October 20, 2021

RDB-Design

Specialists in home design

Meet eight Bethesda-area women who inspire through their achievements

Photo by Joseph Tran

Holly Sears Sullivan

Twenty-five years ago, when Holly Sears Sullivan told her dad she wasn’t going to law school—that she’d pursue a master’s degree in urban planning instead—his first question was: What in the world are you going to do with that? She had no idea, but she told him she’d figure something out.

Today, Sullivan—who lives in Rockville with her husband, 6-year-old daughter and two Labrador retrievers—is the head of worldwide economic development for Amazon. In 2018, she led the team that picked Arlington, Virginia (out of more than 200 other places) to become the site of the tech giant’s second headquarters, known as HQ2. More recently she championed the creation of Amazon’s $2 billion Housing Equity Fund, set up to preserve low- and moderate-income housing in Arlington, Nashville and Seattle, where the company is expanding its presence.

“I was always fascinated by what makes cities successful and how they grow into these diverse economies,” says Sullivan, 49, who grew up in the Nashville suburbs. She remembers being consumed by the daily news reports when her hometown’s massive highway project, Interstate 440, underwent a major expansion in the early 1980s. At 26, she was working for the state of Tennessee and had to speak at a public hearing about zoning laws that were being established where none had existed before. Hundreds of people showed up, most of them angry. They felt like they were being told “what they can and can’t do with their land,” she says. “I just told my inner self, ‘You are going to be as good as you can, but the most important thing is you’re going to earn their trust and you are going to be honest and transparent.’ ”

By her late 20s, Sullivan was leading the economic development efforts in Wilson County, Tennessee, then home to about 100,000 people. When she was hired away a few years later by a neighboring county with more than twice the population, she helped negotiate a deal with Amazon to build a 1-million-square-foot distribution facility in Murfreesboro, the fifth largest city in Tennessee.

A graduate of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (where she also got her master’s), Sullivan moved to Montgomery County in 2012, when she married Morgan Sullivan, now executive managing director of Jones Lang LaSalle’s brokerage division. She became stepmom to his three kids, who are now in college, and the family lives in a century-old clapboard house that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. “Preserving the character and the heritage and the storytelling of cities I think is so important,” she says.

For nearly four years, Sullivan headed what was then the Montgomery Business Development Corp., a public-private organization tasked with attracting businesses and a diversity of jobs to the county. “Nobody could have done the job better,” says Bethesda real estate and land-use attorney Robby Brewer, who chaired the organization throughout most of Sullivan’s tenure. The role required her to “come into a county that she didn’t know, that still had a government department of economic development that she was not in charge of, that was not very business friendly…and begin to turn all of that around with a startup organization [that had] a very modest budget,” he says.

Sullivan stayed at MBDC until the agency was disbanded in 2016, then got recruited by Amazon. Two years later, with Montgomery County on the short list of sites for HQ2 and Sullivan leading the selection team, “Holly gave everybody a fair shake,” Brewer says. It wasn’t easy, he says—20 jurisdictions had made the first cut and were still vying for Amazon’s investment; her travel schedule was grueling.

Sullivan didn’t feel any pressure to pick Montgomery County, she says, but the process was so secretive that she stayed at a hotel when she toured the D.C. region so her husband wouldn’t be privy to any of the details. He didn’t even know what city she was in. “She’s still climbing within the corporate leadership positions at Amazon because she conducted—among other things—that search so well,” Brewer says.

She still recalls the time more than two decades ago when she was working in Tennessee and lost out on a bid to lure a particular business to her county. She thought she was going to get it. Looking back, she says she likely would have won the bid if she’d studied the company’s operations and needs more thoroughly. “Take risks—you’re not always going to be successful in everything you do, and it’s OK to make mistakes,” she tells the young people she mentors. “I think I’ve learned more from my failures than my wins.”


Courtesy of WTO

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, wearing a brightly colored gele, or traditional Nigerian
headscarf, is sitting in front of a simple backdrop: a blue wall adorned with the letters “WTO.” The longtime Potomac resident took over the leadership role of the World Trade Organization this spring—the first woman and first African to helm the organization in its 26-year history.

