Girl Powered: Play Like a Girl Founder Launches STEM+ Sports Hackathon

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Photo Credit: San Francisco 49ers

While most teenagers played pick-up basketball or ran cross country, Kimberly Clay would rather play the violin or practice the piano. Years later, she has transitioned into sports – but with a twist.

On July 18, the founder and CEO of Play Like a Girl is hosting her inaugural STEM+ Sports Hackathon at Walmart Labs in Sunnyvale, Calif. With partners such as If/Then, SheIs, and the San Francisco 49ers’ education venture, EDU Academy, Clay’s mission for her hackathon is to inspire females to pursue STEM-related interests like science, technology, education and mathematics.

“A hackathon is a great, fun, loving, friendly, efficient [way] that allows girls to extend themselves,” said Clay. “[They] really learn from the mentors that we also get in the room – from industry experts and subject matter experts across industry – to provide the opportunity for girls to ideate and create.”

For Clay, working with these forward-thinking companies can only help young girls build the confidence to chase their passions – especially now. According to the National Science Foundation, in 2016 less than 30% of people working across the U.S. in science and engineering were women, while approximately 30% of all female students in higher education were studying STEM topics.

July 18’s hackathon will feature 49 rising seventh-and-eighth-grade girls who will work closely with mentors to learn more about the intersection of STEM and sports. The students will be tasked with creating a tech-driven solution – such as digital applications, social media campaigns, etc. – to the gender gap in STEM by acknowledging one of three themes: elevate women in STEM professions as role models and ambassadors; illuminate the importance of STEM in sports; and create better portrayals of women in STEM and sports.

In addition to the educational aspect of the hackathon, it will also boast an all-female panel consisting of Clay; Caiti Donovan, SheIS co-founder and chief marketing officer; Emma Yang, Timeless founder and CEO; and Samaira Mehta, founder and CEO of CoderBunnyz.

What stands out about this particular panel is the diversity in each individual. While women like Clay and Donovan have been working for years, their counterparts are kids: Mehta and Yang are ages 10 and 14, respectively.

“Being able to bring [Mehta and Yang,] who look just like [the other participants], who have done this very thing and so much more, was for us just like a no brainer,” said Clay “Bring them in, allow them to share their stories, what impacts their applications and games are having on society as a whole — we thought would be a great opportunity for access and education.”

As a PhD student at University of Alabama at Birmingham, Clay founded Play Like a Girl in 2004. Originally just a passion project to her, the organization focused mostly on women’s health and combating obesity through physical activity.

In 2014, her view of the business changed drastically. After receiving the Toyota Everyday Heroes award at the 2014 espnW: Women + Sports Summit, Clay recognized the impact that Play Like a Girl could have with females in sports.

In a 2014 study conducted by espnW and Ernst and Young on 400 female executives, 94% of them reported that they had previously played sports. Fascinatingly enough, almost half of the respondents – 49% overall – were C-suite executives, and over half of them had played at least college basketball.

As the leader of a program designed to motivate girls through sports, that espnW summit stuck with Clay, and stayed with her on her trip back home to Nashville.

“[It] made me go back home here to Nashville and really start to rethink how [Play Like a Girl] was approaching our work, and to begin to think more broadly around the benefits of physical activity, but more specifically sport and how we could leverage sport to catapult young women into long-term success both in [their] career as well as on the playing field,” Clay said.

READ MORE: U.S. Soccer Turns to Hackathon to Accelerate the Growth of Analytics

To turn her idea into a reality, Play Like a Girl began partnering with numerous organizations, one being the 49ers. Clay and Jesse Lovejoy, managing director of the 49ers’ EDU Academy, have worked together in the past, and share a mutual interest in expanding female empowerment through sports and STEM.

While both Donovan and Clay recognize the 49ers as a professional sports organization promoting gender diversity, Lovejoy stops short of calling it a success. The recognition is nice, but for him, it’ll mean more when other leagues and teams join them in their efforts.

“It’s not something that we want to do and be the only ones and the best ones doing” said Lovejoy. “We’re doing it with the express purpose that we hope other folks will take up this mantle and do some more things. I do think that we’re out in front. I’m very proud of that but to be very frank, I hope that we’re getting chased by more and more people here real soon.”

Another company which began working with Clay was SheIS. Introduced to the public on May 1, 2018, SheIS aims to have women in sports – from athletes to executives – motivate each other. Ranging from U.S. Women’s National Team soccer player Alex Morgan to the USTA, Donovan’s company has a diverse client list which, according to her, makes its work that much more far-reaching.

“The biggest thing that I’ve really taken away from [the hackathon] is how collaboration makes us stronger.” said Donovan. “When we’re able to pool resources and cool efforts and cool opportunities, that’s what really creates more example of progress, and provides more impact.”

READ MORE: Twitter Amplifying Women’s Sports With #GoldenTweet Awards

After the student registration for the hackathon sold out in under one month, Clay knows there is intrigue around the competition. Going forward, she intends to utilize that recognition and expand it to numerous markets – with specific interest in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta, among others.

With a generation of students starting to be forward-thinking and wanting to initiate change, Clay acknowledges that she has them behind her: now it’s time to bring these issues to light.

“It’s time for us to talk about the state of affairs,” said Clay. “What makes this relevant and important and how we’re leveraging the STEM hackathon as an opportunity to raise awareness, to provide access, and to get girls actively engaged in the work of creating solutions that will have a long-term social impact.”