Anyone worried about the under-representation of women in engineering and science should meet Jennifer and Allison John.
Jennifer, 15, and Allison, 13, are two Redwood City, CA teens who recently won a mobile-app and entrepreneurship competition sponsored by Technovation, an arm of a not-for-profit group called Iridescent that promotes science and technology education for young people. The sisters developed, from scratch, an app that helps people figure out where to donate unwanted household items, like clothes and toys. They won a $10,000 prize in the global contest held earlier in July.
They plan to spend the prize money developing a version of their app for Apple devices (it now runs only on Android) and advertising the service online.
“We’ll promote it on sites like Twitter and Google and Facebook,” said Allison, who spoke via conference call, with her sister, from their respective summer camps last week.
The sisters—who are home-schooled—are no strangers to technology and Silicon Valley business. Both their parents are engineers, and the Johns have always encouraged their daughters to study math and computer science, Jennifer and Allison said. The girls started coding in elementary school using the Python programming language.
Since they study at home, neither girl says she ever felt uncomfortable pursuing science and math. But “I could definitely see how it would be intimidating if you were the only girl in the class,” Jennifer said. Iridescent is focused on reducing the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and engaging families to help promote creativity and perseverance among children and teens.
The John sisters got involved with Iridescent’s popular Technovation Challenge competition in January, when they attended a mentoring workshop sponsored by Battery Ventures at the firm’s Silicon Valley offices. Battery is a financial supporter of Iridescent, and partnered with the group earlier this year to provide mentors for girls in Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area who wanted to participate in the competition.
At the mentoring event in January, Jennifer and Allison were brainstorming possible apps when they met Adrian Cockcroft, a longtime Silicon Valley innovator and former Netflix executive who is now a technology fellow at Battery. At the close of the session, they asked Cockcroft to be their official mentor for the competition.
Cockcroft helped the girls narrow down their original idea for an app. They were always focused on enabling donations, but had first considered building a tool that would help people keep track of food in their kitchens so they could donate unwanted or expiring items to food pantries and other organizations.
But that ultimately proved unworkable, as the girls realized users likely would need to keep a log of all they food they had at home, along with expiration dates. “That would mean a lot of typing for the user, which they probably wouldn’t want to do,” Allison explained. The girls also discovered there aren’t many organizations that accept fresh food, like produce, Cockcroft said.
Once the sisters “pivoted” to focus on donating other types of household items, Cockcroft helped them think through the app’s user experience and potential audience—who would be using it, or want to—and how that would affect design. They also worked through more technical issues, like how to integrate an external database of donation centers into their app.
The three met about once every two weeks. Even though the girls’ father drove them to meetings, he never sat in on the sessions and instead let the girls figure things out on their own, Cockcroft said. “They’ve got a lot of confidence and a lot of maturity,” he said. Cockcroft also introduced the girls to a female CEO he knew, with an eye toward future mentoring or partnership opportunities.
As the competition drew closer, the girls relentlessly practiced their pitch so they wouldn’t be nervous. The fact that “we both do theater”, and have experience in front of large audiences, helped, according to Jennifer. They competed in the middle-school category against three other finalists, down from a field of 275 original teams teams drawn from around the world, including countries like India and Cameroon. Battery Vice President Jeff Lu served as a judge for the overall competition.
As the girls enjoy their win and stay busy with summer activities, Cockcroft is thinking more long term. “My attitude is, both of them should expect to be entrepreneurs as some point,” he said. “They should be running a business as they get ready for college.” Perhaps a business Battery will fund someday.