to interact more on like a 2:1 basis with professionals, we can replicate that with breakout rooms and what-not. And that also gives us an opportunity for, again, a student in Atlanta to talk to a professional in San Francisco. So those are huge things that we’ve learned.
The big takeaway is our program is very, very, cost-intensive. It depends on participation of colleges. There’s going to be a lot of financial pressure against that in the coming years. And I think there is going to be elements of our program that we will have to do virtually in order to sustain our current footprint.
Denver: And in listening to you, Eli, it really sounds like you believe that the process of learning is every bit as important as what is learned, right?
Eli: For sure. Yes. Absolutely. That’s a big, big thing that we keyed on. How we learn, how we collaborate, how we work together is hugely important.
Earlier, I talked about the difference between succeeding in high school and succeeding in college. When you’re in high school, do well on your tests, do your homework. You can kind of shove your face into a book and do it entirely on your own. The beginning of collaborative learning and collaborative outcomes starts at college and obviously goes on into the workplace where like, “Look, now you’ve got to work in teams. You have to be able to communicate. You have to be able to divvy up responsibilities and come back together and collaborate. And take the lead, and advocate, and present.”
All these different skills that were not really things that were important to you having a 4.0 and being a perfect student. And so that process of how we learn really prepares our students for the next stages in life.
And so, the two things that are important for us when we look at social justice are one, using it as a tool to show them the power of STEM, but it’s also really to show them the power themselves. Like you can go out and do things and drive a huge impact. You have a voice. You are powerful. You can do things. But also, be solution-oriented. We always want to be building, trying to figure out: How do we improve things rather than simply saying, “This is bad.”? We want to say, “This is bad, and this is what I think I can do about it.”
Denver: You mentioned earlier in our conversation, social justice. So let me ask you, how do you engage the students through a social justice lens?
Eli: So one of the big things that we do is we really work hard at connecting our young people who are really passionate about improving their lives, improving the lives of their community, making that connection between STEM and whatever outcome they want to drive for their community.
So a lot of what we do from a project perspective, like last summer, our students worked on solutions for around COVID-19 because that obviously was like causing a huge impact in our communities. And they were: How do we connect? How do we leverage STEM to build solutions that will combat maybe COVID-19 directly or maybe the impact of COVID-19 in our society?
We had some students that worked on… as you know, last summer was a summer that was hugely impactful for our students with the death of George Floyd. We had students take on racial justice solutions, and we sort of connected them again to… How can you use STEM to build solutions?
And so, the two things that are important for us when we look at social justice are like, one, using it as a tool to show them the power of STEM, but it’s also really to show them the power themselves. Like you can go out and do things and drive a huge impact. You have a voice. You are powerful. You can do things. But also, be solution-oriented. We always want to be building, trying to figure out: How do we improve things rather than simply saying, “This is bad.”? We want to say, “This is bad, and this is what I think I can do about it.”
Denver: Let me ask you about you, and that would be leadership in a crisis. What have you learned about leadership in a crisis? What have you learned about yourself? And how do you think this experience is going to inform your leadership going forward?
Eli: It’s a good question. So from a crisis standpoint, I think a couple of things. I think one, it was really important for me to figure out how to maintain connection to the different folks within our organization early on, to make sure they knew I was available to do some outreach to them, to see how they’re doing. And these are conversations that are not like, “How’s your project going?” This is like, “How are you doing personally? This is a hard time.” And demonstrating some of that empathy and connection I’ve found to be valuable and important. So that’s one big element.
The other thing, and this is I think one of the skills I think I brought to this, is around this prioritization of making the world simpler. So when I talked about in the beginning, we were like, “All right. Are we going to be in-person? Are we going to be half in-person? Are we going to be virtual?” In some ways, you have to be willing to simplify the world a little bit so that you can all start marching on a certain path. I feel like we had to pick a path, and it just made the world simpler, and it took away a whole bunch of questions that were causing us to hesitate and causing us to stall on actually building things. So, once we knew where we were going, it was much easier for our organization, our team to focus on: How do we push forward?
So those are a couple of things that were important lessons for me. I will say, I do struggle with some degree on the social elements of Zoom, being from a different generation than some of these young kids. Our team has been using Zoom pre-pandemic because we have people across the country to connect to, that you meet very regularly. I get tired faster than they do on this. So just having to be aware of: that’s something I have to get past on my own, like I don’t want to have my camera on all the time, but I probably should have it on more.
Denver: Yes. Let’s face it, Eli. You know what? We get sick and tired of looking at ourselves. Everything I say. Oh, you’re seeing your face right now.
Eli: A bunch of people say that’s the best thing to do is, “Turn your face off on your screen.” I just get disoriented; then I’m like I don’t know if I’m seeing myself. I don’t know what’s going on.
Anyway, so those are big things. I think the crises of last summer, the George Floyd– everything happened and everyone was really overwhelmed by it, and to some degree, the previous administration’s response to it. And there was a moment where we were going to have a staff meeting that was about different progress and how we’re doing in our project plan, and we just had to stop as an organization and talk a little bit about how we felt. And we cried as a team and talked as a team. And it was that acknowledgment that we’re in a hard time, that there was a lot of pain out there, and our just needing to have some space to sort of talk through some of that was also really, really important.
Denver: I thought what you said was really great about not trying to get it just so perfect and just so right, and trade off a little bit on that for clarity. Because sometimes we try to get so fine that we have everybody confused with all the little nuances and tributaries, whereas getting 85% or 90% right, but having everybody clear as to the path you’re on is absolutely worth the exchange.
Eli, tell us about your website, what visitors will find there, and how listeners can become involved or financially help if they should be so inclined.
Eli: Yes. Our website is smash.org. The first thing you’ll find there is the ability for a young person who is from an underrepresented community and is interested and passionate about STEM and lives near one of our programs. We’d love for you to come on there and learn about it. Apply, participate in our program.
In addition to the student application process, we have information there about applying to teach within our program. We hire hundreds of seasonal teachers to teach during the summer. We have information about donating. Money is really important. We cannot do this important work without our fantastic donors. You will find information if you’re interested in learning more about how we do our work.
You’ll hear about our programming within SMASH Academy, within SMASH Rising, as well as we have a bunch of different video pieces on there that feature our scholars, demonstrate some of the experience that our scholars go through. I encourage anyone who goes on our website to click on some of those and hear from the students directly about the experience they’ve had at SMASH. And they’re just incredible young people who are inspiring and really give me warmth and promise every day.
Denver: And how do people follow you on social media?
Eli: On social media, we have an active presence on Twitter, which is @smash_program. We also have a presence on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn. That’s it. So we’d love for folks to follow us there as well. We do announce events and things that we’re up to, as well as do some of our storytelling, expose young people to our scholars as well.
Denver: Fantastic. Well, thanks, Eli, for being here today. It was just a delight to have you on the program.
Eli: Thank you so much. It really was a pleasure.
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