From MEST to Oxford: Thea’s Journey In Tech

by on Friday, January 30th, 2015, filed under IdeasWomen in Tech

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Currently an MBA student at Said Business School at the University of Oxford, Thea Sokolowski is a former MEST Business fellow who despite an intense MBA program, still finds time to indulge in life’s little pleasures — whether that is reading a book, enjoying a shot of espresso, dancing, or putting down her imaginative thoughts into words.

“When I’m not stuck in the library or classroom, I love to dance and to write. I can often be found on weekend mornings hiding out in a café with a shot of espresso and a notebook. I’m usually listening to either American country music or oldies –- the Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Gene Kelly variety. Of course, some Azonto usually finds its way onto my playlists.”

We had a chat with Thea to find out some more about her journey to technology, experiences and plans for the future:

How did you get interested in technology?

I had always had an interest in technology from the time I first used a computer as a child in my grandmother’s house. It was fascinating to me. I remember playing with these Computer Aided Architectural Design (CAAD) programs all day when I was young. I loved the idea of creating something I could see on a screen and imagining it come to life.

I graduated from university in 2010, a time when the social media boom was really taking off. I had studied marketing, and it became obvious to me that in this (and other) industries, the future was going to rely heavily on advancing technology. I worked for some digital production agencies in New York and started to take an interest in the whole tech startup world. Then, of course, I landed at MEST, which put my interest in high gear.

How did you hear about Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST)?

I was volunteering for a non-profit in New York that was based in Malawi, called Goods for Good. We worked with local community centers to help Malawians build small enterprises that would filter profits through the community centers so they could offer support to the massive orphan population in the country. I was considering going to Malawi to work with these entrepreneurs, when I saw a post from an old friend on Facebook who was working as a fellow at MEST at the time. I reached out to him and he absolutely convinced me to get involved in MEST instead.

How was your MEST experience?

Working at MEST was one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences I’ve had. I learned a lot on the job. I was exposed to incredible insights from the VC perspective and learned first hand what it’s like to be in the trenches of a startup day-to-day. I gained a real understanding of the incredibly diverse West African market and saw the expansion of technology and entrepreneurship in this space.

Best of all, though, was of course the people that make MEST what it is. I likely learned more from the Entrepreneurs In Training (EITs) and founders than I taught them. It’s always a bit jarring when you move to an entirely new culture for the first time, but they showed incredible warmth and some serious determination and passion. Not to mention the fellows, who have all remained close friends of mine.

While at MEST, you were very involved with Next Wave Africa and StemBEES, both organizations that support women in technology. Where did the passion come from and what was the experience like?

I became involved in Next Wave after meeting John Paul Parmigiani from Hub Accra, who recommended me to Heather Cochran, the founder of Next Wave. She needed someone to take over the organization and offer mentorship to the women involved while she went back to the States. I didn’t even hesitate when I heard about it. It felt like an opportunity to extend what I was doing at MEST to a group of women who felt so passionately about entrepreneurship but weren’t fortunate enough to have the resources or foundation the EITs received. I feel as though women in Ghana are born with a sense of entrepreneurship, and I wanted to help as many as possible bring that to life any way I could. They are a beautiful group of women and it was inspiring to work with them.

Some of the female EITs approached me about starting STEMBees, and I was really excited to help. They were very passionate about this cause because the discrepancy between men and women in STEM fields was so glaringly obvious to them. MEST alone is an example -– there were only 8 women in the program when I was there and an even smaller ratio in the incubator. This speaks to the industry as a whole. The girls noted miniscule percentages of women in their classes in university, as they’d all studied STEM subjects. I agree that this needs to change -– in Ghana and around the world. Noting that they might not have considered entering this field had it not been for an influential female they’d come across during their studies, they decided they wanted to change this and expose young women in Ghana to the possibilities that exist for them. These are not men’s subjects. Women can and should open their minds.

It wasn’t easy, though. When we first started out, I accompanied the girls to some of the local boarding schools, and the administration was not open to the idea of taking any of their girls’ time for this sort of thing. They are very discipline-oriented, and schedules seemed to be a very tight matter –- career exposure and opportunities did not seem to be first on the list. I think the STEMBees ladies have an even larger mission ahead of them that involves changing the perspective not only of young girls but of the administration and mentors in their lives that are the ones giving them direction. I’m extremely proud, however, of how far they’ve taken STEMBees despite these difficulties. I can see they’re passionate about it, and I think they can make a big difference.

