Build Courage Through Making

Emily Pilloton build courage through making

"Fear less. Build more." That's the motto of Girls Garage, a nonprofit design and building program that supports and equips a community of girls to build the world they want to see. And Founder Emily Pilloton hated it at first.

She thought it made girls seem scared. But the longer she sat with it, the more she knew it was exactly what needed to be said. Everyone is afraid. Why are we ashamed of that? 

“Fear is an extremely important and useful thing for us to feel and understand,” Emily says. Understanding the shape of our fear helps us work through it. At Girls Garage, they often talk about bravery as a muscle we can learn to exercise. 

As a designer, builder, educator, and author, Emily Pilloton has taught thousands of young girls how to bravely use power tools, weld, and build projects in their communities through Girls Garage. She is a Lecturer in the College of Environmental Design at the University of California Berkeley and the author of three books, Design Revolution, Tell Them I Built This, and Girls Garage

In this Creative Confidence Podcast conversation, Emily shares insight into the power of making, tips for designing brave and inclusive spaces, and why building within your community is so meaningful.


Listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts


The Power of Making

The act of making something can feel scary and intimidating. It puts you in a vulnerable state of mind. Emily says we have to let go of self judgement to tap into the power of making. 

“The vulnerability and ability to make things that are representative of ourselves is powerful,” she asserts. It means we have a tool for sharing our ideas and our hopes and dreams in a tangible way. It gives you something to point to and say ‘This is what I believe about the world, and this is how I want to make it better.’

Simple maker skills like tying an overhand knot or knowing how to safely carry lumber are a great place to start to get comfortable with making and build your self confidence. That idea is the basis for Girls Garage. When Emily was young she did a service project where she helped build a town park. She climbed ladders, mixed concrete, and built structures. The collaboration and community she was a part of motivated her to do her best. The dynamic there made her feel like she had power and agency in the world and that her identity could be connected to something that mattered.

diagram from girls garage book of making

In Emily’s book, Girls Garage, she shares detailed how-tos for tying an overhand knot and other fundamental maker skills.

A career in architecture felt like the right next step, but after spending weeks on projects that felt empty and meaningless, like plumbing detail for a mega mansion, Emily knew she wanted to do something different. She founded a nonprofit to connect the act of designing and building to the experience of a young person, giving them the tools to express themselves and make change in their communities. This nonprofit evolved into Girls Garage.

“Girls Garage was a space that I carved out at first as an experiment just for my female students to use tools, to build things together and to be able to shed all of that energy that girls and women have to put towards dismantling social dynamics,” Emily says. 

Statistics show that women are underrepresented in many fields, including STEM and politics. But the solution Emily is working toward isn’t just about helping more women enter these fields. 

It's about the impact they can have—what happens when there are more women, people of color, and people of different ages and backgrounds in these spaces, making decisions about what our world could feel like. She points out how unlikely it is that if you put people in a room who all basically share the same identity markers—race, gender, age, or nationality for example—that they're going to design a world that is for anyone but them. 

“I fundamentally believe that if girls and women are more involved in, invited into and given more agency to shape the world, that our world will be more beautiful and more equitable and more just, and it will be designed for everyone,” she says.


5 Tips for Bravery

Emily has countless pieces of advice for those looking to build their bravery and hone their maker abilities. We selected five from her book to get you started. 

  1. The best way to start is to start.
  2. Acknowledge your fear, then tell it to go jump off a cliff.
  3. Practice the hard parts.
  4. Find your mentors and ask for help.
  5. Finish what you start. 


“The vulnerability and ability to make things that are representative of ourselves is powerful.”
Emily Pilloton


In our conversation, Emily dove deeper into points four and five. Why is it so important to find mentors and ask for help? “Fear is isolating,” Emily observes. “It’s easier to be afraid by yourself.” While our instinct might be to curl up and hide when we’re afraid, asking for help can lead to a better solution. This is the moment to look to your mentors or trusted friends—people who want to be there for you with encouragement, not judgment. 

The importance of finishing projects also gets back to building confidence. “The act of finishing, even if it’s not your favorite work, is important,” she says. “It’s a way of having closure on the process, reflecting backward and knowing what you would have done differently.” 

girls garage greenhouse

Greenhouse, Berkeley, California, 2016. Designed and built for Berkeley Youth Alternatives’ community garden by Studio H students at REALM Charter School and the advanced teen girl cohort at Girls Garage.


Building Inclusive Spaces

Emily is very aware of the stories and lived experiences of the adults and mentors that teach in the program and how important it is that their experiences mirror those of the girls. One way she accomplishes this is asking “Who’s not in the room? Who have we not done a good job for to make sure they have access?”

In their teen program, 90% of the girls participating are people of color, and they live in 20 different cities around the Bay Area. They define “girls” as gender-expansive youth (cis girls, trans girls, non-binary youth, gender non-conforming youth, gender queer youth, and any girl-identified youth). Girls Garage intends to cultivate diversity of experiences, ideas, age, race and more from the beginning so that it is built into the fabric of the organization—and ultimately participants will invite more of it into the space

Other intentional efforts at inclusivity can seem small on the surface, but carry a big impact. Emily makes sure to always use the girls’ names, never “you guys” or “you two,” when speaking with them to acknowledge them and make them feel seen. They also do a daily 5-minute check in to offer everyone an opportunity to share how they’re feeling or ask a question. 

“It’s important to carve out a space without an agenda to let people speak,” she says. “To know they’re not being tested or judged.” She knows sometimes young people don’t have those spaces at home or at school. 


“It’s important to carve out a space without an agenda to let people speak. To know they’re not being tested or judged.”
Emily Pilloton


The act of making itself creates a space for inclusivity. “Making is the great equalizer,” Emily believes. Kids may come into the program with insecurities about skills they don’t yet have, like a knack for math. But if we are meeting everyone where they are and learning maker skills together—through inquiry, individual work, group dynamics, and even auditory learning (instructors at Girls Garage often talk about knowing how tools work based on how they sound)--the interests and skills kids DO have can shine. Their curiosity will lead the way

“For me as a leader and a mentor, that’s my job,” Emily says “To understand what makes each person tick and make sure there’s space for that in the project.”

Building Within a Community

Learning maker skills has many benefits on its own, but Emily says the most meaningful projects for girls in her program are those that have consequence—projects that are built for and with a community, like a parklet for a restaurant or chicken coop for a farm, that will live on for many years. 

These projects require the girls to think about others and their needs, as well as how their work will stand the test of time and how it will impact the community. Emily is hopeful that the girls in her program will build confidence through these projects: “We build the world we want to see when we have things in our communities that are built by girls that they can point to and say ‘I built that.’”

Despite the challenges of the last year, Emily feels more hopeful and inspired than ever before, thanks to the girls in her program. These young women bring an infectious mindset of opportunity, she says. They are very aware of the challenges in today’s world, but they believe in the possibility to change and transform the old ways of doing things into something better. 

“It makes me so much more hopeful knowing that the people coming into leadership and power are young women who believe everything's possible,” Emily says. 

Interested in supporting Girls Garage? Check out their Fearless100 initiative to provide 100 teens with their own stocked toolbox to support their building practice at home and into their future. 

Learn how to quickly move from failures to bringing new ideas to fruition by prototyping, experimenting, and iterating in our online course From Ideas to Action.

Starting Soon

Business Innovation - IDEO U Certificate
Human-Centered Strategy Certificate