Girls Deserve to See Themselves as Heroes: Kudos to GoldieBlox

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I first met Debra Sterling, founder of GoldieBlox, when she spoke at the Women Entrepreneurs Festival in New York City a few years ago. Her vision of a toy company for girls that fostered engineering concepts inspired me then, and her continued push to bring new role models and break down stereotypes continues to inspire. Her company’s newest video reminds us of how few heroes in media are female.

For those of you who think this is a tired, worn out mantra, I encourage you to watch this video of Jimmy Kimmel asking boys and girls about what would happen if a woman was president.

We need more women running for office, running companies, and we definitely need more Debra Sterlings creating companies like Goldieblox. It is why I was so excited to see Akamee Baca Malta, founder of As Girls Grow, an Albuquerque-based startup, at our national conference for women entrepreneurs and leaders, HauteCon 2015. Like the founder of GoldieBlox, Akamee is using her talents and expertise as an engineer to create play-based, STEM-friendly products for young girls. She attended the conference thanks to a scholarship from Nusenda, a New Mexico-based credit union which recently won a national award for their creative approach to delivering wider access to capital to those with no or poor credit scores through peer-based lending. Nusenda covered the cost of attendance to HauteCon 2015 for ten entrepreneurs, including Akamee, to ensure that cash-strapped startup founders were provided access to both the content and the networking opportunities available at an event created specifically to empower women leaders and entrepreneurs to achieve a higher level of success.

Students from Sandia Preparatory School take the stage with Hautepreneurs Cofounder Jessica Eaves Mathews to talk about their STEAM project. The students worked with Mathews, their school, and Central New Mexico Community College Makerspace to design flowers in Corel Draw, print them using the CNM 3-D Printer, and attach the flowers to the HauteCon banner hanging behind the girls in this photo.

Students from Sandia Preparatory School take the stage with Hautepreneurs Cofounder Jessica Eaves Mathews to talk about their STEAM project. The students worked with Mathews, their school, and Central New Mexico Community College Makerspace to design flowers in Corel Draw, print them using the CNM 3-D Printer, and attach the flowers to the HauteCon banner hanging behind the girls in this photo.

 

Until there is more gender balance among leading roles in entertainment, government and corporate leadership, our sons and daughters will continue to believe the stereotypes perpetuated in the news,  media, and their everyday lives. Until more women hold leadership positions – including the White House – and the toy aisles in our department stores provide more options for girls that defy cultural stereotypes, we need to see more videos like GoldieBlox reminding us that yes, indeed, girls deserve to see themselves as heroes.

5 Things I’d Like to Tell My 7th-Grade Self

  I recently was invited to keynote at a Microsoft Digigirlz Camp in Albuquerque, New Mexico. And while I was very honored to keynote the event, I struggled a bit with what to say. I kept thinking back to what I was like in 7th or 8th grade and wondered what that girl would have wanted to hear. And finally, I decided that was the girl I needed to talk to. Here is the advice I would have given to the 7th-grade Me:

Never, Ever Play Dumb

I’m not sure when it happens, but somewhere beyond those first early grades when we, as girls, raise our hands high and eagerly answer questions in class, we somehow learn how to play dumb so others around us don’t feel bad for not knowing something we know. I know I did this – a lot – and I never felt good about me when I did.

As girls, we do this thing of pretending we don’t know an answer so the guy we’re with doesn’t feel bad that maybe, just maybe, we might be smarter than he is. Or we stay silent about how easy we thought a test was when our girlfriends at lunch are all saying how hard it was. But here’s the thing: if someone has to think you’re dumb to hang out with you, you’re making the choice to hang out with someone who will never like you for who you are, for all the special, unique quirks that is the wonderful version of you that lies awake at night imagining great adventures or ideas. So be true to that girl. She deserves it. I’m not saying to rub anyone else’s nose in how smart you are; I’m not saying that at all. I’m just asking that you make a promise to yourself that you’ll never, ever pretend to be dumb to make someone else feel better. Just be you, be humble, and be nice.

Be Adventurous

Have you thought you wanted to be a part of a sports team and decided to try out only to discover halfway through the season that you really didn’t like it all that much? Well, if your mom is anything like mine, you had to finish out the season so you didn’t let your teammates down. And then the next time you were curious about something and wanted to try it, you thought about getting stuck half a season doing something you didn’t like and, instead of exploring this new curiosity, you held back and decided it wasn’t worth the risk of getting stuck with it if you didn’t like it.

