Frances Valintine: Arming Young Women with Technical Confidence for a Changing World

To celebrate Women's Entrepreneurship Day in New Zealand, we talked to Frances Valintine, founder of The Mind Lab by Unitec, an interdisciplinary digital media and technology lab based in Auckland, New Zealand.

A venture that radically shakes up the way we think about technology and education, The Mind Lab empowers children as young as four to embrace technologies and digital capability, to learn skills they are going to need in a world that will be radically different from the one we know today.

Launched just last year, The Mind Lab has been hugely successful, with plans afoot to open a Lab in Wellington and Christchurch next year.  Students and teachers alike learn about robotics, electronics, design, animation, coding, film-making, 3D printing, and no doubt, whatever next advances in technology lie just around the corner.

A social entrepreneur at heart, Frances has built The Mind Lab upon a business model that addresses inequalities in access to technology within our society. Private activities and classes at the lab cross-subsidises the cost for school groups of all decile levels.

To celebrate Women's Entrepreneurship Day, we spoke with Frances about changing face of careers, and how young women can tackle digital learning and entrepreneurship head on.

Women tend to be underrepresented in most fields of technology. Have you faced any challenges as a female entrepreneur in the tech space and how have you dealt with these?

I came into technology from a ‘Tech-Ed’ point of view, and for the entire last 20 years, I've always been the minority in the field. Earlier in my career, I was around software developers and computer engineers, and even within the area of digital media and animation, it was always very male-dominated. When I started The Mind Lab, I hoped the next generation wouldn't have quite the same obstacles.

What I do see now is a lot more young females coming through very confidently in that space. They’ve had greater exposure to better role models, but also they find their niche within the larger technology space. It could be in the social enterprise space, it could be they're looking at doing good using technology. It could be in things like crowdfunding or perhaps looking at the space where you can support others.

One thing that is quite funny, is having a name like Frances, which can both male and female. There's an assumption that if you're in the tech space and you're an entrepreneur, then you must be a man. So I’ve had quite a few interesting initial conversations where people say, "Oh, you’re a female."

Do you see any differences between the way that male and female students interact with technology at The Mind Lab?

In The Mind Lab we see from a very early age that gender differences start to appear, mostly driven by their parents. A mother might come in here with a son and a daughter, and she would determine that robotics, coding and electronics is for her son, and animation, design and filmmaking is for her daughter. Even to a point where you have daughters saying, “Hey, mum, I’d really love to try robotics”, and the mum saying, “Oh no, that's really for boys.”

As a parent myself, I can see how it happens. I think those stereotypes very much still exist for our own generation. In my own scenario, in high school I learned shorthand typing, as it was really the full scope of what I was offered - because of course I would be going into an administration type of role. I desperately wanted technical drawing skills and was told it was not for me. We've still got these perceptions from people who are my peers, and who think the world still responds the way it did 20 or 30 years ago.

I try to change those mindsets, saying to a mum, ‘Your daughter may really love robotics, there’s a whole lot of construction and creativity in it.’

In what ways do you see technology empowering young women?

I think it’s really important to understand that technology is no longer a siloed subject area. What we need to get across to students of all ages is that technology and digital capabilities are now core competencies. You need to have digital skill sets.

If we exclude young girls and women from that, we're actually excluding them from a future career.  Whether they want to get into design, mechanics, retail or nursing, whatever it might be, every career is now underpinned by technology. We can't treat it as something that the boys down the corridor do it in the ICT lab. The reality is it's right across every subject. Technology is an enabler for all.

Do we have the right business environment for female entrepreneurs to thrive in New Zealand or what do you think needs to change? 

A challenge for entrepreneurs in New Zealand is that we have a very small market. We can't rely on our communities to sustain a business. When you think of entrepreneurship in New Zealand, often we think about small businesses. And unfortunately with a small business, you are only going to grow as much as the local market will support you.

What we don't talk about enough at high school, or even in graduate studies, is about how enterprise can scale these days. The wonderful thing about technology is that all those local market barriers are gone, and global distribution is now possible. The more you work in the digital space the more the content is transportable through digital means, and the greater your business can scale.

I also think the landscape has changed for female entrepreneurs in New Zealand. If I look at my youth as I was growing up, and through the early stages of my career, all of my female role models were power women. They had a power suit, they had very male-dominant traits, and aggressive leadership styles. They were one of the boys, and I couldn't really identify with them on a personal level.

