A Silicon Valley tech giant has helped to fund the lease on a secret eight-bedroom house in South London this summer in a bid to support the next generation of female coders and entrepreneurs.
Salesforce, the San Francisco-headquartered cloud behemoth headed by charismatic billionaire Marc Benioff, teamed up with one of the most intelligent women in the UK, Anne-Marie Imafidon, in order to run the technology-focused summer school for girls aged 13-22.
Child genius Imafidon, now 25, is head of Stemettes, an organisation that helps girls get into STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers by introducing them to key women working in the industry and informing them about the various roles they can go into.
She passed her maths and IT GCSEs when she was just 11-years-old and she started studying a degree at Oxford University at the tender age of 15. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s also the youngest person ever to graduate from Oxford with a masters degree, having picked one up at 19.
Today she works in a technology role at a large investment bank that she’d rather not reveal. On the side of what’s likely to be a highly demanding corporate job, she’s incredibly passionate about inspiring young women into STEM careers that are largely dominated by men.
After persuading Salesforce to sponsor the Stemettes summer school, she’s now passing on her knowledge onto a group of bright and enthusiastic young women that are building new apps and computer programmes, many of which have the potential to benefit society.
She’s sleeping under the same roof as them, getting them out of bed in the morning with pots and pans (“the only way”) and shouting at them to stop singing Abba songs over Skype in the early hours of the morning to beloved friends that they met in the house just the week before.
The house, not far from Brixton, is being leased by Salesforce between 27 July and 4 September for an unknown price. It’s home to approximately 45 girls at the moment but as many as 113 will spend a stint there at some point this summer. A third of the girls live locally in London so they come and go as they please but two thirds live elsewhere in Britain, meaning they stay over for anywhere from one to two weeks, right up to the full six weeks.
The free-to-attend summer school, known as the Outbox Incubator, looked like a lot of fun when Techworld visited last week. Bowls of marshmallows and Mars are scattered around the place and a pet cat called Pickles is always on standby for anyone that needs cheering up, possibly because their code won’t work or maybe because they’re feeling home sick.
On the whole, there really isn’t much for the girls to complain about. There are trampoline sessions, yoga classes, movie nights, late night sing-alongs, craft making lessons and some great food.
Free, fun and foodie
“It’s not Stemettes if it’s not free, we don’t have fun or we don’t have food,” explains Imafidon, who usually just runs Stemettes events over evenings or weekends.
There’s obviously a serious side to the project. The girls are there to learn how to run a tech startup. They’re given lessons in coding, marketing, business development and philanthropy (among other things) from key people in the UK technology sector and beyond.
Labour MP Chukka Umunna, academic Sue Black OBE and computer science expert Wendy Hall are all visiting the house this summer to pass on their words of wisdom and inspire the Stemettes cohort. A number of Salesforce employees, including Charlotte Finn, director of the Salesforce Foundation in EMEA, are also providing mentoring.
When the cohort isn’t at the house, they’re out and about visiting the likes of Goldman Sachs, Bloomberg, ecommerce startup Etsy and Telefonica-backed technology incubator Wayra.
While at the house the girls are encouraged to found their own startup or team up with others and cofound a company. Some 29 businesses have been created through the Outbox Incubtaor this year and some of them have even been backed with cold, hard cash.
It's understood that Salesforce, Telefonica and a private angel investor backed several of the companies off the back of a demo day that took place earlier this month.
“The money will allow them to do their first prototype or first campaign or whatever it is that they’re doing,” said Imafidon.
The companies that received investment have not been disclosed, nor has the amount of investment.
Imafidon has high hopes for the 113 girls on the course that were selected as the best candidates from over 200 entries.
“In five to 10 years I hope they’re definitely running their own businesses or making an impact being the leaders or the top people in whichever companies they go into,” she told Techworld in the back garden of the Outbox Incubator. “We’re measuring our success on where we’re at in a year. So how many of the businesses still exist, how many have got further funding...all that kind of stuff.”
Imafidon also hopes the cohort will stay in touch with each other at the end of the summer and help one another out further down the line.
“They’re a community of young women who are interested in STEM and interested in businesses in STEM,” she said. “As they all go through school and they all graduate, that’s a network of people that they can call on to say ‘you were great at Python can you just remind me of this’ or ‘can you just refer a great designer.’”
