How One STEM Mentor at 3M is Changing Girls' Lives
During National Volunteer Week, we celebrate 3Mers who get involved to make a difference in their communities. 3Mers like Caroline Ylitalo, a division scientist in the Personal Safety Division who volunteers as a mentor for the next generation of scientists and engineers.
From math whiz to mentor: Caroline's journey
When Caroline came to the United States as a child from Aleppo, Syria, she never imagined her career would blossom the way it did. “I always loved math, and I was very good at it, but I grew up in a time and place where girls were discouraged from obtaining higher education,” she said.
Caroline’s professors at her community college noticed her talent, and she won a scholarship to study at the University of California, Berkeley. She went on to get a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Stanford, and eventually, to work at 3M.
Caroline was inspired to become a mentor while pursuing her Ph.D. “While in grad school at Stanford, I read a report on a survey of girls in STEM that said girls lost interest in STEM sometime during middle school,” Caroline recalled. “When I came to 3M in 1992, I started participating in 3M programs like Visiting Wizards and TECH Talks.” But it was a moment during the Twin Cities Science Fair when Caroline knew that mentorship was her calling: “One mother approached and asked who I was, and one of the girls responded: ‘she is who we aspire to be.’”
From that moment on, Caroline began mentoring as many girls and young women interested in STEM as she could. She helps high schoolers with science fair projects, college and scholarship applications, letters of recommendation and standardized test prep. “I mentor the girls through college, sending them care packages and checking in on their studies,” Caroline said. “Dozens of my mentees have gone on to pursue STEM careers. I am proud of all of them — their success is my legacy.”
Inspiring a lasting impact
Many of Caroline's mentees have attended Ivy League universities and landed highly sought-after professional positions. “She was a mentor when I needed her,” said Mariam Khella, one of Caroline’s mentees who came to the United States from Egypt at 16. “No matter what point I was at in my education, she always had resources available to help me.” Caroline helped Mariam earn an internship in the 3M Oral Care Division, and now Mariam is in her first year of dentistry school at the University of Minnesota.
Monica Anuforo, a student at Stanford who just started working as a software engineer at Google, also attributes her success in part to Caroline. “Caroline helped me realize that no matter what your background is, you can achieve whatever you want — and it’s okay if your path to your goal is winding,” Monica said. “I’m very thankful.”
In the last 25 years, Caroline has mentored more than 100 underrepresented young women who pursued a career in STEM with her encouragement. In 2020, she earned the 3Mgives Volunteer Award for her incredible work. 3M donates $3,000 to the organization of the awardee’s choice, and Caroline chose the Twin Cities Regional Science Fair — the place where her mentorship journey began.
Committed to STEM equity
Entering a STEM can be difficult to navigate, especially for emerging professionals who come from underrepresented or underserved communities. Women of color account for less than 12% of science and engineering employees in the United States, and globally, only 16% of female college graduates earn a STEM certificate compared to 37% of male college graduates. Economic and social barriers make it difficult to gain exposure and access to STEM opportunities.
Caroline’s story — and the volunteerism of 3Mers globally — underscores 3M’s dedication to increasing access to STEM education. Last week, we announced our plan to create 5 million unique STEM and skilled-trades learning opportunities for underrepresented students by 2025. Supported by our broader $50 million investment to address racial opportunity gaps, these learning experiences will involve new and existing STEM partners — and all 3Mers are encouraged to participate.
Learn more about 3M’s new STEM goal.
*We define underrepresented individuals in the United States using National Science Foundation research — focused on Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, American Indian, gender and people with disabilities. For global definitions, we rely on gender diversity and local context for marginalized populations.