Creative Destruction Lab Vancouver addresses gender gap in STEM

Posted 2021-07-26

At the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL-Vancouver) at UBC Sauder School of Business, teens are learning about career opportunities in the technology startup space. As participants in the Apprentice Program, female high school students from across North America and Europe are getting the chance to meet entrepreneurs accomplished in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The “apprentices” not only connect with startup founders, scientists, researchers, engineers and economists, but they also meet peers who, like them, are searching for enriched learning opportunities outside of high school.

“When you look at the startup community, it is dominated by white males,” says Paul Cubbon, Assistant Dean, Innovation at UBC Sauder and Leader: CDL-Vancouver. “We need more female founders and investors for a more equitable society and because diverse teams build stronger, higher-impact companies. Across the CDL network, we are making space and creating these kinds of learning opportunities with a goal of making STEM innovation and company building more inclusive for all genders.” 

Following a passion and aptitude for physics and math

Jennifer Zhang

Apprentice Program participant

Jennifer Zhang is 17 years old and passionate about math and science. The teenager from Port Moody was president of her school’s Math Club and Physics Club and has spent the last few summers taking STEM enrichment camps. When she learned about the multi-module, online progam at CDL-Vancouver, she signed up for five online modules: Artificial Intelligence, Agriculture, Oceans, Matter and Health. 

“The Health module was the most memorable because it was really exciting to see the real-life application of my interest areas. I gained some very good insights into the tech industry and the kinds of companies out there,” says Zhang, who is heading to Toronto in the fall to study computer engineering at the University of Toronto. “Right now my dream job is to become a research engineer, but I want to keep my options open. I’m going to follow my interests to see where they take me.”

The chance to meet an engineer - entrepreneur

Dr. Alla Zamarayeva

CellFE (Cell Fluidics Engineering) co-founder and CEO Dr. Alla Zamarayeva told the Apprentice Program participants that her #1 talent is perseverance. 

The program featured presentations by women entrepreneurs, including Dr. Alla Zamarayeva, CEO of CellFE (Cell Fluidics Engineering), a California-based startup that’s developing a microfluidic device for the efficient delivery of gene-editing molecules into cells. Dr. Zamarayeva is a graduate of the CDL-Vancouver mentorship program and maintains a close connection by volunteering her time to mentor others.

“Nothing compares to the experience of building a team that works together to achieve a common goal of building a better future,” says Dr. Zamarayeva, who grew up in post-Soviet Ukraine and then moved to New York to study engineering. Upon graduation, she was awarded a fellowship from the College of Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley to pursue independent research. It was during this time that she decided to pivot from academia to entrepreneurship.

“As a researcher, I loved exploring the unknown, envisioning the future, and doing something that’s never been done before. But ultimately, I decided to go out and build a company because I wanted to take a big problem in the world and build the technology to solve it.”

Planning for a future in life sciences

Aria Appoo

Apprentice Program participant

Aria Appoo, a 16-year-old honours program student from Calgary, also attended the Health module and gave the session top marks.

“I just loved hearing about health innovation and everything medical,” says Appoo, who will graduate from high school next June and begin the academic journey to become a doctor. “I find the human body really interesting and medicine incorporates that social aspect of talking to people and helping people, so combining those two things is really exciting to me.”

Among the highlights of the day for Appoo was the breakout session. Students were divided into small groups and assigned a mentor. They were presented with a healthcare problem and  given 20 minutes to brainstorm potential solutions. 

Appoo’s mentor was Dr. Julia Levy, one of Canada’s most renowned scientists. Dr. Levy is Director Emerita and founder of QLT Inc., a leading biotechnology firm. She led QLT in developing the light-activated drug, Visudyne, which has been used to successfully treat millions of patients with age-related macular degeneration. As a Fellow at CDL-Vancouver, Dr. Levy was a mentor to Dr. Zamarayeva.


Dr. Julia Levy

Dr. Julia Levy attended the Apprentice Program and worked with a group of students on the challenge of making the cancer treatment, CAR T-cell therapy, more affordable and accessible. 

Appoo asked Dr. Levy about her career and what she considers her greatest strengths as a CEO and entrepreneur. 

“To me, running a company successfully requires you to know what skills you have and what skills you don’t have and need to hire for. It’s a matter of building a team of people who will be your collaborators and work shoulder-to-shoulder with you and contribute something,” says Dr. Levy, who is also not only a Fellow with CDL-Vancouver, but also advises and invests in early-stage life sciences ventures. “Unless you have that in a management team, you don’t have a company.”

900 apprentices and counting

Both Zhang and Appoo say they would recommend the CDL-Vancouver Apprentice Program to students who are interested in learning about the intersection of STEM and business. With the CDL-Vancouver team planning the program’s next season, Paul Cubbon says it’s wonderful to see former apprentices become ambassadors for the program.

“These young women represent the next generation of scientists, inventors and business leaders who will transform the world through science and technology innovation. And we want to help them get started,” says Cubbon. “Listening to their values and thought processes, I was inspired and felt very encouraged about the talented, caring and ambitious leaders of tomorrow.”

Applications are currently being accepted for the Fall 2021 program.
Visit: CDL Apprentice Program application