(l-r) Beatrice Ionascu, Dora Palfi and Alexa Edström
It may be 2019, but the tech industry clearly still has a problem with diversity. Large companies are more willing to manipulate their diversity statistics or photoshop women into tech summits than actually address underlying workforce issues. Just 18% of computer science professionals in the EU and US are female, disadvantaging vast swathes of the population in a digital world dominated by the ‘big five’ tech companies that collectively have more spending power than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
imagiLabs, a social tech company based in Sweden, has emerged with an express mission to make the industry more open and inclusive. Through workshops, talks and most recently a groundbreaking fashion accessory, currently approaching the end of a KickStarter campaign, the company—set up by Dora Palfi, Beatrice Ionascu and Alexa Edström—is empowering a generation of girls to love coding and consider Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) careers.
Palfi and Edström sat down with Global Shakers to discuss their journey so far, the importance of bringing more women into the tech industry, and advice for entrepreneurs thinking of starting their own projects.
Palfi met Ionascu in 2012, when they both started degrees at New York University Abu Dhabi. She told Global Shakers that not only were fellow students overwhelmingly male, but there were no women among professors, supervisors and other role models. “This made us think, ‘Where am I going next in my career—and what can we do to change this?”
So the two students set up a campus-wide initiative to help women get into STEM careers, and workshops to encourage younger girls to code. But Palfi soon came to the conclusion that there must be a more “suitable” solution—workshops were great for getting girls interested in technology but unsuited to reaching lots of people, keeping motivation going at home, and connecting girls with similar interests.
The imagiCharm accessory and mobile app in use
Their commitment formalised in 2017 through imagiLabs, a ‘mobile-first’ community for creative coding. The company has now created its first product, imagiCharm, a fully-customisable fashion accessory that can be programmed via an accompanying mobile app. Users are led through fun, game-like programming lessons, learning to make the charm display particular patterns or animations in a vast array of situations—such as receiving a text or an Instagram notification.
Palfi said imagiLabs was “definitely” trying to use the imagiCharm to make the tech world more open and inclusive. They want girls to not only develop a love for coding, but become well-versed enough in technology to thrive in any future role, however digital or non-digital.
“Of course programming is one part of it but in the longer run we imagine innovating in other areas that might be important for girls to shape the future of tech”.
This is something that courses through everything imagiLabs does — from the unashamedly feminine tech it has created to the way it talks about its work. Through a series of blog posts, the founders are open about ambitions for the future and successes and struggles of their journey so far—including a blog from Edström about why, as a 14-year-old, she had resisted studying technology, and the sorts of encouragement girls in similar positions would now need to actively pursue a career in STEM.
This openness stands in direct contrast to the headstrong, unwavering, work-til-you-drop machismo that seems to course through much of the tech world. Palfi said this was deliberate, a way of changing the culture of the tech industry and talking about challenges “while they are still challenges.”
“We’re not trying to fake it. We’re very passionate about this problem and very honest about the insecurities and how much we don’t know.”
Palfi added that leading in this way was particularly important as many women are risk-averse and, therefore, put off from starting companies. She suggested that more female-funded startups would not only mean more products and tech solutions relevant for women, but also more companies driven by a mission, and a desire for social good, rather than just profits.
Girls get to grips with the imagiCharm
imagiLabs has a long way to go, but it has successfully developed from dorm-room idea to a much-loved company with backing from SamsungNEXT and communications company Ericsson.
When asked what advice they would give to future generations of girls wanting to work in tech, Palfi couldn’t emphasise enough that you must be “in love with the problem, not your solution.” Her point was that progress towards a goal requires flexibility, openness, collaboration, and teamwork—while a commitment to one individual solution above all else would make someone “blind” to new and unexpected solutions.
“Find great people to work with and keep being curious,” she added. “What will get you out of bed, during tough times, is if you’re genuinely passionate about the problem and you’re always curious about finding a solution.”