Stephanie Santoso: White House maker advocate. Information Science PhD student. Gluten-free baking specialist.

OSTP's Stephanie Santoso talked with TechRepublic about how backing the maker movement can be a means of building and lifting up communities.

Image: Stephanie Santoso

A funny thing happened to Stephanie Santoso. The now-researcher at the Tech and Innovation Division of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy was working in advertising. She was in account management, handling IBM Software, and she had this revelation: She was more interested in learning about her client's tech products than she was in her day job.

The idea crossed her mind that if she ever went back to school, she'd want to do something in tech.

Of course, a few things happened first. These days, she's involved in the maker movement at the White House, but before she got into making tech, she found herself making baked goods.

From 2007 to 2010, Santoso and her mother created a startup and made gluten-free baked goods. Initially, they sold them at farmers markets, but eventually Whole Foods became their biggest customer, putting their baked goods into 26 stores in the mid-Atlantic region. She can still walk into certain Whole Foods locations in the DC area and think back to when she did product demos there.

It was a tricky time to be starting a business, though. The economy had tanked, no one was talking about crowdfunding yet, and venture capitalists were unlikely to invest in companies without a strong history and a stronger revenue stream. So, when it was time to talk about potentially expanding, they did the opposite and ceased production.

The lull gave Santoso the chance to go back to school, though. She headed to Syracuse University to get a masters degree in information management. Her focus was designing information systems and she also did some work on database programming.

During the program, she got pulled into an academic research project with a professor that explored tech, free speech, and copyright enforcement. That meant digging into a world of questions surrounding governance of new and emerging tech, and the balance between maintaining open innovation and making sure technology is not used for nefarious purposes.

In order to keep on learning about this area, Santoso applied to Cornell University's Information Science PhD program where she homed in on 3D printing as a timely example of exactly that evolution of the relationship between tech and governance, and the overarching democratization of technology.

"That's really one of the core things that's driving the maker movement, is this idea that technologies that used to be incredibly expensive and were used for industrial purposes-- for designing and fabricating, are now at a point where you can have them either in your home or there's a makerspace in your community," Santoso said.

After she finished her coursework, she applied for an internship at the White House, in the Tech and Innovation division where she now works. On her application, she talked about the importance of the maker movement, 3D printing, and how technology can help solve global problems. The timing was just such that when they brought her on board, they were able to place her on a team that was planning the White House's first Maker Faire.

In her role at the White House, Santoso now spends a lot of time looking at how the maker movement can be used to spur progress in communities.

"That's the blue sky big idea," Santoso said. "In cities across the country, regardless of the socio-economic background of the community, to have those resources in place to create some of these more hands-on educational opportunities, but also to be able to foster small business development in a community which leads to economic growth and community revitalization."

Giving communities access to tools and opportunities to learn new technology can lead to retraining, up-training, lower barriers to entrepreneurship, higher engagement in schools, and more, Santoso said.

She works with community institutions like libraries, schools, universities, museums, non-profits, and the like to see how they can make that happen.

During a recent event at the White House for the National Week of Making, Santoso got to talk with several makers from around the country, including Emily Pilloton, founder of Project H.

Project H is a non-profit that teaches kids to build and design. They went to Bertie County, North Carolina, which is one of the most impoverished counties on the East Coast, and helped local kids build a structure for a farmer's market. These were kids who were typically disengaged and apathetic, but the hands-on nature of the project made all the difference.

"It was a tough experience for her, but to be able to hear how excited and passionate the students were over the course of the project was really incredible," Santoso said.

In another instance, Santoso learned the story of a young man and a 9-year-old who teamed up to design and prototype prosthetic limbs for the boy based on what he felt he needed, like an attachment to help him play violin, or something more Inspector Gadget-esque that he could build and modify.

Santoso sees these as more examples of a movement that can -- and already is -- changing the way people think about designing, creating, and ultimately building and improving their own worlds.

"They're really at the heart of why I love the work that I do," she said.

In her own words...

How do you unplug?

"I love traveling internationally. One way I really like to unplug is immerse myself in a different culture. It gives you really good perspective... [It's] a really interesting way to think about where you are in your life. The most recent international trip I took was I went to Berlin, and that was really interesting because they have a really vibrant arts culture and a really vibrant maker culture."

If you could try out another profession, what would it be?

"Part of me has always wondered about being an architect. I really like thinking about spaces and designing spaces that people interact in. I think being an architect would be really fascinating. I can't draw or draft."

What's something you read or listen to for fun?

"There's a couple podcasts I really love. I love Studio 360. It's a smattering of topics related to creative people, artists, they also do historical stories."

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