On this day in July, the mother of four (and grandmother to four more) is at WTO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, explaining over Zoom her number one priority: removing trade barriers among all the world’s nations so that COVID-19 vaccines, testing supplies and personal protective equipment can flow more freely into countries still struggling to get the coronavirus under control. “When that doesn’t happen,” she says, “many countries and many people…suffer.”

In the early days of the pandemic, there were 109 trade restrictions that kept poor countries from having access to COVID supplies; today there are 53, Okonjo-Iweala says. She recently helped get an export restriction temporarily lifted in the U.S. so that India can access a key ingredient it needs to manufacture its own vaccine. She says her role—and the role of the WTO—is to “make sure that trade happens between countries on fair rules. You know, nobody’s cheating the other.”

Nominated more than a year ago to head the WTO, Okonjo-Iweala had the support of 163 of the organization’s 164 member countries. But President Donald Trump had blocked her appointment, instead backing the candidacy of a South Korean official. (WTO rules require unanimous approval.) In February, President Joe Biden officially endorsed Okonjo-Iweala, and she took over the position of director-general on March 1.

As busy as she is, the 67-year-old Harvard graduate with a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology manages to come home every couple of months. Before building their sprawling house nearly 30 years ago, she and her husband, neurosurgeon Ikemba Iweala, and their growing family lived in Chevy Chase and then Bethesda, “near the Y,” she says, referring to the YMCA on Old Georgetown Road. They moved to Potomac in 1994, after her boys kept kicking the football over the fence and into the neighbor’s yard. “My husband decided we had to move somewhere that had a lot of room for them to run around.”

The family first came to the D.C. area in the early 1980s, when she took a job at the World Bank. Over a 25-year career, she rose through the ranks to become second in command, overseeing the financial institution’s $81 billion portfolio in Africa, Europe, and south and central Asia. Her youngest son, Dr. Uchechi Iweala, 33, a spine surgeon in Bethesda, remembers how “homework” from her job would keep her up late at night but that she still spent her Saturdays and Sundays cooking a week’s worth of family dinners (all Nigerian specialties). “Her chicken is amazing,” he says.

Growing up in Nigeria as the oldest of seven children, Okonjo-Iweala lived with her grandmother until she was 9; her parents were in Germany getting their advanced degrees. When she was older, her father became the obi, or king, of their township. When he died, one of her brothers became the obi. But Okonjo-Iweala waves away a mention about being a princess. Instead, she talks about serving briefly as Nigeria’s foreign minister and her two terms as the country’s finance minister. Each time her native country called her into service, she’d take a leave of absence or step down from her position at the World Bank.

In her first term as finance minister, she led the negotiations that wiped away $30 billion of Nigeria’s debt. In her second term, her work to end corruption in the government’s payroll system and oil industry led to the 2012 kidnapping of her 82-year-old mother. The kidnappers didn’t want money; they wanted Okonjo-Iweala to resign—and to do so on live television. (Under advice of the government, she didn’t step down; the hostage takers released her mom five days later after hearing on the news that police were nearing an arrest.)

In many of her roles, Okonjo-Iweala has been the first woman to hold the post. “My aim is to do the job in such a way that it will not be news…that nobody will question anymore that a woman can do the job,” she says. “When men don’t do so well, nobody says, ‘Oh, it didn’t go so well because it was a man.’ ”


Photo by Joseph Tran

Tatiana Murillo

Tatiana Murillo was 11 when her mother handed her over to a smuggler in Nicaragua who led her across the Rio Grande and dropped her off at a U.S. immigration detention center in Laredo, Texas. After eight hours in a women’s holding cell, she was put on a Greyhound bus for a 25-hour ride to D.C. to live with relatives in Gaithersburg she’d never met. They’d used their savings to pay the smuggler’s fee and take her in. Murillo had no money and didn’t speak English. “I remember seeing the Capitol [and] the [Washington] Monument,” she says, “and my eyes were lit up.”

It wasn’t until high school—when conversations in class turned to college and careers—that she realized her status as an undocumented immigrant meant she wouldn’t qualify for financial aid or be eligible for in-state tuition. “I didn’t see a future,” says Murillo, now 30. “I didn’t see that I could do anything more than maybe clean houses.”

