Morna founded Girl Geek Scotland, a community and support network for women in technology, enterprise and creative industries.
I founded Girl Geek Scotland in the Autumn of 2008 and our first event took place in 2009. It was the result of me, as a lecturer, looking at the drop off in female uptake to our course – an Interactive Media Design BSc – and scratching my head wondering what the problem was. Also, for some time I had been working in a culture, not just at university but in digital media in general, that was very masculine and I missed having women to talk to. I had people that understood what I did, who were all guys, and I had friends who were women, who understood all the other sides of me, but I wanted to see if I could find women who were really interested in the same things as me and understood the issues of being a woman in this environment.
A big push for me was when I heard about Girl Geek Dinner, an organisation in London, founded by Sarah Lamb. Being the sort of pushy person I am, I emailed her to ask why she wasn’t doing that sort of thing in Scotland with the usual ‘I’m offended that money’s being spent down there but not up here’. She replied that actually she had done it all off her own back, it wasn’t publically funded and asked if I wanted it to happen in Scotland, why didn’t I do it myself? It’s one of those times when you have to think ‘fair cop. Blush’. So I did – I reached out to as many women that I knew of in technology and got in touch with various people, local government and other organisations to ask them if they knew of others who could help.
We had the first Girl Geek Scotland dinner at the DCA in Dundee. We got small amounts of sponsorship from local organisations and using that we had a group of about 30 women talking about their projects and interests over dinner, which is a much more social situation. Being a woman in technology I didn’t need to ask what the differences between the way men and women network are; that was something I knew intuitively, so setting up a dinner party seemed, to me, to be a very sensible option.
From that first dinner we developed a relationship with Informatics Ventures Edinburgh and raised a substantial amount of money that enabled us to hold workshops to support women in enterprise, in 2010. The workshops were 3-day retreats which attracted people that were at a sweet point of creativity, computing and enterprise but felt weaknesses in their computing skills. It’s a cultural thing – not choosing computing or sciences at an early enough age, meaning that they have to find another way in. For us, it was a really good way of meeting interesting women with exciting projects, that were being entrepreneurial about how they went about making them work.
Over the years there’s been quite a change in the community; it’s become more mature as members have developed their careers. Leah Hutcheon, for example, was working as a journalist/editor when she first got involved with Girl Geek Scotland then she left and started her own business. She just raised £500,000 for her company Appointedd. There’s also always new people coming along and we’re just developing a mentoring scheme that pairs up new people with members that have more experience. We started off with everybody just beginning but now we’ve got a mature, core community alongside newcomers.
The biggest challenge has been my health. I had an accident in 2009 which resulted in me leaving my job and having lots of surgeries in the years following. That was quite difficult but it’s worth saying that if I’d left to have kids or something like that, I’d probably be in the same situation. In technology, people want you to have the exact right experience for the last 2-5 years in a row and coming back from a gap like that, you obviously can’t offer that. I had no money, no income and I didn’t have a partner. I struggled to get by and kept having to go back into hospital, it was just a really difficult time of lots of stopping and starting.
Recently there’s been a new surge of interest in Girl Geek Scotland which has added rocket fuel to what would otherwise have been quite difficult to build up again as now I have a team of fantastic people supporting different aspects. I had intended on closing it down, and was doing a few interviews with people from our community for LinkedIn but people started approaching me and asking if we could get Girl Geek Scotland going again. We got it going this year with a big launch in February with the First Minister at Napier University. Now i’m really trying to delegate various activities to people whose careers benefit from taking control of aspects of the organisation. I’ve learnt a lot from leading Girl Geek so I know how to do things but I’ve also realised that I can be much more strategic this way.
Working in this area it can be difficult to think of female role models because there are so few women doing what you do. I would like to say, however, that the people I’ve made contact with at Silicon Valley are hugely inspiring to me. Women such as Heidi Roizen, Karen White, Wendy Lee and Ann Winblad have come to speak at our events and are particularly inspirational because they don’t shy away from talking about their whole lives. It’s interesting that it’s these people, who are at that stage where they have very successful business, who maybe feel that they can share their lives more easily but also understand that younger people at earlier career stages, trying to make it in a man’s world, can’t do that. Heidi Roizen, for instance, has spoken quite openly about her child going through gender reassignment and it’s that kind of openness that makes people accessible. It’s difficult to be inspired by somebody that you can’t relate to at all.
Our mentoring programme is an important part of Girl Geek Scotland’s future. We also have a significant amount of funding which we’re looking to unlock with matched funding.We’ll be holding events in Autumn and Spring next year and I want to encourage anyone interested in becoming part of our community to get in touch.