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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Girls Innovating in California

Our Founder, Andrea recently was a judge at the Girls Innovate! Pitch event with Venture Capitalist Ann Winblad in Palo Alto, CA. We had the opportunity to hear Ann's inspiring story of how she started a software company at age 21 (during the same time Bill Gates was starting Microsoft), along with the pitches of girl innovators ranging from middle school to high school.

Girls Innovate Pitch Teams with Andrea Lo and Ann Winblad

Each team had their turn to pitch their big ideas - from building i-phone apps, launching a sporty clothing line, to creating a better way for students with slight learning disabilities to learn- it was a blast. Not only were the pitches incredibly well prepared, but the girls even answered difficult questions posed by the judging panel. The event was sponsored by Piggybackr and The Bay Area College of Nursing.

We here at Piggybackr have been so impressed by Girls Innovate! that we interviewed Uyen Le Kry, founder of Girls Innovate! to learn more about the movement and organization.

Founder of Girls Innovate, Uyen Le Kry

What is Girls Innovate?

Girls Innovate! is a California nonprofit seeking to impact the innovative capacity in women and girls. We believe that innovation can occur in any area (not just science and technology).

We call on individual girls, organizations and families to join us and and learn skills relevant to being successful and making a positive impact in a fast-changing, technology-driven, globalized world. We harness in-person opportunities (workshops, projects, events) that engage girls, parents and families in hands-on, collaborative ways and connect girls with real-life role models.

Why did you start it?

I started it because over the years I realized the importance of (a) being around people who inspire you to do great things and (b) developing character-building knowledge and practical life skills from an early age.

When I was seven, my parents put me on a fishing boat to escape from Viet Nam. They told me they were taking a chance on the opportunity of a lifetime – an education in the U.S. for one of their five kids. Growing up in Massachusetts in housing projects and on food stamps, I witnessed the struggles of immigrant families and vowed to do something for all those people and those left behind.

I went to college and law school with big dreams of serving the community and the world. The bubble burst, though, when I emerged from school and experienced real-life work.  I felt unfulfilled and experienced a lot of challenges having to do with not having the proper interpersonal skills.  Skills like how to develop relationships with others, work with people whose approaches differed from mine, and seek out mentors to build a support network.

When my daughter came into the picture, I thought things would be easier for her. What I realized when she started first grade, though, was that all of the above are not only still missing in public school education but now more needed than ever. But rather than outsourcing this learning to third-party providers, what if we were to try something different? 

What if, instead of outsourcing, parents got together – moms, especially, many of whom opted out of their careers to dedicate time to their children – and start bringing learning opportunities for each other? What if, instead of driving our kids to see success and happiness as deriving from successfully competing to get to the top of the food chain, we create opportunities for them to develop life skills that make the most of their unique personal qualities and allow them to take risks and try new things in a supportive community? 

Who can participate?  (geographic, age, etc)

We are presently focused on creating learning opportunities for girls (ages 8-18). Parents are invited to attend almost all events (an exception, for example, would be the teen brunches). Some events are geared specifically towards moms and girls.

Content can come from speakers who are both male and female, whether or not they are parents themselves. The only requirement is that speakers serve as role models and understand the value of (a) teaching girls important, fundamental 21st century skills; (b) welcoming and supporting parents to participate in the program; and (c) providing instruction in a fun, engaging and collaborative manner.

What are some example events & programs girls can participate in?

Spring 2013 events included innovation conferences of 100-330 attendees, organized and led by women and girls, where participants heard from speakers and engaged in workshops on topics relevant to 21st century skills. 

Programming for fall 2013 includes out-of-the-box workshops on learning to code, pitching ideas to a VC, developing your personal brand, financial literacy and the science of water. We will be holding mother-daughter hack-a-thons and picnics where moms can share innovative ideas in parenting and education while kids learn about art at the Cantor. We engage girls with speakers through a visionary talk with Ann Winblad, a rapid-fire Q&A with Sal Khan, and brunch with female entrepreneurs in varied fields such as healthcare, law and food artisanry.

How does a girl go about getting involved?

The best way is to join our mailing list and get a sense of our activities as they develop. If you are a girl who is passionate about organizing and leading projects, you should have your mom or dad reach out to Uyen directly. As soon as they are okay with it, Uyen will work with you to bring you on as a member of our Teen Committee. 

This committee is new, but already the teens active on it have been instrumental in recruiting speakers, speaking at events, organizing events, drafting emails and documents, writing in our newsletters and reporting on events through media.

Tell us more about the pitch competition.

The pitch competition started out as a talk with a very highly-regarded venture capitalist, Ann Winblad. When we realized it would be a great opportunity for girls to practice pitching ideas to an investor, we asked Ann and she happily obliged. We sought out sponsors who could donate a small prize to motivate the girls and provide a real-life learning experience. Thanks to Piggybackr, this is made possible!

What's next for Girls Innovate?

We are like a start-up in many ways. We are coming up with a new framework to engage girls and moms, with the support of all other community members, so most likely it will look very different from any community groups or educational programs you see out there.

Our model is also volunteer-based and crowdsourced, meaning opportunities are driven by community ideas and community efforts. Every time we do something, it looks different based on who is involved. We try to be as flexible as possible with our volunteers because we know families are very time-constrained; you can expect each event to be filled only by those who really want to be there.

Many parents love the opportunity to be present with their girls, and many girls would not be there if it wasn’t for their parents, so this model of parent engagement works. We very consciously try to create independent learning spaces for the girls, though, so you won’t see parents in the same room with their girls for very long. 

We are also building an infrastructure to support girls and moms to become project leaders so that more and more can engage with the community and take their ideas to the next level.  All of this requires time, effort and resources. We are always looking for involvement and support.

You can learn more about Girls Innovate by visiting their website.


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