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Performing Arts

Innovative wolverine women to watch in 2016

Photo courtesy Girls Rock Detroit, a nonprofit launched by U-M student Melissa Coppola, that gives young girls ages 8-14 an opportunity to participate in a summer camp focused on music education and performance.

In recognition of Women’s History Month, Innovate Blue has chosen 26 female student innovators to keep your eye on in 2016. These students are creators, change agents, entrepreneurs and problem-solvers dedicated to making a lasting and impactful difference in the lives of others.

While the complete list includes students from a broad range of schools and colleges, including College of Engineering, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, School of Information, School of Public Health, Ross School of Business, Stamps School of Art Design, School of Natural Resources and Environment, School of Music, Theatre and Dance, and more, here are the women creating an impact in the world of the arts.



2016 women - Lozano sisters

Beatriz Lozano, Stamps School of Art and Design BFA
Virginia Lozano, Stamps School of Art and Design BFA

Dedicated to providing elementary students with an accurate and inclusive education in history, Beatriz and Virginia Lozano created Leesta, a play on the Spanish word “lista”, which means “smart/clever girl”. Leesta is an online educational platform that utilizes creative and immersive timelines to tell the stories of women throughout history. The site aims to tell this other side of history–the side that is sadly often left out of history lessons in school.

The Lozano sisters say one of their most important goals is to show young girls that they are capable of great and influential things by showing them impactful women in history. “As Mexican-Americans going through the school system we never saw ourselves in the curriculum being taught,” says Virginia.

Beatriz and Virginia credit their own personal experiences as the passion and drive for Leesta. “We see it as a service that kids really need and deserve, especially young girls of color. We’re not leaving ourselves the option of failure because if we don’t do it, we know there aren’t enough opportunities for women of color to change the system.”

They say the most rewarding experience is actually being able to see kids use the learning system in the way they envisioned. “Sometimes it’s hard working behind the scenes to create new content, but seeing children using our app and witnessing how inspired they are to learn after using it is incredibly rewarding,” says Beatriz.



2016 women - Melissa Coppola

Melissa Coppola, School of Music, Theatre, & Dance MS Music, Piano Performance

Although trained as a classical pianist, School of Music, Theatre and Dance student Melissa Coppola had a passion for rock and pop music from a young age. She heard about a movement called Girls Rock in 2011, and knew she wanted to get involved. While volunteering in Chicago she met fellow U-M student Willa Adamo and Detroiter Ros Hartigan. The trio soon teamed up to launch Girls Rock Detroit in August 2014. Their goal: empower young girls and women, regardless of race or socio-economic status, to challenge preconceived notions of what they can do, what they can become, and to become engaged members of their communities. Now a registered 501(c)(3), the nonprofit gives young girls ages 8-14 an opportunity to participate in a summer camp focused on music education and performance. At camp, girls receive instrument lessons, form bands, write original songs, and then perform their songs on the stage of a Detroit music venue.

That first year, Girls Rock Detroit had 26 participants, and formed six bands and two DJs. Nearly 200 Detroiters attended the final showcase concert. Melissa and her team mobilized an entirely volunteer work force, and were able to supply every participant with an instrument using loaned or donated equipment.

“I wish we could have accommodated all that applied, but we received twice as many applications as we had spaces available. Our short-term goal is to expand to two separate week-long sessions this summer, but long-term goals and dreams are a bit more lofty,” says Coppola.

The Girls Rock Detroit team envisions an instrument loan program in the future. “There are many participants who just fall in love with their instrument at camp, but many families can’t afford to buy one,” she says.

Praveena Ramaswami’s daughter Meera participated in Girls Rock Detroit last summer, and said the camp not only exposed her daughter to new music and performance, but also empowered her with a new sense of confidence. “Every day after camp on our drive home, she talked about what she learned, who she met, how much fun she had, and how she was facing her fears.”

“After five days of classes, band meet-ups, activities, and lunch, our band played at the Detroit Institute of Music Education (DIME). Our band got face paint and dressed up, then we rocked the house! It was an awesome experience!” says 11-year-old Meera.

Coppola recently returned to her master’s studies after taking a break to pursue entrepreneurial goals. “When I returned to school to finish my coursework, I became suddenly more aware of the enormous amount of resources that University of Michigan provides. With our new dean, I have definitely noticed a marked change in the emphasis of entrepreneurship at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, which I think it amazing,” she says.