Well, those lessons are good for us – about not letting down teammates, about keeping our word and living up to our commitments. But we also need the freedom to explore new things in a way that lets us back out if we don’t like it. How will you ever know if you don’t try it? Find ways to explore things that you’re curious about. There is nothing at all wrong with dipping your toe in the pool to decide first if you like how the water feels; you don’t have to commit to diving into the deep end or doing nothing at all.

Check Your Stereotypes at the Door

How do you decide what it takes to be a good doctor or teacher or artist? What does a doctor look like? How about a teacher or artist? We build up these stereotypes, and we try to put ourselves – and everyone else around us – into this box that easily defines who that person is, what their role is, and what skills and traits they should have to be good at that particular role.

Don’t put yourself in box by deciding that you don’t fit the stereotype of what someone in STEM looks like. And don’t decide that it is all you can be if you do fit that stereotype. There are so many approaches to doing things that integrate across different disciplines that the possibilities are endless. Find something that strikes your passion, that you can’t stop thinking about how to solve that problem, and go do that. If you love art, don’t think you can’t be a part of STEM. You have no idea how much we need artists in this new digital world – artists who know how to think outside the box, to imagine how to communicate through color and lines and thickness of letters or shading to evoke just the right experience for someone accessing a website, a mobile app, an interactive kiosk in an airport that needs to appeal to multiple ethnicities and cultures. That is no easy task, so bring your talents to help solve problems that excite you.

Don’t Make it Hard for Other Girls

This one is so important. There is this part inside all of us that we want to create this environment where we feel comfortable, and we can unconsciously make it harder for other girls if they don’t fit inside of what we think our world should look or feel like. The next time you’re talking about something that’s a higher level idea and a girl you may think isn’t all that bright or isn’t interested in topics like yours – the next time one of those girls asks what you’re talking about, don’t dismiss her. Tell her. If she isn’t interested, she’ll disengage on her own. But don’t be the girl who doesn’t let girls outside of the stereotype into the smart girls club.

Mayim Bialik, who plays a scientist on Big Bang Theory, actually just became a neuroscientist in real life. But she pretty much fits that stereotype, right? What about Alicia Keys? Do you picture her as brilliant – smart enough to discuss ‘hard’ topics? She graduated at 16. And Elizabeth Banks graduated magna cum laude from UPenn. The point is that we sometimes jump to snap judgments about others based on what we see on the outside, but most of the time we’re wrong. Don’t be the girl who makes it hard for other girls to feel welcome in STEM.

It’s Your Life, So You Get to Choose

Don’t ever live someone else’s dream or become the character that someone else believes you should play in this thing called life. Even if it is that you are so good at math that everyone keeps telling you that you have to go into something that uses math – as if you owe it to math. You owe nothing to math. You owe everything to being true to yourself. So if there is this thing inside of you that says I may be good at math but I love art – then listen and explore that idea. Maybe you’ll land back at something in math but maybe you’ll do something really cool with art that no one else could have ever imagined without your incredible math skills. And if you’re a fantastic artist but you are curious about how cells break down and become cancerous? You have no idea how your ability to imagine things visually may play into this whole world of discovery around science and curing diseases. Don’t live someone else’s dream or let others define your life or your interests. Your unique view of everything around you may be just what the rest of the world has been waiting for. Anything is possible – so embrace your curiosity, embrace those around you, and explore your interests so you can contribute something amazing to the world that can come only from you.

Addressing the Downside of Civic Hacking: Creating A Financially Sustainable Model

Members of the ABQ Civic Entrepreneur Bootcamp building apps on the CityLife platform

Members of the ABQ Civic Entrepreneur Bootcamp building apps on the CityLife platform

One of the best known civic mobile app contests is the NYC BigApps Challenge. The competition has attracted hundreds of teams from around the world, all vying for high dollar prizes and the promise of a coveted contract with the City of New York. Since the contest’s inception five years ago, hundreds of apps have been launched – with last year’s winners alone sharing a prize pool of over $150,000.

For the winners, it is well worth the effort. The prize money, especially considering that no stake in equity is taken from the winning team or company, is of high enough dollar amount to recoup costs for time spent developing, testing and deploying the app – and possibly make a small profit depending on the size of the team. Along with prize money, there is also the value of international publicity generated for finalists and winners.

But what of the hundreds of apps that aren’t winners, which earn neither publicity nor money? An in-depth study that followed the apps submitted for the 2011 competition reported that only 35% of the applications could be verified as still working one year later. The apps which integrated multiple sources of data along with user-generated content were the most likely to still be in use, but even among those apps, almost half were no longer being supported. That is a lot of time, programming talent, and effort expended on projects with very little reward beyond the experience.

