Teen Social Activist Carisa Shah Tackles the Cyberbullying Epidemic

Carisa Shah is a senior at The Dalton School in New York City. She is passionate about using her computer science knowledge for social good. She is a trailblazer who believes that surrounding herself with like-minded individuals is the best way to tackle problems, design creative solutions and turn her ideas into reality.

Carisa is a three-time National Center for Women and Information Technology Tri-State Award Winner and National Award Runner-up. She is a HERlead Fellow and a Youth Assembly at the United Nations Outstanding Delegate Finalist. Her research on pathogen identification in prostate cancer biopsies using transcriptome sequencing was recently published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. Carisa was a member of the White House Council on Women and Girls and was one of the only high school students selected to attend the White House Summit on the United State of Women and the White House Frontiers Conference.

City where you’re from: New York City

Hobbies: Kayaking, cake-decorating, painting landscapes, robotics, reading, tennis, and reading medical case studies

Favorite quote:

“You have brains in your head.

You have feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself

Any direction you choose.”

― Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

Social accounts: Twitter

Hi Carisa, glad to have you on Future Sharks. What are you working on? How did you come up with this idea?

Carisa Shah: When I was in eighth grade, my robotics team represented the United States at the World RoboCup Junior Championship in Brazil. While it was an amazing experience, the number of girls at the competition really highlighted the gender gap in technology. There were hundreds of students representing over 50 teams from around the world, but only a handful of girls. Last year, I was invited to the White House Summit on the United State of Women where I attended the STEM Education Agency Forum. I participated in sessions with Congressional leaders and agency administrators focused on topics related to President Obama’s STEM initiatives. It was an amazing experience. While discussing factors that dissuade girls from pursuing careers in STEM-related fields, I learned about cyberbullying and its devastating effects on young women. Fifty-two percent of students in the US have reported being cyberbullied. Ninety-six percent of children use social media and ninety-five percent of teenagers who witnessed cyberbullying ignored the behavior. Girls are twice as likely to be victims of cyberbullying, which has long- lasting psychological, social, and physical effects. While researching the effects of cyberbullying on children, I learned that many schools incorporate technology into their curriculum, but most schools do not have an internet safety program. To address this serious issue, I created CyberSensibility.

CyberSensibility is a free, online internet safety program that provides modules, videos, and worksheets to combat cyberbullying. I worked with my computer science teacher, health teacher, the school psychologist, and other students to understand all sides of this issue. I used Scratch, a game animation software, to create a video to demonstrate the difference between bullying and teasing and to highlight the varying degrees of cyberbullying. I also created a presentation that contains general information about cyberbullying and used HTML and CSS to create a website where my curriculum can be accessed. Each lesson plan contains worksheets that teachers can easily and inexpensively reproduce to reach more students, making the project sustainable. I received a $1,500 grant to implement my project and help reach hundreds of kids.

How is your company different?

Carisa Shah: CyberSensibility is different because it offers lesson plans that teachers, students, and parents can easily access and inexpensively reproduce, making the project sustainable and able to reach more students. It is kid-friendly and is meant to teach internet safety in a non-confrontational and non-didactic way. We are working with Cyber Safety Consulting, who with the Clinton Global Initiative, will help disseminate the curriculum to schools nationwide. We are specifically targeting underrepresented minorities in STEM and children from underfunded schools in order to bridge the gender gap and increase visibility in the computer science industry.

What’s your dream with your company?

Carisa Shah: Cyberbullying disproportionately affects middle school girls, impacting their confidence, their willingness to pursue STEM, and their desire to hold leadership roles. Most girls have decided whether or not they want to pursue a career in tech by the end of middle school. Cyberbullying prevents girls from going into tech, which further widens the gender gap. Robotics has empowered me, giving me confidence in my abilities. I want other girls to feel the same way. I hope that my program will combat cyberbullying, empower other girls, and help bridge the gender gap. I ultimately hope my company will inspire other girls to pay it forward and to take on an issue that is facing their community.

How do you creatively advertise?

Carisa Shah: I recently worked with Joanne Harpel, the founder and CEO of Rethink the Conversation, and partnered with Liz Repking, the founder of Cyber Safety Consulting, to further develop my program and disseminate my curriculum to schools. Both Joanne Harpel and Liz Repking are experts in mental health and bullying and have promoted my curriculum through their extensive networks. I have also cold-called many schools and have garnered wide-spread interest in my program. I hope to roll out my curriculum in many schools across the country during the 2017–2018 school year.

I was recently selected to be a HERlead Fellow, a leadership program by Ann Inc. and Vital Voices Global Partnership designed to empower young women, teaching them the skills necessary to become global leaders. Through this fellowship, I was able to network with other fellows and the distinguished speakers, including the editor-in-chief of Marie Claire, Anne Fulenwider, and the CEO and President of ANN INC., Gary Muto. One of the most valuable connections I made was with Luz Maria de la Mora, an advocate of young women, a politician in Mexico, and founder of LMM Consulting. With her help, I hope to expand my program to schools and students in Mexico and to partner with companies aiming to bridge the gender gap abroad.

Who is your role model and why?

