Silicon Valley luminaries piled into the Fairmont in San Jose on Wednesday to honor those who have done their bit to encourage kids to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
Valley lawyering legend Larry Sonsini was the main event. He was honored at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation’s annual Pioneers & Purpose dinner for his philanthropy and his knack for backing businesses that changed the world and made him very well off. But my favorite honoree was the Level Playing Field Institute, which was founded in 2001 by Freada Klein Kapor to encourage kids to pursue careers in the fields commonly know as STEM — science, technology, engineering and math, get it?
That’s not to say the other honorees weren’t worthy, but I got to know Freada Klein Kapor and her husband, Mitch Kapor, of Lotus 1-2-3 fame, when I wrote a couple of columns about their SMASH program, which grew out of Level Playing Field.
You can read my column from August 2011 below:
Give a kid a chance and you’ll be amazed at what happens next.
That thought kept rolling through my mind as I surveyed the controlled chaos that was lunch for 80 teenagers who’d moved onto Stanford’s campus to take five summer weeks of intensive math and science courses.
I know. What’s so different about a passel of brilliant kids studying hard stuff at Stanford?
Well, for one thing, a pessimist might look at these particular kids working their way through hamburgers, chicken and mashed potatoes, and conclude that they are not college material. In fact, the vast majority of them would be the first in their families to go to college. Nearly all of them attend high schools where most students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. Some live in tough neighborhoods. Some dodge gangs on the way to and from school — and maybe even at school.
But that’s not what defines them. Not at all. The kids at Stanford, members of the inaugural class of the Silicon Valley version of the Summer Math and Science Honors Academy (SMASH), are energetic, optimistic, determined, resourceful and approaching brilliant.
“I want to be here forever, ” says Hi Vo, 16, who arrived in the United States from Vietnam two years ago knowing almost no English. “It’s helped me to pursue my dream to become a mathematical physicist.”
A dream. Hi, who will soon be a junior at San Jose’s Del Mar High School, has a dream and it’s one that he fully intends to realize through hard work, including the SMASH program, which consists of three hours of math and science classes each morning, two hours of a combined math and science course in the afternoon and evening classes that cover study habits, time management and college survival skills.
The program, which launched at UC Berkeley seven years ago, is the brainchild (emphasis on brain) of tech pioneer Mitch Kapor and his wife, Freada. This summer the program is hosting the students at Stanford and 80 more at Berkeley, with plans to expand to other schools in coming years. SMASH graduates, who attend up to three consecutive summers, have gone on to attend top-tier universities like, well, Stanford and Berkeley.
Scholar Jessica Ngo, a rising senior at James Lick High School, has her sights set on Stanford, MIT and UC Berkeley, among other schools. And while she’s aware of the vast disparities in funding among local high schools, she doesn’t buy the argument that you need to attend a gold-plated high school in order to make it into a gold-plated university.
“If you’re determined and motivated, ” she says, “then no matter where you go, you ought to be able to succeed.”
That is the attitude both Freada Kapor Klein and Mitch Kapor co-creator of the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet, were trying to foster among low-income kids of color when they came up with SMASH. They believed many gave up on kids from poor families before they even had a chance to shine. They realized that there is no reason kids facing tough circumstances couldn’t soar every bit as high as children who have it all, or have much of it anyway. And so they asked kids who showed math and science promise to apply to SMASH in a way similar to applying for college (essays, recommendations, transcripts etc.).
I wrote about SMASH in May and promised to follow up with a visit to the program, which is how I found myself talking to Mitch Kapor amid the dining hall din on Stanford’s campus. He was thrilled with what he had seen that morning. He choked up, as he often does when he visits SMASH scholars, while talking about a girl he met who couldn’t wait to get back to her high school to use what she was learning at SMASH.
“Somebody had just unlocked something in her,” Kapor says. “It’s just incumbent on us, on society, to do its part. She’s going to do her part.”
And that’s what makes SMASH, and other programs trying to help kids, both heartwarming and heartbreaking. It’s heartwarming that some who have prospered from the tech revolution have taken it upon themselves to give others the opportunity to improve their lives.
Mitch Kapor and FreadaKapor Klein have anted up some of their personal fortune and their talents to fund and raise funds for the SMASH program, which is free for the students who attend. There are other efforts in Silicon Valley — such as ALearn and Breakthrough — working to give a boost to low-income students and to create the expectation in their minds that, of course, they will go to college.
But these admirable programs are a reminder of how much more needs to be done. And they underscore the sad fact that our public school system leaves plenty of children behind.
“It’s today up to private programs, largely, to make up the gap, ” Mitch Kapor says. “For every kid that we serve, we know that there are 10 we haven’t even heard about.”
Ten more who are ready to do great things, if only someone would give them the chance.
Contact Mike Cassidy at email@example.com or 408-920-5536.