Shirley Coates is an entrepreneur, real estate leader, and the CEO of the Society of Extraordinary Women (SOEW). She is also the founder of the Ignite Leadership and STEM Academy, a program that aims to inspire young women to embrace their leadership potential and excel in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
As an extraordinary woman herself, Coates has a deep understanding of the challenges that women face in these fields and the power that they hold to make a difference. In this interview, she shares her journey, her insights, and her passion for empowering the next generation of women leaders.
Coates’ journey started in a small town where she was taught to be good in the classroom and achieve great results. Her parents told her that she could do anything she wanted to, and this belief set her on a path of success that she had not imagined.
She had the opportunity to attend a school where she was taught like an adult even in kindergarten and first grade. She learned how to read and do calculations at an early age and was doing basic algebra by the second grade. This experience led her to understand that the mind has an incredible capacity to learn and achieve, and that we should not limit ourselves or others by imposing limits on what they can do.
Coates started her career with AT&T, and then moved into engineering when she started her own aerospace electronics company. She then founded an international real estate company while attending UCLA and became one of the top realtors at that time. Coates’ life experiences gave her the belief in herself and the ability to pursue her dreams, no matter the obstacles in her way. This belief is what led her to create the Ignite Leadership and STEM Academy.
The Ignite Program
The Ignite program is based on Coates’ life experiences and her belief in the limitless potential of the human mind. She wanted to find out why some kids were not completing high school or why certain kids did not feel that education was important. She understood that kids wanted to do things like technology and entrepreneurship but did not see a way to do so.
With the Ignite program, Coates and her team focused on three main factors that caused students not to complete high school or drop-out of college or just not do well in school. These factors were low self-esteem, peer pressure, and a lack of parental support. Coates and her team believe that if they could address these three factors, they could help students overcome the obstacles that prevented them from achieving their academic dreams.
The program focuses not only on leadership and STEM skills, but also on communication skills, which Coates believes are essential for success in any field. Even if you are the best technologist in the world, if you do not have good communication skills, you cannot present your product or findings effectively. The Ignite program aims to give young women the tools they need to be successful in any field they choose.
One of the challenges that Coates faced as a Black woman in a predominantly White and affluent area was the skepticism of others who doubted her ability to succeed. As a realtor with her office in Newport Beach, people doubted that she could have success due to being a Black woman. But Coates did not let the doubts of others stop her from pursuing her dreams. She knew that she was a strong entrepreneur and that she belonged, no matter where she went or what she was doing. This attitude is what she wants the young women in the Ignite program to adopt.
The Ignite program is more than just a leadership and STEM Academy; it is a community of extraordinary women who support each other and work together to achieve their goals. Coates believes that women have the power to change the world and that they need to have the courage to believe in themselves and their abilities. She wants young women to know that they are capable of achieving anything they set their minds to, regardless of their background, race, or gender.
Coates’ vision for the future is to see a world where women hold equal positions of power and influence in all fields. She believes that the Ignite program is just the beginning of a movement to empower women to take their place as leaders and innovators in the world. Her hope is that the young women who graduate from the program will become the next generation of trailblazers who will inspire and empower others to reach their full potential.
Through the Ignite Leadership and STEM Academy, Coates is igniting the minds of young people and giving them the tools they need to succeed in any field they choose. Black Voice News had the opportunity to speak with Shirley in a recent interview where she shared exciting news about the future of the program.
BVN: I saw that you worked in aerospace electronics. Can you tell me about how you started in that and how that has influenced your work with the Society of Extraordinary Women?
SC: Well, that influenced my work in just imagining what I could become. I did not set out to start an aerospace electronics company. I was born in a small town and, and then moved here and I was just told to be good in school and I was going to achieve some great results. I had great parents that just told me I could do anything that I wanted to because I was a star. So that’s why I started the Ignite program and the Society for Extraordinary Women.
This spring our program started on April 1st and this year we are focusing on GIS and journalism. GIS is geographic information system technology. It’s used in every industry in the world, and has over 1,000 applications. I was floored by what I found. All of this information is right here in our backyard. We are so pleased to have Esri as our supporter and we, of course, use their technology and have our students working with the same software that the technology industry is working with. Esri, located in Redlands, CA, is considered the global market leader in geographic information system (GIS) software, location intelligence, and mapping.
BVN: How did you go about getting that partnership with the Esri company?
SC: Well, that partnership comes through Dr. Paulette Brown-Hinds [Publisher of Black Voice News] of course. I was part of [a] focus group. We were talking about GIS and we all met at Esri. When I heard about what GIS can do and how it was used around the world, I asked her, “What do we do next? How do I get involved in it?,” Shirley recalls saying to Dr. Brown-Hinds. (Prior to this focus group opportunity, Shirley wasn’t a GIS specialist but understood its value. Black Voice News’ Mapping Black California team is now a partner of the Ignite program. The program connected with Esri in that way).
Among the uses of GIS, students can learn robotics.
If you don’t have GIS, robotics doesn’t work. When you talk about the space program, the program uses GIS. That’s how they can use calculations. That’s how the space shuttles work. At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, how could they determine where the virus was and what direction it was going? That was GIS technology.
