Ignite Leadership Academy participants.
Ignite Leadership Academy participants. Credit: (file photo theievoice.com | 2018)

Prince James Story |

All it takes is one person to invest in your dreams to significantly impact your life. 

President/CEO of the Society of Extraordinary Women, Shirley Coates, created the Ignite Leadership and STEM Academy to do just that. 

Coates grew up in a small Texas city named Mount Pleasant. At a young age, she was tutored before she was in kindergarten. A woman tutored her and a few other students in her neighborhood. 

A group of kids whose ages ranged from three to five years participated in these tutoring sessions.

 According to Coates, the tutor first taught them to count, “Then before we knew it, we’re multiplying, dividing, you know, doing complicated math skills at four and five. And then she taught us to read, and she loved Shakespeare,” Coates said. “The way she taught us was through actually acting out all of the scenes. So by us acting out all the scenes, it meant that most of us memorized a whole play.” 

Coates said when she moved to California at five, she was reading at an eighth-grade level. 

“I don’t have some outstanding IQ. I was just an average student, but because I was exposed to all of that, I was able to be really great at math.” 

Coates struggled with self-esteem a little while growing up because she was bullied because of her dark skin tone.

Shirley Coates President and CEO of the Society of Extraordinary Women and founder of the Ignite Leadership Academy.  (filephoto: ievoice).

Family support was a significant factor in Coates’s early successes. She said her parents always instilled that confidence in her as a little girl and told her she could do anything she put her mind to.

She took that to heart, and later in life, Coates built a successful Aerospace electronics company in Irvine, California. 

The company grew and she became a partner in an international real estate corporation, where she also had opportunities to travel and become a mentor and coach to others. 

Making a Difference

“When I started the Ignite Leadership and STEM Academy, it was on the day that I had decided to leave my real estate business in Irvine. And I was on the freeway thinking I needed to do something to give back,” Coates said. 

The next day Coates read an article in the Press Enterprise that said 30% of students in the Inland Empire were not graduating from high school. 

“I couldn’t understand why kids couldn’t read, why they weren’t able to be successful at math, and why in some schools, they would be able to graduate but not be able to enroll in college,” Coates said. “It was either self-esteem, which I could relate to, or peer pressure, and it was parental support.” 

Those are the three major things Coates tries to address with her leadership academy. 

“The Leadership Academy on self-esteem, and leadership development, understanding who you are, understanding how great you are, understanding that you are an extraordinary person. You just haven’t discovered it yet,” said Coates. “That’s why our mission became empowering girls to discover their extraordinary selves through leadership and education for a lifetime.”

The Ignite Leadership Academy opened its doors to the first group of young ladies in 2015. The program accepts middle school and high school girls ages 11-15. New sessions are scheduled twice a year, and each session is ten weeks. The students come in on Saturdays from 9 am to 12:00 pm. 

About a year and a half after the program began, the leadership academy partnered with Black Voice News’ Mapping Black California and Esri, a geographic information system (GIS) software company. 

GIS is used by government agencies worldwide and in multiple professions, including engineering, science,  journalism, architecture, medicine, etc. 

“We were fortunate to partner with Esri, one of the top GIS software companies in the world. They provided us with laptops; they provided us with the program, everything that we needed to have a successful GIS program,” Coates said. 

Members of the Ignite Leadership Academy team

This year they will focus on GIS and Journalism.“GIS and journalism is ideal to help students develop[skills needed] to collect information and find information about subjects they’re interested in,” According to Coates the, “Journalism piece helps them learn how to write about it using journalism techniques, which will help them to create an interesting story about the results they find.”

Breanna Reeves, a Report for America fellow and investigative reporter for Black Voice News, is one of Ignite’s volunteer staff members who teaches the girls how the GIS system is used in journalism.

Report for America fellow and investigative reporter for Black Voice News Breanna Reeves is one Ignite’s volunteer staff members who teaches the girls how the GIS system is used in journalism. (source: breannareeves.com).

Reeves commented on how rewarding it is to nourish and stimulate the students’  growth and  interest in STEM and science.  “The program is free too, which is a big deal because free STEM programs are far and few in between,” said Reeves. Her project with Ignite was recently  selected the best service project for the national Report for America program.

Reeves said she didn’t have access to any pre-stem programs that were free while she was growing up.

Last year, because of the pandemic, the program was via zoom, but the girls will be back in person this year, which is one of the reasons she is excited to start again. 

“I really want them to get into interviewing one another. That’s a big part of our job,” Reeves said. “[And] how to tell a great story both with words and with visuals, mapping, and multimedia.” 

Kennedy Schneider helps the girls learn the GIS system and has been working at the Ignite Leadership Academy since she was a sophomore in high school. She is also Shirley Coates’s granddaughter. 

“They pick out whatever topic they want, something that’s going on in their communities or has an effect on them. Then, I give them the tools to map it in the story maps, and they set up a whole presentation for the end of the program.”

Kennedy Schneider has been a part of the Ignite Leadership Academy staff since she was a sophomore in high school.(source: blackvoicenews.com).

Schneider said she has enjoyed seeing the program evolve and how the stories grow as they come back year after year.

“GIS is a really big part of this class. We also have guest speakers talking about self-esteem building, financial literacy, and leadership,” Schneider said. “My favorite thing is seeing everyone get so excited about the information they’re receiving.”

Coates said they try to bring weekly speakers to provide their expertise on a specific topic. 

They also go on trips locally; in the past, they have gone to Washington, D.C, New York, and also Dubai. 

This year the classes will be held at the Cal Baptist University Aviation Center. They are in a bigger space, so the goal is to bring in even more girls to the program.  
Orientation was held on Oct.1st, but classes begin the following Saturday. You can go to https://soew.org/ignite-leadership-stem-academy/ to register your student for the program. The academy has open enrollment until Oct. 22.

Report for America Corps member and Black Voice News Climate and Environmental Justice reporter, Prince James Story was raised in Atlanta, Georgia. He is an intersectional journalist with experience covering news and sports across numerous mediums. Story aims to inform the public of social inequities and discriminatory practices while amplifying the voices of those in the communities harmed. Story earned his master’s degree in Sports Journalism from Arizona State University-Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He earned a B.A. in Mass Communication and a B.A. in African American studies from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Contact Prince James with tips, comments, or concerns at Princejames@blackvoicenews.com or via Twitter @PrinceJStory.