We often hear the barriers which deter women and girls from engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths are unconscious bias and a lack of diversity at board level. To celebrate the launch of Women Tech Founders, we are interviewing the female leaders involved with SETsquared Bristol to explore their career paths and views on issues faced by women in technology. Each of their stories is individual, some have a technical background, others are using technology to enable their business idea.
Award-winning designer and founder of Studio Meineck, Chloe Meineck shares her story:
What were your earliest interests and how did they influence your studies?
Right from the start, I was interested in art and making things, but always wanted to know how complicated things worked and how they were made. I went to a girls’ secondary school where electronics wasn’t available as a specific subject, but I loved all the practical tasks: woodwork, fine art and science experiments. So I chose to study Design and Technology, Fine Art, History of Art and Maths.
After finishing school, I took an Art Foundation course at Kingston University, which covered every element of art and design from fashion through to architecture. At the end of the year-long course, I went to Brighton University to study 3D Design and Craft. I enjoyed all aspects of physical making, in wood, plastics, ceramics and metal.
How did your studies lead you into business?
Whilst I loved making things – I was a bit directionless – I wanted difficult and complex design issues to design for.
Visiting my Great-Gran in a care home inspired me to create something, which would help people living with dementia to trigger happy memories and try to connect again with who they are and their family around them. I wanted to understand more about family challenges and apply my design skills to help with their emotional wellbeing. While working on the idea, I realised pairing music with tangible objects could help ease their communication problems and trigger treasured memories.
After my degree, I applied for all sorts of internships, junior roles or research jobs – and was unsuccessful – it seemed like there were no design-related opportunities. Being unemployed for nine months made me feel like I would never get anywhere. But I still had people emailing me to see if they could buy a Music Memory Box. However, it did make me eligible to apply for The Prince’s Trust business course. This offered a week of training with a mentor for two years to guide me, and I focused again on developing the Music Memory Box as a commercial venture. While in Brighton after I graduated, I joined the University entrepreneurship program and entered their competition with my work for the Music Memory Box – which won!
I continued to seek opportunities as an artist. In 2013 I was selected for a three month-long Craft and Technology residency supported by Watershed and the Crafts Council – followed by a year long residency at the Design Museum in London, with a four-month exhibition under the theme ‘Identity’. This enabled me to work with families and people living with dementia to share and develop the Music Memory Box.
On completing my residency in London, I decided to move to Bristol and joined the Pervasive Media Studio – where I set up Studio Meineck – and where we are still based. Since moving to the studio, I have grown the team, travelled to Japan and the US to share Music Memory Box and we’ve developing a second product for children called, trove.
Which learnings would you like to share as a female innovator?
As a female innovator – I believe I have only just started to see the largest differences and potential struggles highlighted – when pitching for investment. As a young woman I am questioned more on the product rather than the usual questioning of finances and investment opportunity as I am not being taken seriously. I have heard the advice that female founders should seek male co-founders rather than to generally seek the missing skills that are needed. This advice grates on me. The learning’s I would take from this is to get positive female role models – that inspire you that you can learn from – two of mine are Sammy Payne from Open Bionics and Clare Reddington, Creative Director of Watershed.
Don’t limit yourself with topics or interest areas, you can go across disciplines and topics to create something.
When I started working on the idea, I was naïve about how long electronic products can take, to prototype, test, develop and get into manufacture. It takes much longer than you’d expect to test and iterate the design. We’ve used RFID technology to tag the items in Music Memory Box and trove, allowing users to connect music or stories with each special object, which plays when moved to the centre of the box.
My role has shifted around a lot currently it is centred around pitching and applying for funding, where there are lots of competition and you soon learn to cope with lots of rejection! Being successfully accepted onto the Internet of Things (IoT UK) Boost Bristol programme with SETsquared means I have more support to develop my pitch.
Technology by itself is not an important factor to me, however, it is an enabler in the development and delivery of ideas to solve challenges in our communities. Technology also offers much greater opportunities to share our ideas – with the rapid growth in social media; I’ve built a lot of contacts through Twitter and obviously share all of our articles online.
I’d recommend speaking with as many people as possible about your idea. You never know who you are going to meet when out and about – and it’s even better if they’ve already heard of you.
What advice would you offer women wanting to get into or return to tech?
Firstly I’d suggest joining a Hackspace. There’s one in Bristol and many other cities beyond have them too. I found the Brighton one online while I was at University and spent one evening there every week. It was a great place to meet new people, test ideas and build simple electronics.
Secondly, reach out and seek help within your local community or find a role model who inspires you. There are plenty of schemes where you can apply for funding or benefit from mentoring – like SETsquared, Innovate UK and more. I’m not necessarily a huge fan of ‘women-only’ initiatives, however, it does mean support is available for us as founders or to re-train in a different technology or career.
What changes would you suggest to encourage greater equality?
I feel it’s important to encourage diversity from different cultures and backgrounds, as well as encouraging more women to work in our tech industry. It has to start much earlier in life – schools can encourage girls to enjoy science, technology, maths, engineering + ART – and their parents need to tell them they can be engineers. Also practically speaking if there are more women in business, more women investors, then the likelihood is more investment in female founded businesses.
Written by Debra Penrice. See more of her work at 27 Marketing