Alumni Spotlight: Sandy Marshall, BS ’96
Sandy Marshall is the founder of Project Scientist, a non-profit educational organization that advocates the advancement of girls and women in STEM fields. Project Scientist has partnered with companies, college programs and teachers nationwide to provide opportunities for young girls to explore their STEM interests and passions.
Marshall’s distinguished career in non-profit management spans 25 years, including her roles with the American Heart Association, Special Olympics and Easter Seals, and founder of The NASCAR Foundation. Marshall earned her bachelor of science degree from the USC Price School of Public Policy in 1996.
Can you explain the mission and work of Project Scientist, and your role in the organization?
The promise of Project Scientist is to educate, coach and advocate for girls, ages four to 12, and women with an aptitude, talent, and passion for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Through engagement with top STEM companies, universities, teachers and hands-on curriculum our girls discover the endless opportunities available to them in STEM.
I serve as the CEO and founder of the organization. My role is to work with our board and staff to ensure that we are achieving the mission of the organization and working toward our vision to foster today’s scientists who will lead the world in solving tomorrow’s greatest challenges! I spend a majority of my time meeting with potential funders so that we can serve at least 40 percent of girls from free and reduced lunch households. I also meet with current university partners like USC to plan and execute our summer academy, as well as future university partners to host our girls.
What inspired you to start this non- profit endeavor?
I started Project Scientist summer 2011 out of my guesthouse in Charlotte, North Carolina. While working as the executive director and founder of The NASCAR Foundation, I learned of the disadvantages that girls and women have in STEM majors and careers. This drove me to become committed to doing what I could to make a difference in my own community. Personally, I had experienced gender stereotyping and a lack of role models as I pursued a STEM major in college and as a result changed majors. As a mother of two young girls with a passion for science, I remain committed to changing the status quo for my girls, as well as girls across the country.
The need for Project Scientist was based off a vast amount of research that shows that girls with a high skill, aptitude, and talent for STEM subjects are not currently served or identified at a young age and are therefore not provided STEM opportunities at a pace, depth and breadth commensurate with their talents and interests. I created Project Scientist to change the world’s view of “who” a scientist is and “what” a scientist does.
What do you consider Project Scientist’s biggest accomplishment to date?
As a non-profit start-up, we are grateful that every day we can exist and serve these smart, strong, passionate girls that will change the future of our world through science forever. This summer we are celebrating our fifth summer as a non-profit, serving over 2,000 girls on four university campuses (USC, Caltech, Concordia University – Irvine, UNC Charlotte), engaging nearly 100 female STEM professionals, and over 25 STEM companies.
I am most proud of Project Scientist when I see our girls return week after week and year after year with huge dreams and goals for themselves in the STEM space. Despite what we may see on the Internet, TV, or newspapers regarding our youth and the challenges we face as a country, I can assure you the Project Scientist girls are committed to making the world a better place through science!
I am also proud of the unique business model of Project Scientist, although it is challenging at times, it was set up intentionally to bring the best product to our girls and to run a viable business. Currently 60 percent of our revenue comes from paying clientele and 40 percent from corporate funders and foundations. This earned revenue allows us to be a sustainable non-profit and the grants allow us to serve low-income girls that deserve and need to be in our program. The income diversity of our girls is very intentional to bring out the best in all of our girls. Over the summer you will see low-income students begin to gain great confidence in their abilities and create larger dreams for themselves due to the new friendships they gain with girls outside their home area. You’ll also see our paying clientele gain a great understanding, empathy, and respect for diversity of thought and ideas.
Ideally, what would be your ultimate goal for the organization?
Our focus is on the girls we serve, so our ultimate goals are to continue to serve them as long as they need us to achieve their STEM dreams. Ideally girls will go on to college and serve as interns at our summer academy, then on to Ph.D. programs and/or work in the STEM field and come back and serve as STEM Superstars to our summer academy girls and perhaps engage their company in our program. We really look at our investment in these girls as a long-term strategy to change the percentage of women in STEM and for our girls to eventually mentor the next generation of female STEM professionals.
Of course we believe there are Einsteins and Marie Curies in every neighborhood, so growing our programs to serve more girls in more locations is a top priority as well.
