Winnie Karanja wanted to provide STEM education to students of diverse backgrounds. She ended up forming a successful nonprofit startup. Now, she has some wisdom to share with women who want to do the same.
Karanja, self-taught in database software and programming, received her undergraduate degree in education, and her master’s in developmental studies from the London School of Economics. Having lived in both Madison, WI, and Nairobi, she dreamed of starting a STEM-focused school for girls in Kenya.
After returning to Wisconsin from London, Karanja consulted statewide nonprofit organizations and university centers in research and data analysis to aid in their social impact measurements and program development.
For four months, she also met with an elementary school principal to springboard ideas of how to bring STEM education to East Africa, when they both realized how few local resources there were to introduce students to tech-based skills. Karanja offered to put together a curriculum and hold a workshop, which was how the educational startup, Maydm, was born.
Coming into its third year, Maydm has worked cumulatively with almost 500 students by forming strong relationships with local nonprofits, elementary schools, and community centers, as well as securing partnerships with companies such as Google, ZenDesk, and American Family Insurance.
Karanja shared her insights with Girlboss on what it takes to start, sustain, and succeed with a mission-drive startup.
What is Maydm?
We introduce and engage girls and students of color with the skills to pursue technical opportunities. Our students learn programming languages, and we couple that with a holistic program that involves both mentorship and exposure. Especially when the US government and the UK Department of Education started having such a big focus on STEM, it really opened my eyes to what those opportunities had afforded me, and that a lot of students couldn’t see those possibilities.
So Maydm’s focus is immersive-style education; we take our students on exposure trips to different tech companies in the area, and they always have a mentor, someone who champions them, and who helps them identify where their strengths are in the tech sector.
Why did you decide to form Maydm as a nonprofit?
I knew for Maydm to reach its goals, we would need the community’s support to get there. I saw that our mission in immersive programs, which takes a lot of manpower to really pull together—there are mentors and exposure trips—could be best achieved through the nonprofit lens.
How is starting a nonprofit different from starting a traditional business?
To start a nonprofit, you need at least three roles: a board chair, a treasurer, and a secretary. No one is the owner. The board is the governing body of the nonprofit and oversees activities, raises funds, approves budgets, and essentially keeps you accountable.
They’re really the people who are behind you, and it’s important to be very intentional about getting the right supporters on your board who are going to have your back. It’s helpful in just accomplishing something—so you know it’s not just you, by yourself.
If someone was thinking of starting a nonprofit, what’s some advice you would give?
I would say, assess if you need to start something and if you can support it. Sometimes, people may feel like, in order to do good, they need to start or work for a nonprofit. No! Join a board, serve on a committee. Young professionals especially bring a whole new side of understanding. By being able to serve on a committee or a board, you can help add value by addressing a small gap instead of starting a new thing and competing in a way.
Also, look at how you can work with people, especially as a new nonprofit, and leverage your network and their network by doing something in partnership. Having that social capital is important for both business and nonprofit.
What’s social capital?
Social capital is the networks and the community you’re connected to. Those are the people who will leverage their name on your behalf, or who will introduce you to people. Because of this person vouching for you, or speaking highly of you, it’s saying to someone else who doesn’t know you, that they need to get to know your work.
How has building this social capital and relationships with the local community been important in supporting Maydm?
Getting involved with the local tech scene has been helpful in just starting and building relationships. The folks here have been very good at introducing me to people and helping me see where Maydm’s connections could be greater in the community.
I was privileged and blessed where we had our first office; it was a space where a lot of tech companies had gone through, and the person who ran the office had deep roots in the tech scene and was great in plugging me in initially. Maydm also hosted an event called Code Madison Forward that was helpful in creating awareness for what we’re doing.
I’m continuing to grow my board not just based on our needs as an organization, but what the community needs from us. All our relationships and programs look very different depending on the needs of our partners, whether it’s a community center or a school. So it’s about being attentive and being aware.
Who is the clientele? Who do they work with? What is the demographic? What are the barriers for the students whom we’re trying to reach? Taking the time to stop and understand has been really helpful in deepening relationships with the partners we already have.
For more information on starting a nonprofit of your own, head here.