This is only one contest with one study, so perhaps the results would trend differently with larger samples, but I’m not so sure. As the founder and CEO of APPCityLife, a startup delivering a global platform with sustainable options for developing and maintaining useful mobile apps for cities, I have heard this story told all too often by hackathon organizers, city leaders and civic hackers. In fact, in a private conversation with our team, the founder of one of the world’s largest civic hacking groups went as far as expressing regret for launching the group due to the growing challenges of leveraging short-term volunteer labor to create longterm solutions for communities – not because solutions aren’t needed but because most of the events hosted by his organization delivered very little in the way of viable product – and when a completed project was deployed, finding funding and an entity to deliver continued support was an even more difficult proposition.

Here is what I believe must happen if we, as a global community, want to effectively exploit the power of mobile apps to address the growing civic demand for access to information and communication via mobile.

Free Labor Is Not A Sustainable Solution

While most of us have likely participated in volunteer efforts focused on a personal passion, very few of us can sustain full time or long term involvement without enough financial benefit to cover our day to day expenses. Even as a corporation, our team can only provide charitable support to a limited number of worthy institutions. This whole “build it and they will come” notion that somehow all that is necessary is for cities to send their data out into the ether and then the data will be embraced by developers and integrated into useful tools solving pain points for citizens for free is short-sighted. While open data most definitely accessed and used in very valuable ways beyond building mobile apps, it is important to realize that when it comes to this particular aspect of open data, free is not a sustainable solution.

Students, community groups and individuals are usually more than willing to show up for a day or a weekend to attempt to address local issues, brainstorm solutions and begin the hard work of building out the technology needed to bring that solution to viable product, more often that not, a day or a weekend is just not enough time. And expecting these groups or individuals to continue work over long periods of time without financial remuneration is not only unreasonable, it is not good business. Without proper funding, solutions are not easily maintained, updated, or grown to add new features. It is one of the reasons we spent almost a year building a real time coupon server where geolocated, targeted offers are deployed on the fly on a local level. By offering revenue share models where income generated through mobile coupons, sponsorships and advertising is shared with those creating solutions for their community, there is proper incentive for apps to be sustained longterm. And it works – our first public school app went out the door already generating more revenue for the school district than was spent on development or support fees.

Open Data Must Be Normalized For Affordable Mobile Integration

Since most open data is being delivered from legacy servers with myriad formats, the challenge of integrating multiple data sets that are structured differently is a difficult challenge even for experienced programmers. When our team began work on our own global open data app, we experienced first-hand the challenge of developing an app accessing data feed from a variety of sources, including companies like Socrata or Junar as well as data produced by in-house teams in other cities. Instead of tackling each of the data sets individually, we stopped production on the app and took a month to build an incredible piece of technology – a world-class open data server which analyzes data from almost any source and normalize it on the fly for immediate use in mobile as everything from charted city budgets to real-time mapped locations of food trucks. It almost feels like magic happens when an open data feed is added and then appears as a readable chart within seconds. And the best benefit of automating complex coding is greatly reduced requirements of both skill level and time to produce a finished product, meaning that an app that might cost six figures and take months with custom coding can be produced in a few days or weeks and supported for as little as a few thousand dollars a year – and generated advertising revenue can often cover or exceed those costs.

Make Mobile Development Accessible to Non-Developers

During a recent meeting with the CIO of a city on the West Coast, it was mentioned that the majority of people who attend the civic hackathons his city hosts arrive with almost all of the right ingredients: passion, ideas, and willingness to work as a team. What is missing from the majority of the attendees is the one skill needed to create mobile apps for civic solutions, mainly the ability to code. And after his team reviewed numerous platforms available on the market today, none provided the depth of flexibility or the sophistication needed to enable non-developers to create powerful civic apps that would actually solve the problem being addressed. It is one of the many motivators behind our decision to make the necessary upgrades to our platform to offer a version which graphic artists, web developers, and passionate activists could comfortably use. It is vital that as a global community, we enable those who are most willing and able to solve problems to access tools that enable them to finish the job in hours or days instead of months. After news of our first successful bootcamp this past weekend – the first time anyone outside of our own team gained access to our platform – requests for a spot on a waiting list to access this platform have already started pouring in from those in attendance to as far away as South America, Europe and Africa.