Halfway through the first programme Imafidon is believes the Outbox Incubator is a big success but it hasn’t been without its challenges.
“Some of the girls turned up with little to no coding knowledge and there haven’t been enough lessons to get everyone fully up to speed,” she said. This will change next year, Imafidon added.
Surprisingly, there have been few fallouts. “We weren’t waiting for it [arguments] but we were apprehensive that it could happen. It’s been quite nice actually. They’re all a family.”
The Outbox Incubator website is already telling visitors that the programme will run again in 2016 for a new cohort but Imafidon said they still need to line up a sponsor. Will Salesforce get on board again or will another tech company look to align itself with this attractive initiative.
Three Stemettes to watch
Edel Browne, 18, Galway (ROI)
I’m from Ireland so this is my first Stemettes event but I wanted to learn more business skills. I had the idea established already but I needed to be able to implement that.
At the moment we have a prototype medical device for people with Parkinson's that suffer from gait freezing.
Gait freezing is the shuffling that 72 percent of people with Parkinson's have. Someone in the UK is diagnosed with Parkinson's every hour so it’s a huge problem.
The device itself is basically a laser and a battery and a till switch and they’re put on the user’s shoe. If someone with Parkinson's focuses on the dot that it emits they can change their walking from being automatic to non-automatic.
We developed the device and did a small scale trial with our local Parkinson’s organisation and found that it decreases the severity of the shuffling symptoms by about 40 percent.
We’d like to refine it and put it into a larger scale trial. We need money.
I don’t know if we’re allowed to say about investment.
I’m in university at the moment and I’m about to go into my second year. I’m doing biotechnology and it’s really interesting.
Kamile Matulenaite, 18, London
I’m part of a team making an app and a wearable to fight sexual harrassment.
The system will basically pinpoint the location, date and time of the incident.
Through the app, women around the world that are going home late at night can see which areas to avoid that have higher incidents rates as well as having a recorded audio - maybe like one minute - that can be used as evidence if they need to take action.
So if they’re going through an area every day and they get harassed at the same point, maybe by the same person, you can send that location data and audio data to the police who can access CCTV.
I’m developing the Android app at the moment. I’m maybe a quarter of the way through but we’ve only been working on it for 3 weeks.
I’m the main developer, or the only developer. The rest of the team is doing marketing, market research and other things.
I’m using Java and XML, as well as Google’s SDK. I’d say maybe by the end of September I’ll have an app.
Our revenue model would be based on distributing the wearables but the app will be free.
With regards to the wearable, we wanted something that was small and discrete that you could maybe clip onto your clothes, maybe on a night out. There’ll be a button you can press that’ll send a signal to your phone to start recording so you don’t have to take it out of your bag and the process is a bit more discrete.
I was also looking for investment at the demo day but I can't talk about the outcome.
I think Stemettes is great. You can get so much more potential from young girls instead of waiting until they’re out of university.
Seven girls out of 200 girls at my all girls school took computer science. I'm going to Cambridge next year to study computer science.
I think 14 percent of the Cambridge computer science intake were girls last year. It will definitely change, especially because they’re starting to teach coding at primary school level so people will take it up much earlier and get interested.
Amelia Campbell, 13, Bournemouth
I hate telling people I’m 13 because I always seem so young. Am I one of the youngest here? Yep. I still feel I fit in and I’m never left out of anything.
My app is supporting people with maths. What I hope will make my app different is it’s all community based so it’s kind of in a forum where people can share their worries and anxieties and ask their friends for advice.
I made it because if I have a problem I first go to a friend because they explain it in a way that I understand, instead of asking a teacher who might be able to explain it in a way I understand but I’ll probably have to look it up again after.
Lots of people have said it’s a good idea so I think I’ve got something there. I’ve only had the idea for about a week so I need to think it through a lot and think about how I’m going to make it really different.
I’ve been to three hacks that have been run by Stemettes - so just a day of coding. I went to the first one, loved it, came to a couple more and then came to this because I knew I loved and I love maths as well.
I can code websites but apps I haven’t done a lot of so I’d need help with that.
I'm learning how to write HTML, CSS and Python.
I think I want to go to university and study something like computer science or maths because I just find it really interesting. Then I’d like to progress maybe into business.