The environment and the different weather patterns we talk about, that’s GIS technology. The fire department uses it. The police department uses it. Doctors use it, even artists use it in the music industry and also in art.
It is a very important technology to understand and there’s still several people that don’t understand the impact of it. That’s why we want to share it with our students because this is really cutting edge. Some students aren’t introduced to GIS until college. We are starting this in middle school!
So, why GIS and journalism? GIS use in journalism enhances critical thinking and research abilities. It will help with communication and writing skills.
We have one of the best instructors, [Black Voice News reporter] Breanna Reeves. She is fabulous! The way she gets the kids to engage is very interactive. It’s not like she’s doing lectures, it’s a very interactive class so they explore and learn about GIS, and they actually write about it.
[Also,] when we have an experiment or we bring a scientist in to demonstrate with rockets, they not only get to learn about how to fire the rockets, but then they write about, and then they have to present it. So it helps their writing skills, their presentation skills. It starts to build their self-esteem. They’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I accomplished this, and I built this car around that in the class and I’m good at this.’
That’s the other reason [for a program that is] part GIS technology and journalism, we add the leadership and entrepreneur component because once they find what kind of project they want to work on, then [the question is] how would you build a company using it? We take them through the whole process and then they have to create a business plan with our marketing team. We ask them: “Who are your officers? Who are your customers? What is your brand?”
At the end of this eight week program, we have a graduation because we know that they’ve committed their time to learning. It’s voluntary, you come on Saturdays from 9:00 to 12:30 and then you make a presentation at graduation. So we actually have a graduation this year. We’re going to have our graduation on May 6th at the new Civil Rights Institute at the Diversity Center in Riverside.
BVN: Okay. So that’s where the graduation ceremony will be. But, where are the classes held?
SC: All of the classes are held on the campus of Cal Baptist University, in the Dr. Robert K. Jabs School of Business. It’s a great program. They’re taught by experienced educators, as well as professors in those fields.
BVN: How did you get the people who are teaching and contributing in that way to get on board and get involved with this program?
SC: We’re going into our 10th year. This will be our 10th graduation. We’re really happy about that. We just started asking people if they’d be willing to be instructors. Most volunteer, but a few have gotten stipends. Once they saw the value of the program, the first two teachers from Esri stayed with the program for 5 years. They gave so much of their time and helped us to build the program. [There were also] other school counselors and instructors involved and we had some graduate students at the beginning. They all helped us build our program because they saw what it was doing. We also stay in touch with our students.
BVN: Can you tell me more about that?
SC: We are still in touch with the students that started with us 10 years ago. People see the impact we have. We don’t just have to talk about it. We have students that were speaking about it themselves. They talk about how great the program has done. What it’s done for us. It fills our hearts.
We have a student that attended Spelman University. And she said, “I would not be here had it not been for your class.”
We have students that are going into biotechnical engineering. A young woman who has said, “I would not be doing this if it had not been for your class.”
BVN: What an amazing impact you’ve had?
SC: We’re just really happy about that and we just want to do more. We want it to have thousands of students. We were just a program for girls and so many people requested for us to add boys as well. So now we have a program for both boys and girls. We just had a science festival at Cal Baptist Aviation School and it was boys and girls.
Learning to fly
And the students had a chance to experience the professional simulators. These are the same simulators that professional pilots that fly commercial airlines use. They train in the same simulators. So that’s what students have a chance to do. I think it’s so good because more women are becoming pilots for commercial airlines and helicopters. We decided to start our aviation program about 7 years ago because there’s a shortage of pilots.
BVN: How did you learn about the pilot shortage?
SC: One of our board members Dr. Allen Cummings is a pilot. He’s a licensed pilot and also worked a lot with the Tuskegee Airmen. He was really familiar with it and went to all the air shows and so he suggested that we add the aviation component to the program because of that. We were doing it before they were talking about the shortage at that time. It wasn’t so much talked about and now it’s even greater.
BVN: This program is incredible and I can tell that you are really enthused about it. Your passion for this program is kind of infectious as is the community outreach that you’ve been doing.
SC: I love to help students and I when I see the potential, I just want to help as many people as I can. And that’s why we want to be able to reach as many people as possible. I want to get the word out about Ignite Academy and SOEW in any way I can.
BVN: Is there anything else that you want to share with our readers? Anything about your goals or your plans for the program this year? Anything new that you might be adding to the curriculum?
SC: Well, we’re planning on adding more of the sciences and actually increasing the aviation part of the program. Then my goal is to have a thousand students in the program.
BVN: So what percentage increase would that be?
SC: It would be like a 120% increase. We have already impacted the lives of over 400 kids. When we expand, we’ll have more teachers, staff, and additional courses. More than one classroom, so we can expand it. Then we’d have a morning class and an afternoon class and more speakers, of course.
The more we get the word out, I believe we’re going to do that. I’d still like to be on the campus. I love being on the campus at Cal Baptist. I have to thank them and Dr. Gramling at the Business School, and Dr. John Marcelus in the Aviation School. We really appreciate them at Cal Baptist and all that they’ve done.