Founded in 2013, VentureLab is a hands-on learning and innovation academy that teaches tech and entrepreneurship classes to children and young people. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization strives to grow the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs through inspiration, experiential learning and mentorship.
The VentureLab Adventure
The VentureLab team, comprised of entrepreneurially spirited individuals who left their day jobs in higher education, industry and more, have design a comprehensive curriculum that equips kids (and especially young women) with the necessary skills to uncover and develop their potential from an early age.
VentureLab offers classes, camps and workshops for students of all ages to discover and explore their passions for entrepreneurship, science, technology, engineering, arts and math (ESTEAM). Through the ESTEAM framework, participants learn key mindsets of entrepreneurial and design thinking and creativity, aided by hands-on instruction in technology. “Scientists have labs, engineers have machine shops, artists have studios,” says the nonprofit’s website. “We are an innovation lab where students actually practice innovation.”
The VentureLab Visionary
Luz Cristal Sanchez Glangchai, Ph.D., is a scientist, engineer, entrepreneur, teacher, mother, wife and tech innovation evangelist. She’s worked as a patent engineer and technical adviser for HulseyIP Lawyers and as a product development engineer for 3M. She founded NANOTaxi as a doctoral student and successfully patented her technology that provides safer and more effective delivery of therapeutics and biologics to tumor tissues.
Glangchai later managed the Idea to Product Program at the University of Texas at Austin, teaching students and faculty to bring ideas from the lab to the marketplace, and worked with some enterprising computer science students in 2008 to hold the first 3 Day Startup (prior to 3DS becoming an independent nonprofit in 2010), a weekend long startup boot camp of sorts, previously covered by the Rivard Report, that brings college students and professionals together to create companies. As a side note, she added, “I noticed that I would typically have less than 30 percent girls (and) women apply, and those who did apply would drop out the day before the event or even the day of the event.”
Glangchai’s undeniable entrepreneurial streak, passion for meaningful tech education, personal experience in several typically male-dominated fields and desire to train a new generation of leaders and innovators has finally culminated in the creation of VentureLab. As founder/CEO of the organization, she’s a woman on a mission to equip even the very youngest learners with the mindset, mentors and skills necessary to foster a lifelong interest in technology and creative problem solving. Additionally, she and husband Pat Condon, a Rackspace co-founder and formidable tech entrepreneur in his own right, have four young children between them, making this mission all the more personal.
Emboldened from a young age by a family that encouraged her to pursue all her academic and extracurricular interests, however stereotypically gender-nonstandard they might be, Glangchai commented, “I realized that we have to teach kids, and girls in particular, at a young age, before they have preconceived notions of what girls or boys SHOULD do. I wanted to teach them at young age to have confidence that they can create things, and yes, even create their own company. I wanted to teach them to have the courage to get in front of an audience and show their accomplishments. Overall I wanted to create an environment that felt safe for girls.”
Just earlier this week, the Rivard Report discussed the challenge of combatting the “summer slide.” Students ready to dive in to the VentureLab experience are in luck: Registration for summer sessions is already underway. From Gamer, Maker (think robots, 3D printing and lasers) and Recyclepreneur sessions to Urban Farmer, Music Production and Film-focused camps, kids and children ages five to 19 should have no problem finding their niche.
“I had never taught kids in K-12,” said Glangchai, mother to two kids of her own under the age of 10. “I tried to think about what they would understand. … So I started making the concepts less complex and using simpler examples and words to convey the same concepts. When we did the camps it turned out to be a great success. The experiential learning is really key in getting anyone to understand entrepreneurship. In all my classes I always try to teach kids slightly more than parents think they can handle, but I know that for the most part the kids rise to your level of expectation.”
Classes for younger students cost around $300, while the longer 3-week camps for high school age entrepreneurs run $1,000, though scholarships are available for students with financial need.
A Focus on Girls
While VentureLab offers programming to all kinds of young entrepreneurs throughout the year, the 2014 schedule of events will feature a number of sessions designed specifically with young women in mind to provide a hands-on, personalized learning experience.
Glangchai’s own experience, both in school and professionally, instilled a deep, personal desire to introduce more young women to the STEM fields. “One thing that I always noticed at 3M was that I was the only female engineer in my division and one of the only engineers under 30,” she said. “Also, during school I noticed that most of the people in my classes were guys. I think in undergrad at UT in mechanical engineering there were maybe three other girls in classes with me.”
In the five-day long Girl Startup 101, held twice in June and once in August, participants will learn how to create and launch their own company, culminating in a pitch session at the end of the program. Five-day Gamer and Urban Farmer summer camps, both in July, will offer hands-on instruction in game design and exposure to traditional and high tech gardening and farming, respectively.
“Based on my experiences, I want to start with young girls and give them the confidence to think that they can do anything. They can innovate and create. They can start a company, they can make their own money, they can build an engine or create software,” she said. Encouraged by her father from a young age, Glangchai and her sisters shattered gender stereotypes, playing sports, fixing cars and building things. “He pushed us in math and science and told us we could do anything in the world.”
Future Lab: A Larger Movement
“I am passionate about tech and entrepreneurship because I think this is what is needed in our global society,” said Glangchai. “We need to learn to think creatively and entrepreneurially, and we need to start learning the skills that will be important in the future.” She’s not the only one; just over the weekend, The New York Times published an opinion piece called “How to Get Girls into Coding“:
“To avoid perpetuating the tech industry’s glaring gender gap, schools should look more closely at these grass-roots initiatives that have had success in attracting and inspiring girls. One X factor seems to be the presence of female role models, which can be hard to come by when you’re one of the only girls in your computer science class. Girls know the stereotype of a geeky guy hacker in his basement all too well, and interacting with women who use computer science in their professional lives gives them an idea of something to go after besides an endless string of code. Many of the instructors, coding evangelists and students I spoke with credited a female mentor who nudged them along.” – Nitasha Tiku, The New York Times
Like-minded tech evangelists across the country, including Reshma Saujani, founder of the nonprofit organization Girls Who Code, Stephen Foster, a founder of the San Diego-based organization ThoughtSTEM, which teaches kids ages 8 to 18 to code in after-school programs and summer camps, and Kimberly Bryant, founder of the educational nonprofit Black Girls Code, have taken up a similar charge to educate the next generation of young—and particularly, female—STEM professionals.
Already garnering recognition from sources such as the Wall Street Journal, The Takeaway, Wired and Mashable, VentureLab has its sights set high, aspiring to be as respected and prolific as TED, to have a workforce as passionate Teach for America and to make a significant impact on decreasing the gender gap in STEM and entrepreneurial fields for women. “We want to be admired as a game changer for education,” reads the SA-based nonprofit’s website.
“In the future I would like be able to say that 75 percent of American students have gone through a VentureLab course or program,” said Glangchai. “I hope creativity, design thinking, entrepreneurial thinking and hands-on learning will be utilized for teaching all subjects. I think students need to be taught relevant technical skills that will allow them to succeed in a 21st century, tech-driven society.”
*Featured/top image: 2013 VentureLab students participate in Girl Startup 101. Photo by Kara Gomez.