Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Dr Adrienne Starks of STREAM Innovations Is Helping To Change Our World
Find time to enjoy friends and family. Take vacations as frequently as possible because they can give you the focus needed to see a new perspective.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Adrienne Starks.
Dr. Adrienne Starks is the founder and CEO of STREAM Innovations located in Birmingham, Alabama. Through STREAM Innovations, Dr. Starks helps students develop and explore Science, Technology, Reading, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STREAM) by providing exposure, experience, and engagement.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I have loved science for as long as I could remember. I asked my parents for a microscope for Christmas as a kid. I enjoyed exploring the world around me through nature. I searched for opportunities around Birmingham, AL to find ways to capture my curiosity and creativity through summer programs at the University of Alabama at Birmingham while in high school. I attended Alabama A&M University to obtain a degree in Biology and moved to Maryland to complete a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences. As a scientist, I was on the road to becoming a principal investigator with my own lab. As I was completing my postdoctoral studies investigating breast and prostate cancer disparities at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, my focus changed as I saw my hometown change in ways that didn’t reflect the city I once remembered. I wanted to support students to follow their dreams, but I never thought it would lead me back home to start STREAM Innovations, a nonprofit in Birmingham, AL. Over the past 6 years, I have had the honor of developing 5 programs that integrate Science, Tech, Reading, Engineering, Art, and Math (STREAM) to impact over 2,000 students across Alabama.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
One of the most interesting stories that have happened since starting STREAM Innovations was within our first year of programming for our STREAM Coding Bootcamp. I spent months developing a program that I envisioned would prepare students to learn web design, in addition, to building their skills around leadership, financial literacy, and entrepreneurship. I was surprised that our first cohort of students appreciated the program but wanted more courses and agreed to return a second, third, and fourth summer. I was completely unaware of how dire the need was but amazed that we connected with students in a way that they wanted to support us in developing programs for them.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The funniest mistake I made in leading a nonprofit was believing that I could do it all and that a business could outperform others based on merit alone. In our first year of programming, this mistake showed me very quickly that starting 3 programs in our first year required developing lasting relationships with clients, partners, stakeholders, and communities. What makes this a funny mistake is to look back on my confidence in using the metrics of success as a scientist to apply to running a STEM-based nonprofit.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
I believe STREAM Innovations is making a significant social impact by supporting our next generation of critical thinkers, problem solvers, and innovators in communities that are under-served to reach under-represented populations of people that have very little exposure to STREAM based activities. I am proud that we can serve students that live in housing authorities, foster homes, lower-income communities and provide quality programming that inspires them to believe in themselves.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
My mother had been a strong supporter of my work from the scientist to CEO. I made the challenging decision to change careers and to move home to pursue a passion that started later in life. She has been a shoulder to cry on for hard days. She has volunteered for countless programs over the years and has provided an annual gift as a top 5% donor to STREAM Innovations. She has supported me on days I wanted to quit, and she has stood next to me on days that I received awards for the work that I have accomplished over the years. I am thankful for her support because it has allowed me to give my all to STREAM Innovations.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
There are at least 3 things that community leaders can do to help address the root problem of students not believing that education is a pathway for their success. As a scientist, I believe we should always look at historical data, collect data from current initiatives, and use these findings to make calculated risks to close education gaps through private and public partnerships. I believe it’s important to assess the effort and investments needed to support the communities with the lowest economic development, educational, and health rankings. Lastly, I believe the power to convene leaders around a specific topic and move to action around those solutions is a tool that community, society, and politicians have at their disposal to address any problem.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I define leadership as having the courage to speak in spaces that you hold power and make decisions that are sound and just. I believe it’s equally important to hear different perspectives to gain clarity of purpose to make decisions on behalf of those that you influence. I have learned over the years as a CEO that leadership is more than making a sound decision from a single perspective. Great leaders understand that it is their responsibility to have the foresight of other outcomes and to make decisions that reflect you values of the people that trust your leadership.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1) “Celebrate small and large wins…even if you do it alone. “ There have been times that I did not celebrate the hard work of completing a project and I jumped directly into a new project. I did not give myself time to pause and breathe in the win because I wanted others there to cheer me on.
2) “When starting a business, people support you and not your ideas….it’s not personal.” I often believed that in order to have support, I needed validation of my ideas. I have come to understand that as I pursue any idea, my success or failure will help validate the idea. Support from people can come and go at any time.
3) “Pace yourself, no one can solve the world’s problems on the first try. It took decades to make these problems and the bigger problems don’t have simple solutions.” As I gained success with our programs, each year I uncovered a new layer of problems that I could have never solved at first look.
4) and 5) Find time to enjoy friends and family. Take vacations as frequently as possible because they can give you the focus needed to see a new perspective.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would inspire a movement to encourage the voice of young innovation. I believe we have brilliant young people in our country that are bored and uninspired by how our society equates innovation to wealthy men of a certain age. I would love to create a platform that inspires and connects young people to global challenges that require passion and a willingness to push through failures to create solutions that impact our society.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My father often quoted Winston Churchill to me during challenging days in graduate school and the same quote applied to running a company. “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would like to have a private meal with Howie Liu, the co-founder of Airtable.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Dr Adrienne Starks of STREAM Innovations Is Helping To Change Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.