January 21, 2019

Persian Woman Develops a Code for Student Success

Shirin Laor-Raz Salemnia hosted the Kids Hack for LA Hackathon in collaboration with Mayor Eric Garcetti

When the movie “Big” was released in 1988, grade-school student Shirin Laor-Raz Salemnia knew what she wanted to do: test toys, just like Tom Hanks’ character in the movie. Her computer science teacher at Fairburn Elementary in Westwood taught her how to code, and Salemnia believed anything was possible. 

Born in Tehran, Salemnia’s family moved to Israel when she was 18 months old. Six months later, the family decided to come to Los Angeles. Despite her techie dreams, Salemnia’s family wanted her to pursue a more traditional career, perhaps in law or medicine, but Salemnia remained true to her calling. 

In the early 2000s, armed with a bachelor’s degree in child psychology from Cal State Northridge, and through a combination of networking, research and sheer determination, Salemnia began her professional career at Mattel working on Barbie. She went on to work at MGA Entertainment as the brand manager for the billion-dollar Bratz dolls brand and created MGA’s in-house research center, Play Lab. 

Eventually, Salemnia decided to branch out on her own, founding PlayWerks, an interactive media company that creates multiplatform immersive games and experiences. 

“For me it’s all about tikkun olam, living on purpose, knowing what my mission is on this planet, and making a difference,” Salemnia told the Journal. “My quest for giving back comes from learning about the history of the Jews in Hebrew school and from my bat mitzvah portion, which was Bereshit (Creation). Then, when I was searching for meaning and purpose, learning Kabbalah gave me a lot of insight on creation and opened the door to the Jewish way of giving back to others.”

“Everyone has a purpose and mission on this planet. When you find out what that is, let it guide you.” ­ — Shirin Laor-Raz Salemnia

Through WhizGirls, Salemnia goes into schools to lead hackathons, which focus on project-based learning and entrepreneurship. In 2013, she hosted the first Hackathon for Women and Girls with the White House Council on Women and Girls. In May 2014, Salemnia hosted the Kids Hack for LA in collaboration with Mayor Eric Garcetti, the White House and will.i.am’s i.am.angel Foundation.

Since August 2013, 3,700 children have participated in her Academy, which, she said is “girl focused, boy inclusive.” 

At each hackathon, a tech founder speaks with attendees about how they established their careers. “Our last keynote person was from NASA/JPL,” Salemnia said. “There’s always healthy food, coding and learning about how to be an entrepreneur.”

During the coding sessions, Salemnia helps the students generate ideas by asking them, “What can you do to make your life easier? Or how can you make your school better? Or what do you want to do to make a difference in the world?” Students have come up with ideas to help the homeless, for beach cleanup and fixing the drought. Once they’ve honed in on their ideas, they pitch them “Shark-Tank”-style and win prizes.

“In the end, if they want to continue, we connect them with people who can help their more advanced vision come to life,” Salemnia said. “And some of them have continued and done some really
cool things.” 

Salemnia believes it’s invaluable for students to be open to new careers in technology. “Everyone has a purpose and mission on this planet,” she said. “When you find out what that is, let it guide you. Don’t listen to the naysayers. You will feel fulfilled to live a purpose-driven life.”