Neopenda founders Teresa and Sona work on prototypes.

The Obligatory Post about Women in STEM

Or, a story about three stories

Women in STEM is a hot topic. We were reluctant to write about it, because much of it has already been said. It’s complex and nuanced, so naturally we decided to reduce our take on it into three stories.

Story 1. We are women. We got married. The end.

For so many women in history and in the world, this is the only story allowed. We are privileged to live in a time and place when this is only one story, not the only story. When Neopenda co-founder Sona served with Volunteers for Peace in Kenya, teachers at the schools frequently commented on how her mere presence was a powerful inspiration to the young girls. As an unmarried woman working in science and travelling the world, Sona was a real life example that leaving school and getting married was not the only option for young girls. Fortunately, the education and economic futures of girls is included in global priorities like the Sustainable Development Goals, paving the way for more story options.

Story 2. We are women. We are also inventors. We founded a company. The end.

This is the Neopenda story. It’s mere existence is a sign of social progress as women gain the freedom to unleash their talents in any sphere. We completed our educations and had careers in STEM. Now we’ve designed a device that serves newborns, improving the work of many nurses, midwives, and doctors who are largely women.

When we invented the device and founded our company, we admittedly did not spend a lot of time reflecting on being women solving women’s problems. We did not invent this device because we have children or are focused on maternal health. In fact, it was a male advisor who presented us with an irresistible problem in need of a creative solution within an interesting set of constraints, and with the social impact we wanted to create.

When we became one of the less than 6% of commercial patent holders who are women, we were focused more on getting the paperwork right than on how we are a statistical anomaly. When we founded a company, though, we were becoming aware of just how unique combination of women-inventor-founders are among the 18% of startups with at least one female founder. Our academic foundation was important for creating this opportunity. Columbia provides tremendous resources for the journey from idea to company, including our first advisors (half of whom are men) and access to an alumni network of venture capitalists, angel investors, and social enterprises.

More and more female founders is progress, but 18% is not the end.

The problem? The story isn’t yet this:

Story 3. We are inventors. We founded a company. The end.

Despite all the progress made for women in tech, we are also aware that our gender infuses everything we do. We are reminded that we are an anomaly every time there is that slight surprise when someone learns that we are the engineers behind our device. We saw that we are an anomaly when we found ourselves as one of three women in a department, or the lone female presence in a math class lecture.

Others will insist that this is our story, that story 2 only exists because we insist that it does. But that is an incomplete depiction of our journey and the reality in which we live. There are reams and reams of research about how far we are from Story 3 starting with the impact of toy aisles on kids (#WheresRey) to the pipeline and retention problems to the pay gap.

#WheresRey?
We don’t think 2 will disappear entirely, nor should it. It will simply be a good day when “We are women” is only a chapter, not a plot driver.

The hope: Soon Story 3 will be the story.

We are extremely grateful to be engineers and entrepreneurs at a time when so many organizations are actively working to balance the scales for women today and for the generations to come. Whether it’s the WE Pitch festival and its “How to Brag for Women” workshop, or the toys designed to encourage young girls to play with science, the future is looking bright.

At the end of the day, we are just two engineers who designed a product that solves a critical problem facing many hospitals across the world. We are women, and the problem we are solving primarily supports women — not just the mothers who give birth, but the many women in STEM who are nurses, midwives, neonatologists and OB/GYNs in Uganda. Even though supporting these incredible women across the world is at the core of our mission, being women is not the point. Using science and innovation to make the world better is.

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