Helen Gurley Brown Trust gives $7.5 M. to Natural History

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American Museum of Natural History. (Ingfbruno via Wikicommons)
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Nicole Levy

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Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown may never once have used a computer in her lifetime, but her trust is granting the American Museum of Natural History $7.5 million to establish a new program that will give young women and economically disadvantaged students computer science skills and the opportunity to apply them practically.

This fall, Bridge Up: Science will recruit about 30 girls with an interest in science and technology from high schools in New York City and prepare them to create web and mobile applications relevant to their community.

The program's objective is to create “a social community of women who can feel comfortable and confident as computer scientists,” Eve Burton, Hearst Corporation’s senior vice president and executor of Brown’s trust, told Capital.

Through the Bridge Up: Science program, the American Museum of Natural History will also offer after-school classes on coding and related scientific fields to 100 middle school students, girls and boys, from underserved New York City schools. Three or four women selected from university science and entrepreneurship programs will help teach and supervise the high school and middle school students.

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“I think this offers a twofer for these young people," museum president Ellen Futter told Capital. "They’re getting these computer technology skills, but they’re not getting them in a vacuum. They’re getting them tied to an understand, an appreciation of science, hopefully inspiration to pursue science.” The museum runs a broad spectrum of education programs, including some courses that train students to teach the sciences.

It's the fourth educational institute to benefit from the philanthropy of Helen Gurley Brown and her husband, the movie producer and executive David Brown, who died in 2012 and 2010 respectively. The Helen Gurley Brown Trust has given $1 million to Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx, $2 million to Smith College, $30 million to Columbia and Stanford universities to create the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation and $15 million to the New York Public Library to establish a Bridge Up program that provides academic and social support to underprivileged New York City students who might not otherwise attend college.

Brown’s legacy reflects her belief in the power of individual achievement: the influential editor, who grew up poor in Arkansas and whose highest degrees were a high school diploma and a secretarial certificate, wanted to invest her estate in individual people and ideas. Programs like Bridge Up: Science reward participants who propose innovative projects with non-bureaucratic “Magic Grants.” Their long-reaching aim is to propogate similar programs across the country, Burton said.

“[Brown] wasn’t a big lover of large institutions, or institutional gifts or large endowments,” Burton said, “but she was a huge proponent of investing in transformative ideas and people who transform the world.”

Although the American Museum of Natural History program only took its final shape after Brown’s death (planning with the museum began about five months ago), Burton said Bridge Up: Science follows as an example its namesake, which Brown and her trustees conceived together. Both devote their attention to a relatively small number of grade school students.

The second time around, the board of trustees examined data predicting a shortage of computer scientists and technologists five years from now, Burton said. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics projections, the employment of computer scientists will grow by 15 percent from 2012 to 2022. It's also evident that women are underrepresented in the field, and the board helped chose a woman, mathematician and coding scientist Christina Wallace, to direct the program.

While the first Bridge Up program is primarily an anti-poverty measure, this second is distinctly pro-women: “Brown was born and raised extremely poor. She had very little opportunity, so that’s where she first put her focus,” Burton said. But “this one is because she loved girls. She wanted to do something for girls.” The Browns never had any children of their own.

Helen Gurley Brown did, however, enjoy the company of Cardinal Hayes students who interned at the Hearst Tower her last few summers there. Seated at her typewriter, she would dictate letters to Gloria Vanderbilt, Liz Smith and Regis Philbin while the boys typed up her correspondence on an Apple computer she never touched.