I sat down with Tech Girls Movement Foundation CEO, Dr Jenine Beekhuyzen for a chat. In 2016 Jenine was named in Australia’s 100 Women of Influence for her work in advancing gender equality in the tech sector through the Tech Girls Movement Foundation. Entrepreneurship is part of this woman’s soul and it’s catching. Girls as young as 7 and up to age 17 form teams to compete in Jenine’s national competition, The Search for the Next Tech Girl Superhero.
Why did you start Tech Girls are Superheroes Dr Jenine Beekhuyzen?
It really comes from the idea that we all have a superpower inside us. We pull out our superpower when we need to, to get us through tough times. We all have to find a way of coping. So giving in to that inner superhero, which is what makes you awesome and what makes you different to everyone else, is important and we often forget we have it.
At what point did you decide that the Tech Girls Movement Foundation would be your legacy to the world?
I produced a book called Tech Girls are Chic six years before I started Tech Girls are Superheroes in 2014. It was very pink. I learned from that. It profiled women in the tech industry and they all wrote short fictional stories about themselves and we distributed 20,000 books over about six years. Teachers were using it as a resource in the classroom and to help with advising girls on careers. It went way beyond what I would have expected.
I had a young woman come up to me at an event at Queensland University of Technology and she tapped me on the arm and said, “Oh my goodness, did you write the pink book? I am now studying IT at university after reading your book in high school.” I thought gosh, this is working, this is crazy, without much effort. That was a turning point. I had run out of pink books. It’s time to do something again. I’d learnt a whole lot, I’d started my own business, I’d done a lot of research I wanted to put that into practice in a really useful, systematic way, so I guess that was it.
Anna Kalma is the girl who approached me at QUT. She is actually featured in our Tech Girls are Superheroes books, she is Spark Girl from Team QUT. She is involved and passing on her knowledge.
What were some of the main changes you made when Tech Girls are Chic pivoted to Tech Girls are Superheroes?
The pinkness of it. A lot of women felt like it didn’t represent them. So you will notice that Tech Girls are Superheroes uses more gender neutral colours. That was great feedback because it is all about inclusiveness.
Also, bringing the superhero concept to life. Thinking of us as an alter ego gives us strength. There is this cartoon character who can do whatever they want. That’s very empowering and I’ve seen it in action. When girls in our program say, “I can’t do that.” I ask them what their superhero would do and the girls answer, “Oh if it were my superhero, I would do this, this and this…” It actually does change the way they think about the world, and that is awesome.
What change would you like to see in the tech sector in the next few years, thanks to an influx of your incubated Tech Girl Superheroes?
I would love to see better technologies for everyone above all. Recently, I saw a presentation by one of my role models, Marie Johnson who runs the Centre for Digital Business in Canberra. Marie was talking about the work she is doing with the National Disability Insurance Scheme roll out, looking at how people with extreme disabilities manoeuvre government services, because they can’t physically interact with a computer. These stories are amazing because everyone should have access to technology. It’s a complex problem and it’s not easy to solve, so it’s great to see people like Marie leading the way. I think I’d love Tech Girls are Superheroes to come through and create technology that benefits everyone in society.
What’s been the biggest challenge in getting Tech Girls Movement to where it is today?
Tech Girls Movement Foundation started three years ago on a seed of an idea based on a lot of experience and a lot of research. I was at a point where I thought I have to give this a ago. If I fail, I fail but at least I gave it my best shot. Turns out I had a pretty good idea.
In the first year we ran the competition, The Search for the Next Tech Girl Superhero, we had 18 girls compete. We had 132 girls in 2015 and in 2016 we had more than 500 girls compete across five states in primary and secondary schools. Next year there will be 2000 girls competing in all states and territories. It’s an amazing groundswell in such a short space of time.
We’ve distributed 20,000 copies of the first Tech Girls are Superheroes book in 2014 and in a moment of madness I did a second edition this year. 20,000 more copies went out in five months. There is one book in every school in Australia, and that is nearly 10,000 schools. We’ve just had another 20,000 copies printed of the second edition with four new stories, including a New Zealand story because we are launching over there in March 2017.
In a very short amount of time we’ve exploded, but I guess funding is always the biggest challenge. My own personal time invested has been a lot in the last three years and if I’d taken money from sponsors and paid myself a wage, the program wouldn’t have gotten so far so quickly. That’s not sustainable, so we are getting the funding model right so we can grow, scale, go international and engage as many girls as possible in entrepreneurship.
What are your tips for other entrepreneurs on managing the company’s growth?
The biggest tip is to just ask. What is the worst that can happen? They say no? Well you haven’t lost anything. I got a free trip to Europe last year, went to the European Commission, met the Grand Duchess, gave her a superhero cape and it was all very insane. Just by asking. I literally sent an email from their website asking for a meeting and it went from there.
I guess just be aware that it is a roller coaster and there are ups and downs. For me my PhD is the hardest thing I have ever done and that really prepared me for doing this now. It really was a roller coaster. Some days you felt like you knew everything and then you felt like you knew nothing at all. It was very challenging, personally and professionally. Be comfortable being uncomfortable.
Calling all mentors!
We have 110 mentors and next year we need at least 300 for the Search for the Next Tech Girl Superhero 2017. You can sign up on our website for the 2017 program. You don’t need to know how to build an app. We need you to build a relationship with the team, talk through what you do in your job, what you like, what you don’t like, and maybe give them opportunities like taking the team on a site visit to your workplace.
It’s really a project management role where you are guiding them, using our resources. Some of the girls are quite young, only seven or eight, so it’s about getting them used to working in a team and helping them scope their ideas. If you work in business, technology, science and want to give something to the next generation by helping them build an app and a business plan, please sign up and you will get to do a bunch of really awesome things.
Mentors can be from anywhere in Australia. We try to co-locate the teams. Otherwise it is an online program, and they can also meet through Skype.
You can contact Jenine and her team at Tech Girls Movement Foundation.
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