Jillian Kenny is a founder of two social enterprises in the STEM space. The first is Power of Engineering, a non-profit organisation that runs one day events for Year 9 and 10 high school students to expose them to what an engineering career is actually about and dispel the myths that exist around the profession. For example, it’s not just about maths and hard hats, it’s a career where they use creativity and problem-solving to solve many of the world’s toughest challenges. She is also one of the founders of Machinam, a company that develops high school mathematics resources that connect what students are learning in class to the real world and future careers.
They create interactive, digital resources (the product is called In Real Life) that are engaging and allow the students to learn maths through the context of the real world, rather than learning a formula and memorising where to use it! She is passionate about providing equity in opportunities. Many people close themselves off to opportunities because they think they are the wrong gender, or the wrong type of smart, or even not smart enough. She wants to break that thinking open and broaden their horizons of what is possible for them.
Q: How did you get started and what or who inspired and empowered you to?
When I was in high school I didn’t love maths. I’d decided I was going to be a lawyer (like Ally McBeal) so though it wasn’t relevant to me. But later, through a chance encounter, I actually became an engineer and began to realise that maths is actually very useful. It was just before my first semester at uni was due to start and I took a temp job with an engineering company. During that job, I discovered that engineering isn’t actually welding, like I’d thought, but is really all about creating solutions for communities. I was inspired to become an engineer right then, and three weeks before starting my degree I switched and studied engineering instead.
It wasn’t until I started studying that I realised how rare is is be a woman in engineering. This came as a real surprise to me and I wanted to do something to change that, but didn’t know what that could be. One night after volunteering at an engineering careers fair I met a woman called Felicity — we started talking about how we believe engineering has the power to change the world BUT in order to do that we need many types of people who think in many different ways as part of the profession (not just more of the same). We immediately hit it off, and started Power of Engineering together. Having another person to work with and bounce ideas off and lean on and get excited with made all the difference for me. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to do something like that if I was on my own.
Machinam started a few years later. We’d been running Power of Engineering for a while and loved seeing the effect the program was having, but we wanted to further expand our impact. We also wanted to do this in a way that was sustainable for us personally (PoE doesn’t pay us), so we teamed up with another engineer, Claire and created Machinam. We figured that being engineers we apply the maths we learnt in high school to real life situations every day, so we were perfectly positioned to be able to develop these real world scenarios to aid students’ learning.
Q: What unique and creative strategies if any did you use when you were first getting started?
In the early days of Power of Engineering, one of our most common strategies was the ‘hat over the wall’ approach. In our first year we ran 10 events for over 1,000 students. Each event costs $10k to put on and we had no money and no resources — we didn’t even have a bank account. But, we didn’t let a concern for how things were going to work stop us doing anything. This approach did also get us into trouble a few times, but ultimately it was the best thing we could have done. Had we tried to get everything worked out before we committed to an event, we would have had a fraction of the impact.
Q: What mindset distinguished you from others who were doing the same thing? How did you develop it?
A mindset I’m really proud of is that we turned the fact that we’re not experts in maths education into a real strength, rather than letting it hinder us. In the initial stages of creating Machinam, we were very mindful of NOT getting educators on board to write our content because we didn’t want to be influenced by the normal conversation about what is and isn’t possible or does and doesn’t work in maths education. Instead, we sourced STEM professionals — people who are engineers, architects and scientists, for example — who use maths in their every day lives to write the scenarios from a completely fresh perspective. Now, we work closely with teachers and schools as part of the review and testing processes, but most of our writers are still STEM professionals.
That’s something that I think is very personal to everyone. For me, success is waking up and spending my days doing something that engages me while continuously growing and learning new things. I need to be creating things (either physical or intellectual) so doing those things and also having authentic relationships with the people around me is my version of success.
Q: What do you think is the main reason why some people face failure when going after their vision?
I actually don’t think there is one main reason for this. I think there’s a multitude of factors that might contribute to someone not fulfilling on something they’ve set out to do. Some that I’ve experienced in different instances include: not really being connected to what I’m doing; my own self-doubt; and trying to do it alone. Another big thing that’s often a factor in success (so it only makes sense that lack thereof would be a factor in failure) is having the financial and emotional support around you that allows a person to invest the time and space they need into whatever it is they’re pursuing.
I used to be very shy, basically because I would agonise over what other people were thinking about what I would say or do. Because of this, I’d say the most freeing thing I ever heard was “Don’t worry about what other people are thinking because I guarantee, it’s not about you. They’re all too busy worrying about what you’re thinking of them.” That was like the ultimate ‘aha’ moment for me gave me the freedom to be myself without fear of judgement.
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Originally published at medium.com