Think of an inventor. Hold that image in your mind for a moment. I’m guessing the image forming features a lone genius, probably in a lab or study. They’re surrounded by the tools of their trade, coming up with ideas and scribbling them onto board, into a notebook or typing them into a computer.
The stories we tell about invention focus on three things; the idea, the inventor and the impact. Think about the Instagram story. Founder Kevin Systrom loved vintage style photographs and came up the idea to make an app that allowed people to add vintage filters to their photos. His app was so popular that Facebook bought it two years later for a billion dollars.
It’s a great story, but something is missing. Instagram wasn’t a success just because it was a good idea. Kevin Systrom wasn’t a lone genius. Neither was Albert Einstein or Ada Lovelace or Mark Zuckerberg. They were all part of a network, and cultures, that could help bring their ideas to life.
What happens if you have no access to networks? No entrepreneurs to fund your startup, or alumni to lend a hand? Think of the great innovations that never happen. How many amazing innovations have been lost simply because no-one listened?
In this episode, we’re going to discuss lost potential, and how we identify and nurture talent in young people when the odds are stacked against them.
Quotes From the Episode
“I sit in so many meetings where people would say, “well I this” and “my kids that”. And that’s fine, but it’s a very narrow demographic and often the people that are able to be around the table don’t represent the full customer base.” — Ruth Amos
“If women, minorities, and children from lower-income families were to invent at the same rate as white men from high-income families, the total number of inventors in the economy would quadruple.” — Harvard Study on Patents
“No profession has any gender, be that graphic designer, be that a solutions engineer, be that project manager.” — Zerin Karim
“How many amazing innovations have been lost simply because no-one listened?” — Leigh Alexander
Ruth Amos, inventor of Stair Steady and creator of Kids Invent Stuff
Maggie Philbin OBE, founder of Teen Tech
Thamima Islam, Teen Tech Student
Lydia Fairman is development manager for Network Rail
Zerin Karim, a senior portfolio analyst in tech operations at Pearson
Eunice Baguma Ball, founder of the Africa Technology Business Network.
This week’s unsung hero in STEM is cosmetic scientist Nettie Stevens.
HOST: What does it sound like when kids invent stuff?
<<Kids describing their inventions from Kids Invent Stuff>>
HOST: When kids get ideas, they think big, unrestrained by boring adult concerns like cost or feasibility. The inventions of young kids represent unfettered imagination and pure potential. Could some of these kids grow up to be the next Albert Einstein, Marie Curie or Mark Zuckerberg?
Stories about inventors and innovators tend to fixate on their ideas. A lone genius working in a lab or laptop late at night has a eureka moment that changes the world in remarkable ways. Movies, TV shows and even the press are obsessed with the power of the lone genius and their isolated ideas.
Take Instagram for example. One of the world’s most successful ideas, the story of Instagram is often told as one of a lone genius, Kevin Systrom. In the popular version of his story, Kevin was inspired by the vintage style photographs he took on a Holga camera, a cheap 1980s device originally created for the Chinese market. Kevin’s billionaire dollar idea was to add filters to a simple app that made digital photos look retro. Two years later, Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars.
It’s all true, but it’s not the whole story. Kevin Systrom grew up in tech, his mother an early player in the first tech startup boom. Kevin was coding from a young age. But it wasn’t until he went to Stanford to study first computer science and then management science and engineering that he began to make the Silicon Valley contacts that would prove essential to Instagram’s success.
At a Stanford fraternity party, he met a young Mark Zuckerberg. He also interned at podcast startup Odeo, where he met the future founder of Twitter, Jack Dorsey. From college, he got a job at Google and started to develop a photography app in his spare time. But it wasn’t until January 2010, when he met entrepreneur Steve Anderson at a party, that he was able to turn his hobby into a job. Steve Anderson funded the app with $250,000 of startup cash, Kevin recruited fellow Stanford graduate Mike Krieger, and the rest is history.
Instagram wasn’t a success just because it was a good idea. Think of the great innovations that never happen. Kevin Systrom wasn’t a lone genius. Neither was Einstein or Lovelace or Zuckerberg. They were all part of a network and cultures that could help bring their ideas to life.
But what happens if you have no access to networks? No entrepreneurs to fund your startup, or alumni to lend a hand? How many amazing innovations have been lost simply because no-one listened?
In this episode, we’re going to discuss lost potential, and how we identify and nurture talent in young people when the odds are stacked against them.
