GUEST BLOG: Millennials In Focus

In this guest post Jess Wade from Imperial College London describes her experience at an event designed to encourage millennials to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem). 

In summer 2017 at a Getty Images Gallery in London, Innovate UK celebrated the opening of “in focus”, Innovate UK’s exhibition that champions brilliant women in innovation. Innovate UK recognises the lack of diversity of women in startups: women only make up 17 % of founders and recent research revealed 97 % of venture capital funding goes to companies with a male CEO.

To Innovate UK this isn’t just an equality issue – it’s an economic issue. Having more women in innovation would bring the UK an extra £180 billion a year. Innovate UK last year invested £200,000 in the businesses of women. The 12 finalists of its “in-focus” funding award weren’t just given a cheque, but a tailored package of mentorship and guidance – invaluable when you’re launching into a very volatile world.

As part of the “in-focus” exhibition, Innovate UK invited 40 teenage girls to come and see the work of photographer Amelia Troubridge who photographed the 12 “in-focus” finalists. The women featured on the gallery walls are inspiring: among them are Elena Dieckmann, a design engineer at Imperial College, whose company Aeropowder is using waste chicken feathers for insulation in London homes. Natwilai Utoomprurkporn’s company Gettrik uses drones to create interactive 3D maps and models. Hers is a genuine story of drones for good: a robotic revolution that is focused on improving safety when inspecting large structures.

The girls looking at the pictures were inspiring too- they came to hang out with grown-ups in the first week of their summer holiday.

We were joined by three of London’s leading startup ladies: women in business who know a thing or two about starting a business: Sophie Deen, CEO of social enterprise Bright Little Labs, a children’s education company that makes gender-neutral and ethically sourced toys and materials, Tabitha Goldstaub, co-founder of CognitionX- a tripadvisor for all things artificial intelligence (AI) enabling people and companies to educate themselves and eradicate bias from their software and Sharmadean Reid, MBE, writer and founder of the millennial mecca that is WAH nails.

Their stories and careers are exciting: building businesses in their undergraduate lectures, not being afraid to break tradition and creating companies that they are passionate about. As they told their stories, the room was totally mesmerised. I actually cannot believe we had them all in one room- Sharmadean was fresh from a breakfast meeting with Akala, Sophie is in the middle of signing two book deals and Tabitha has just run an AI conference where the registration fee was £3,000+.

It upsets me that we spend so much time speaking on behalf of young people- they spend too long in front of screens, they aren’t making good career choices and they are obsessed with their image- when really we should be learning from them.

That is just what these wonderful women do: recognise the talents of teenagers and how they can make businesses better.

WAH Nails

When setting up WAH nails, Sharmadean wanted to make augmented reality (AR) more relevant- she recognised that you could make virtual reality vital in the beauty business. Today she wants to create an intelligent platform for beauty salons, using image recognition software to create a Tumblr-style dashboard interface using data on global style trends. Sharmadean set the girls a challenge: how to categorize and organise style images uploaded to social media. Whilst tagging may sound trivial, it is actually pretty challenging for most professional coders… and is near-on impossible for a robot. For the girls’ trained eyes it is a walk in the park.

Cognition X

In 1942, a science fiction writer called Asimov created the ‘three laws of robotics’. Tabitha and Cognition X are convinced that because robots are going mainstream, they need updating. Society has changed: robots can fight, spy and learn. Turns out, the people you need to write the complex guidelines for ethical robots are the same people who will be most affected by their existence- the people who will be clearing up whatever mess our generation makes. The girls jumped at the opportunity to design the rules for their autonomous allies, and  became aware of the debate and discussion about the computer systems that will control their futures.

Bright Little Labs

Like many ideas, Bright Little Labs was born out of frustration. In today’s children’s cartoons and TV shows, 0% of princesses are coders, boys are twice as likely to take the lead, fewer than 3% of characters are people-of-colour and 92% of females are underweight. Through books, apps cartoons Bright Little Labs tells the story of ‘Detective Dot’, an eight-year-old coder who goes on global adventures to understand the world around her. Bright Little Labs work with teachers and parents to recruit children to the CIA (the Children’s Intelligence Agency)- and needs new ideas on how to do it. Who better to register the rookies than young people themselves? The girls working with Bright Little Labs became aware of the importance of sustainability and diversity, and the inequalities in education and society. Over the morning, they learnt how to map user experience and design an interface for a platform where the users are under ten years old. I am convinced all of them will end up interning at Bright Little Labs this summer, creating computer science classroom content.

Girls attending were challenged by each of the startup founders to overcome the challenges these startups are facing. When the girls came together over lunch to present their solutions to Sophie, Sharmadean and Tabitha’s challenges, it was time for the grown-ups the be left speechless – the girls were seriously insightful, confident and charismatic.

Maybe it was something in the Getty Images coffee, or there was a special spark in Soho that morning…  but I think the combination of inspiration was unique: the women on the walls, the other girls in the audience, the Innovate UK staff and the sensational speakers. When Innovate UK invested in 12 female founders they showcased the economic potential of women – inspired by their stories; we are likely to feel their impact for generations to come.

If you weren’t lucky enough to be in the room, don’t worry: