This is the second in a three-part series from our Founder & CEO, Anvita Gupta, detailing her experiences leading two summer incubators in CS and Entrepreneurship for girls 6–12th grade with LITAS. You can find the first post here.

One of the most interesting parts about the LITAS summer incubators was how many small differences I saw between school-kids in India and in the US. I found out, to my bafflement, that in India kids ask whether they can come into the classroom or not. I learned that the girls in India would not call me by my first name even if I asked repeatedly, whereas kids in the US would if I wanted them to.

A funny story about all of this — I’d just like to note that the language barrier is real. I speak Hindi better than most of my American-born Indian friends. I am a Bollywood connoisseur. Before this summer, I was confident enough in my Hindi-speaking abilities to believe I could explain HTML and Javascript in not one, but two languages. Sadly, my illusions came crumbling down after a few students complimented me on my American accent after class, and after one student flat-out asked me if I had learned my Hindi from Bollywood movies. Apparently the word I used for “chaos” was atypical outside of 70s action films.

My illusions about my language grandeur weren’t the only things that were crumbling. Even the simple act of an introduction became an exercise in breaking stereotypes. When I asked the girls in the Phoenix Incubator to introduce themselves with their names and a fun fact about themselves, they were very shy, speaking quietly and sitting down as soon as possible. I had actually expected this from my own middle school experiences. But to my surprise, when I repeated this exercise with the girls in the India incubator, the girls stood up confidently and spoke loudly; one girl said that a fun fact about her was that she was a natural leader; many others said that they were good with people. I couldn’t imagine any of the girls in the US saying this — maybe because of cultural differences, maybe because of the Heidi-Howard complex, written about in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which means that successful and confident women are often perceived negatively compared to equally successful men.

The stereotype is that conditions for women in India are not very good, especially compared to Western countries— but the classroom seems to be a place where I think we in the US still have a long way to go, especially in promoting confidence in young women.

At the very end of the program, the girls presented and received feedback on their projects from their peers, teachers, and representatives from the health+tech field. Audience members in Phoenix included Joan Koerber-Walker, President and CEO of the AZ Bioindustry Association, and Councilman Daniel Valenzuela, Vice Mayor of Phoenix.

The girls rose brilliantly to the occasion, but one experience in my India incubator taught me that presentation is paramount. Because sometimes, you can have a wonderful idea — like building an app to match highly-rated teachers with schools in need of them. But when you go to explain that bad teachers lead to unhappy students, it might come out like this:

“Teachers are harmful…they are poisonous.”

This is what one of my students in India accidentally started her final presentation with. Giggles erupted from around the room. “Ma’am, you’re poisonous,” someone whispered to the English teacher, who was sitting in the front of the room. She glared in response.

“Sometimes, they’re so bad that- that they commit suicide!”

Now the giggles turned into full-on hilarity. The girl in the front of the room stomped her foot, and delivered one of the greatest retorts I have ever seen from an eighth grader.

“Sure! Laugh all you want! But when we see your lousy ideas, then we’ll see who’s laughing!” She then proceeded to back to her seat and promptly burst into tears.

It turned out that she had gotten so nervous with her presentation that she hadn’t known what she was saying, especially since English wasn’t her first language. Later on, when the teacher explained to her what she had actually been saying, she cracked up too. Remember that language barrier? It goes both ways, my friends.

That’s it for this installment! Coming soon — final reflections and the future of LITAS.

Cheers!

Anvita

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