This is Nevertheless, a podcast about learning in the modern age. Each episode we shine a light on an issue impacting education and speak to the women creating transformative change. Supported by Pearson and hosted by me, Leigh Alexander.
RUTH: I went to a very normal state school grew up on the outskirts of Sheffield, growing up, I always wanted to be a lawyer. That kind of all changed when I did my GCSEs, I did product design, like resistant materials at school and as part of that my teacher challenged me to design something for his father who’d had a stroke and couldn’t use his stairs. And as part of that process, I ended up inventing something called the Stair Steady.
HOST: Ruth Amos is the creator of the Kids Invent Stuff Youtube channel. She also an inventor, the creator of a movable, secure handrail to help the mobility-impaired use the stairs. She was just fifteen when she had the idea, and with the support of her school was able to develop it into a commercial product. She recognises that because societal problems are diverse, the people designing the solutions need to be diverse too.
RUTH: I think it’s really important that we have diversity when it comes to inventing, when it comes to problem solving because we see the world in our own way and I sit in so many meetings where people would say, “well I this” and “my kids that”. And that’s fine, but it’s a very narrow demographic and often the people that are able to be around the table don’t represent the full customer base. And with the Stairs Steady, for example, I often think now because I’ve been in the mobility industry for so long, if I was to go back and try and design the Stair Steady, I wouldn’t be able to. There was a certain kind of level of naivety that allowed me to do that. And also because I had very different constraints. I wasn’t coming at it from a business background. I was just coming at it from solving that problem.
If women had more say over like the way that their public toilets were designed, maybe there wouldn’t be such a queue, there’s always a queue at the women’s and never the men’s, and usually those sorts of things are designed by a man. So there’s little things that I think, you know, unless it’s your something that you have knowledge of and a problem that you understand and know we talk about market research a lot when it comes to designing. But actually coming at it from a totally different background I think is so refreshing. And also there’s so many things that if you’re white and middle class he hasn’t ever had to deal with. And so having a more diverse team, I think you end up with a much better solution.
HOST: Ruth wanted to inspire the next generation of kids like her. She set up a YouTube channel, Kids Invent Stuff, and deliberately made sure it was as cheap and easy to enter as possible.
RUTH: So Kids Invent Stuff is a Youtube channel where each month me and my friend Shawn, we set a different event in challenge and five to 11-year-olds submit their invention ideas as a picture or a video and then you choose one to build and we build it and we test it and we film it all. We put it online and one of the key things for us and the thing we kept coming back to you as it has to be really accessible for young people. You know not everyone has access to raspberry plies or micro bits or fancy bits of code. You know, for some people as well, they don’t have fancy phones, you know. So it was about, okay, draw a picture, you know, we get, we get inventions sent in on the back of receipts. We get them on bits of paper, you know, the whole idea is that most children do have access whether it’s school or at home to having a pencil and a piece of paper. What can we find around the house that kids could make stuff with how we do it so they don’t have to buy lots of resources because we know, yes, there, you know, there are some youngsters who can afford lots of great resources and things, but there are also lots of youngsters who can’t. And actually for them, being able to build stuff with things they’ve got around the house that can be just as rewarding and just as inspiring to see something they’ve created as it is if you’ve got something that’s a beautifully programmed robot that cost hundreds of pounds, it doesn’t have to be about the cost of the resources. It’s often about the experience.
HOST: Kids Invent Stuff doesn’t tackle real-world problems but focuses on sparking a love of invention itself. It’s aimed at much younger kids whose inventions on paper might be bigger than is possible to build in a classroom or on a kitchen table.
RUTH: We’ve entered gravity races and raced 110 kilograms of cake down a hill. We just recently built a drivable tree house. A flamethrower helmet, like all sorts of amazing, crazy inventions and we film the whole process and we put it on Youtube. And the whole idea is that it’s something that is responsive to the kids ideas. It’s something that kind of shows teamwork and shows problem-solving and things often go wrong. And yeah, the idea is that hopefully, and the feedback we get from young people is that it inspires them to become inventors or engineers.
HOST: It’s about showing kids that anyone can be an inventor.
Social mobility is the greatest barrier to a career in STEM. One measure of this is who registers patents. A 2017 American study of patent applications by Alex Bell of Harvard and Raj Chetty of Stanford, alongside others, found that children of parents in the top 1% of income were ten times more likely to become inventors. Albert Einstein’s father Herman was an electrical engineer and keen amateur mathematician, clearly influencing his son.