It’s only really probably in the last decade that I've started to see really strong women leaders coming out and being quite feminine and soft-spoken, having a passion for their families and their community. There’s a lot more women getting into the social enterprise space and being very entrepreneurial. They’re not necessarily driven by financial gain, but by the good that they can contribute to their communities. It's something that they can balance, not only with their values, but also with their lifestyles and having children.

The more of those role models we have who are female, the more we’ll see young females becoming entrepreneurs themselves, and perhaps not going into traditional higher education, but saying, ‘I’ll take a risk, and start a business and do some good.’

What can New Zealand do to encourage and support more women going into entrepreneurship?

New Zealand hasn't been great at communicating the benefits of taking initiative in business. We don't hear a lot about entrepreneurship as an informing factor to future careers, and certainly only a few schools talk about commercialising ideas.

Young people have a huge amount of ideas, and they can see ways of using technology that an older person could never see. If we leave those ideas dormant for too long, they will be superseded by someone else taking their place.

What we need to do is have a greater conversation about young people, and how we can open the door to their success. We need to talk about how can we match them with people who are prepared to seed fund ideas, crowdfund ideas, or to work together collaboratively. I think New Zealand can be a great incubator for getting those ideas moving.

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Which Kiwi women have influenced you throughout your career?

There hasn't been any one particular female who's really shaped my career or influenced me, but actually a large number. Some have been my bosses, who influenced me in my early career. Often they were not super leaders in their own right, but just women who were just great role models, who were very egalitarian in their views, and who brought these views to the table.  They were open to suggestions and they were flexible.

I also had an amazing entrepreneurial mother, and I think that really shaped my career significantly.  She still inspires me every day. She juggled many things as a young mother, and then went off and achieved some great things in her career before she retired.

Who inspires you these days? Do you have any recommendations around books, TED talks or leaders in the field that aspiring women could look to?

I'm a great believer that you should look at people at the fringes. I think that the one downside of digital media is we often end up talking about the same influences, the same TED talks, the same contributors. We don't get enough divergent thought and exposure to other ways of thinking.

It’s important to find the people who have opposing views to your own, perhaps people who have radically different views. Because sometimes at the margins, you see a real spark of magic. When you bring together people who have got different ways of thinking, whether it be scientific and artistic, or whether it be creative and analytical, if you bring those mind sets together, then I think that you get the best inspiration.

Sometimes you have to facilitate those groups coming together, and sometimes they're spontaneous and beautiful, and they come together in social situations. The most important thing is that you need to find that inspiration around you. If you’re looking constantly outside your world, to another geographic location or a different city, you can actually be so humbled by what appears to be everyone else's success, that you forget your own little world and successes you make every day.

We all make contributions to our world, we all have the same capacity to get up in the morning and make a difference. I always find that it’s the neighbour next door, the person down the road, or the kid who does remarkable things in their school, who really inspire me.

Do you mentor and how do you choose who you mentor? What are you looking for in that mentee/mentor relationship?

The whole concept of the Mind Lab is about mentoring young people, and also mentoring teachers. So every day, we're exposed to and have the ability to influence others, so it's en masse mentoring in some ways. On an individual basis, I sometimes mentor through more organised groups of people who will actually ask me to come and participate with young girls.

Mentoring in New Zealand is often not a well-facilitated process, and there's always a reluctance to go to the door, knock, and say, "Excuse me but could you help me out?" I’m always hugely amazed and impressed by people who pick up the phone and call me to say, “Hey, look. Could I have half an hour of your time?”

I'm really willing to give them that time, just to see if there's something I can provide that they can learn from, or perhaps they can learn from my mistakes.

So I don't have an ongoing personal group of people who I mentor, but it's more as the opportunity arises. Sometimes it's just sitting on a plane next to someone, who I spend two or three hours with, just going through ideas about what they might be doing. Other times, it’s quite formal.

What advice would you give to aspiring female entrepreneurs?

I think that the most important thing for anybody who has a great idea is to share it. The notion that you’re protecting your idea and your IP, and that someone will plagiarise what you have, is really long gone. Now it's all about speed to market, getting your idea out to the public space and breaking the silos.

It’s really important for females to find other like-minded women who actually will support their ideas. It doesn’t necessarily need to be someone who understands what you do – just someone you can go to and say, “This is what I'm thinking. What do you think? “ And you know they're going to be there to support you, either as emotional support or a sounding board.

It’s crucial to have people who champion your cause, whether it be a husband, a wife, a partner or a friend - you need those people to be there to be your champion.

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