Impact Series

Deena Pierott works exhausting for underrepresented youth in STEM, however funding her nonprofit isn’t straightforward

iUrban Teen founder Deena Pierott, left, received some funding for her nonprofit from Seattle Seahawks player Bobby Wagner, right. The two are pictured with sister and brother Amiya and Clay Brasley, who both attended iUrban Teen programs. (Photo courtesy of Deena Pierott)

Deena Pierott answered the phone and remarked about how glad she was that it was Friday.

“I don’t know why I say that because I work seven days a week,” Pierott quickly sighed.

Such is life for what appears to be one of the busier people in Seattle-area tech.

Pierott is the founder and managing director for iUrban Teen, a nationally recognized STEM+Arts program for underrepresented teens that just turned 10 years old and counts more than 9,000 students as alumni of its array of events and courses. Pierott ios also a founding member of Black Women in Stem 2.0 and she’s president and CEO of Mosaic Metier, a diversity recruiting and consulting firm.

“I do so many different things. I’m wired that way,” Pierott said. “Everything that I do is centered around equity, diversity and inclusion. It’s all about exposure and access.”

Exposure and access is something Pierott would like more of for herself, for iUrban Teen and for the work the nonprofit has been doing over the years. She was particularly fired up last month when she saw news that Amazon was donating $15 million to to help that Seattle nonprofit launch a new Advanced Placement computer science programming course aimed at underrepresented groups of students.

“They’re paying them that money to create inclusive programming,” Pierott said. “We have that! We’ve created inclusive programming from day one. Everything we do is culturally centered.”

iUrban Teen participants in the nonprofit’s iPitch competition, which attracted R&B singer singer Ledisi, top left, as a judge and Nintendo’s Jordan Horton, front. (Photo courtesy of Deena Pierott)

iUrban Teen’s foundation rests on three pillars: iEngage, which includes all-day tech immersion events to ignite interest in STEM+Arts fields; iLearn, which includes a variety of training programs and camps such as coding, digital animation, pitch competitions, GIS mapping and data analytics, and more; and iSucceed, providing the opportunity for mentoring and internships.

Pierott’s frustration is in the struggle to get a seat at the funding table and attract a fraction of regular, multi-million-dollar donations such as those gets.

“I’m a woman of color with a program that’s making an impact in the community, but I’m not funded,” she said. “There’s a lot of salaries being made off the backs of Black and brown youth in this country by dominant culture organizations or others who truly aren’t really making the impact, but we’re in the field every day, making this impact for our communities.”

Pierott said she’s been “pulling rabbits out of hats” for years, working with no full-time staff and relying on volunteers and sponsor donations to power the events she prides herself on.

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“If you are a Black woman in this space, it’s harder to get that door open for you. It’s harder to build that trust,” said Pierott, who was previously honored by the Obama White House as a Champion of Change for Technology Inclusion. “In the philanthropic sectors with the different foundations, they really didn’t trust us with big funding. So they bypassed us.”

Things changed a bit over the last year and a half, especially in the wake of the death of George Floyd, social justice protests and an increased awareness in corporate America to back initiatives focused on communities of color. iUrban Teen has attracted $750,000 in that time period, including, for example, $50,000 from Seattle Seahawks star Bobby Wagner and another $300,000 from Microsoft.

Microsoft announced in December that it was granting $15 million over three years to 50 Black and African-American nonprofits across the country to accelerate the work of providing digital skills and workforce development to those communities. The effort is part of Microsoft’s racial Equity Initiative as spelled out by CEO Satya Nadella in a blog post last summer.

The increase in funding allowed Pierott to hire two full-time and two part-time employees, alongside what she calls three “really dedicated, strong volunteers.”

Former students are all quick to commend iUrban Teen for exposing them to programs and people they had never seen, and many of them continue to intern with the nonprofit after moving on to college or careers. Here are a few we spoke with:

  • Jada Mitchell.

    Jada Mitchell is a program manager at Microsoft and has been an intern with the nonprofit. “I was interested in STEM for college but had not been exposed to it,” Mitchell told GeekWire. “[iUrban Teen] was a great way to reaffirm my goal for majoring in computer science … coming back in college helped me understand how important the program was to myself and to the children coming after me. Reaching a hand back is one of my life goals due to this program and it’s something I’ll always do. It’s important that kids have even one day of a different life — you never know what will stick with them, when they see another black woman working in tech and a new door is opened, just like Deena and other women did for me.”

  • Brooklyn Terry.

    Brooklyn Terry, of Vancouver, Wash., is a sophomore at Bennett College in North Carolina, pursuing a degree in computer science. She attended an iUrban Teen Day at Microsoft back in the ninth grade and has been involved with the organization for more than five years as an intern. “iUrban Teen has significantly helped me by exposing me to first-hand STEM career opportunities through hands-on learning during workshops and attending STEM Summits to listen to keynote speakers, which has ultimately sparked and grown my interest in STEM over the years. During my senior year of high school, I received a $2,000 iUrban Teen scholarship award.”

  • Gjianni White.

    Gjianni White, of Federal Way, is a student at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Last summer she participated in the iPitch competition where she helped design a mobile app, and later the iMap program that focused on data analysis. She’s currently an intern helping to redesign the iSpeak program, a course that gives young people confidence in public speaking. “iUrbanTeen has helped me a lot in being OK with the non-traditional path through STEM. As a woman who loves math and science, I want to pursue a career in medicine as a doctor or engineer, however I do not enjoy the technology aspect. Through iUrbanTeen I have been exposed to a wide range of STEM careers and opportunities that satisfy the need for problem solving in a way that I do not have to be a developer writing code. There is so much more to STEM than sitting at a computer.”

Even though she considers her work underfunded and herself a bit overworked, Pierott is thankful for those who do step up to support iUrban Teen and she’s confident that she’s making an impact in the lives of young people. And she’s not resting.

iUrban teen is looking to expand to several new cities where Pierott would love to hire paid program directors, youth and family engagement people and admins. And she’s launching a multi-year year program called iEngineer aimed at Black and Tribal youth whose participation in engineering needs a boost.

“Anyone that partners with us, I want more than your logo on my website,” she said. “You have to really be vested in the future of these youth. You gotta help me build that yellow brick road.”

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