What qualities do you think Women in Tech need to succeed?

I personally feel we need to minimize the distinction between women and men in tech. In fact, they can and should be equal –- though each individual person’s perspective and experience brings a unique point of view to the work. As in other areas, women are just as capable of applying themselves and achieving success as men are. Where I think the challenge lies is in the social or cultural atmosphere that tends to surround the work. In an industry that has such a stigma attached to it for women due to its historical male dominance, it’s going to take a while for both parties to view it as gender neutral or for individuals to find where their particular strength and focus lies. So, these women need to be resilient and find a way of creating their own culture alongside what exists.

I think this sort of separation comes from the traditional stereotype that boys have been the ones to grow up playing with gadgets or Legos or building things, while girls were more imaginative and less hands on. This is, of course, a generalization –- one that I don’t even uphold myself. But in my mind, technology is a creative industry as well. It takes every perspective and it requires such an array of skills. I think women simply need to approach it the way they approach other industries and explore the different opportunities solid technology skills can offer.

What do you think Women in Tech need the most?

Strong mentors and role models are extremely important for women (and men as well). We need to see how others got to where they are, what roads they took and how they faced challenges so we know how we might face them ourselves. Women tend to be expressive, to want to talk to someone along the way, and I think the more we see women succeeding in this industry the more confidence we’ll have that we too can reach our potential.

We also need the Men in Tech to support us. They need our perspective. The customers they hope to reach are women as well. Both genders bring different strengths to the table. The more resistance women face when thinking of entering the industry, the less they’ll be compelled to move forward. So, we need to know the guys will have our backs and view us as equals when we work together. My hope is that one day there won’t need to be a focus on Women in Tech because it will be commonplace. I hope there will be no industries in which women are such a minority or are intimidated to enter.

What advice would you give young women trying to start a career in technology?

I always think it’s important to step back and look at the big picture. Think about what technology really means and how many different industries and job functions are going to become engrossed in technology in the future. This is where everything is headed, and if you can be ahead of the curve –- or rather, if you can contribute to a vision of where that curve is going –- you will be successful. Thing is, technology is a super broad industry. Find the thing you’re passionate about and think about how technology fits into it or can make it better. That’s what you’re working toward.

Learning technology is not easy. It requires patience and dedication, and likely at this point a lot of working with men alone. It can be intimidating. But the women who are breaking that mold today are making it easier for every woman who will follow in their path. I think more and more companies are starting to recognize this, and being a woman in technology will likely work in your favor. Be proud of that and know that you belong there.

What challenges keep you up at night and how do you get past them?

There are lots of things that can keep me up at night. Personally, short term, I’m likely thinking about my next assignment or how to contribute to the microfinance company I’m consulting with in Cambodia (a project through Oxford). More often, it’s the bigger things, mainly where I want to go next after school or a general worry that I might be in over my head here.

I’ve found, however, that worry and stress and anxiety about challenges I’m facing only exacerbate the problem. It’s often nothing a good glass of wine and some classic music can’t cure. More often, I’m kept awake by my active imagination, thinking of all the possibilities I imagine for the future, thinking about how to solve major issues or reflecting on an interesting insight I learned. My imagination has always been one of my greatest assets and liabilities.

What is your favourite thing to do?

I think, above all things, I love traveling. I will never miss an opportunity to go somewhere new. Beyond that, I love to have conversations with people from all around the world. I love learning about places and cultures that offer different perspectives. I think there’s so much variety in the world, and it all fuels that active imagination. I think that’s one of the things I love most about the business school I’m in -– all of the students come from around the world and have such interesting experience and backgrounds. You can travel in your mind to a myriad of places simply through conversation. Or, today, through technology!

What’s next for you?

This is still yet to be determined at the moment. At school, we’re exposed to a massive amount of career options on a daily basis, so the directions and possibilities are nearly endless. My background and passion is in marketing primarily, but I love working with entrepreneurs and would very much like to continue to explore developing economies. I’d like to find a way to combine these passions, but what that looks like is still in the works.

Thank you for an amazing interview, Thea. We wish you all the best in figuring out what’s next. One thing we are sure of, though, is that whatever the next thing is, it will be massive.