Sarah Moran: Empowering women through technology

The Girl Geek Academy founder is changing the global scenario, one female tech enthusiast at a time.

by Aisiri Amin

Sarah Moran, CEO and Co-founder © Girl Geek Academy

There is a redundant stereotype that women are so often caged in; that technology is not for them, that it is a man’s job. Five Australian women are breaking boundaries with a startup where you get to see five-year-old girls creating their own games. Sarah Moran, CEO and co-founder of Girl Geek Academy believes there is nothing a woman can’t do if she believes she can.

Started in 2014, Girl Geek Academy brings together female hackers, hipsters, hustlers and coders under one roof to bring alive inspiring ideas such as Women Welcome Women,  a mobile based website which seeks to facilitate interactions between immigrants, especially refugees and guides who are willing to spare time and knowledge to help them overcome challenges. On a mission to teach one million women technical skills by 2025.

Recently the Academy received $300,000 in funding from the Victorian Government innovation board, LaunchVic and further $1 million from partners. Now their aim is to get the whole state to commit to supporting women built businesses because a lot of women have been told they can’t and it’s their time to show that they can and how.

Sarah Moran talks to INKLINE about Girl Geek Academy, women taking over technology and breaking rules.

INKLINE:  How did the idea of Girl Geek Academy come about?

Sarah Moran: Back in 2014, we ran the world’s first all-female hackathon. Afterwards, we found out it was the first in the world. That made us think of what other events haven’t been done. So, we started to push the boundaries.

The co-founders of the Academy met around the same time, we ran the hackathon together and we really enjoyed each other’s company. We felt the need to empower women using technology. They lack confidence, somehow come to believe that they are not good at it. You can’t be bad at something you haven’t tried, you just haven’t been taught. So, with that thought,  the company was born.

The founders, Sarah Moran, Amanda Watts, Tammy Butow, Lisy Kane and April Staines (L to R) © Girl Geek Academy

I: You did your Bachelor in Journalism. From that to teaching women coding, how did that happen?

S: I learnt to code when I was 5 years old. I actually represent the girl who was pushed out of coding. In high school, I was the first girl to enter computer programming competitions. I really enjoyed them. When I was in secondary school, I built an HTML website and I got half-minus (almost fail). It had a bright pink background, purple ink and flashy unicorn gifs.

When I asked my teacher the reason for such a bad grade, he pointed at the instructions which were to build a grey looking website and said, “Yours doesn’t look like this.” And he punished me for being creative. That was when I thought that if this is what coding is then I’m not interested in it and I quit.

But I loved technology and I also love communicating as well as storytelling so I studied journalism. I was doing my degree in 2005 and that’s when YouTube was invented. And I was like “This changes everything”. I excitedly went to my lecturers and showed it to them and they said, “We don’t teach that.”

So, I was never taught technology the way I wanted to learn. But I didn’t give up. I kept learning and studying about technology. Then Facebook and Twitter came out which got me interested. After graduation, my very first job was social media manager. That’s how I made a career in digital and marketing which finally led me to co-founding Girl Geek Academy.

#SheMakes_Games program brings together talents to build games © Girl Geek Academy

I: There is an unequal representation of women in technology. How are you working towards changing that scenario?

S:  I know women who do Facebook ads, do basic HTML, work in WordPress but think they are not technical enough. They feel unqualified because if they don’t find something, they check it on Google. And I tell them, “How do you think other people in tech do it?” Just because people have a degree doesn’t mean they don’t search on Google when in doubt. But many women think they need a certificate that will give them the permission to code.

Half of the population wants to learn about technology and we, at Girl Geek Academy, believe that we should be able to create products that help them do that. That’s the way we are trying to solve the problem.

At the end of the day, we want to sell the idea that a woman can have a career in technology as a business product. I imagine them buy into the idea. My job then is to market the idea, to create products to help that person solve the problem themselves, and help companies sell the problem. I haven’t found any other business who have structured themselves in such a direct way.

Miss Makes Code is an event where girls as young as five learn coding and create their own games. © Girl Geek Academy

I: Tell us about the work you do at the Academy. From boot camps to hackathons, what else?

S: Apart from hackathons, we also look at other ways how women get empowered through technology. When I asked women how did they come to think that coding was something they wanted to do, many of them said that they started as kids and learnt how to create games.

Lisy, one of the co-founders, is one of Australia’s best game developers and so we created #SheMakes_Games which is about taking women in the games industry and showcasing what a successful woman in technology looks like in the games industry. It’s not just about building tech stuff, also about building games.

So, we are not just technical coding, but everything around that. Women who make games, virtual reality. We look at it in a more holistic sense.

I: As a start up, how did you manage to gain the popularity and bring in effective changes for so many women?

S: We started in a local community first and we realised this is something that people want. It is like a hackathon where you teach people to validate their idea. You question yourself, “Do people really want this idea?”

The tickets for our first hackathon, which had 40 participants, were sold out in an hour. And so, we say, start small, start with what is easy, don’t make it too complicated and don’t over prepare. Just get out there and see if people want the viable version of your idea.

And of course, we did worry sometimes that the idea might not work out. But with some of them, we were like, ‘let’s just run it and see how it goes.’  If people don’t like it then we will shut it down. And ever since we haven’t had to shut anything down.

#SheHacks is world’s first all-female hackathon © Girl Geek Academy

I: What has been the biggest challenge?

S: At the moment it’s probably how to encourage people to move forward when they are learning. If we find a company who are not doing a good job with women in technology, at first glance, you don’t want to work with them because they are not training women in tech. On the other hand, they are the people who need our help the most. Balancing leadership with best practice is really hard.

I: What advice would you give to people who chose an unconventional path? Especially to women in technology all over the world?

S: The only way we will make any change is by breaking the rule. The rules are there and they keep us where we are so if you want for things to be different, you have to break the rules but in a positive way.

And for all the women who think technology is not for them, look around and you will realise that you are already in technology. If you have a phone, computer, if you use the internet, you are in tech and it’s just about increasing your technical confidence. It’s you who will define how well you pursue a life in tech. So, believe in yourself.

Share the positive!