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
I love seeing our girls grow up over the years and witnessing their growth in confidence and aptitude in STEM. We have girls that started with me in my guesthouse and will be with us this summer for their seventh summer. Several of these girls have won international innovation awards in STEM and one of our girls is going to be featured on an upcoming TV show for genius kids.
My favorite part of the week during our summer academy is Friday afternoon when we host a STEM Celebration for community members and parents. Our girls put on a science fair and then all attendees gather in an auditorium to hear each girl give a STEM declaration. Research has proven that when an individual states a goal publically, they are more likely to achieve that goal. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t get chills when they see a four-year-old girl stand up in front of 200 strangers and declare that she is going to be a volcanologist!
What were the biggest challenges you faced in launching Project Scientist, and how did you overcome them?
I don’t know that the challenges I faced starting Project Scientist were unique to anyone starting a social enterprise. Prior to launching Project Scientist, I would spend evenings researching the project and idea all hours of the night and then once we launched the lack of sleep continued. I kept my full-time job until we had four years under our belt, so I had to continue working nights and weekends while raising two young girls.
As an entrepreneur you have to be so confident and passionate about your idea that nothing will take you off course. Because I had been funding and researching the STEM space for years and because I was the customer of this product, I knew exactly what was needed in the space and was confident that it would take off. So, when people asked me, ‘Why are you starting this and why do you think you are suited to start this?’ rather than being discouraged, I had the confidence in my heart to keep pushing and building momentum.
As a non-profit, funding is critical to our success, but the sales process of engaging a foundation is typically very slow. This requires patience, planning, and attention to the outcomes of the constituents you serve. We have attracted support from Duke Energy, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Google Fiber, Wasserman Foundation, Ralph M. Parson Foundation and many others due to our investment in having organizations like Harvard University research our program and prove our outcomes.
How did USC Price prepare you for the work you’re doing now?
I was fortunate to participate in the non-profit management track at USC Price, so it definitely prepared me for a career in non-profits. Prior to starting at Price, I didn’t even know that you could make a living working for non-profits and doing good! I really like the fact that several of the classes in my major were business focused and I definitely believe they helped in starting and running The NASCAR Foundation, Project Scientist and my consulting business. I also know that having USC on my resume and the degree from Price helped me get a head start in my career. It definitely set me apart from the competition.
Was there a Price faculty member or course you found particularly inspirational?
I was fortunate to participate in the LA. Semester program. I grew up in a small town in Minnesota, so having the ability to go out into the field and experience the excitement and diversity of Los Angeles everyday was exciting, inspiring, and educational. Each week we would visit a different neighborhood of Los Angeles, such as Boyle Heights, Venice, Pico Union, Watts, and government entities. We would meet with community leaders, learn about their struggles, accomplishments and dreams for their communities.
I cannot say enough about this program and how it created greater awareness and empathy in me to want to become a social entrepreneur and use my resources and knowledge to make a difference in this world.
What was your most memorable moment as a student at USC Price?
I can still remember touring Boyle Heights in 1995 and meeting Father Boyle. He talked with us about his relatively new venture, Home Boy Bakery. The end of our visit hooked me on the idea of creating a social enterprise business for good. I remember being so proud of USC at the time as I believe we were one of his first commercial customers.
Is there any advice you’d like to share with students as they begin their own careers?
For me, I believe I have been successful for several reasons. First, I picked a focus area that I am passionate about and learned everything I could to be successful. After leaving USC, I attended UC Irvine and received a certificate in non-profit management. Several years later, I studied to become a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE). I also held a variety of positions in my field at a variety of companies from grassroots education foundations to international companies like the American Heart Association. These experiences and coursework gave me the knowledge to be confident in my abilities and to gain a network of peers and leaders to support my career.
Find a mentor! When I started The NASCAR Foundation, I was one of the few female executives at NASCAR and suddenly had a team of employees reporting to me. I enlisted the support of several mentors to serve as sounding boards and to train me to become a better leader as well as to not take myself too seriously!
Finally, don’t neglect your health. Starting a company will suck everything out of you. I had several years of no sleep, no exercise, and lots of late night pizzas! I think the entrepreneurship space used to promote this sort of crazy lifestyle and you would wear it like a badge of courage. I’m hopeful that this is changing, as it’s not healthy for anyone to not be 100 percent, especially for someone wanting to change the world.