At 17, she started sharing her story—with legislators in Annapolis, at rallies, at public forums in front of then-Gov. Martin O’Malley—and advocating for passage of the Maryland Dream Act, which would allow young people like her to pay in-state tuition at Maryland colleges. “A lot of these politicians didn’t know, you know, what we were going through, and the struggles and the injustices that immigrant students faced and how we felt left behind by the educational system.”
Every time she spoke out, she’d find herself fighting back fear: “Now they know my name, and they know who I am, and they know where I live,” she says.

Even with the passage of the Dream Act in 2012, it took Murillo nearly a decade to get her college degree. For the first three years after high school, she worked as a babysitter and took on part-time jobs. After DACA, the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, was implemented in 2012, she says, “I was able to get a real job, get benefits, health insurance, all those things.” She took night classes whenever she could afford to, first at Montgomery College and then at the University of Maryland. In May 2018, she earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting with a minor in business administration.

Today, Murillo is director of finance at Identity Inc., an organization she learned about in middle school when she became active in its youth advocacy program. The Gaithersburg-based nonprofit’s mission is to empower low-income, at-risk, mostly Latino young people in Montgomery County to reach their potential, academically and economically. Murillo is responsible for the $11 million annual budget.

When she joined the group 16 years ago, she led HIV peer education programs, advocated for Spanish-speaking school counselors, and spoke at school board meetings on the importance of offering healthier breakfasts and lunches for students who depend on free meals. Once she got her work permit in 2013, Identity hired her as a program assistant to help young adults who enter the U.S. with only an elementary-level education. In 2015, she made the switch to the finance department, and she became head of finance three years later, shortly after getting her degree. Her work these days keeps her behind the scenes, but she still gets calls and emails from 20-somethings who thank her and tell her they started successful businesses or went back to school because they heard her story years earlier.

“I remember one time she spoke in church in front of a very large gathering of folks—it was packed with young people, adults, politicians, people from all walks of life—and it was so moving to listen to her,” recalls Candace Kattar, co-founder of Identity. Even as a teenager, Kattar says, Murillo was always careful to talk about her experiences in a way that also reflected the journey of so many others. “I think the ability to share her story that way is what is so inspiring.”


Photo by Lisa Helfert

Jaime Recht

Five miles from the finish line in the 2017 Marine Corps Marathon, Jaime Recht’s running guide was sidelined by a foot injury. Recht, who is deaf and legally blind, was determined to keep going. Without anyone to point out the ruts in the road and the changes in slope, she had to slow down in shady spots, crowded areas, or wherever visibility was poor so she wouldn’t trip. Still, she finished the race in 5 hours and 44 minutes.

“She has this go-getter personality. …I don’t think it’s a huge hurdle for her to overcome any challenges that come her way, even with her limited sight,” says Gail Edwards, a longtime friend who’s been running with Recht as her guide for nearly a decade.

Born deaf, Recht, now 55, was diagnosed as a child with Usher syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that also causes progressive vision loss and balance issues. Yet over the past five years, the Chevy Chase mom has completed three major marathons—in Chicago, New York and Berlin—and she hopes to tackle marathons in London and Tokyo before her sight gets worse.

A program analyst with the Federal Railroad Administration in Washington, D.C., Recht is also a passionate cook who loves to travel. Her son Bruce, who’s 27, recalls a family vacation in Costa Rica five years ago when he and his brother, Jason, now 24, had to mediate a heated discussion between their mom and a zip line instructor who didn’t want her doing the course by herself. Of everyone in their family, Bruce says, “[My mom] has always been the most adventurous.”

Recht and her husband, Scott, who is also deaf, raised their sons in Rockville but moved closer to D.C. once the boys were grown. Neither son inherited their mom’s condition—both can hear—but they were fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) before they learned to talk. Recht communicates with non-ASL users mostly via text, email, and phone and video “relay”—she uses the camera on her phone or computer to sign with an ASL interpreter, who then translates what she’s saying.

Raised in New York City, Recht attended schools for the deaf from the time she was a young child. When she was 9, a babysitter took her and her younger sister, who’s also deaf, to a movie theater, and both girls grabbed the sitter’s arms as soon as the lights started to dim—they couldn’t see where they were going. The sitter told Jaime’s parents what happened, and soon both girls were diagnosed with the disorder. Before that, Recht says through an interpreter, all she knew was that she’d fall down a lot when she ran. Her balance issues make it difficult for her to run in a straight line, says Edwards, who is also deaf.

