Interview by Megan Foo
Olivia Pavco-Giaccia is a junior at Yale University, studying Cognitive Science. An advocate for girls in science, Olivia is the Founder and CEO of LabCandy, a social enterprise venture with the mission of cultivating girls’ interest in science. LabCandy makes available to girls fun and colorful lab gear and age-appropriate storybooks, attacking common stereotypes about men and women in science fields.
Women LEAD: What is your background?
Olivia Pavco-Giaccia: I am a Cognitive Science major at Yale University. In addition, in the spring of my freshman year, I was selected as a Fellow of the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute. Thanks to that Fellowship, LabCandy progressed from idea to reality. My other work background includes internships in a neurobiology lab at Stanford University and at Georgetown University Lombardi Cancer Center. Currently, I’m also a member of the Champions Board of the National Girls Collaborative Project.
Women LEAD: You are the Founder of LabCandy, an initiative that helps to get girls interested in science through fun and fashionable lab gear. Can you tell us more about LabCandy and its impact?
Olivia Pavco-Giaccia: LabCandy actually started as a blog that I wrote while doing research in a neurobiology lab at Stanford University. The blog was targeted at getting young girls interested in science, and was a first-hand account of my experiences at the (lab) bench. One day I posted a picture of some beadazzled lab goggles.
I didn’t think anything of it until I logged on and saw the comments from little girls all over the country asking me: “where can I get a pair of those goggles!” That was the moment where I realized I had stumbled across something that resonated with girls. I decided to make another pair…and another and the concept of mobilizing LabCandy and its products to encourage girls’ interest in science was born. And I’m loving every second of it!
Our mission here at LabCandy is to cultivate young girls’ interest in science by showing them that the field has room for girls like them. Although women constitute about 58% of the U.S. workforce, they hold less than 25% of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs. There are a number of factors contributing to this discrepancy, one of which is the persistent stereotype that scientists are nerdy, old guys. The sad truth is, when most people close their eyes and picture a scientist, they picture Albert Einstein in a white lab coat and thick plastic goggles. There is not much in this image that is relatable or even interesting to a young girl. LabCandy attacks this stereotype directly, allowing girls to change what they think a scientist is supposed to look like. By making available brightly colored lab coats, fun goggles, and engaging science adventure storybooks, LabCandy encourages every young girl to picture herself as the scientist that she can grow up to be.
Women LEAD: Why, to you, is it important that more girls enter STEM fields?
Olivia Pavco-Giaccia: In the short term, encouraging young girls in STEM promotes self-confidence, creativity, and critical thinking skills. In the long term, it opens up new job opportunities. STEM jobs in the US in the past 10 years have grown at three times the pace of non-STEM jobs, and women working in STEM-related fields earn on average 33% more than those that don’t. Getting women involved in STEM is essential to closing the gender wage gap, and empowering our next generation of problem solvers. It will make for a brighter future for our young girls and for our nation.
Women LEAD: What needs to change in order to close the gender gap in STEM industries?
Olivia Pavco-Giaccia: There are many different ways to work on addressing the historic gender gap in STEM. For a comprehensive list, check out http://www.ngcproject.org/about-ngcp. LabCandy focuses on transforming the stereotype that scientists are ‘supposed to be’ nerdy and male. We want to make science feel more accessible to our young girls, and to encourage them to picture themselves as scientists. Not only is our gear colorful and fun, but our storybook characters are colorful and fun, too. We created them to be relatable, spunky role models who will help young girls realize that the world of science offers them opportunities for creating, collaborating and solving real-world problems.
Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?
Olivia Pavco-Giaccia: There have actually been three women who have had significant impacts on my life. Two of them were my teachers: Mary Cahill in middle school and Denise Reitz in high school. The other is Karen Peterson, the leader of the National Girls Collaborative Project, the largest non-profit in the US devoted to encouraging girls in STEM.
When I was a young girl, I sat quietly in the back of my classroom, not believing that I was a “science kid.” It was Ms. Cahill’s enthusiasm for science and encouragement that sparked my interest in science.
In high school, Ms. Reitz, also a science teacher, was my advisor and encouraged me to pursue science both inside and outside school. She supported me in my submission to the Siemens Science Competition and we celebrated together when I was selected as a Semi-Finalist winner. Ms. Reitz was so influential in my life that I named the teacher in LabCandy’s first storybook after her. She helps our main character, Ava, save the day, as she did for me so many times.
I met Ms. Peterson while in high school and her unrelenting energy and passion for encouraging girls in STEM has provided me with an incredible role model. She has welcomed me into the fabulous NGCP community, introduced me to other girl-centric activists, and has generously shared her time and advice with me over many years.
As Professor Eileen Pollack wrote in the New York Times, “The most powerful determinant of whether a woman goes on in science might be whether anyone encourages her to go on.” I’ve been so lucky to have these three wonderful women provide me such fabulous support, mentorship and encouragement.
Women LEAD: What advice do you have for prospective social entrepreneurs?
Olivia Pavco-Giaccia: Go for it! If you have an idea or cause that you are passionate about, take the risk to get involved and make a difference. Block out the nay-sayers and surround yourself with positive people. Learn about entrepreneurship and begin to take steps to make your idea become a reality.
Women LEAD: Are there websites or books that are inspiring you right now about gender equality and women’s empowerment?
Olivia Pavco-Giaccia: Of course, I love the website of the National Girls Collaborative Project. (www.ngcp.com). It offers lots of up-to-date news on happenings in the STEM world, plus it highlights a lot of the creative programs for young women and girls that are happening on both the local and national fronts. I also enjoy the site for “A Mighty Girl.” (http://www.amightygirl.com/) It offers a great variety of books and products focused on sending positive images out to young girls. They also have the most inspirational Facebook posts.