Video: Web experience director introduces girls to wide world of STEM
When Zerlina Jackson’s friend invited her over for breakfast, Jackson didn’t know breakfast would include a pitch to volunteer with the Girl Scouts. As her friend told Jackson the different ways she could get involved, the Spark Events designed to expose girls to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers caught Jackson’s interest.
“There is so much more to STEM than lab coats and coding,” said Jackson, director of web experience for H&R Block.
Even though she grew up loving computers, as a young girl she didn’t know about many career options that could incorporate her interest in computer technology.
“When I was younger I was [really] into technology and computer technology. It’s just always been one of those things that has just pulled me in. But I didn’t really know where to go. I never really had an outlet as a young girl to be able to explore those options,” said Jackson. “So me giving back and volunteering my time so that other young women can have that outlet was a no brainer to me.”
Filling the STEM gap for today’s youth
When Jackson brought up the idea of hosting a Spark Event, her boss, vice president of interactive Amy Hu, was very supportive. With Hu’s backing, and with help from other colleagues inside and outside the company, last week Jackson hosted a Spark Event to show girls what she does and widen their horizons about STEM careers.
“We so appreciate the dedication and excitement Zerlina and Amy had for sharing their work and expertise with Girl Scouts. These kinds of events help build a passion in girls for following STEM careers,” said Anne Einig, director of Girl Scouts of northeast Kansas and northwest Missouri.
After a tour of the H&R Block world headquarters, the girls heard from Jackson and Hu on their jobs.
“One of the young ladies said, ‘you talked a lot about STEM. What is STEM?’ And it kind of made me chuckle. Usually what people think when they think of STEM is I’m probably a forensic scientist or I’m a doctor or an engineer that’s actually building a car, but STEM is in everything,” said Jackson.
But Jackson and Hu didn’t just talk about STEM; they also promised to give the girls some hands-on experience. After pizza came the hands-on highlight: working in teams, the girls designed and presented their own cookie websites.
As for where the girls could go in their futures, Jackson suggested they look a little broader and deeper than the usual suspects.
“I mentioned to the girls, you may hear STEM when it comes to Apple and Microsoft and Facebook, but every company is concerned about STEM. When you have a better technology that clients want to use, they want to work with you more often,” said Jackson. “STEM careers are everywhere. You can be STEM anywhere you work, any company, any role.”
In her role with interactive marketing specifically, Jackson said they build a lot of things with technology and measure everything they do.
“We enable marketing with technology and we measure everything, so I have a little saying that we put the M in STEM, but it’s really true because we’re do a lot of calculations and math to figure out if what we’re doing is actually working,” said Jackson.
Following the steps to STEM, or not
The path to Jackson’s job in STEM at H&R Block wasn’t a straightforward one. Although she said she always loved computers, even remembering when they first brought them in to her school, she wasn’t sure of her career path.
After getting her Associate’s in computer information systems and Bachelor’s in computer science from the University of Michigan, she started working at Domino’s Pizza. That’s where the chief information officer suggested she may want to be a coder one day, and she politely declined.
“Coding just wasn’t for me. You could miss one semi-colon and it just messed up your whole day,” Jackson said.
Although she didn’t like coding, a database marketing course she took while getting her Master’s in management and marketing pointed her toward her next career steps.
“I thought, this is kind of neat. The idea of using technology to enable marketing was so exciting to me. Domino’s had just launched online ordering so I scheduled a meeting with the vice president of precision marketing at the time to discuss how I could merge the two things I enjoyed,” said Jackson.
Now, she’s managing a team of web experts at H&R Block. And although she’s not a developer, she acknowledges that being exposed to coding early on helped her in her career path.
“I have a very strong admiration for all of our developers here. They do amazing things every day that help us all meet our goals.”
Whether it’s earlier in life as a young girl or early in a career as a recent grad, Jackson knows the benefit of having someone who has some experience to help guide a career.
“You need someone to get the momentum started so you can navigate your options,” said Jackson, who is doing that for girls who are now looking up to her.
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