Innovator-in-residence spurs discussion on woman empowerment

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Rocky Hill School welcomed its first “innovator-I-residence” last week, inviting about 50 of Rhode Island’s most influential women in education to join for a luncheon discussion on empowering women in innovation.

As part of her residency, Susan Fonseca talked at the Hope Club in Providence Thursday about key innovative fields where woman are disparaged and her efforts to level the playing field. Much of her weeklong stay at Rocky Hill was spent interacting with teachers and students and learning their perspective.

“I’m very grateful that Rocky Hill has invited me to be their innovator-in-residence because I truly believe in what they’re doing,” Fonseca said.

Fonseca’s background is in anthropology and law. She was a keynote speaker at NASA, TEDx and the Future of Americas Summit. Her focus is to create alliances that empower women and create and inspire change. She is also a founding member of Singularity University, which uses emerging technology to create an educational platform that addresses the world’s biggest issues by the people living and working through them.

She sees herself as a woman from two worlds, with two languages and two cultures. Growing up in Honduras, she said she did not see equal educational opportunities for women. After coming to America for college, she found her passion in education and diversity.

“Diverse points of view, experiences, collaboration, economic backgrounds, and just a whole new perspective coming to the table…is really in the best interest for everyone,” Fonseca said. “A lot of what I do centers around women and girls.”

A pivotal moment for her growing up was realizing she didn’t have any women mentors in science or math.

“I was always asking, where’s the Latina astronaut? Or where’s the Latina Einstein that everybody, men and women, could say wow, they’re amazing, I really want to be like her. And it has nothing to do with their gender. It would have to do with the impact they’re making.”

Key points during Fonseca’s speech included areas of innovation where women can excel, which she said included solar power, artificial intelligence, robotics, genetics, 3D printing and augmented and virtual reality.

The dining room held six tables, plus a bar serving lemonade and iced tea. Diners lunched on roasted lamb, baked salmon and wild mushroom risotto finished with a baked pear dessert. At the far end of the dining room stood a projection screen and a podium where Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea introduced Fonseca.

“This is a conversation at our table that I know absolutely every table probably had because we are in the midst of what has to be a generational change. Structures that we have inherited from basically male-dominated structures don’t work for us. So we absolutely need to make those changes,” Gorbea said.

Gorbea added that it is thrilling to have Fonseca speak about what the changes are and how the navigation can happen in a constructive way.

In response to a reporter’s question, Rocky Hill’s Head of School, James Tracy, said bringing innovators into the school is a way to assist the students in generating projects and ideas and come up with solutions.

“We bring the genius of K-12 thinkers to solve the world problems,” Tracy said.

Many attendees were alumni or had students at Rocky Hill. With two daughters graduated from Rocky Hill, Ruth Taylor, Executive Director of the Newport Historical Society, said she is frequently invited to alumni events.  

“Getting involved with Rocky Hill is like marrying into a large family,” Taylor added. “One of the things a small school can do really well is innovate.”

In addition, Fonseca’s work includes two organizations focused on empowering women in the workplace. SheWorks! is an online gathering place for professional women and potential employers around the world. She is also the founder of Women@TheFrontier, a forum showcasing women in innovation, balancing the ratio of male-to-female role models by creating an index of “female change-agents.”

“If we can highlight these women to promote and share with everyone, it’s another form of balancing the ratio,” Fonseca said.

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