Applications for this year’s Girls Rock Detroit will open in April, and the camp will take place in July. The program’s value to the Detroit community continues to grow, with demand outpacing supply. “My personal dream is to also offer a year-round after school program as an extended, multi-week version of camp,” says Melissa, noting that they will have to grow to make that happen.



2016 women - Rachel Jaffe

Rachel Jaffe, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and School of Information, MS Urban Planning and Design/MSI

“All of the start-ups ranked with “high potential” are all clustered in very small geographic locations in Boston, New York, Silicon Valley, and San Francisco,” says School of Information student Rachel Jaffe. “This means there’s a lot of people with really great, impactful ideas that don’t have access to guidance, networks to find team members, and potential investors. In turn, those ideas never get made.”

Through her research, Jaffe saw this physical segregation as a major barrier to taking innovative ideas to the next level. So she created Aether, an anonymous network that lets people share ideas for potential companies they want to start with the people around them, as a way to level the playing field.

Through Aether, users can message each other and meet up, gaining advice and finding team members while supporting other people in the community. “The anonymity is the defining trait of our network,” says Jaffe. “We really want to create a safe space for everyone’s ideas to have the same chance of getting noticed without the bias of ‘this person doesn’t look like an entrepreneur’.”

Jaffe likens Aether to an extension of the possible avenues students at U-M have for becoming an entrepreneur. In 2014 She went on the New York Innovation Trek through the School of Information’s Entrepreneurship Program, where she says she had her first taste of what it meant to move from an idea to a potential company. After that, she took a “Campus of the Future” course, participated in a pitch competition at SXSW, and started thinking about how she could translate her research into something more. The School of Public Health’s Innovation in Action competition, the Zell Lurie Institute at the Ross School of Business, and the dozens of different tech meet-ups have also helped to hone the idea of Aether.

The Aether team, which also includes Sal Saia, Muneeb Ahmad, Nick Pangori, Shean Krolicki, Sarabeth Jaffe, Mackenzie DeWitt, and Rohita Tikoo, plans to start beta testing in the spring, followed by a full launch in the fall.

“In the long term, we would love to expand this focus from universities to include corporate campuses and city Innovation Districts. It might sound like a big challenge, but we really want to bring a little more equity to who has access to the American Dream,” says Jaffe.



2016 Women - Svoboda & Ramaswamy

Sophia Svoboda, College of Literature Science and the Arts BS Microbiology
Lalitha Ramaswamy, College of Literature Science and the Arts BA International Studies and Political Science, Honors

Sophia Svoboda and Lalitha Ramaswamy are part of TEDxUofM, an entirely student-run organization that runs the annual TEDxUofM conference, showcasing some of the most fascinating thinkers and doers from the University of Michigan community. After last year’s conference, Lalitha interviewed nearly 100 attendees and found nearly all reported a drive to go figure out what impact they could make in their communities and what perceptions they could change after hearing the speakers’ stories.

“Unfortunately after the conference was over, within a week, all that inspiration and excitement mostly disappeared as students went back into their normal routines,” says Lalitha. “I realized that there was no outlet for these students to build upon the ideas they had at the conference.”

This past fall, Sophia and Lalitha teamed up to change that. They wanted to create a program where the TEDxUofM team could take a group of students and mentor them one-on-one in order to help them achieve and spread their ideas, which, of course, is the whole point of TED: to share ideas worth spreading.

Public speaking and sharing ideas effectively is a key skill students need upon graduation. And it’s one the pair found few felt prepared for. So with the help and support of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts, this past fall the pair helped launch the TEDx mini course UC 170: How to Give the Talk of a Lifetime, instructed by language expert and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English Anne Curzan and LSA Director of Social Innovation Jeff Sorenson.

“I felt that if I could help a group of students gain the confidence and skills to share their stories, then those students would inspire others, who would inspire still more, and so on and so forth, and the possibilities for what kinds of ground-breaking projects and creations could come out of that ripple-effect are endless,” says Lalitha.

Sneha Rajen says she learned a lot from the course. “I have a tendency to think of ideas and ambitions but I’ll never do anything with it. Mostly because of fear. This class told showed me just how silly fear is. The chances are if you put something out into the world that you are passionate or care about, it’ll do some good,” she says.

Check out the rest of the female student innovators to watch this year! 

By Kristen Kerecman

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