Lyda Hill, Female STEM Philanthropy Pioneer, and Master of Surprise

Lyda Hill at the launch of IF/THEN.

If we support a woman in STEM, then she can change the world.

If we support the organizations that support women in STEM, then we can change the world together.

Through surprise, purpose, and meaningful relationships, Lyda Hill is transforming feminist philanthropy as we know it — and her foundation’s $25 million donation to the IF/THEN initiative is the next great chapter in an inspiring lifelong story.

Lyda Hill, the entrepreneur and donor behind Lyda Hill Philanthropies, is no stranger to donations that come with a twist. Her organization is committed to funding meaningful change through her personal philosophy and her personal estate — all of which she plans on donating to charity in full, most of it during her lifetime.

In December of 2018, Hill surprised twenty charities with a combined donation of $2.2 million dollars.

“We said, let’s invite 20 agencies that we think are doing wonderful work in the community to apply for an infrastructure grant for up to $100,000,” said Nicole Small, president of Lyda Hill Philanthropies, in an interview for the Dallas Morning News. Hill’s team invited representatives from each of the charities to an exclusive “pitch day” at a local social club, where the agencies were under the impression they’d be competing against each other and presenting their cases to Hill and her team. “We told them they would pitch in order, and the order number was under their chair,” said Small.

But instead of a pitch number, each representative found a check for $110,000.

The organizations were understandably excited. “What an amazing #PitchDaySurprise!” wrote The Family Place in a post on Facebook, using the trending hashtag from Hill’s big event. “We are so thankful for Lyda Hill’s continued support of The Family Place – this gift will help us serve victims of family violence now and for years to come. Thank you!”

Hill’s surprise announcement, along with her team’s excellent use of social media, represents a new foray into feminist philanthropy. The field has always been built on meaningful relationships — organizations seeking out like-minded individuals who want to use their wealth to encourage social change. Hill’s approach marks another creative remaking of the event of sharing resources: through shock and awe, a group celebration, and the increasing use of the Internet.

“2018 was a breakthrough year for women,” said Hill. “We want 2019 to be the year of female STEM pioneers!”

On March 5, 2019, Lyda Hill Philanthropies held true to its goal by announcing a $25 million donation to IF/THEN — bringing Hill’s total commitment to women in STEM past $60 million.

IF/THEN is a charity initiative that seeks to empower female innovators and inspire the next generation of women in STEM. Founded by Small, IF/THEN is based on the mantra, “If we inspire a woman in STEM, then she can change the world.”

Because STEM careers are traditionally so male-dominated, this leads to a lack of female role models for young girls. Similarly, women are not prominently featured as STEM experts in fields like entertainment, fashion, and media.

In partnership with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the IF/THEN initiative seeks to create a massive cultural shift in the way young girls imagine STEM fields — and their own future careers — by establishing a network of female STEM role models known as AAAS IF/THEN Ambassadors. Made up of 100 women from a wide range of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers, the Ambassador program will show young girls the realities of women in STEM through personal press kits, media outreach, original entertainment content, and in-person appearances.

“If you can’t see it, you can’t be it, right?” said Small in an interview for Frontburner. “We believe there is power in numbers. So we bring together the power of National Geographic, U.S. Soccer, Project Runway, MIT, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Girl Scouts, Teach for America. We’ve all linked arms and stood up and said, ‘This is really important and we need to affect change.’ We have not seen such a comprehensive approach, focusing on the traditional science channels as well as the nontraditional science channels. We have never seen that done before.”

Lyda Hill Philanthropies has always been about transformational change, and the use of surprise in the foundation’s approach elevates its donations, delivering newsworthy, uplifting stories that capture our attention again and again. By acting as these organizations’ “fairy godmothers,” the team at the Lyda Hill Philanthropies offer charities resources and media attention on a much larger scale than they would normally receive. This creates a unique grantee/grantmaker relationship — it’s not often that organizations get to gush on social media about a surprise $110,000 check, is it?

As feminist philanthropy continues to grow and change, our thought leaders and forward thinkers evolve alongside it. Efforts like Hill’s pledge to donate the entirety of her estate to charity add a surprise factor to her personal philosophy that makes her journey that much more meaningful — and so much fun to follow.

The introduction of social media and the Internet have made a huge impact on philanthropy. We now have the ability to handpick our charities and learn more about them in a five-minute web search than our sisters in earlier decades could learn from a personal interview. Social media and the trending hashtag offer us new ways to bring attention to worthy causes, and crowdfunding platforms give us new ways to donate and support our neighbors in easier, simpler ways than ever before.

Where feminist philanthropy succeeds is in personal relationships — a meaningful connection with a donor or an organization is built on values that we have in common, and causes that we want to support together. When more individuals and organizations pitched in to use their funds to create these spectacular relationships, we’ll be looking at a better tomorrow.


To learn more about the Lyda Hill Philanthropies and IF/THEN, visit their websites at lydahillphilanthropies.org and ifthenshecan.org.

Applications for the AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador Program will be open from April 1st to July 21st, 2019. If you are interested in applying to be an Ambassador, or know a woman in STEM who would be a perfect fit, visit the Ambassador Program website to learn more about the application process.

To learn more about philanthropic efforts that support girls in STEM, see how Walmart and Girls Who Code are boosting the tech talent pipeline, or discover the impact of Stacey Nicholas’ $5 million grant to UCLA, supporting their program for women in engineering.

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Author: Maggie May

Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and story-centric content strategist headquartered in Annapolis, MD and Philadelphia, PA. She has a passion for finding stories and telling them the way they're meant to be told.

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