#InnovationMadness: Who is Your Favorite Unsung Fearless Innovator?

Earlier this month, a thought-provoking video from Microsoft caught my eye. In the video, young girls are asked to name inventors. After quickly rattling off names like Nikola Tesla, Einstein and Edison, they are then asked to name female inventors. Sadly, this question is met with almost deafening silence. Each and every one of these future innovators is left stumped.

Which made me wonder, how many female innovators could I name?

One of the girls featured in the video provides brilliant insight when she says, “In school it was always a male inventor.” That definitely struck a chord with me. Thinking back to my own textbooks, it wasn’t hard to find examples of great inventors who used their grit or genius, or a combination of both, to change the world. My own science and history lessons were filled with stories of inventors and innovators commended and applauded for their ingenuity—it’s just that they happened to mostly all be men.

We know about Marie Curie and maybe a handful of other female trailblazers, but there are so many other women in arts, sports, science, technology, business and medicine who are not yet household names—not because they don’t exist but because they simply did not have the same recognition in their day, or the same spotlight and celebration of their contributions.

While we all could name Thomas Edison for instance, we probably don’t think of Margaret Knight, nicknamed “the lady Edison” and credited with receiving 27 patents in her lifetime for inventions including an internal combustion engine and shoe-manufacturing machines. Or take Beulah Louise Henry, also referred to as “Lady Edison” (notice a trend here?), who was awarded nearly 50 patents over her lifetime and had more than 100 inventions to her name including the can opener.

Women are responsible for an endless number of inventions and innovations that improve everyday life, from the car heater (Margaret A. Wilcox) to the fire escape (Anna Connelly), to the life raft (Maria Beasely) and medical syringe (Letitia Geer). It was Tabitha Babbitt who invented the circular saw, Sarah Mather, who made the underwater telescope possible, and Dr. Maria Telkes and Eleanor Raymond who built the first home entirely heated by solar power in 1947.

In the fields of science and discovery, the contributions of women have changed the world and our understanding of it. The work of Rachel Carson, a marine biologist who brought environmental concerns to an unprecedented share of the American people in her book Silent Spring, led to the nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides. Her work inspired a grassroots environmental movement that led to the creation of the EPA. Dr. Anne Tsukamoto, an inventor named on seven issued U.S. patents related to the human hematopoietic stem cell and gene transfer methods, today is credited with advancing the field of stem cell research.

As another Women’s History Month draws to an end, we owe it to ourselves and to the next generation to start changing the conversation about innovation and ensure that we are lifting up equally innovators who in years past may have been unsung, as well as those that emerge in our contemporary times.

Today, the Case Foundation team kicks off its first ever “Innovation Madness,” a clear nod to the NCAA’s basketball tournament, but also a way to celebrate women innovators that too often go unnoticed and unmentioned. Over the next ten days, we will profile fearless women who have transformed the world as we know it by modeling audaciousness and remarkable achievement across disciplines. Check out the instructions on how to participate in #InnovationMadness and vote for your favorite innovators on Twitter. While we have a serious goal of spotlighting extraordinary women so their stories are known, we also hope to have some fun along the way. I hope you’ll join us and help spread the word about the amazing accomplishments of some of these extraordinary women.

Changing the World – One Code at a Time

Identifying organizations that make big bets and tackle pressing social issues is an important part of our Be Fearless mantra here at the Case Foundation. Our work across the United States has helped lift up and fund extraordinary changemakers and their programs. This year the Case Foundation hosted the first-ever Aspen Scholars pitch competition at the Aspen Ideas Festival at which we awarded more than $25,000 in grant money to competing Aspen Scholars. The grand prize winner was Kristen Titus of Girls Who Code. We are thrilled to work with this new organization as a grantee and a partner.

Girls Who Code was launched in 2012 in an effort to close the gender gap in the computing and online fields. Its programs have earned the support from top Fortune 500 companies and have delivered more than 3,000 hours of intensive instruction to young women and high school girls. Each participant is equipped with the skills and resources they need to pursue careers and opportunities in the computing field. From mobilizing top executives, educators and engineers, to developing a new model for computer science education and launching eight immersion programs spanning five cities – Kristen and the Girls Who Code staff have worked to catapult young female minds into the tech sector.

The Case Foundation sat down with Kristen to chat about Girls Who Code and their work on the heels of her Elle Magazine debut naming her one of the “11 Women Who Just Might Change the world” and Business Insider’s 2013 nod for one of the “30 Most Important Women Under 30 In Tech.” We could not agree more, Kristen and her girls who code are on their way to big things in the tech world.

Our Interview with Girls Who Code

CF: What goals are you working towards at Girls Who Code? How will the Case Foundation’s funds help you achieve that goal?

KT: Girls Who code has set out to tackle what we believe to be one of the most pressing problems facing our generation: the gender gap in technology. We’re starting on the ground by inspiring, educating and equipping high school girls to pursue technology through our Summer Immersion and after-school Club programs. The Case Foundation is supporting the scaling of these programs, and helping us bring computer science education to girls across the country. Each girl who goes through our programs represents one step closer towards gender parity in technology.

CF: Tell us about a moment when you failed in life and how you used that as an opportunity to fail forward?

KT: Last spring, Girls Who Code launched our first ever after-school program pilots. We had a very successful model for an intensive summer program, and we were eager to find out how to replicate the program in a format designed to scale. One model we tested involved having our graduates organize clubs and teach their peers. This model just did not work, and it was disappointing because it held much potential. We were, however, able to incorporate successful components of the model into what we have ultimately found to be the best format, and are now in the second phase of testing of this program. We can’t wait to see how the program grows.

CF: How have reached outside of your bubble or your sector to raise awareness or perhaps funding for your organization?

KT: Increasingly, computer science skills are relevant to industries outside of what we typically think of as the tech sector. From fashion to medicine to banking, companies rely on technologists to do business, and we absolutely look to these corporations as partners. What’s more, we incorporate the experiences of engineers at companies that, traditionally, would not be considered to be technology companies in order to expose our students to the incredible variety of opportunities available to those with a CS background. 

This is the first in a series of four articles featuring new grantees of the Case Foundation who have won awards in our 2013 pitch competitions. Check back for our next feature on the Rid-All Green Partnership, an urban farm in Cleveland, OH.