Women’s Impact Network: 1 Million Ways to Make a Difference
The Women’s Impact Network (WIN), a diverse group of women who share a passion for education, leadership, and philanthropy, is making a difference in the WPI community and beyond by supporting initiatives that advance women in STEM.
Each year, WIN members donate hundreds of thousands of dollars that are then distributed to WPI students, faculty, staff, and alumnae through Impact Grants. Every WIN member—anyone who donates to WIN—has the opportunity to vote on which grants are funded each year. In the five years since WIN was founded, the group has raised more than $900,000 and funded 53 grants—20 aimed at diversity and inclusion and 12 supporting K-12 pipeline development.
WIN is currently accepting applications for its next round of grants and will award its one-millionth dollar in spring 2021.
“Overall, it is very gratifying to have helped launch WIN and now be reaching giving of $1 million,” says Joan Szkutak ’79, co-chair of WIN. “To see the impact we have had across a wide spectrum of grants is so rewarding—from encouraging young girls to consider STEM, to partnering with our women’s chorus Alden Voices to enable them to establish an endowment to buy music, to supporting undergraduate women to get the chance to do research over the summer break working hand in hand with women professors, to enabling our young women professors to attend conferences that will help advance their scientific endeavors—these are just a few of examples of how we are having an impact at WPI.”
Karen Oliver ’82 is co-chair of the WIN Impact Committee, which reviews the grant applications prior to releasing them to the full membership for the final vote. Oliver has been involved since WIN’s founding, helping develop the grant guidelines, application process, and evaluation rubric. Her reasons for getting involved with WIN run deeper.
“In addition to supporting women in STEM, I became involved with WIN to reconnect with WPI. I wanted to keep in touch with what the WPI students, faculty, and staff are doing,” Oliver says. “By reviewing grant proposals, I’m able to keep abreast of this work and influence funding of proposals that will have an impact on women at all stages of their careers. As an added bonus, I love meeting the WIN grant recipients and learning about the amazing work they’ve accomplished.”
The applicants seek grants ranging anywhere from $1,000 to $50,000, Oliver says, adding that some of the small awards make a huge difference. She points to “It’s On Us,” a social movement created in 2014 by the White House Council on Women and Girls to raise awareness of and fight against sexual assault on college campuses for both men and women. This campaign encourages the public to stand up against sexual assault and step away from the sidelines to be an active part of the solution. The WPI Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), with coaches Brian Kelley and Whitney Goldstein, applied for a WIN grant to join the nationally renowned campaign by developing a WPI Athletics “It’s On Us” video and requiring each WPI student-athlete to be educated in sexual violence prevention and take the “It’s On Us” pledge to stop sexual assault. To date, the national campaign has educated almost 5,000 student leaders.
“It’s a very simple thing, not very expensive, but maybe wouldn’t have come to fruition without our support,” says Oliver, adding, “I like to see the results of my donation. It’s rewarding to see how my contribution to WIN is helping the students and faculty.”
Audrey Fitzgerald, co-chair of the Impact Committee, agrees. “We have learned from our grant recipients," she says, "that sometimes even just small things can change their future.” Fitzgerald, a member of the WPI family through her husband, WPI Trustee William Fitzgerald III ’83, is also a founding member of WIN and has been involved in defining the group’s mission and vision.
“Getting to know the fabulous group of WPI women who are as passionate as I am about supporting women in STEM has been a life-changing experience,” she says. “We all have seen the challenges of being a woman in STEM and realize that using our talents to support other women can make a difference. From encouraging young girls to think about careers in STEM, to supporting female students and female faculty in the university environment and beyond, these are all areas where we can have an impact.”
A WIN grant has supported the Global Women in Data Science conference, which aims to inspire and educate data scientists worldwide, regardless of gender, and support women in the field. This annual conference, featuring female speakers exclusively, is held at Stanford University and is broadcast or livestreamed at more than 100 locations worldwide. WPI Women in Data Science established itself as the Central Massachusetts satellite with a conference in 2018. It features talks by leading data scientists from academia and industry, an on-site panel discussion, live-streamed content from the Global Event, and a poster session demonstrating some of the data science-focused research performed by female students at WPI and other local universities. The inaugural event at WPI quickly reached its 200-person capacity and included students and business professionals.
Fitzgerald has been instrumental in refining the grant review process. One aspect of WIN she particularly enjoys is learning about the grants from the application, meeting the applicants, and learning what they’ve been able to achieve.
“I am continually amazed at the talent and passion of our applicants and have absolutely loved getting to meet them and talk about their work at our events over the years,” she says.
Beth Anne McGee Willett ’93 recalls the ratio of men to women when she was a WPI undergraduate—seven to one. When she graduated, she found herself the only woman engineer in manufacturing settings.
“Women can greatly benefit from mentors and projects specific to their interests,” says Willett, who is also a member of the Impact Committee and has worked on updating the grant scoring rubric. “These grants also provide pathways to increase self-confidence, boost communication skills, and enhance leadership qualities that will benefit women throughout their careers.”
Willett has been especially gratified by WIN’s support of K-12 initiatives that encourage girls to go into STEM fields. For several years, WIN has funded the Women’s Research and Mentorship Program (WRAMP), which addresses the relatively low numbers of women at all levels of higher education nationally. Through WRAMP, WPI’s Office of Pre-Collegiate Outreach Programs (POP) uses targeted outreach programs to broadly encourage young women to enter STEM and to recruit local young women to WPI, and to give high school women the opportunity to engage in experimental research in WPI labs with female graduate student role models. WRAMP provides a necessary program for high school women, and opportunities for graduate students to engage in teaching and mentoring.
WRAMP is earning recognition for its effectiveness in encouraging young women to enter and stay in STEM fields. A paper about WRAMP was recently selected by the American Society for Engineering Education 2020 Virtual Conference as Best Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Paper in the Pre-College Engineering Education Division.
For Szkutak and the other WIN leaders, seeing the results of their philanthropy is another benefit of the group’s work.
“I hope that WIN strengthens WPI’s culture of philanthropy and in a way that is particularly meaningful to women,” Szkutak says. “As a woman, I want to see the impact of my time and donations, and WIN has been so powerful for me. Not only am I making a difference to WPI, which I love, but I am also seeing the impact firsthand.”