Mars Needs Women: the sweatshirt brand with a mission to help fund STEM programs for young girls

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May 9, 2018, 2:02 PM EDT

In 1983, five years after joining NASA, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space — 22 after the first American man. Ride said that “weightlessness is a great equalizer,” a quote you will find on the Mars Needs Women homepage. This apparel store is the brainchild of Charlotte Bax, and a portion of proceeds from each sweatshirt sale goes to programs supporting young girls pursuing a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. The amount? You decide.

SYFY FANGRRLS sat down with Bax to find out more about Mars Needs Women, including why Ride’s words resonate so much, what propelled her into setting up this initiative, her background in retail and why science and fashion are not mutually exclusive pursuits.

Mars Needs Women was a phrase Bax first heard at work when discussing the lack of women working in the data science field. It originates from a 1960s B movie of the same name. While the company is not connected with the premise of the film—Martians come to Earth in order to solve their shortage of women—the slogan is all-encompassing when describing what she aims to do with this brand. “It doesn’t just mean we need more female astronauts. Mars Needs Women means that with everything that’s happening with technology and the future, we need [an] equal amount of women to be involved in all STEM fields,” said Bax.

It is a metaphor for why we need equality in STEM fields, or why it is vital for girls and boys to learn skills such as coding. If you buy a sweatshirt from the brand, you're also making a donation to a great cause.

Bax thought “Mars Needs Women” would make a really good shirt slogan. Politics was very much at the forefront of Bax’s mind just after the 2017 Women’s March. With a background in retail analytics, it wasn’t a leap to view this in relation to a clothing brand. But Bax has turned this into so much more than just a cool sweatshirt.

The development of Mars Need Women came while Bax was living in New York—she has recently moved to London—and working for tech company Trendalytics. Using a data approach, Bax noted the resurgence in NASA and space graphic tees as one trend she was acutely aware of. Coupled with a desire to give back, Bax explained, “I was thinking [of] how can I use my expertise in retail background, then use this amazing slogan for something positive.”

Time was a big barrier, as it often is when figuring out a work/life balance. With Mars Needs Women you can get involved, even if you aren’t physically donating your time. Not only does a portion of the proceeds go to local projects and grassroots organizations, but wearing the sweatshirt instantly invites questions. The Mars Needs Women mission is not singular. “I want there to be multiple ways for people to be involved with the brand. It could just be it’s super cozy and the best sweatshirt you’ve ever had,” said Bax. “Or it could be because the mission really resonates with you and you’re working at one of these programming places. Or it could be that it looks cool. Any and all of those are very valid. In order to get involved with helping the next generation and all of these programs.”

An astronaut helmet with eyelashes logo is a simple yet striking image on the back of the sweatshirt, but it's a major part of the Mars Needs Women branding. There is also a physical version of the helmet which Bax made from a Halloween costume that serves as a great way to get people involved when the team head out to trade shows and pop-ups. Even if someone doesn’t buy a sweatshirt, it is a good photo prop: perfect for those Instagram Stories or Snapchat posts to help spread brand awareness.

The consumer is making another decision when buying a sweatshirt: how much to donate. There are three different price points, starting at $60, each with a different donation percentage, ranging from 5 to 15 percent. The Toms model was something that inspired Bax, but she also wanted to give an element of choice because “I personally think they’re more involved and they might come back to see where the donation is going.”

Over the next year, Bax will be publicizing these organizations directly on the site so you can find out exactly what is being done with your donation. It will also give you an opportunity to expand on your donation/involvement in the causes. These include Lower East Side Girls Club in New York and Built by Girls. Bax also mentioned Black Girls Code, Stemettes in the UK, and Mind Makers Project, which is a program run by the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in Los Angeles.

Bax will be visiting the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab next month, an opportunity that arose after connecting with one of their engineers, Bobak Ferdowsi, over Instagram. It's a partnership that came about after Grown-ish star Yara Shahidi wore a Mars Needs Women sweatshirt on Instagram Stories with #scienceis4evercool across the photo. Bax explained that part of her approach is to find real relationships with people who represent the Mars Needs Women mission.

