Empowering ‘girl bosses’ with data, analytics — and community

Through Girls Inc. of New York City, students in Harlem are learning skills that will help them excel in business and beyond

By Ylann Schemm and Alison Bert, DMA - February 23, 2023
Joanni Rodriguez, a senior at Central Park East High School in Harlem, says Girls Inc. of NYC gives her the opportunity to be around women who empower each other. She plans to go into business and hopes to study economics and entrepreneurship at Cornell or Syracuse University. (Photos by Alison Bert)
Joanni Rodriguez, a senior at Central Park East High School in Harlem, says Girls Inc. of NYC gives her the opportunity to be around women who empower each other. She plans to go into business and hopes to study economics and entrepreneurship at Cornell or Syracuse University. (Photo by Alison Bert)

On a recent morning, 20 young women gathered around small tables to create business plans with big impact.

They were in the Girl Boss seminar at Central Park East High School, supported by the Elsevier Foundation’s partnership with Girls Inc. of New York City. Over the next few months, these entrepreneurs will go on to form their companies; define their products; appoint CEOs and Chief Marketing Officers; and learn to analyze data that will help them understand their products and customers.

On this day, they were learning the principles of entrepreneurship — from what defines an entrepreneur to how to give a compelling “elevator pitch” by describing their products in the time it takes to ride the lift.

Shenequa Merchant, Central Park East High School Program Director for Girls Inc. of New York City, teaches the principles of entrepreneurship in the Girl Boss seminar.
Shenequa Merchant, Central Park East High School Program Director for Girls Inc. of New York City, teaches the principles of entrepreneurship in the Girl Boss seminar. (Photo by Alison Bert)

In their practice pitches, students described a flask that makes drinks any temperature you want. A “scrubber dubber” that removes tough stains and makes laundry “more efficient and sustainable.” And a smart mirror that picks out an outfit for you in 5 seconds, taking into consideration the weather and how you will look.

The products were pretend, but their ambitions are real. The students we spoke with already have college and careers in mind, and they said the Girl Boss program is giving them the skills and support they need.

“This class is very empowering,” said Joanni Rodriguez, a senior who hopes to study economics and entrepreneurship at Cornell University and go into business. “We’re encouraging each other to do what we want to do, to aspire to become entrepreneurs, to aspire to become doctors — or anything. Because I feel like in the outside world, it’s male-dominated in most of these fields.”

Fatima Malam (right) prepares to give her team’s elevator pitch, handing her teacher, Shenequa Merchant, a bottle to simulate her team’s flask. (Photo by Alison Bert)

Indeed, under-representation continues to be a reality in STEM, especially for women of color.

Though the curriculum is couched in an innovation and entrepreneurship module, these young women are learning to work with data — a critical 21st-century skill. The world of data science is growing, and there is a critical shortage of data scientists. Under-representation is also a big issue. Women hold just 26% of data science-related jobs, and minority women have an even less advantageous employment outlook, according to a 2021 report by the National Center for Women & Information Technology. In 2020, less than two in 10 women in the data workforce were minorities.

That’s where Girls Inc. of New York City (GINYC) comes in. The nonprofit organization gives girls from underserved communities opportunities to learn life and STEM skills to prepare them for a wide range of educational paths and careers. Since 2019, the Elsevier Foundation has partnered with GINYC to develop a program delivering data analytics through a social justice lens, providing a total of $450,000 for summer camps and after-school programming.

In the classroom (left to right): with Ylann Schemm, Executive Director of the Elsevier Foundation, with Girls Inc of NYC colleagues Shenequa Merchant, Central Park East High School Program Director; Pam Maraldo, CEO; and April Caldwell, Chief Program Officer. (Photo by Alison Bert)

Underserved girls often lack the basic skills required to thrive in intensive STEM programs. The Elsevier Foundation has supported a GINYC program for teenagers to bridge that gap by creating a holistic, developmentally appropriate introduction to data analytics, media literacy, critical thinking, and soft skills — addressing the broader questions of “What is data?” and “Why should we care about data?”