But it’s not just who becomes inventors and entrepreneurs, it’s what they invent. The study says, “growing up in a neighbourhood or family with a high innovation rate in a specific technology class leads to a higher probability of patenting in exactly the same technology class”. In other words, if you grow up in Silicon Valley, you’re more likely to innovate in computing. If you’re raised in the Basel region of Switzerland, you may find yourself in pharmaceuticals. Growing up in Glasgow puts you in proximity to the video game industry. And if you grow up the child of medical doctors, you’re more likely to become a doctor yourself.
So it’s not about ability, it’s about exposure. It’s about showing kids that anyone from any background can invent solutions to the everyday problems relevant to their own communities.
MAGGIE: For some people from certain social backgrounds, they start to eliminate themselves really early on from those potential careers because they think either, oh, it’s not for me or it’s going to be boring or you know, why would I want to do that? Or I couldn’t be good enough. And it’s important for them to understand that opportunities in these areas are open to everyone.
HOST: That’s Maggie Philbin. She’s a TV science and technology presenter and writer who has led the UK digital skills task force, and given evidence to the British House of Lords on the digital workforce, and in 2016 received an OBE for services to promoting careers in STEM. Her decades of experience led her to set up Teen Tech, an organisation dedicated to finding and nurturing young people in science and technology.
Maggie spoke to us from the annual Teen Tech Awards, a day-long event at the Royal Society for schoolchildren to showcase their inventions.
MAGGIE: So we set up Teen Tech Awards up to help young people really understand their own potential and what they could do and to help them explore areas of science and tech that they might not otherwise have realised existed. And the awards are really there — not for kids who see themselves as young engineer of the year though often they go on to become that — but they may not have any existing interest but through working on projects which are their own ideas and they can be really, very random, we’ve got some students here today who’ve been looking at how do we solve the problem of plastic in the oceans. And that is a really high-quality science project. Then we’ve got some students who have designed a new toy for their partially sighted dog and that has been their starting point.
HOST: Key to Maggie’s ethos is helping children understand that innovation is about people and ideas, whatever their background.
MAGGIE: One of the things that we often hear them say is tech is all about people and it is. And it is about people and it is about if you want to make your mark on the world in terms of making a difference to the many global issues that are in front of us, those issues it will be science and engineering and tech that can solve some of those issues. But it’s not the technology that solves it. It’s the people behind the technology. Working in those teams, having those bold ideas, having the ability to go, well, we might have always done it like this, but it doesn’t mean we always have to. And that can be very exciting for, for certain students who may, for a myriad of reasons have thought that these areas are not for them.
HOST: It works. The kids who become involved with Teen Tech through their school often go on to further education in STEM when otherwise they might not have. They get bitten by the inventor bug.
THAMIMA: My name is Thamima Islam and I come from East London from Green Spring Academy, Shoreditch and I’m in year 11.
HOST: It’s Thamima’s second year at the Teen Tech Awards. She sixteen now and just finished her GCSEs. Before Teen Tech came to her school, she didn’t know that innovation could be a career for girls like her.
THAMIMA: I think is also it’s because of the ignorance. I actually didn’t know about like coming up with amazing ideas before I actually started doing these types of projects and thinking of the problem and try to come up with a solution with your own knowledge is amazing.
HOST: Now she’s aware that she could be an inventor, she’s considering a career in medical engineering.
THAMIMA: I don’t want to be only medicine or only engineering. I want to do something in between because I want to make something up like for your own, like, yourself, like for example, let’s say a doctor, you have a problem and you can’t detect it and the doctor really can’t do much, that is actually on the hands of the people who are creating this type of product, like product to put and detect of what’s happening in your body. And so I think like it’s really…the fact that you create something and then it’s used in the medical field and, and it’s being appreciated. It’s amazing.
HOST: Here’s a really interesting quote from that the Harvard and Stanford patent study I mentioned earlier, it says “if women, minorities, and children from lower-income families were to invent at the same rate as white men from high-income families, the total number of inventors in the economy would quadruple.” The economy needs innovators. In the UK alone, the STEM skills gap is costing the economy £1.5billion a year, an average of ten unfilled jobs per business.
