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Eva-Maria Olbers (MiM2012) wants you to imagine a kit that enables girls to code and build their own wearable apps. Imagine that the kit also allows girls to connect to an online programming community, to customise their device to their own social channels, and configure it to their sporting or health needs. Now imagine that the same kit could boost girls’ confidence in their own tech skills by a staggering 45% in as little as two hours of exposure. This is the impact reported by users of STEMgem, a smart device toolkit that is empowering young girls between the ages of 11 and 14 to create their own bespoke technology.
Brainchild of co-founders Eva-Maria, Larissa Nietner and Scott Nill, STEMgem is on a mission to drive diversity in tech – targetting the STEM pipeline at the critical early point before it starts to leak women in tertiary education.
By her own admission, STEMgem is not something that Eva imagined she would be doing when she started as a management consultant. “I did not think I would end up becoming an entrepreneur. I did consider making the transition to the tech sector as a long-term goal, but I thought I lacked the skills to realistically make a significant career change – let alone taking on the stress and difficulties of becoming an entrepreneur.”
A Masters in Management at London Business School (LBS) made a significant impact on Eva in 2011. Eager to develop what she calls a “practical lens” on management, Eva came to the School to build an applied skillset, better negotiating competencies and a useful business network. What she also took away after her 12 months at LBS was an affinity for entrepreneurship that paved the way for a series of demanding roles with startups, and in 2017, the job of Success Manager with the Microsoft startup accelerator.
“I owe a lot to LBS in terms of the practical and negotiating skills the programme helped me develop. Through my courses, the LBS network and the entrepreneurship classes on the programme I got a real feel for the entrepreneurial landscape, as well as the personal aptitudes and the mindset I’d need to move forward. My switch from management consultancy to the startup world happened serendipitously because employers liked the affinity for social impact and analytical skills that blossomed within me at LBS.”
Transition to the tech sector complete, the decision to put her experience and skills to work by founding a startup herself felt like a natural next step. But it wasn’t easy.
“I know from first-hand experience about the deficit of women in tech – and in STEM subjects and careers in general. The lack of diversity is disheartening. For me, working in the sector, there were obstacles to overcome that male colleagues didn’t face. I wanted to do something to change that.”
Getting their venture off the ground, Eva, Larissa and Scott encountered many of the very issues they were determined to address. “The tech scene is still male-dominated. There are usually few women in the room. When you are a woman pitching a female- focused product to male VCs, you often have to build a sense of empathy and get them to see the potential. You need to have the confidence in yourself and your knowledge to get them on board.”
A major challenge facing women in general, says Eva, is overcoming issues with self-doubt. “There are plenty of factors out there in the business or tech environment that already make it more difficult to succeed, but sometimes women don’t make it easier for themselves by having a higher level of self-doubt than men do. For example, we have a tendency to take failure more to heart and can be more risk-averse at times. Women need to understand that failure is normal.” STEMgem is already playing its part in addressing this by encouraging girls to experiment, prototype and design their own creations using real-world tools and coding.
Another way of encouraging self-belief among women is through mentorship, says Eva. “I believe that women should hold together, giving and receiving support from each other. My LBS network works this way. We support each other in a way that is bi-directional so that everyone prospers.”
Female role models are of critical importance, she says. And she speaks from experience. In December 2017, Eva founded Bridge to Afghanistan, a mentorship programme that connects young women in Kabul to female mentors via Skype. The goal is to help Afghan girls broaden their exposure, improve their employability skills, and cultivate the confidence to “go for it.”
“I’d like to see a world in which women feel the confidence to dream big, to go for their goals, to fail and learn from failure and to be true to their authentic selves.”