If we want open data initiatives to truly succeed and become the conduit for useful mobile tools in our communities, we must offer options for funded projects, provide access to powerful tools which serve as stepping stones for STEM. Only then can we create sustainable public-private partnerships. We will all reap the benefits of more available civic mobile solutions when we come to the place that the only limit holding us back is time.

When Did Princess Become a Bad Word?

I’ve seen the following advice recently shared on a few of the sites that focus on women’s issues, and my reaction is the same every time, “Why? Why can’t I call my daughter a princess? When did princess become a bad word?”

My opinion is probably not going to be all that popular and is likely going to sit wrong with some of the folks with whom I usually agree. But if it takes me not calling my daughter a princess in order for her to be a successful woman in life, well, there’s a lot riding on that one word, don’t you think?

I was recently invited to sit on a panel at the National Association of Business Women of New Mexico. The topic was how women succeed in male-dominated fields, and my two companions on the panel were Susan Zubiate Grace, who owns a local running store, and Jessica Eaves Mathews, a lawyer and serial entrepreneur. Jessica is also the author of a soon-to-be-released book, Wonder Women: How Western Women Will Save The World. One topic that took up a great portion of the time during our panel discussion was the idea that up until now, women have been expected to and have had to be willing to leave a good portion of themselves at the door of their office every morning in order to succeed and have an equal playing field with their male counterparts – no blatant femininity, no conversations about worrying about sick children or about changing diapers, no mention of dieting or an appointment to visit a colorist or manicurist.

This is the reason many women choose to be entrepreneurs and start their own businesses – that desire to be themselves – all of themselves, the parts beyond businesswoman – the mother, the wife, the girly-girl, the tomboy, the artist, the baker, the gardener. And if we, as women are ever going to get to the place where we create a new environment, a new way to build an economy that embraces the totality of being a woman, it seems rather counter-intuitive to begin saying that we can’t call our daughters princesses. In fact, I think the biggest thing we can do to inhibit confidence and the willingness to embrace male-dominated fields like math and science and engineering is to teach a young girl that if she is going to be good at those things, she’d better put her imagination, her whimsy away.

ballerina princessI believe that because of the experience I’ve had raising my own daughter, Rachel. I called her princess. A lot. For the longest time when she was little, she was so completely enamored with all of the Disney princesses (as well as Mickey Mouse) that it was all she wanted to talk about or pretend to be. She wanted the books read to her again and again. And when we went away with friends on a skiing vacation, they brought along the videotape (yes, I’m dating myself) of the new movie, Beauty and the Beast, and our poor friends were forced to watch that movie over and over for three solid days. Rachel cried every time when the Beast died. And then wanted to watch it again.

I didn’t just call her princess. I sewed her a Cinderella dress for Halloween one year. It was silky powder blue with white lace and took me a ridiculous number of hours to put together. But it was worth it, because she wore that dress for Halloween and to the grocery store, to the doctor’s office, to Grandma and Grandpa’s. Between her Cinderella dress and a ballerina set I found at a garage sale, Rachel spent a great deal of her time in that fantastic world of princesses, castles and dancers complete with all the whimsy and drama that goes along with it.

IMG_0216 IMG_0049And, then just as soon as her deep fascination with princesses started, it ended. She discovered rock climbing at the age of nine and begged to join the climbing team along with her brother who was two years younger. It was an unconventional sport, and she took to it with enthusiasm and a fierce drive to be the best. She not only joined the team but competed with climbers her age from across several states to earn a bid to nationals that first year she started climbing.

She went on to compete at a national level all the way through high school, earning a rank as high as sixth in the nation. She was fierce, fearless, tough, competitive, and an amazing athlete. Sponsors for several climbing gear companies approached her about sponsoring her competitions and climbing gear and trips. She definitely grew out of the princess phase, but she never lost her whimsy, she imagination, her belief in a world where better things were possible.36951_1518430328064_1453700448_31335349_6117802_n

She’s currently a senior in college earning an art degree and already supports herself as a graphic artist. She painted the art that hangs on the walls of our office, and she worked at one time for me, creating digital images for the mobile apps we were developing. It never occurred to Rachel that she might not be good enough at math or science to enter one of those fields. Instead, she did what we’d always encouraged her to do – follow her passion, and work hard.

If I remember correctly, most of those princess stories have the ladies facing down evil, running through forests, climbing towers, and they manage to do it all in a dress.

What is it actually that we want to teach our daughters? For me it is this: be brave enough to embrace and develop your entire self. Until we are okay teaching our daughters that, we’ll perpetuate women having to leave a large portion of their true selves at the door every day at the office.