Imagine a career that is at the center of two of the most impactful and rapidly advancing industries in the world—travel and technology. In a role like this, your job is to invent solutions that change the way people experience the world around them. Deborah Kerr, chief product and technology officer at Sabre, leads a team of 4,000 technologists who use data and analytics to do this every day. Sabre data and solutions help our customers make impactful business decisions, predict mass trends, operate efficiently and identify customer preferences to enhance the way travelers wander around the globe.

As important as her current role is, Deborah is concerned about something even bigger—the future. In 2025, millennials (those born between 1980 – 2000) will make up 75% of the workforce. Although technology is a major part of the millennial lifestyle, many lack the education needed to understand the algorithms behind the icons on their phones. In order for companies like Sabre to continue fueling invention, we depend on the future innovators that are next in line to enter the workforce.

For this reason, Deborah has become a vocal advocate for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education. In support of her SXSW submission on this topic, we sat down with Deborah to gain a better understanding of why she believes this cause to be so important.

So, were you really a 16-year-old rocket scientist?

Well, I don’t know about rocket scientist, but I did go to work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at 16 years old and spent the first 10 years of my career there. My first mentor at NASA gave me the most important thing any mentor can provide—access. He gave me unlimited access to major projects, career training and exposure to other experts in the field. He purposefully treated me with a level of respect that was independent of my youth, gender or inexperience and allowed me to learn as much as I possibly could about our work. I owe my success to this meaningful mentorship, the opportunity of hands-on experience, and having a quality educational foundation built on STEM.

I couldn’t have asked for a better start in the technology industry.

 What is STEM education?

STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education. It is important for us to focus on these areas together because these fields are deeply intertwined in today’s world. STEM is an interdisciplinary and applied approach that is coupled with hands-on, problem-based learning. Historically, most attention has been to the science and math areas, little attention has been on technology and engineering. In the real world, these four disciplines rely on each other to thrive. For example, engineering depends on findings from science, the application of math and the use of technological tools to design the products and systems that solve the world’s problems.

Why should people really care about this?

The future belongs to the students we teach to speak geek. The students who are STEM trained can analyze data, create new technologies and modernize existing ones. These students will continue to fuel the fast-moving world we live in today.

Imagine a world where students learn in ways that highlight the connections of STEM education disciplines. How we organize our schools, prepare our teachers and adequately teach our students can really make a difference in how the next generation discovers the solutions of tomorrow. Supporting STEM education is important to fostering an innovative culture and creating a prosperous future. 

If you could advocate for one thing in support of STEM education, what would that one thing be? 

I would love to see more students succeed in STEM educational programs and enter the technology industry. I believe that corporate mentorship can play a huge role in making this happen. By implementing hands-on STEM opportunities like hackathons and app building contests, K-12 students will get the kind of exposure that could result in them pursuing careers in these fields. It is critical that those who work in industries where science, technology, engineering or math is prevalent take the initiative to help the youth discover all the doors that STEM can open for them.

 If chosen, how will you use SXSW to support this cause?

It is important for the SXSW audience to understand why it’s advantageous for students to get an adequate education in growing fields that feed over 26 million U.S. jobs. The demand for jobs in the STEM fields will grow 16% by 2024 while non-STEM jobs will only see 11% growth. I also want to shed light on how much diversity in the tech industry matters. The fact is that although the number of minority students desiring to go into STEM majors is the same as their white and Asian peers, only 2.7% of African-Americans and 2.2% of Hispanics compromise STEM degrees in the U.S.

Most importantly, though, I want to encourage other corporations to stand in the STEM gap.

What can YOU do to help spread the importance of STEM?

It’s time that race, geography, language and gender cease to predict whether a child becomes an innovator, inventor, scientist or engineer. It didn’t stop Deborah Kerr, and it shouldn’t stop any of the children sitting in elementary and junior high school classrooms around the world today. To support Deborah’s mission to remove barriers for the future of today’s youth, vote for her talk at SXSW.