Carisa Shah: My hero is Ursula Burns, the chairman and former CEO of Xerox. She was the first black woman to head a Fortune 500 company. She is an excellent role model for young women and minorities, two underrepresented groups in technology. Only 3% of the computing workforce is comprised of African-American women, which makes her story even more inspiring. Ursula worked her way up the corporate ladder over 36 years — she started as a summer intern and eventually worked her way up to become CEO. I am particularly impressed by her tenacity and the fact that she is self-made. Her achievements as a black woman in tech prove that every girl is capable of making a difference. Ursula Burns is a champion of women’s rights and recently spoke at Bit by Bit: Breaking the Barrier for Girls in Tech, the high school technology conference that I co-organized. During her keynote, she said life is about making choices and she encouraged girls to channel their energy and compassion into becoming trailblazers and powerful forces of change. I hope that I can continue to make a difference. I particularly like her quote: “Dreams do come true, but not without the help of others, a good education, a strong work ethic and the courage to lean in” — Ursula Burns.

What were your biggest failure and biggest success? What did you learn from them?

Carisa Shah: I have always held myself to high standards. I take pride in my accomplishments and love learning for the sake of learning. My persistence and motivation allow me to excel. Since fifth grade, I have been teaching myself computer science languages and software development tools. I have been fortunate to be recognized for my aspirations in computing by the National Center for Women in Technology at both the national and state level for the past three years. Last year, I was also selected to be the only high school member on the White House Council on Women and Girls. Both of these opportunities have further strengthened my resolve to bridge the gender gap in technology. When I was in eighth grade and witnessed first-hand the lack of women in STEM fields, I was inspired to make a difference. I think this was my biggest success — noticing an issue and doing something about it, it instead of being discouraged by it.

I think my biggest failure was waiting for my curriculum to be completely developed and wanting my organization to be fully established before I reached out to schools and programs that might want to use my curriculum. I have always had pride in my work and often want everything to be perfect before taking action. Being a perfectionist has always been a trait that I admire and dislike about myself.

Give the readers the best entrepreneurship advice you have.

Carisa Shah: I created CyberSensibility because I am passionate about health and bridging the gender gap in STEM. I would advise every entrepreneur to stick with their passions because ultimately if you are doing what you love, no one can stop you from reaching the stars.

What’s something new you’ve learned in the past month?

Carisa Shah: Pay inequality is a worldwide problem that I am passionate about solving. According to the United States Department of Labor, white women make on average 83 cents to every dollar a white man earns. Hispanic women make 45 percent less than white men and black women make 40 percent less than white men. Pay inequality affects women in the United States and internationally, and in both cases, it makes it harder for women to participate in their communities. Pay inequality also affects economic growth and health. Living in a society that has a large wage gap can cause undue stress and ultimately result in adverse health consequences. There are many downstream consequences of having less pay for equal work, but most importantly it makes it harder to support a family. Families are more likely to be impoverished and malnourished, launching them into the cycle of oppression. With each generation, the gap between men and women created by pay inequality widens. I believe that in order to make sustainable changes, we have to start at home. If women earn the same as their male counterparts, they will be empowered and help drive economic and social change, both at home and abroad. Investing in women is the key to building stronger and healthier communities and ending poverty.

What do you think you do better than most people?

Carisa Shah: In eighth grade, my robotics team represented the United States in the RoboCup Junior World Championships in João Pessoa, Brazil. I remember eagerly waiting to meet people from around the world. Once we landed in Brazil, we realized that all of our tools had gotten lost in transit, so we had to borrow whatever we could from other teams. However, the majority of people at the competition did not speak English. We ended up playing Charades with every team until someone could guess what tool we needed. This experience gave me a deep appreciation for diversity. I also learned that, despite how different we may be, we actually have a lot in common. I recently participated in the HERlead Fellowship, a program attended by people from diverse backgrounds. Even though we did not have similar backgrounds, I was able to connect with every fellow because we were all working towards a common goal. I realized that sometimes the easiest way to connect with others is to identify a common link. In many ways, my personality allows me to be open to people, cultures, and experiences different than my own. I am friendly, sincere, and intellectually curious. I love stretching my mind and challenging myself, and I am always actively engaged with my surroundings. I really enjoy meeting people and having new experiences, and I’ve found that this willingness to engage is often reciprocated.

What should an entrepreneur focus on?

Carisa Shah: I think that the most important thing that an entrepreneur should focus on is having a well thought-out, developed business model before they take their project from a vision to reality. This will ensure that the business runs seamlessly once the fabrication process begins.

What are some of the best books you’ve ever read?

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Where do you see yourself and your product in a couple years?

Carisa Shah: For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a surgeon. I want to use technology and my love for robotics to develop minimally-invasive surgical and diagnostic procedures to improve the quality of patient care and the lives of people. Robotic surgery is already a reality, but with continued improvements in programming and technology, the future of technology in medicine is limitless. I am uniquely positioned because of my passion for computer science and robotics, my love of science and biology, and my desire to help others. I would like to continue to develop my passions in computer science and robotics to create innovative solutions, reduce the burden of disease, and ultimately help people live better everywhere. I also want to serve as a role model and mentor for other girls who want to get involved in STEM. There is a gender gap in computer science, engineering, and surgery. I would like to play a role in bridging this gender gap by inspiring other women to pursue their technological aspirations. I hope that in a few years, CyberSensibility will be used worldwide to combat cyberbullying, empower girls, and bridge the gender gap.

Originally published at Future Sharks.