Celebrity endorsements can sometimes come across as insincere, which is why Bax was mindful in who she reached out to. Bax sent Shahidi a message explaining what Mars Needs Women is, offering to send her a shirt. This was not a sponsored post, and there was no payment. “I was really resonating with her personally and the messages she was spreading. She is exactly the target audience for the age group I want to capture,” said Bax, adding, “She has dual power; she has a big voice, but she is also targeting those girls at that critical age.”

This had a big impact. Bax saw a spike in both followers and sales, which led to the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab partnership. Model Karlie Kloss also commented on Ferdowsi’s photo saying she wanted one, and Bax mentioned the Kode with Klossy program when discussing how important it is to capture young girls’ imaginations when promoting an interest in this pursuit.

For Mars Need Women, Bax wants to look at the influencer strategy by not just embracing celebrities—who no doubt help with visibility—but highlighting the women who are already in STEM fields: “Not only people providing programming in terms of coding classes and other science programs, but also women who are scientists. Practitioners doing it day in, day out.” Bax is very much in the mindset that the best way for someone to get interested in STEM is to showcase the opportunities available. If you don’t know something exists, how can you enter that field? Visibility is paramount.

There is a romantic notion attached to NASA and space exploration. We have moved on from the Cold War space race, but new frontiers are still out there. It is not an easy career to pursue. “Being an astronaut has to be one of the most competitive, the hardest, the most selective jobs in the entire world. I think that’s what makes it so mystical, seem so unobtainable. So the more people like Sally Ride [helps],” Bax added, pointing to Alyssa Carson, a teen from Louisiana whose goal is to be on the first human mission to Mars. Carson is documenting this path to her dream on Instagram, including doing every possible program available. There is hope attached to NASA, something that is needed in abundance right now.  

After Ferdowsi wore the sweatshirt, he told Bax that his female co-workers at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab said, “It looks like me. An astronaut suit, but with eyelashes. I can resonate with that.” This anecdote thrilled Bax, since it so perfectly pointed to the message of the brand: that you can look good and do good at the same time. (The slogan “Look Good, Do Good” is one used on the Mars Needs Women site and across social media platforms.)

Women contain multitudes. You can be interested in fashion and science. You can wear lipstick and want to be astronaut, or you can eschew makeup entirely. At school, you can be interested in the arts and STEM. The latter is something we discussed with Bax, about how things that happen to you at a crucial educational age can impact the subjects you turn away from. Even something trivial can make you feel bad about your performance in these subjects, so encouragement and opportunities for both girls and boys is important. It isn’t about excluding one. In the words of another Sally Ride quote featured on the site: “If we want scientists and engineers in the future, we should be cultivating the girls as much as the boys.”

The issue Bax wants to help address with Mars Needs Women is that one gender is underrepresented in STEM fields: “It’s not just about one or the other. It’s not just [that] we need exclusively female scientists or we need exclusively male scientists," adding that Sally Ride “had a great way of balancing the two. To her that equalness was the ideal.” With these sweatshirts, it is about helping balance the scales by promoting opportunities for young girls in STEM as well as highlighting the women already working in these fields.

When she originally started the project with just 25 sweatshirts, Bax didn’t foresee how far and wide this brand would spread. She initially made them for co-workers and friends, but when they started walking around the office at WeWork, interest grew. Now Mars Needs Women is on its fourth order of inventory and the company has already donated $600 to programs. Bax mentioned that most people opt for the largest donation amount. As the company expands, Bax doesn’t want to sacrifice the quality of the sweatshirts. Sustainability is important, and Brooklyn-based vendor Alternative Apparel uses eco and organic fabrics. The UK vendor will need to share this sustainable ethos.

Bax hopes Mars Needs Women can carve out a space on the social responsibility retail landscape, exposing these amazing organizations to people. “I want it to be a cool sweatshirt. I want it to look cool for scientists wearing it. I want people with no background or interest in any STEM fields to be able to get involved—not having that barrier to entry for people. It can be something cool or it could be a something a lot more meaningful.”

Do good, look good. It's as simple as that.

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