Mentoring Is Critical to Keep Minorities in STEM Here are three ways that entrepreneurs can encourage these kids to work toward science and engineering careers.

By Sophia Shaw

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Demand for STEM-trained (science, technology, engineering and math) workers continues to grow. While approximately 40,000 people graduate each year with a bachelor's degree in computer science, there are roughly four million job openings for computer science professionals.

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Overall, STEM job vacancies take more than twice as long to fill as those in other fields.

To fill this gap, we need skilled, passionate workers to take on jobs in science, conservation, engineering and mathematics. And, fortunately, there is a great potential pool of STEM talent: America's minorities. Currently, nearly three in four of U.S. scientists and engineers are white. African Americans and Hispanics, however, represent only 11 percent of all STEM employees, though they comprise 26 percent of the workforce.

With our population growing increasingly more diverse, and the demand for STEM-trained workers continuing to grow, it's safe to say that there are many talented individuals we could be fostering to fill more STEM jobs. Addressing this lack of diversity is key if the United States wants to be a leader in STEM fields. And entrepreneurs working in the tech, engineering and sciences industries are the ones to do it. Here's how:

1. Think about the issue from the perspective of minority kids themselves.

If you are a student from a minority background, you are much less likely to know someone in a STEM career and more likely to be the first in your family to go to college. Are you interested in a STEM degree and career? Chances are, you will need to look beyond your immediate family -- and even your school -- for guidance.

2. Invest in, volunteer for, established STEM mentoring programs.

As an entrepreneur, take a closer look at successful programs outside of school that are engaging students from a variety of backgrounds in specialized STEM and arts training: Their one common element is structured, intentional mentoring. Consider programs like Girls Who Code, the Chicago Botanic Garden's own Science Career Continuum and the Sphinx Organization. There are likely more local efforts and organizations where you live.

These programs offer a formal mentoring structure -- whether mentors are paid or volunteer-- through which youth have access to people committed to supporting the success of the next generation.

Related: What Happens When You Ask Fifth Graders to Solve a Big Life Problem? A Little Bit of Genius.

3. Consider mentoring a minority student one-on-one.

One-on-one attention from a mentor enables students to envision a rewarding career they might otherwise not known about or considered out of reach. Mentors provide education and career advice, encouragement and support as students explore new fields and develop new skills. Mentors' recommendations and summer jobs can also be key to students' futures in college and the workforce.

Moreover, as an entrepreneur mentor, you'll be in good company: Educate to Innovate was launched by none other than the White House to "provide students at every level with the skills they need to excel in the high-paid, highly-rewarding fields of science, technology, engineering and math."

The point, of course, is to move a diverse population of American students from the middle to the front of the pack in science and math. We all recognize that this will take a significant investment of time and talent: Currently, more than $700 million in public and private funds has been set aside for the Educate to Innovate initiative.

So, as an entrepreneur, think about how you can mentor the up-and-comers in diverse neighborhoods of your community. There are many opportunities to do so. Call your community's schools; organize your peers. Start something online.

And be sure to advocate for public policy that supports quality mentorship programs for youth. Invest in the formal mentoring programs, described here, which aim to equip a new, larger generation of STEM practitioners to address the growing challenges of our time. If we work together, we can achieve a future in STEM that not only drives our nation forward but also reflects the rich diversity of our society.

Related: What Needs to Happen for More Women, Minorities to Get Into Computer Science

Sophia Shaw

President and CEO of Chicago Botanic Garden

Sophia Shaw serves as president and CEO of the Chicago Botanic Garden, one of the world's leading living museums and plant conservation science centers. With Garden staff, she oversees the Science Career Continuum mentoring program, preparing young people for STEM careers in the environmental sciences.



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