The Opportunities For Robots, Startups And Women

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This was originally published on Women 2.0 April 11, 2012

Women hackers wanted for robots at the Mountain View MEGA Startup Weekend!

By Andra Keay (Organizer, MEGA Startup Weekend)

Robots, startups and women – These are a few of my favorite things, but they usually don’t go hand in hand. There are exceptions of course, but in general, the numbers don’t lie. Women are under represented in tech startups and under represented in robotics. Under representation is a missed opportunity.

I’m not just being a cheerleader. It’s tempting to claim that robotics is the future and that we need to get more women involved. But if simply getting more women in the pipes fixed the under representation of women in technology, we’d have seen greaterchanges over the last 40 or 50 years.

The current focus on STEM is laudable, but the attrition rate for women working in STEM areas gets higher the older you get. What makes so many women leave after they’ve invested in a degree and started their career? There are probably many small factors but it adds up to STEM careers not offering a value proposition to women. I’d say that this goes for startups as well, from an informal sampling.

Startups, like robotics, are predominantly male fields. Unless you still believe that gender is purely historical and only inertia is holding us back, there must be some value in all-male groups. Well, it’s definitely easier to communicate. That goes for any homogenous group. Similarity between members, from appearance to shared references and values, also increases the comfort level.

There’s an assumption that ‘aping’, the practice of psychological flattery by imitation, is also an effective way to get advancement or investment. So cliques are potentially good for both the workings of the team and for the future of the startup, project or robot. If you put it that way, what value could women have, either for robotics or for a startup? A comfortable homogenous team might communicate easily but they will also find it difficult to avoid assumptions. Assumptions are the enemy of startups.

Steve Blank recommends leaving the building to check if the rest of the world really does think the same way you do about your product.

Robotics also needs to leave the building. Robotics needs customer development methodology and people-centered design. Solving technological problems is no longer the only way forward for robotics. Rodney Brooks says that the issue for robotics isn’t what CAN we build, it’s what SHOULD we build.

Clearly, robotics needs startup methodology. Does robotics need women? What is the value proposition for having more women in robotics and in startups generally?

Underrepresentation of any sector of the population in a team or field is a missed opportunity to leave the building. Having a homogenous culture is not conducive to lean startup methodology, customer development or people-centered design. More women will build better startups which will build more robots.

Get involved now! What better time to test this idea than during National Robotics Week. Try something like the MEGA Startup Weekend with robots and see how much difference your robot business models can make. You can be a hacker. A robot hacker is a culture changer.

About the guest blogger: Andra Keay is a human-robot culture researcher, MEGA Startup Weekend organizer and founder of Robot Launch Pad – a community to grow robotics, one startup at a time. Also a mother of 4, not counting the robots.She been running science and robot workshops for children since 1995, including coaching competition teams in Moonbots, First Lego League and RoboCup Jnr.