We’ve heard how early networking through initiatives like Teen Tech can help nurture young innovators, but not every child will find themselves supported into a STEM education. The traditional pathway of school, university, and postgraduate study is still the preserve of the white middle classes. Some STEM industries are starting to recognise that to fill the skills gap, they need to overcome social barriers and offer alternative career pathways.
In 2017, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers published a study which suggests young people are more likely to consider a career in engineering if they’re exposed to it at school. But that can only happen if the schools know about engineering careers in the first place.
LYDIA: So teachers are obviously very constrained in terms of what they can do to develop in the area of talking to kids about stuff like engineering and data. And it’s a complicated field and there are lots of opportunities and options. But unless you’re a specialist, it’s very difficult for you to talk confidently to children about that. So for us, what we want to do is help teachers to easily have the knowledge that they need to have to confidently have a conversation with a child and steer them in that direction.
HOST: Lydia Fairman is development manager for Network Rail, the public body which owns and runs Britain’s railway infrastructure. It’s a huge industry, employing over 36,000 people, many of whom are engineers. But the rail industry is facing a major skills gap. Some of the traditional skills of a railway engineer are being replaced by digital alternatives. It’s Lydia job to create strategy to identify and nurture future talent so Britain’s railways can close the skills gap.
LYDIA: So STEM is always a focus for us. But because we need to implement new technology, which is digital data focus, data-driven and some of our traditional engineering skills won’t be needed at some point, but we’re going to have points where we need both for quite a long period of time just because of the nature of railway, we’ve got a perception thing that we need to fight, which is that we work in a male-driven industry. It is typically male-dominated. So we need to have female role models that are really visible for young girls at school when they’re making those really important choices to be able to see that the jobs exist. So that’s where we are focusing. We’re focusing on kind of kids from seven upwards trying to speak to them before they leave primary school to put the idea in their mind that these jobs exist because they’re invisible as well.
HOST: Not everyone can go to university, or even wants to. While Lydia recognises that early education is the key to finding future engineers or innovators, she also recognises for many young people and families, earning a wage is priority.
LYDIA: You could put it as social mobility, which is trying to offer opportunities to people who don’t usually even hear about the opportunity because of the area they live in or the circles that they move in. we aim and endeavour as a railway industry to get schools talking to children, say you can go to university and do this, you can get bursaries and go to university to do this and if you can’t go to university or you can’t afford to do it, you can start earning money and putting money in your pocket now and do the same thing.
HOST: Offering alternatives to the traditional higher education route into STEM, particularly among families on lower incomes, is one of the keys to addressing the skills gap and ensuring innovation isn’t socially exclusive. Being a future innovator, inventor, or engineer doesn’t necessarily have to mean full-time learning.
LYDIA: Some people aren’t good at taking exams, they don’t want to, they’re anxiety provoking. But will score really highly in assignments or will score really highly if they’re just interviewed about their vocational skills. So apprenticeships offer an awful lot of open opportunity for people to upscale and get qualifications that they wouldn’t have pursued through a traditional higher education group that are just as competent and capable as people who go through the typical academic learning.
HOST: Innovators need strong networks. One way of fostering talent in a network is to offer mentoring. Instagram founder Kevin Systrom was mentored by Twitter’s Jack Dorsey before both hit the big time. Oprah Winfrey was mentored by Maya Angelou. And Zerin Karim, a senior portfolio analyst in tech operations at Pearson Education, was mentored by mountaineer Wasfia Nazreen, the first Bangladeshi to scale the Seven Summits. Zerin told us what motivated her mentor.
ZERIN: She did that because she believed in herself and she did that to mark, the suffering that the women in Bangladesh go through and has gone through since 1971 since our liberation. And she wanted to show the women in Bangladesh are tough. They’re built with tough material and they can survive the harshest of conditions that you know, that are, that exist in us. And so seeing her do that and all the work that she has been doing with underprivileged women with victims of rape and children who are, who are not getting the education that they’re meant to in STEM. So she works with um, NASA and with National Geographic, true her adventures, obviously she has gained a great, very productive, useful community who has been now helping her form ideas and programs that will eventually empower girls in countries like Nepal and Bangladesh to get exposure to stem subjects and stem projects and stem experiments.
HOST: Zerin herself had a unique and extraordinary route into a tech career, working her way up from nothing. She was born in Bangladesh, her mother pregnant at just 18 years old. Zerin’s father left the family shortly after her birth and when Zerin’s mother remarried, she found herself an outcast. By age 18 she was living alone, working to pay for her own GCSEs and then A Levels. Eventually, she moved to London, working full time in McDonald’s, and then eventually got a job at the genius bar in an Apple store.
