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STEM superstars: how three women reached the top

Only 13% of the UK’s STEM workforce is female – we speak to three trailblazers shaking up their industries and discover how they rose to the top.

Last updated: 26 Apr 2020 5 min read

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From left: founder of Stemettes, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE; Streetbees CEO Tugce Bulut; ThinkNation founder Lizzie Hodgson.

Women are still a minority in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) roles. But there are some outstanding and inspirational women leading the way for the next generation of entrepreneurs into STEM subjects and careers. Here’s how they’ve succeeded…

“Invest in your network and find your tribe – it’s out there”

Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE, founder of Stemettes, was just 14 when she began studying mathematics at university level. By the time she was 20 she had a master’s degree in mathematics and computer science from the University of Oxford and some serious job offers. But after brief spells in computing and finance, she founded Stemettes; a social enterprise that encourages girls and women to take up careers in STEM.

“The top reason why we have a lack of women in STEM roles is a problem with perception,” says Imafidon, who at 28 has five start-ups under her belt and an MBE for services to young women and STEM sectors. “And that’s everyone’s perception, whether that’s the girls themselves not thinking it’s something they can do or dads, teachers, mums or the media reinforcing this perception.”

Imafidon’s prodigious output helped her bypass these feelings of inadequacy – “there’s no one who can convince me I don’t know what I’m talking about” – but says it was important she learned from her previous businesses. “With each successive start-up there are skills you learn about setting up, building a following, communicating strategy, collaborating with people, pricing – I’m an experiential learner,” she says.

For women moving into careers in STEM she recommends investing time in building networks. “Remember that you’re not the only person doing it and that you deserve to be there. Get on all the platforms, they are out there; go and try out these networking groups and if you’re looking for a niche group that doesn’t exist, start it up.”

“Success only comes after dozens of failures”

Tugce Bulut, co-founder and CEO of global intelligence platform Streetbees, worked as a management consultant for five years before starting Streetbees in December 2014.

“I was working on complex international expansion projects for companies and we were always struggling to find data on these new markets,” says Bulut, who came to the UK in 2005 to study a master’s in political economy at Cambridge University. “The catalyst moment for creating Streetbees was when I realised these companies needed information from people who would be very happy to provide it.”

What followed next was the Streetbees app, a platform for users to log and upload moments of their lives through text, video and images, often in exchange for a small fee. Within two years the firm had one million ‘bees’ and Unilever, L’Oréal and Vodafone as clients. In March 2018, Streetbees raised $12m (£9m) in Series A funding (a funding round where you raise money from one or more venture capital firms).

Despite this success, Bulut believes there were moments when investors and potential employees chose not to work with the firm because it had a female leader. “Some people selected themselves out, voluntarily, from getting involved with us – but it’s not a massive problem as there’s enough brilliant people who are gender neutral,” she says.

“There’s no one who can convince me I don’t know what I’m talking about”Anne-Marie Imafidon, founder, Stemettes

This resilient attitude is typical of Bulut, who believes young entrepreneurs should embrace failure and surround themselves with supportive people. “Growing up, I always tried things that didn’t work out but it was never a problem. Every time I failed I had people who would support me.

“The thing to remember is that it doesn’t matter if you don’t get the exact results, the journey is going to bring you to some pretty exciting experiences, regardless of the destination.”

“I did everything right and everything wrong at the same to time”

For Lizzie Hodgson, founder of youth organisation ThinkNation, the path into tech has been anything but straightforward. Despite being “fascinated by technology as a kid”, Hodgson always thought she’d become a journalist and studied a degree in law and politics before taking her first job working for Comic Relief in 2000.

“It was at Comic Relief that I first saw the true impact that digital technology could have for positive change,” says Hodgson, who started ThinkNation in 2016 to explore the impact of technology on young people through workshops, short films and events.

“They were just starting to go online, and though it was all very rudimental and basic compared to what we have now, back then it was very exciting.”

It wasn’t until Hodgson’s next role – as a communications manager in the Department of Health, writing speeches and working on health policy – that she saw the opportunity for her first start-up. “I could see they weren’t embracing the new digital technologies that were emerging and that’s where I saw the gap in the market and an opportunity for a new content platform.”

Despite a successful launch and some early investment, the platform never fully took off and Hodgson returned to her consultancy practice as a communications strategist instead. “With my first start-up, I learnt what not to do,” she says. “I did everything right and at the same time I did everything wrong. I learnt that sometimes you can over-engineer the technology, and that you mustn’t hide behind your start-up.”

Now her priority is firmly set on driving forward ThinkNation, which works with world-leading organisations like Accenture, Columbia University and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

“There are multiple ways that women can build careers in technology and we need to break down silos and help pave the way,” says Hodgson. “It’s about surfacing talent, wherever that comes from, and that’s what ThinkNation is all about.”

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