Tell us about yourself and how are you involved with FIRST?
Howdy from Houston, Texas. My name is Erica Perez and I am a FIRST LEGO League Jr. Coach, FIRST LEGO League project judge volunteer, a member of the FIRST HQ Development team, and a member of the FIRST Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee.
What/who inspired you to get started with FIRST/STEM?
I was introduced to the mission and programs of FIRST nearly a decade ago, while working in Wisconsin for FIRST Strategic Partner, Rockwell Automation. I was fortunate to work on the Community Relations team and coordinated team grants and employee volunteer activities as a daily part of my job. Seeing the impact first hand, and hearing so many inspiring stories has kept me engaged and fuels my passion to be involved in several capacities. Plus, I want to be an advocate and cheerleader for the youth that don’t have an adult influence encouraging their interests and passions.
How did you get to where you are now?
When I was in the third grade, I had a bad experience with a discouraging math teacher and I lost my spark. I sometimes wonder how things would have been different if I had a program like FIRST, but I can’t change the past. I can, however, be an influencer today. That is why I am so passionate about sharing STEM opportunities like FIRST with organizations, business and industry professionals, school districts and youth.
What do you like best about being a mentor?
The best part about being a mentor is that everyone has something to offer. Most people shy away from mentoring a robotics program if they aren’t in a technical profession. I used to have a similar mindset: what can a business professional offer to a youth robotics team? It turns out that there is a lot of value in nontechnical expertise. Teams need support in a variety of skills including teamwork, communication, leadership, problem-solving, analytical thinking, and even things like programming, design, engineering process, etc. I have found that being a mentor isn’t about teaching a specific skill set. It is more about the process of figuring out how to achieve that skill, asking a lot of questions, and supporting the notion that failing is part of succeeding. Kids are naturally curious, intelligent, and innovative; they just need positive reinforcement to expand their abilities and, as a mentor, you get to be a part of that journey.
Do you recall any special experiences or challenges?
This past season I was a rookie coach for a FIRST LEGO League Jr. team. The team was a group of excited third graders, five boys and one girl. The one girl happened to be my younger sister, Mya, who helped form the team at her school. After two sessions, Mya was ready to quit, because she was the only girl on the team and she didn’t think she could compete with the boys. After a long conversation, we uncovered that Mya was afraid to fail. She saw how quick the boys picked things up, like coding or creatively building the mission models, or so it seemed. At the root of it all, the boys were fearless to try and fail and try again until they got it. Their excitement was intimidating for Mya. We had a long conversation to explain that her talents were equal to that of the boys, and that it was okay that her process of coding or creating was different. We also talked about the many females from her STEM books that have forged a path in male dominated industries and how they have gone through similar experiences. She felt better knowing that there is not one right way to find a solution and that she wasn’t the only female to experience it all. After several more sessions, Mya found her confidence to code and create right alongside the boys. She even discovered that she had the skills to be a team leader and role model to her teammates.
How has FIRST helped you accomplish your goals?
While I have a bachelor’s degree in International Business Management and Communications and am in the process of earning an MBA in Business Leadership, my current position is due in large part to my willingness to try new things, volunteer and network. Ten years ago, I couldn’t have predicted that I would pursue a career supporting nonprofits and mission-driven work, but today, I couldn’t see myself anywhere else. It is all thanks to the opportunities FIRST presented me with through volunteering and meeting an amazing network I know fondly call my FIRST family.
Why do you think FIRST is important for females?
FIRST offers a safe place for females to try new things, to ask questions, to be curious, to create and to learn how to fail with the guidance of a caring adult to support them. While this is a key element for all children, studies have shown that females lose a spark for those key traits around the age of 8. Societal norms and modern culture further emphasize the gap between female and male traits and roles. This is one key area that FIRST can impact, by showing that STEM is for everyone.
What are your goals for the future?
While FIRST has come a long way in getting young women involved in the programs, we are not at parity yet! In addition, I would love to see more women stepping up as mentors and volunteers. While it takes a village, the village representation is still male dominated. My goal is to help influence continued diversity, especially female representation, in teams and events around the globe. While that seems like a lofty goal, there are several small steps we can all take to make that happen:
- First and foremost, we can be the change we want to see. I stepped up as a coach to a team and will continue to do so in future seasons.
- Second, we can share opportunities and STEM news with our circles. It is as easy as sharing an article or photo on social platforms like LinkedIn. It is important to make STEM education a part of the daily conversation and to remind our networks about all of the great progress we continue to make.
- Third, we can broaden our reach by growing our FIRST family. This step is as easy as sharing volunteer and mentor fliers with your local business contacts. Get your local business and industry professionals information about how their employees can engage. You’d be surprised at how many people have never heard of FIRST but are more than willing to get involved.
- Lastly, encourage youth participants to stay engaged after they graduate. Share the Alumni network, let them know you’d love to see them back as a mentor or volunteer, and let them know how they can become an advocate at their future place of employment.
What advice do you have for young girls who are interested in technology, but don’t know how to start?
My advice would be to find a FIRST team to join and give different roles a try. If something looks interesting, try it, you may learn you love it and want to pursue that experience as a career. Or you may find that you don’t like it, which is just as valuable. You can then move on to the next thing. FIRST offers you a mini internship or apprenticeship experience to try your hand at skills in business, marketing, community outreach, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, software, hardware, safety and more. You don’t have to wait until college or career to figure out what you enjoy doing. If there isn’t a FIRST team for you to join, start your own! Find an adult and a few friends that are willing to join you on your journey.
How does your position enable you to make a difference?
My position as a development staff member affords me the opportunity to make a difference every day. I have the honor of working with corporations and foundations that are fueling our mission through sponsorships, employee mentors and volunteers, and in-kind product donations that enable our programs to remain innovative. I get to work with the changemakers that are advocating for limited resources of time, talent and treasure to be focused on STEM programs like FIRST. The students’ inspirational stories, the mentors and volunteers leadership, and the program’s proven impact, are all part of the story I am able to share with the influencers in our community that will help drive continued culture change and awareness to STEM and FIRST.