Since the pandemic, Recht mostly has run alone, primarily sticking to the Capital Crescent Trail because she knows its twists and turns by heart. Whenever she heads out for a run, she wears a reflective sign with the words deaf and blind on the back so other runners know to give her a wide berth. “It helps to clear out my mind of stress and other things like that,” Recht says of her favorite hobby. “Getting out, smelling the fresh air…being out there close to nature…I’m just excited to keep running as long as I can.”


Photo by Joseph Tran

Jessica Melton

This past April, five days into her new job as president and chief operating officer of Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Jessica Melton was out to dinner with her husband and 7-year-old twins when her throat suddenly tightened and she couldn’t swallow. She realized she was having an allergic reaction to something she ate. Minutes later, she became a
patient at the hospital she’d been hired to lead.

It was a Friday evening, the emergency room was packed, and she was so new to the job that no one seemed to know who she was. “I was looking at how [the staff] treated each other, how they communicated. Were they looking at the keyboard and the screen or were they looking at me? Were they asking me what I needed?” Melton recalls. Pandemic rules meant she had to go in alone. A nurse saw her waiting, walked over and took her hand, and told her not to worry—they’d take good care of her. “It’s not often a leader gets that experience…to be able to see it and validate it myself…[and what I saw] made me really proud.”

Melton, who lives in Bethesda, has spent more than half her life studying hospitals in action, coordinating disaster preparedness programs and making sure emergency rooms run smoothly. At 38, she’s now heading the county’s only designated trauma center.
Growing up in the D.C. area, Melton spent many afternoons at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where her mother was an Army nurse. She’d often visit her aunt, Dr. Vivian Pinn, at the National Institutes of Health, where Pinn led the Office of Research on Women’s Health. “She was a trailblazer,” Melton says of Pinn, a retired pathologist who was the only woman and only African American in her graduating class at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in 1967. “Many times, when you look at people in positions of power…you can’t see yourself in them,” she says. “Seeing my aunt as a woman and African American…a female leader…it gave me permission to aim high.”

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Melton majored in biology and planned to become an epidemiologist. “I wanted to be Dustin Hoffman from Outbreak…saving a town from Ebola,” she says. She started doing research on how prepared U.S. hospitals were in the event of a national emergency. One article stood out: a U.S. News & World Report cover story, “Crisis in the ER.” It warned that most hospitals in the country were unprepared to handle the volume of patients in a large-scale disaster. The article was published on Sept. 10, 2001, the day before 9/11. “That really spoke to me,” she says.

Melton stayed at UNC to complete a master’s degree in health care administration, and on her first day of classes in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit. “It was like the calling was there,” she says. “I knew exactly what I wanted to do—I knew what my purpose was.”

After graduation, Melton was awarded an administrative fellowship at Duke University Hospital. She ended up staying for 14 years, serving in high-level roles that included vice president of medical, surgical, and critical care services and vice president of emergency services and patient flow. Under her leadership, the percentage of patients leaving the ER without being seen dropped 45%, while the volume of patients grew by almost a quarter. In 2019, she left to become COO at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital in Virginia, and less than two years later she came to Suburban. It was an opportunity to “come home,” she says.

Carolyn Carpenter, president of the Johns Hopkins Hospital System’s National Capital Region, knew Melton from her days at Duke, and later recruited her—first to Sentara Norfolk, where Carpenter was president, and then to Suburban. “I felt like I was winning the lottery twice,” she says. Even in a crisis situation when things are becoming chaotic, Carpenter says, “she keeps this wonderful analytical ability…and she’s a people person.”

It’s a critical time for hospitals and the communities they serve, Melton says. “A lot of folks [who work in hospitals] are incredibly tired” and there’s a heightened demand for treatments that people put off over the last year and a half. Her job now is to make sure the patient experience—everything from medical care to signage to the comfort of the beds and chairs—is positive. And to plan for what’s next. “It’s not just about delivering care,” she says. “We’re one of the [community’s] largest employers. We have a duty to maintain our resilience.”


Photo by Lisa Helfert

Nadia Hashimi

Pregnant with her second child and exhausted from a 10-hour shift at Children’s National Hospital in D.C., Dr. Nadia Hashimi was sitting alone at a Panera Bread in Gaithersburg. It was the fall of 2010, and Hashimi, an emergency room pediatrician, was using a rare moment of quiet to write. “I do remember my eyes just closing over the keyboard,” she says. After taking a short nap in her car in the parking lot, she went back into the restaurant to keep working on her book.

