Basketball star turned entrepreneur turned STEM advocate: The journey of Niesha Butler
Since retiring from her playing days, Butler has turned to entrepreneurship and STEM advocacy, opening the first Afro-Latina-owned STEM center in NYC last year.
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When Niesha Butler was 11 years old, she took a computer science class that would have a profound impact on her.
She was the only female and person of color in the class, at a Brooklyn prep school where people of color were seldom.
Her teacher in that class was very influential.
“I remember him because he was just super cool and went out his way to make me feel welcome because he knew,” said Butler, referring to the fact that she was the only girl of color in the class.
“I just appreciated that to be honest,” she added.
Butler had been introduced to computers and gaming from an early age, thanks in large part to her father, who had similar interests.
Even then, when Butler had to travel two hours every day to and from school, she knew that someday she wanted to “create something that was close to the kids.”
Fast forward to July 2022, and Butler officially launched S.T.E.A.M. Champs, a new STEM education center in New York that aims to make STEM more accessible to children of color.
While the computer science class she took as a pre-teen would lay the foundation, each chapter of her life and career has led her to this moment as she seeks to open doors for youth in New York City to enter into the vast world of STEM.
A Basketball Star
While the world of STEM education always interested Butler, that was often put on the back burner to another huge interest — basketball.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Butler spent 8 years of her childhood living in Aruba, where her mother is from. Butler is also of Puerto Rican descent.
“It’s completely different than New York,” she said about the dynamics of living in Aruba, compared to Brooklyn.
She was 9 years old when she first picked up a basketball. She was introduced to and taught the game by her father, and it served as a bonding experience for them.
However, Butler noted that academics was always the number one priority in the household.
With academics at the top of her list during the school year, the summertime was when she honed her craft in basketball, eventually distinguishing herself as one of the top-ranked female basketball players in New York City, and the entire nation.
When it came time to select a college, Butler chose to attend Georgia Tech. She had earned a basketball scholarship there, and part of the curriculum required all students to take a year of computer science-oriented courses to graduate — effectively combining two of her biggest passions.
The experience of balancing academics and athletics proved challenging.
“I think people can’t get it twisted,” said Butler. “When you go [to college] and have a scholarship, you’re not a student-athlete, you’re an athlete student.”
In addition to the common responsibilities of a typical college student, athletes also often have to attend 6 a.m. practice sessions, and must also account for traveling to and from away games, sometimes multiple times a week, while also accounting for homework, studying, and attending classes.
While difficult and taxing on both the mind and body, Butler credited the experience of juggling both experiences for helping train her for adulthood.
Butler would play four years with the Georgia Tech Bulldogs before going on to play for the New York Liberty in the WNBA.
Opening doors with S.T.E.A.M. Champs
Since retiring from playing basketball, Butler has remained in the sport as a commentator and analyst.
However, she still maintained her interest in STEM.
Butler is a software engineer and often preaches the value of education, helping get youth more interested in tech.
On July 16, 2022, Butler officially opened S.T.E.A.M. Champs, in Brooklyn — it’s the first Black and Latina-owned STEM education center in New York.
She shared that she was heavily influenced to open the center after coming across an alarming statistic about just how many children in New York City live in poverty — upwards of 70%.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” said Butler.
To this end, she noted that there are over 35,000 jobs in the STEM industry with six-figure salaries in New York City alone.
After conducting a trial run at two centers in the South Bronx — both of which were successful — Butler decided to open a larger center in her native, Brooklyn.
“It was clear to me that I needed to have something that these kids could walk up to, have classes and go in their neighborhoods to teach them,” said Butler. “And that’s what I did.”
The new STEM education center offers free training programs in coding, robotics, game development, app development and more, to youth ages 6 and up.
The name — S.T.E.A.M. Champs — is both poetic and representative of Butler’s mission.
“I feel like I’m building champions because I’m from the old school and I believe the champion mindset starts young,” said Butler.
In addition, Butler often thinks about the creativity that exists among diverse communities of color. That is where the “A, arts,” component comes into play.
“Art can be from dance, music, theater, and, of course, sports,” said Butler. “There’s a lot of things that we cultivate.”
A key component that she sees is often missing from the creativity being cultivated is the ability to monetize it.
S.T.E.A.M. Champs provides the necessary tools to develop the technical skills needed to do so.
With Black and Latinx people only representing 9% and 8% of STEM workers in the U.S., respectively, gaining those skills as a child can go a long way toward dramatically shifting those numbers.
“I would like to engage and acknowledge those kids with that talent to get them in my program because I think in order for technology in our culture and our community to be effective, they need to be tech-enabled,” Butler shared. “To leave them out, I think would be a disservice.”
This is just Butler’s latest venture into entrepreneurship within the tech community. In 2010, she founded her first tech company, Sports DataBase Network. She is also the founder of Ballin Technologies, a nonprofit where she teaches disadvantaged students coding and prepares them for STEM careers through a love of sports.
A Shot at Success
Butler had aspirations of playing professional sports and leveraged her talent to obtain a successful career in the sport.
However, she often thinks about the tens of thousands of children with similar aspirations, but who aren’t as fortunate.
“I, as a basketball player myself — as part of that 1% — I just didn’t feel comfortable telling a kid that they choose to be a basketball player… because the numbers are stacked against them,” she said.
Statistically speaking, the odds of becoming an engineer, architect, or software developer and making six figures a year are significantly higher than becoming a professional basketball player or athlete doing the same.
In addition, a career as a professional athlete often has a much shorter shelf life than a career in the STEM field.
That’s a reality Butler hopes to mold into the minds of youth.
“I want to make this their shot,” she said, referring to STEM.
The path to success for talented youth of color goes far beyond just sports, and Butler believes it’s her and other adults’ responsibility to instill that.
“We have to be really, really intentional about changing that,” she said.
While S.T.E.A.M. Champs is in its very early stages, Butler has her sights set on making it a brand that is seen everywhere, especially in the inner cities across the U.S.
“I hope that we can continually be a brand that educates and supports people getting kids to be interested in a STEM career, and at the very least, [obtain] technical skills for their future career in whatever they choose,” said Butler.