A community of optimists hosted by Melinda French Gates

Girls Garage: Teaching girls to fear less and build more

5 min
Three girls wearing hard hats hold a wooden beam on their shoulders.
Photo courtesy of Girls Garage
I spent a recent Monday afternoon with a group of teenage girls I’ve known for the better part of a decade, prototyping the lumber joinery for a city parklet we’re building. On Tuesday, my co-instructor, Augusta, and I taught first-time welder girls how to fuse metal, the safety helmets almost too big for their 9-year-old heads.

On Wednesday, a dozen teenage girls of color convened to finish the graphic designs for their protest posters, which we’ll screen-print en masse in the coming weeks. And the next day, I replaced the blade on our chop saw so that girls in our carpentry class can finish cutting pieces for their furniture projects.
This all happens at Girls Garage, a design and building program and workspace I founded in 2013. When I’m asked, “But how do you get girls interested in building?” I happily report that Girls Garage has a waiting list of over 150 girls, as do tons of other STEM programs for girls around the country. I have high hopes for the future of female leadership in STEM fields. I want women to redefine what it means to be a leader—authentic, whole, imperfect, and brave. I don’t just see women taking part, I see women taking over. And I see the girls who clamor through the doors of Girls Garage each week clamoring into all the rooms where decisions are being made with the same fervor.
A woman wearing a welding mask and leather protective clothing welds the corner of a metal structure.
Photo courtesy of Girls Garage
If interest is not the barrier, then what can we do to support girls once they’re in the door? We know the importance of representation—that “you cannot be what you cannot see.” But we don’t just need more female faces or faces of color in the world of STEM, we need female mentors willing to tell their whole stories with authenticity and vulnerability.

At Girls Garage, we instructors are all formidable women. But we’ve failed and faltered. We have paralyzing fears and food allergies and pet peeves and complicated families and some of us have experienced abuse. Our girls need to know us in these ways, too, not just as “badass builders.” Because our whole stories are proof that bravery is more important than perfection. Showing our rough edges allows girls to say, “I can be that, too.”
I want women to redefine what it means to be a leader—authentic, whole, imperfect, and brave.
If faces matter, so do places. Girls Garage is a physical space with a visual story, including a wall of wooden tiles with the laser-etched name of every girl who has ever participated. When girls walk into our space, they know that it is a place for them, by them. Their projects are on shelves; they also built the shelves.
Girls stand in front of the brick-building home of Girls Garage along with their projects.
Photo courtesy of Girls Garage
Photos of their dogs and cats hang on our pet wall. And there’s a place for everything: 16 hammers go here, backpacks go there. The back wall reads “Fear Less. Build More.” Spaces have power: they signal to us who we are, what we’re “supposed to do,” and how and if we are valued. Girls and women deserve spaces that make us feel safe and inspired—and that can hold the rumblings of our revolutions. These are the places that will make us all stronger as a community.
Girls from Girls Garage stand with hammers and mallets next to wooden-block robots they built.
Photo courtesy of Girls Garage
We’re almost there. I can see it. I recently interviewed 16 female builders for a forthcoming book, and every single one told me that a man had taught them how to build. It occurred to me that maybe they (we) are the last generation who will say that. The girls of Girls Garage will say “Augusta taught me how to weld” or “Emily taught me how to use the chop saw.” We’re at that tipping point. We are the tipping point.

We are the women we’ve been waiting for.