Woman at Work: Girls Garage Founder Emily Pilloton

What does a day in your work life look like? 

What I love most about my work is the many different roles I get to play, and the many ways I get to be of service. I’m a builder, an educator, a leader. My title is technically executive director of Girls Garage, but that doesn't begin to convey the breadth of my days!

Last week (this is an actual schedule), I started the morning teaching my architecture seminar at UC Berkeley, then went straight to Girls Garage, where I met our welding instructor, Augusta, who wanted to work on tweaking our ‘rolling ball sculpture’ project we're building with our young welder girls. 

Emily's girls garage students measuring wood.
Emily's girls garage students measuring wood. 

I spent a few hours finalizing a grant report, inventorying lumber and hardware, and writing a job description for a new Director of Communications we hope to hire. Then I welcomed our after-school carpentry class of 9-13 year old girls. We continued work on our handmade ping pong paddles and ping pong table, which we'll use at the Girls Garage gala! 

To end the evening, I headed into San Francisco with my colleague Kristy, our director of development, to speak at an architecture firm’s evening lecture series. Every day is as action-packed as this one, but the common thread is that I get to solve problems and build things with and for women and girls whom I care about deeply. 

What made you start doing the amazing things that you do? 

When I was 16, I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Belize on a summer service trip with teenagers from around the country. This is when and where I learned to build. We mixed and poured thousands of pounds of concrete by hand. I cleared a site with a machete, and learned how to frame walls and a roof. We built a community center and park furniture alongside local builders.
Girls build dovetail workwear emily pilloton on job site
Emily Pilloton on her first job site at 16

This was the first time I remember feeling valued and seen as a young woman of color, and that I might have an impact on the world somehow. I went on to study architecture, and never lost my love of getting dirty and building things myself. 

After graduate school, I worked in architecture and design firms for a handful of years, but lost that sense of connection to community and hands-on work that made me fall in love with architecture. So I quit my job and started a nonprofit to try to reclaim and pay forward the feelings I had as a teenager, and to design and build work with and for our communities. 

Specifically, I felt inspired to create a space and program that would give young people the opportunity to connect their identity and creativity to real jobs, real impact and real projects. In 2013, the first Girls Garage summer camp sold out in a matter of days and we welcomed our first 48 students ever. Since then, it's been almost seven years of nonstop fun, sawdust, power tools and girl power. 

What was a special moment in your work?

Last May, Melinda Gates came to visit Girls Garage, and our girls taught her how to use a chop saw, drill and driver. It was such an incredible moment, not only because Melinda Gates is such a (s)hero and champion of girls in STEM and tech, but because I got to step aside and watch some of our most veteran girls become teachers. I felt like, "My work here is done!" and just watched them take over to pass on the knowledge they have been honing for the past seven years. 

Did you complete any training? If not, how did you learn your trade? 

I learned the basics of wood framing as a teenager, and then learned the more technical aspects of welding, carpentry, and architectural drafting in college and graduate school. 

My most useful skills, however, are tricks of the trade they never teach you in school, which I've learned on job sites building alongside incredible builder women. There is a trust between us that communicates total equality: no one is better than anyone else and we're all in it together. 

Girls Garage at a site build with their new truck and Emily covered in concrete Girls Garage at a site build with their new truck! 

How do you encourage other women to start doing what you do?

  1. Go immediately buy a drill/driver set, read the manual, ideally with a few friends, and start using it, even if you're assembling random scraps of wood. 
  2. Seek out a circle of driven, creative women and let this community be your source of strength.

  3. Stay connected to young people, specifically young women, who are no doubt the heroes and visionaries of our time. They will remind us all of what is important, what the future can be, and how we can be brave together to get there. 

Girls build dovetail workwear outside freshley overallGirls Garage students standing on a 2x4 parquet bench they designed and built. 

If you could give your 20-year-old-self advice, what would it be?

Stop apologizing. 

What do you want people to know about being a woman in your field? 

I can tell stories all day long about horrible things that have been said to me on job sites or at the hardware store, and how I've been treated as a woman in the trades. BUT, what I want people to know about being a woman in a position of leadership AND in a male-dominated field is that being a woman is always a superpower.

Girls build dovetail workwear young woman in freshley overalls
A student takes pause underneath a very apt sign.

I would not change my identity for anything. To be the only woman in the room, and even to be underestimated, can be a great gift. To know in your heart the power of your knowledge, perseverance, and grit is something that can never be taken from you. When other women (and good men!) see this power in you, you know THEY are your people.

Being a woman in the trades means we get to be the forgers of new paths, creating new roads for others to come with us and after us. And how awesome is that to have the opportunity to build the world we want to see? 

Girls build dovetail workwear freshley indigo stripe overalls emily pilloton

Emily taking it all in at the Girls Garage workshop. 

Photos courtesy of Emily Pilloton and Girls Garage. Among other pieces, the women above are wearing the Dovetail logo tee, Maven Slim pant in black stretch denim and indigo power stretch denim, as well as the Freshley overall in black stretch denim and indigo stripe denim

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