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#FoundersFriday with Suw Charman-Anderson
#FoundersFriday provides a platform for our interviewees to discuss their entrepreneurial journey and their perspective on the science and tech industry as a whole. Through running this blog series, we hope that our readers will learn essential information about growing a business and will be encouraged to pursue their entrepreneurial goals.
Suw Charman-Anderson is the founder of Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of the achievements of women in STEM. Each year, ALD hosts a flagship science cabaret event in London, while independent groups put on their own events around the world. During October, Digital Science publishes a selection of content focused on issues that Suw has brought to the world through her organisation. See what we got up to last October.
What is Ada Lovelace Day?
Ada Lovelace Day (ALD) is an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), held on the second Tuesday of October. It aims to increase the profile of women in STEM and, in doing so, create new role models who will encourage more girls into STEM careers and support women already working in STEM.
Each year we organise our flagship Ada Lovelace Day Live! ‘science cabaret’ event in London at which women in STEM give short talks about their work. Around the world, there are also dozens of independently organised grassroots events. The media get involved too, and we always see dozens of articles about women in STEM in a wide variety of science, news and women’s interest publications.
What were you doing before creating Ada Lovelace Day?
I was working in tech as a social technologist. I’d had a brief spell working as a freelance music journalist in the late 90s, before learning to write HTML and becoming a web designer. I worked in web design for a few years up until the Dot Com Crash, which put me out of work for about nine months. After that, I launched my own online language learning start-up. That didn’t work out and I then fell into “blog consulting” in 2004, before the term “social media” had been coined. I had my own consultancy working with household brands around the world until I moved to America with my husband in 2014. That, coincidentally, was when I started to get appreciable sponsorship for Ada Lovelace Day, enough that I could take a risk and work on it full-time.
Why is it necessary to raise awareness of the issues women face in STEM fields?
There are several reasons why we need to increase awareness of the biases against women, both practical and moral.
Practically, there are several industries such as engineering and technology where we just don’t have enough people, and if we’re to see these industries succeed as they ought to, we’re going to have to make sure that we’re not putting women off. We need to address sexist attitudes and practices and make sure that women feel welcomed into STEM and can meet their full potential. We just can’t afford to let all that talent go to waste.
We also have evidence that diverse groups are better at solving problems, and that’s diverse along all axes, not just gender. Any company that wants to excel ought to be addressing discrimination and gender bias, along with other biases, as a matter of urgency.
Morally, we need to address sexism simply because it’s fair. If we want to move towards a society where everyone gets the chance to pursue their dreams and fulfill their potential, we have to address the systemic, institutional and social barriers that women and minorities face.
As the founder of a business, what are you most proud of?
There are several moments where I have felt really proud of what Ada Lovelace Day has achieved. When I received an email from one of the first indie events organisers in a language that wasn’t English, that was certainly an amazing moment. Communicating with people via the medium of Google Translate is a little worrying, but it was fabulous to know that the day resonates outside of an Anglophone cultural context.
But what I’m most proud of is when I hear from people who’ve been involved in ALD in some way that it has led to a new opportunity or has inspired them. I’ve had lovely messages from past ALD Live speakers who’ve got conference invitations, book deals and places on international leadership development courses because of their talks. And, it’s even better when I get emails from young women in the audience who are inspired by our events and the work we do and who want to pursue a career in STEM!
Of course, with something as international as ALD, I rarely hear back from the people who are inspired, as they often don’t know that there’s someone sitting in the middle of it all, trying to make it happen!
What advice would you give those who have an idea but don’t know how to develop it?
I think it’s important not to be scared to start, even if you eventually discover that you started in the wrong place. There’s a huge amount of advice on the web about how to assess your idea and plan first steps, but one of the most important things is to look at the people in your personal network and talk to them. It can be surprising how much expertise our friends and family have, and they are often willing to help too. Women entrepreneurs, especially, are usually supported by friends and family because it’s a lot harder for them to get funding.
It’s also important to find your peer group, develop relationships, and talk to them about your idea. There are all sorts of communities online, so find the ones in your area, join them, contribute to them, and you’ll find all sorts of advice and help!
Where do you see Ada Lovelace Day in five years?
I am currently working on a new project – an online careers fair for women in STEM in the UK, which is planned for November. I want that to become an annual event, maybe even running it twice a year if the demand is there. Given that when women graduate they are statistically more likely to end up in low-quality jobs, and that there are issues around how companies write things like job descriptions and HR marketing materials, there’s a lot of work to do on the careers front.
In five years, I’d like to see the online careers fair well established and to see a lot more indie events around the world happening on Ada Lovelace Day itself. We usually get about 80 events each year and I’d like to see that doubled or tripled.
As an organisation, I’d love to be able to hire more staff. My dream team would be to have a graphic designer, a historian, an education expert, someone doing outreach, and a biz dev person in full-time roles. If I had a team like that in five years, I’d be very happy!