Given the importance of embedding data science skills throughout the GINYC curriculum, our annual support now contributes to larger programs like Girl Boss, which enable talented young women to learn data science skills through entrepreneurship, unleashing creativity while supporting essential professional skills. We are proud that our support enabled GINYC to develop an exciting data analytics curriculum, which in turn played a vital role in helping them receive a $1 million grant from Google for a digitized financial literacy curriculum and app.

“We truly value our partnership with the Elsevier Foundation,” said April Caldwell, Chief Programs Officer of GINYC. “Since 2019, our partnership with Elsevier has allowed us to expand and reach over 2,000 girls.”

April explained that by incorporating key elements of the original curriculum, such as data analytics, into the Girl Boss entrepreneurship program, “we are able to offers girls an opportunity to use data and their lived experiences to identify gaps of services within their communities and design businesses that address those needs.

“One of the key pieces of feedback from the girls is that they enjoy learning how data can educate and bring awareness to social justice topics and causes they are passionate about,” she said. “We look forward to our continued partnership with Elsevier as we work together to hone and expand this model throughout the city and beyond.”

Entrepreneurship also involves learning critical skills for success in college and the professional world. As Shenequa Merchant, Central Park East High School Program Director for GINYC and the teacher of this class, explained:

One of the biggest advantages of getting started with entrepreneurship at a young age is being given the opportunity to learn new and important skills such as leadership, networking, critical thinking, problem solving, and more. With those skills, we designed a curriculum that teaches them not only to follow their passions and grow but to earn according to their worth.

We start off by helping them to identify their own strengths and passions, and from there we use interactive and game-based class activities to help students complete their goals.

“An opportunity to express my voice and passion”

 Alison Bert, Executive Editor for Global Communications at Elsevier, interviews Fatima Malam, a student in the Girls Inc of NYC Girl Boss program. (Photo by Ylann Schemm)

Passion was apparent in the lively conversations taking place in this classroom as students brainstormed ideas for their businesses. And beyond the hard skills they’re learning, they said they value the chance to be part of a unique community.

“When I come to Girls Inc, I’m in a class filled with women, and that’s pretty empowering,” said Fatima Malam, a senior who enjoys coding and plans to major in psychology. “I’m able to learn more about the community (outside school) and actually be in a room with people who also relate to me.”

For Ashley de la Cruz, who will be the first in her family to go to college, “Girls Inc inspires me to go into higher education.” She said she’s motivated by the chance to learn about career paths and college scholarships. And like her peers, she’s empowered by being in a space with girls from similar backgrounds.

“Girls Inc is an opportunity for me to express my voice and my passion,” she said. “I’m in a community of girls who have experienced the same things I’ve experienced, and together we can help each other.”


Ylann Schemm
Written by

Ylann Schemm

Written by

Ylann Schemm

As Director of the Elsevier Foundation, Ylann Schemm drives inclusive health and research partnerships to support the UN Sustainable Development Goals, building research capacity in developing countries and tackling health inequities. She has been an integral part of the Foundation’s growth since joining as a Program Officer in 2008. In addition, Ylann is Elsevier’s Vice President of Corporate Responsibility, building on two decades of corporate relations and responsibility roles which focus on gender, “sound science” and sustainability collaborations.

Since 2015, she has served as the Co-Chair of Elsevier’s Gender Equity Taskforce, which shapes Elsevier’s contributions to inclusive research from gender balance in editorial boards to sex and gender analysis in Research. From June 2020 to June 2022, Ylann also served as the Chair of the Executive Council of Research4Life — a UN-publisher partnership to bridge access gaps for researchers and doctors in developing countries.

Alison Bert, DMA
Written by

Alison Bert, DMA

Written by

Alison Bert, DMA

As Executive Editor for Digital Communications, Content and Brand at Elsevier, Dr Alison Bert works with contributors around the world to publish stories for the global science and health communities. Previously, she was Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier Connect, which won the 2016 North American Excellence Award for Science & Education.

Alison joined Elsevier in 2007 from the world of journalism, where she was a business reporter and blogger for The Journal News, a Gannett daily newspaper in New York. In the previous century, she was a classical guitarist on the music faculty of Syracuse University. She received a doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, was Fulbright scholar in Spain, and studied in a master class with Andrés Segovia.

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