Four years later, that book became Hashimi’s first published novel, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, which tells the story of a young girl in Afghanistan who is forced to dress like a boy because the family has no sons. The tradition predated the Taliban, Hashimi says, but it became even more common under the terrorist group’s rule because Afghan females were not allowed to be in public without male supervision.

Hashimi, 43, credits her husband, Dr. Amin Amimi, with motivating her to start a career as a novelist. Amimi, a neurosurgeon, immigrated to the U.S. from Afghanistan when he was 18. The couple married in 2008, and he saw how much his wife loved to read. When he suggested she try writing, she took his advice, she says, “and the words came tumbling out.”

As an Afghan American whose parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s, Hashimi had grown up hearing about pre-Taliban Afghanistan—and she’d kept abreast of the country’s struggles since. Though her parents’ homeland was in the headlines almost daily, there wasn’t much written about the people. “The portrayal of Afghans was kind of flat,” she says.

Today, Hashimi is the author of six novels—including A House Without Windows, released in 2016, and When the Moon Is Low, which O: The Oprah Magazine called “a must-read saga” in 2015. Hashimi’s most recent novel, Sparks Like Stars, was released earlier this year. She’s currently working on another book, this one intended for young adult readers.

The Potomac mother of four (her kids are 5, 6, 10 and 11) keeps a file of what she calls “amazing emails,” including a message from two physicians who read When the Moon Is Low—about a woman and her family who flee the Taliban and become refugees in Europe—and decided to volunteer for a medical mission. Another woman told Hashimi that the book brought her and her mom together again; they were on opposite ends of the political spectrum but reconnected after realizing they shared similar views on immigration.

Hashimi wasn’t even thinking about writing when she visited Afghanistan for the first time in 2003. The Brandeis University graduate, who double-majored in biology and Middle Eastern studies, was then a medical student at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University in Brooklyn, New York. (She decided on pediatrics after spending college summers working at a camp for families affected by HIV.) During her two-week trip, she visited a maternity hospital and a tuberculosis hospital, and spent time at an elementary school in Kabul, where little girls told her they wanted to become doctors, too.

“Afghanistan has been struggling for basically my entire life,” Hashimi says. “And the Afghan American community is relatively new, still getting its footing. But those challenges mean there have also been opportunities to make a real difference.”

These days, Hashimi considers herself a full-time author, though she was still working a few days a month at a local pediatric practice before the pandemic hit and her kids started virtual school. She was also the first Afghan American woman to run for U.S. Congress—in 2018, she competed in the Democratic primary for Maryland’s 6th House District seat, an election won by businessman David Trone.

Howard University associate professor Norman Sandridge met Hashimi during her political campaign and says he was struck by the way she took the time to listen to constituents and hear people out, “the way a good physician does.” Now she’s on the advisory board of Kallion, a nonprofit focused on leadership in the humanities; Sandridge is co-executive director. Hashimi, he says, “knows how to tell a story that’s wondrous and engaging and emotionally rich, and [she puts] real issues on your radar—and that’s a special gift to be able to do that.”


Photo by Joseph Tran

Ijeoma Enendu

It was 2006, but Ijeoma Enendu still remembers every detail. A Montgomery County patrol officer in Silver Spring, she was sent to the hospital to take the statements of a young mother and father whose 4-month-old daughter had been shaken by a babysitter. Shortly after Enendu arrived, the baby was declared brain dead. The heartbroken parents were living in the country illegally, each working several jobs to make ends meet—they barely knew the woman they’d hired to watch their infant, but didn’t know where else to turn. As the initial responder, Enendu’s job was to write a short report and hand the case to investigators. But after that she spent weeks helping the couple navigate the legal system, finding them Spanish-language counseling services and connecting them to resources that could assist with the hospital bills.

Every time Enendu met with the mother to share new information, she could see her eyes light up. “It started turning things in my head about how I saw myself in my career, and how I could help,” she says. “I realized when you go to these calls as an officer, you don’t just go there and play the role…sometimes you have to put yourself in this person’s shoes and do a little bit more.”