ZERIN: Until Apple happened. I was just sort of surviving and sort of working because I had to work because I didn’t have a family or something to fall back on. So it was just work. It wasn’t, oh, this is my skills, these are my aspirations.
HOST: After a few years at Apple, Zerin got a job in IT Support at a major UK property group, and trained in project management. In 2016 she joined Pearson Education as a project analyst and worked her way up. She lives by example, mentoring and supporting other Bangladeshi women into STEM careers.
ZERIN: No profession has any gender, be that graphic designer, be that a solutions engineer, be that project manager.
None of it has a gender. And in doing what I do for these people, it helps me to sort of, really builds my confidence in what I can do. So it is in a way to a, even though some, some of these people that help think, oh, they’re not giving me anything they are because in nurturing I take back the, you know, the faith and what can be done through proper nurture.
HOST: Mentoring, nurturing, and networking for social change is also the goal of Eunice Baguma Ball. Eight years ago, she was trying to launch a startup in her home country of Uganda that connected innovators with investors. Discovering that there was no way to receive online payments in Uganda, she connected with networks in London to work with them on solving her problem. She realised that if this approach worked for her, it could work for others, so she founded the Africa Technology Business Network.
EUNICE: I guess my goal is how do you reach that for entrepreneurs at scale and how do you make sure that the person that has that great idea that has that potential does not fall through the cracks simply because of something, that I don’t know the right person. Because I feel like that should be easy to fix or I don’t know how, how, how pitching, how to approach this or what, you know, how to speak to any investor, how to communicate my really great idea in a way that an international investor or someone outside my ecosystem will get.
We have the opportunity to avoid making the same mistakes that we see around the world. So the opportunity to try and make it inclusive right from the start. The opportunity to think about the technology solutions that we’re creating, being enablers for people to access opportunity there as opposed to creating another barrier that will mean we create tech that will only serve specific groups and you know, makes the gaps for other groups much bigger. So within that I’ve always been passionate about making sure that technology is as a tool, as a tool for solving for solving problems, as a tool for innovation, is accessible to everyone and particularly for women because of the challenges that we see in Africa disproportionately affect women.
HOST: As a woman in tech herself, Eunice wanted to connect with others like her, and write their history. Her book is called Founding Women: African women who are defying the odds to build successful businesses in tech.
EUNICE: I interviewed 20 founders originating from 13 different African countries who have varied journeys into tech. Some of them studied technology and studied computer science and kind of share their journey stories of being one of very few women in the technology class to those that ended up in tech. So one of the founders I interviewed is Temi, who runs a health tech business in Nigeria and she said she had no tech at all, she had no tech background, you know, it was about demystifying technology.
HOST: Eunice and the women in her book prove that anyone, from any background, can innovate if they are nurtured and supported by industries and networks. Her final word is for anyone who is unsure if a career in STEM is for them.
EUNICE: I’d say technology is just a tool and if you have a clear problem that you went to solve and when you surround yourself with the right team you can build a business in the tech space. We have one of the entrepreneurs who started out in fashion and she’s now leading a tech startup in energy. It was really about making it interesting. Making it accessible and really showcasing role models to young women to just open up the aspirations, first of all to not be afraid of the technology.
HOST: We started this episode with a group of young children using their wonderful imagination to come up with inventions they’d like to see in the world and we asked the question could some of these kids grow up to be the next Albert Einstein, Marie Curie or even Mark Zuckerberg. I guess the answer is yes, if they are taught that careers in innovation are open to them. If more industries started developing alternative pathways, if they started removing some of these barriers and actively seeking innovators from beyond the traditional talent pools, if these kids are introduced to networks and find mentors like some of the amazing women we’ve heard from in this episode. Women who are helping to burst this innovation bubble and developing networks outside the usual demographics doing all they can to ensure the next inventor who comes along has a better chance of being heard.
Nevertheless is a Storythings production, series producer is Renay Richardson, executive producers are Nathan Martin and Anjali Ramachandran. This episode was produced and written by Tracy King, music and sound design by Jason Olberholtzer and Michael Simonelli, supported by Pearson and presented by me, Leigh Alexander.
This week’s unsung hero is Nettie Stevens who’s groundbreaking work on chromosomes often gets credited to a man.