By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
BENTON HARBOR — Sierra Ward only knew Whirlpool Corp. as the logo on her refrigerator.
That changed when Ward, along with another two dozen other girls, toured and took part in a few hands-on activities at Whirlpool’s Benton Harbor Technology Center on Tuesday.
Sierra was there with the Merze Tate Explorers, which got the opportunity to learn what makes Whirlpool appliances work and how the women of the Benton Harbor-based company use their skills to make it happen.
“I didn’t know they were associated with Maytag or Jenn-Air,” Sierra said. “I didn’t know there were so many different jobs here, and I don’t think there is anybody who has the same job. When I was told we were going to Whirlpool, I didn’t think I was going to relate to it at all. I thought they were just going to talk about refrigerators the whole day. But it’s so in-depth.”
While at Whirlpool, the girls worked in teams to create the “Ultimate Smoothie,” which they presented to a panel of Whirlpool executives. The girls come from different Kalamazoo schools, representing fourth through 12th grade classes.
Kathleen Wolf, senior manager of corporate reputation and interactive media at Whirlpool, said they came up with an idea of doing the smoothie challenge based on a few popular kid shows.
“They were able to learn about the KitchenAid blender and create their own smoothies,” Wolf said. “They learned how to pitch this to the media, graphic design, video, social media and website design. They figure out which of those mediums they wish to pitch.”
Ward and her group created a smoothie called “Caribbean Passion.” They chose the ingredients and came up with the imagery for a proposed marketing campaign.
“It was a big hit,” Ward said. “All the workers drank ours.”
The girls were part of a summer program called Travel Writers Academy, which is run through the Merze Tate Explorers after the organization was founded in 2008.
The program was named in honor of Merze Tate, a 1927 graduate of Western Michigan University. Tate, who died in 1996, was the first black person to graduate from Oxford University in England, became an international author and scholar, and traveled the world while speaking several languages.
Sonya Hollins, founder of the Merze Tate Explorers, said hands-on experiences such as these allow the girls to learn what goes into creating, marketing and distributing a brand worldwide.
“They met with these women to find out how their first jobs were as baby-sitters and now they are vice presidents at Whirlpool,” Hollins said. “They get a chance to take part in those STEAM opportunities.”
Since the inception of the Merze Tate Explorers, Hollins said the girls have met women in their own communities who work at such places as Stryker Instruments and Kellogg’s, and have traveled as far as Indianapolis to shoot footage for a documentary they produced in 2010.
“We have girls who have gone on to France, we’ve had girls who have gone to China through the inspiration of our program,” Hollins said. “Our goal is to get them the opportunities to go further and further out.”