We are the only company really focused on equity and defining what is feminine, masculine and gender neutral. Many people consider drones and robots to beg ender neutral but indeed they have characteristics of masculine military vehicles. Many are black, grey, or metal colored and include aggressive features such as small guns or even blades. These today are based on tanks and drive on tracks, so again, they have this ‘masculine military’ feel to them. When you check out a middle school robot building club, they have regular Fight Competitions, where robots fight each other.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharmi Albrechtsen.
Robotics aficionado, educator, author and mom, Sharmi Albrechtsen, CEO and co-founder of SmartGurlz, a fast-growing start-up company focusing on closing the gender gap in technology. SmartGurlz is the first robotics company focused on girls and has just launched Smart Buddies Education for girls and boys.
In 2016, Sharmi started SmartGurlz after she became frustrated when trying to find educational but fun toys for her daughter, Nina. She saw a world of opportunity with tech fun, coding and digital learning for girls and at the same time inspiring interest in STEM related subjects.
As CEO, she is the visionary backbone of the company, ensuring that the company develops, markets and sells innovative products. SmartGurlz Partners include: BlackGirlsCode, Girl Scouts of America and DigitalGirl Inc.
Sharmi was recently named AdWeek’s 2017 Disruptor Award, in Championing Gender Diversity in Advertising and Tech. She has also been named Women Entrepreneur of the Year 2018 by the Asian Chamber of Commerce. She is a Morgan Stanley Multicultural Innovation Lab fellow.
She has been featured in TEDx, Forbes, Huffington Post, Financial Times, Fox Business News, Fox and Friends and CNN.
SmartGurlz was featured on ABC’s Shark Tank, November 2017, where Sharmi battled more than 40,000 companies to get placed. On air, she battled celebrity sharks including Sir Richard Branson, Mark Cuban and closed a deal with Daymond John.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Asa mother of 2 daughters and a true feminist, of course, I believe that all robots and drones can be coded by women.
However, statistics show that 95 percent of robot and drone sales are to men and that very few women/girls buy or play with robots. Not surprisingly, we have a shortage of women in engineering and computer sciences.
This statistic became very real when a few years ago, I invested in a $150 robot building set for my younger daughter, Nina.
Quite frankly, she rejected it.
OK, in fact, she nodded politely, took the box, said she would play with it ‘later’ and put it in her closet, where it never saw the light of day.
This is when the idea of SmartGurlz came to me.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Our small company was exhibiting at the smallest booth at CES (the Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas and we were swamped with customers and media.
I had planned on getting up at 4 a.m. in order to pitch to the Shark Tank producers but luckily a producer happened to walk by and see the ‘excitement’ — he chatted with me for 20 min and then said ‘no, need to pitch — you are on to the next round!’. Long story short, 8 months later, we beat 40,000 companies — aired on Shark Tank and received an offer from Daymond John.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I tried to save money and design my own packaging. It was ugly, awful with overlapping seams and cut off text! I realized designers are worth their weight in gold.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are the only company really focused on equity and defining what is feminine, masculine and gender neutral. Many people consider drones and robots to beg ender neutral but indeed they have characteristics of masculine military vehicles. Many are black, grey, or metal colored and include aggressive features such as small guns or even blades.
These today are based on tanks and drive on tracks, so again, they have this ‘masculine military’ feel to them.
When you check out a middle school robot building club, they have regular Fight Competitions, where robots fight each other.
Once my daughter, step-son and their friends had named and coded their ‘robots’, they most certainly were not ready to enter it in a contest where other robots/children would break them apart or injure them.
Smart Buddies Siggy robots are self-balancing carrier vehicles — like a Google car, it has sensors and intelligence to allow it to be coded. The function is not fighting, but transport, travel, and adventure for our friendly Smart Buddies characters!
With a light trendy design, fashion colors, and low noise levels, the Smart Buddies Siggy tries to break the mold when we speak about ‘traditional robots’ as we put our customers — at the center of our process.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Due to Covid-19, we are experiencing a change in attitude towards home schooling, remote learning and e-learning. Next month, we are launching [email protected], a Code-at-Home robot combined with 6-weeks of LIVE classes with world-class teachers.
Kids are getting fatigue from screen-based coding only. Smart Buddies, limits screen-time and encourages on the floor learning and play time.
We are really excited about this launch because it is a curriculum-based and employs real teachers who are hurting right now — many have lost income due to closures of after-school programs, tutoring and summer camps. Plus, kids who take our 6-weeks class can make up STEM classes that they missed because of the pandemic and parents get some needed ‘me time’ because Smart Buddies is so fun and engaging.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
This is a really hard question to answer in a mere interview — books are written about the subject!
We are focusing on the next generation — both girls and boys to start making changes with regards to the biases that are prevalent in our culture. By age 13, 65 percent of girls lean away from STEM — we have to do more than just expose them to STEM. We have to ensure that they ‘see themselves in STEM’ and that the boys have a better understanding of what it’s like to be ‘over-looked’. In our Smart Buddies program we include SEL (social emotional learning) exercises that highlight biases and we have a career pathways program that allows kids to see themselves in STEM careers. Often times, children are coding in isolation and they have no idea what they can use it for !
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
Community — simply, we don’t have others to help or to lean on. It can be pretty intimidating to join an advanced computer science class and be the only female in the room. We have to do more to increase the numbers — we work with BlackGirlsCode and Girl Scouts of America on elementary school programs that we hope to will inspire more girls in tech.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
Studies show that girls’ brains give them a verbal advantage, likewise there is data showing that boys’ brains favor spatial skills that make it easier for them to visualize three-dimensional objects from different angles.
This may give boys advantages in math, robotics, and coding. And when you put girls in a mixed environment with boys, many girls seem to lose confidence and lean away because the boys seem ‘naturally better’.”
Different does not mean unequal. On average, girls and boys are equally intelligent but they may have slight differences and preferences in learning styles.
We must be willing to be open to this — as I don’t believe that a one-size-fits all concept for education is the right way forward.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Passion. I truly believe that you must have blinded passion to be an entrepreneur
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Delegate. We often believe we have to do everything ourselves, it is important to delegate tasks but most importantly follow-up.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Our first angel investor Gert Riget believed in me and our mission at an early stage when we had just an idea but no traction. I will always be grateful for his belief in me and his financial support.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The mission of our company is to bridge the diversity gap in Tech — one child and school at a time. With 35,000 children exposed to STEM through SmartGurlz and Smart Buddies — we are proud to say, we are doing our part.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
In order to feed the planet and especially the human race, we will need to find alternative food sources.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If plan A doesn’t work, the alphabet has 25 more letters — 204 if you’re in Japan.”
― Claire Cook
Our Plan A was to raise VC funding in San Francisco but after 6-months — several maybes and hundreds of ‘no thanks or non-commitment’ we looked to equity crowdfunding. It has been the best Plan B — ever — we have thousands of committed, loyal fans who have a low risk.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
My dream would be to have a breakfast meeting with Melissa Gates. She values female empowerment and I would love to get her thoughts on helping the next generation of women