Jothi’s passion for technology and arts began in middle school, and she’s since grown her interests into a popular nonprofit that teaches other girls that STEM isn’t a boy’s club.

Rising sixth grader Jothi Ramaswamy had no interest in summer camp, but she also refused to let the summer of 2012 become one of mind-numbing boredom. Instead, Jothi fed her curiosity about coding and asked her mom, a software engineer, to teach her how to code. The Ramaswamys didn’t know it yet, but that summer would put Jothi on a path to creating a movement that encourages girls to get involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).

“I kept hearing my mom’s calls when she was working from home. I really wanted to understand what they were about,” Jothi said. “I was very curious. She started me off with basic coding — coding websites with HTML. I started learning more and more and teaching myself new coding languages. I loved it.”

Coding quickly became a passion, one which would lead to awards and meetings with former First Lady Michelle Obama and Apple CEO Tim Cook. Jothi eventually started her own non-profit, and developed apps—all before her 18th birthday.

But how does a fresh-faced teenager go from doing something for fun to becoming an entrepreneur and activist? 

For Jothi, that transition started over dinner one night. Her brother Akshay, who also codes, mentioned that there were 33 boys and zero girls in his high school computer science class. Jothi was stunned. She wondered why was there such a large discrepancy, and wanted to know what she could do to change it?

Jothi Ramaswamy.

“I didn’t want to be the only girl in any computer science class I took,” Jothi said. “I wanted to do something about it. I also wanted to show my friends and so many other girls why I love computer science. I thought other girls would like it just as much as I do.” 

Jothi had just graduated from middle school. Although she initially didn’t know how to approach this gender disparity, she knew that she wanted to teach girls how to code. 

She turned to her mom and brother, who encouraged the teen to create a website that outlined what she wanted to accomplish. Jothi also went to STEM camps for girls, including IBM’s Girls Go TechKnow and Girls Inc.’s SMARTech, to learn how other groups were encouraging girls to pursue their STEM curiosities. 

“I learned a lot,” Jothi said. “From IBM’s camp, I learned about STEAM—STEM with the arts. I thought it was an awesome idea. It could encourage a lot of girls, especially girls I know, to learn more about science and technology.”

In 2015, before she had even turned 14, Jothi founded ThinkSTEAM, a nonprofit with a mission to “educate, encourage, and empower K-12 girls to excel through programs in STEM and the arts.” Nothing about the process was easy, and Jothi learned as she went every step of the way, persevering as difficulties arose—just as she learned to do when she was coding. 

At IBM’s camp, Jothi attended a Make Your Own Wearables workshop where girls created hats that lit up in different colors. “It’s exactly what I wanted to teach other girls,” Jothi said. “It’s the perfect representation of STEAM. So I reached out to the person who held it and she helped me plan my first workshop.” 

After realizing how expensive materials are and that many companies don’t give grants unless you’re registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Jothi knew that she had to get registered. With help from her brother’s friend who had gone through the process, ThinkSTEAM was approved, which allowed her to apply for more grants and hold more workshops. 

Jothi also found it challenging to find ThinkSTEAM board members. “A lot of people were too busy or didn’t think that what I was doing was serious because I was 13 years old when I started reaching out to people,” she said. 

ThinkSTEAM's all-girls STEAM-a-thon. Photo courtesy of Jothi Ramaswamy.

But Jothi didn’t let it deter her; she contacted big names in science who lived near her home in Mohegan Lake, New York. When Akshay won an award for science research in high school and had an opportunity to go on the Lisa Wexler Show, he connected his sister with the Connecticut broadcaster. 

“She was one of the first people I reached out to about being on our Board of Directors,” Jothi said. “She initially said no because she didn’t have the ability to commit, but she wanted to be on our Advisory Board. A few years later, she said that she would love to be a part of our Board so we moved her up.” 

Those little moments of triumph are similar to the feeling Jothi gets when a coding project works out. 

“One thing I’ve noticed that I learned both through creating apps and creating ThinkSTEAM is that things don’t really work out that well the first time,” Jothi said with a laugh. “Take coding, for example. I always run into bugs in my code. Sometimes it’s because I forgot one letter in a line in this huge document —which is very frustrating because I have to go back through the whole thing. Persistence is definitely key. But when you finally see everything work out in the end…it feels so nice.” 

Through hard work and persistence, Jothi has grown ThinkSTEAM from that first workshop in Westchester, New York to a nonprofit with student ambassadors all over the country. ThinkSTEAM holds technology workshops, STEAM-A-THONS, a global ThinkBIG Challenge that asks girls to create videos inspiring girls to enter STEM fields, and more. 

While creating her own incredible resource for girls in STEM, Jothi has had the opportunity to benefit from others as well. She’s attended countless conferences all over the United States and connected with the National Center for Women in Information Technology (NCWIT) after winning their national award for aspirations in computing. NCWIT has an online platform of thousands of women in STEM from around the country.

“Through that process, I became part of this huge community. There’s a very big Facebook group with about 5,000 women. There are a lot of high school girls, which is really nice,” Jothi said. “I also learn[ed] a lot about opportunities in STEM through it. I actually learned about Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference there. It’s been a great platform.” 

ThinkSTEAM continues to inspire Jothi. From leading workshops and mentoring student ambassadors, to watching other girls work together and problem solve, she encounters opportunities to learn and grow regularly.

“I led a three-workshop series where we taught girls how to code apps and websites, and challenged them to use what they learned to work together and create a platform that addresses issues they’re passionate about,” Jothi said. “Seeing the ideas that they had, and the ways they worked through everything, has helped me out when I create apps.” 

Jothi used some of what she learned watching ThinkSTEAM participants work through bugs and problem-solve when she attended PennApps, a 36-hour hackathon at The University of Pennsylvania. During the event, Jothi worked with three other girls to create an app called Still, which helps people with anxiety.  

Jothi wants to grow ThinkSTEAM, even as she starts her freshman year at Harvard University where she plans to study computer science and applied mathematics. She’s incredibly excited about the opportunities that attending Harvard might bring—from rolling up her sleeves and creating new tech platforms with her classmates, to starting a new ThinkSTEAM chapter. 

“I’d love to get together a bunch of people who want to teach girls coding, and then reach out to different high schools and middle schools and start something in the area,” Jothi said. 

No matter how the future unfolds, when Jothi sets a goal you can bet she’ll work at it until she makes it happen.  She hopes other girls will be inspired to do the same thing. 

“If you want to do something, go for it,” she said. “It might seem really hard at first and you’re going to go through a lot of obstacles, but it will be really worth it in the end when you finally accomplish what you want to.”

Jennifer Garry is a freelance writer and mom to two rebel girls. Her work has appeared in print and all across the internet, but this is the place her daughters will find most impressive. She believes fiercely in the power of kindness, empathy, and really good quality chocolate. You can find Jen on Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Elisa Macellari is a Thai-Italian illustrator and graphic designer based in Milan. She specializes in children’s illustration and editorial illustration. Elisa likes colorful things, wild animals, jungle, mysterious creatures, strange objects and tom yum soup. Her illustrations have been exhibited in Italy and abroad.