Cover (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Yu Cheng)

The education pioneer’s Jennifer Yu Cheng Girls Impact Foundation aims to close the STEM opportunity gap through coding and leadership development for teen girls

How do we equip young people for the future? This question has motivated Jennifer Yu Cheng for more than a decade. In 2009, it helped inspire the launch of Arch Education, which prepares students for higher education abroad, and, in 2017, CTF Education Group, a leader in integrated learning.

Still, when Covid-19 hit, it was a wake-up call. She saw the pandemic roll back many gains that women had made in the workforce, while also accelerate the rate of digital transformation that will make a tech education even more critical for everyone.

“The realisation is that there’s this urgency to close the opportunity gaps, especially for women in STEM and women in leadership,” says Yu Cheng. “Being in schools, we know that the gender bias and stereotypes still exist in Hong Kong and around Asia that deter teen girls from pursuing advanced maths and science subjects. My vision is to empower teen girls today—women leaders of tomorrow—to navigate these opportunities of the future.”

To execute this vision and build a talent pipeline, Yu Cheng launched the Jennifer Yu Cheng Girls Impact Foundation (JYCGIF) in December 2020. Already it has partnered with an NGO to give scholarships to 100 girls in China’s Guizhou province, part of the foundation’s commitment to education access. In Hong Kong, its key programme is 10,000 Girls4Girls Coding+, a train-the-trainer model that encourages girls to learn coding and then teach that skill in their communities.

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Piloted this summer with students from Po Leung Kuk schools, it will roll out to more local schools in 2022, eventually expanding throughout the Greater Bay Area and beyond. Yu Cheng, an engineering graduate of Columbia University, gave the coding curriculum a try and appreciated that she had a head start on Python because she previously studied C++ and Java.

“Having a little bit of this digital literacy [means] that you’re able to continue to keep up with the pace of the demands of this fourth language,” says Yu Cheng. “Through the means of learning coding, you actually learn a lot of 21st-century skills that allow for navigation into any career, any field.”

Yu Cheng cites mobilising others to collaborate as an important skill for future leaders, but she doesn’t want to just preach qualities; she wants to enable girls to be leaders. “In local schools, often one or two students are always the class rep or student council leader,” she says. “So being able to find opportunities to experience a leadership role when you’re not typically identified as a leader at school, that’s a really empowering process.”

JYCGIF has hosted school talks with changemakers, from an AI professor to a female leader in finance, chosen based on input from the JYCGIF Youth Board of teens. It will be delivering inspiration on a bigger scale with the inaugural JYCGIF FutureGen Girls Leadership Summit in 2022. “I’m really a believer in ‘seeing is believing’,” Yu Cheng says. “To bring in those inspirational women leaders encourages students to aim high and see what is possible.”

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