Enendu had aspired to work in a crime lab, but decided to shift her focus toward community service. Now a sergeant who has been stationed in the Wheaton district for seven years, she and her 10-year-old daughter live in the community she serves. The divorced mom talks to neighborhood kids and their parents at the bus stop, the grocery store and the library. She reaches out to local property managers and shopkeepers. Wherever she goes—in uniform or not—she asks residents about the issues that worry them most: robberies that always seem to happen on payday, domestic violence incidents that people are too scared to report. The folks in these neighborhoods, she says, “know when an officer is just coming out there because they were assigned to come out…but when they see the same face that’s coming out and is genuinely interested…they start to develop that trust.”

Enendu also spearheads a program in which she and the officers she works with host meet and greets and other neighborhood events. They visit elementary schools to read to students and have lunch with them. The first few times she went, the kids kept their distance, she says, but soon they were sitting down with their food telling her about their day.

Before Enendu became a catalyst for change, “some of these communities would not call us with information—would not even call us if, say, they were a witness to a crime or a suspicious situation where police would need to come out,” says her supervisor, Montgomery County Police Lt. Kenneth Sanger. Now people do call, he says, and they often ask to speak with her.

“I’ve never been that kind of person that’s like, ‘I have to be a millionaire,’ ” says Enendu, who studied microbiology at the University of Maryland before graduating with a degree in independent studies focused on forensic science. (She was inspired to change her major after watching shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.)

“I’ve always felt that I can be in a career where I make little money so long as I’m happy doing what I’m doing—and for me, when I look back on my journey, this was a perfect match.”


Photo by Joseph Tran

Cara Lesser

Cara Lesser’s daughters thrived in their play-based preschool. But then they started kindergarten and had to sit quietly at their desks for much of the school day listening to instruction. Something about that didn’t seem right to her.
“For all the talk about the importance of creative problem-solving and 21st century skills, it looked very similar to what I had in kindergarten and first grade…what my parents probably had in kindergarten, first grade,” Lesser says. The Bethesda mom wondered if there might be more exciting ways to inspire kids to think critically and develop the mindset to one day address vital issues like poverty, cultural intolerance and climate change.

After graduating from Barnard College and getting a master’s degree in public policy from the University of California, Berkeley, Lesser spent 20 years working in the health care policy field. When her younger daughter started first grade in 2011, Lesser gave up that career to research the latest advances in hands-on learning. She was inspired by the “maker movement,” which encourages people to become real-world creators. Within a year, she and a group of friends began organizing “Maker Faires” and pop-up events in downtown Silver Spring and Washington, D.C. Some of their larger events attracted more than 10,000 visitors—and also caught the attention of county leaders who helped Lesser find a permanent space at Davis Library in Bethesda.

Today, Lesser’s daughters are 16 and 18, and she’s the executive director of KID Museum, the pioneering center of experiential learning she founded seven years ago. The 7,500-square-foot space features an electronics lab, 3D printers, laser cutters, and a gazillion gadgets lining the walls. Inside is everything students need to build flying machines, create sustainable textiles and more.

The museum partners with schools in Montgomery County and D.C. to create projects that build on students’ classroom learning. In non-pandemic times, thousands of kids and their families visit the center annually. In June, KID Museum announced that it would be opening a second site (four times larger than the one at the library) in downtown Bethesda next year. With two locations, satellite spaces and online offerings, Lesser expects that KID Museum will be able to serve more than 100,000 people annually.

Since the museum’s inception, Lesser has been especially focused on bringing hands-on learning to students in underresourced communities. “She was very keen on making sure there was a social impact, a cultural relevance,” says KID Museum board member Antonio Tijerino, president and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation. While students were learning virtually, Lesser and her team sent boxes of supplies—filled with everything from pipe cleaners to microprocessors—to schools in low-income neighborhoods. Even at home, she says, “Kids were learning to code and design and build their own robots and kinetic sculptures.”

A second grader who shared her final project at KID Museum’s virtual “Invent the Future Challenge Summit” in June said she loved having the “wiggling room” to make whatever she wanted. “It was super heartwarming,” Lesser says. But it was another child’s comments that stuck with her. “Sometimes people think we’re little and we don’t know anything,” she recalls a little boy saying as he proudly showed off the robot he’d made. “But with this [kit] we saw that…we have good ideas and we can make them come to life.”