Eureka! alumni makes headlines

Written by Nikki Macdonald for the Dominion Post Weekender

When Alexia Hilbertidou's teacher announced to her IT class that she'd won a national coding competition, she was mobbed by her classmates. They weren't extending their unfettered congratulations to the class's only girl.

"Do you think you won that just because you'll be used for the promotional material?" the boys asked. "Do you think just because you're a confident speaker that's why you won it?"

"I remember being quite upset about that at the time. And I remember being surprised because I thought I was quite a confident person and that if I was faced with digs like that I would be able to handle it. But I really felt myself shutting down."

The news about women in science didn't get better. Three days later she went to a women in technology event. Michelle Dickinson, aka Nanogirl, was talking about her experiences and Hilbertidou was so inspired she approached her afterwards and told her about the put-downs. Dickinson shared how just the other day she'd been at a tech board meeting in which someone suggested she was the board's token woman.  "Obviously we all know why Michelle's here."  

"I remember her telling me that and I remember feeling really angry and really shocked," Hilbertidou says. "And then she gave me a hug and we got a photo."

But the anger Hilbertidou felt at her own and Dickinson's belittling didn't go away.

Browse Hilbertidou's Twitter account and you'd be forgiven for thinking she was a 30-something corporate boss. The serious clothes; the endless speaking engagements; the overseas conferences; the Nasa space flight. She's like a walking TED talk, spouting facts and figures about female participation in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) and the pending disaster that is the future of work. Close your eyes and you can picture her on stage talking to Trade Me, Air New Zealand or Xero about why young women aren't studying science and tech.

But open your eyes again and here is a 19-year-old, sitting at the dining table of her mother's North Auckland home, where she still lives, dressed in a GirlBoss T-shirt, embroidered leather jacket and slouchy pants.

While her peers are out partying, getting drunk (she doesn't drink), studying and generally easing their way into adult life, Hilbertidou has ditched uni in favour of working fulltime for the startup she launched in 2015, at 16, to get more young women to study STEM subjects.

Her mum, Vicky Crawford, also works for GirlBoss. She floats around the kitchen offering coffee and gems of information.

Hilbertidou was born in Cyprus, to a Greek Cypriot and Crawford, who is part Samoan. They met in a nightclub in Mykonos, Crawford adds, cackling. Hilbertidou looks mortified.

"I'm a bit naughty," Crawford explains. "And I just had this very good girl."

That very good girl was always an overachiever. She just rediscovered the CV slideshow she made when she was eight. One of the bullet points said she liked making PowerPoint presentations.

"It's quite funny," she laughs. "Because now I go around schools speaking to thousands of young women using a lot of PowerPoints. I'm living the childhood dream."

GirlBoss is two-pronged, holding events to inspire young women to consider working in technology and aiming to be business CEOs, and holding workshops with school kids to help break down barriers to studying science and maths. It's free to join and now has 8000 members, as well as an Australian offshoot called ChangemakeHer.

The morning of our interview Hilbertidou had taken a workshop with a class of 35 girls aged 16-18. She always asks the students why they think women don't study science and maths. Toys, some say; media portrayals; misconceptions of difficulty.

But she has little time for the idea women aren't built for STEM. That's just not science, she says.

"To just say women aren't interested doesn't make sense, because that's a result of something. It's not just – they come out of the womb, and they're not as interested as boys."

Take a group of boys and girls with equivalent NCEA maths results and girls will underestimate their abilities. And young women can't be what they can't see, Hilbertidou likes to say.

"We ask young people – draw a picture of what a scientist looks like; draw a picture of what a coder looks like. And if it's so far from what they see in the mirror, it can be a huge barrier for them."

So GirlBoss organises events to connect young women with female role models and CEOs. Hilbertidou knows a single event - a single meeting - can be transformational, because a similar tech event she attended when she was about 14 was instrumental in her choice to study technology and advanced physics at school.

"That was the first time I'd ever met a software engineer, never mind a woman software engineer, and I was just really blown away by the culture and how exciting it was."

For a while she had wanted to be a vet, but was put off by all the blood. Then she considered law, but she thinks that was because that was where she saw ambitious, successful women.

She considered studying engineering at university, but took the brave decision to go against all expectations for the smartest girl in the room and instead focus on GirlBoss. Brave, too, financially – GirlBoss currently depends on sponsorship and government grants, but she's hoping to find a more sustainable social enterprise model.

There's warmth in those huge hazelnut eyes, but the armour of earnestness is hard to pierce. She likes live comedy shows and reading; keeping up with the news. But the girl behind the polished delivery is reluctant to reveal herself. Personal questions elicit brief, bare responses, while questions about women and STEM unleash long, impassioned spiels. 

She's reeled in accolade after accolade – Westpac Women of Influence; Queen's Young Leader; US embassy scholarships to attend global conferences and a Nasa flight to study southern skies. She regularly speaks before corporate audiences.

Does anything scare her? She hesitates. It scares her, she says, that time is running out to ensure young women get the digital skills to prepare them for the digital revolution. Women are over-represented in the jobs that automation will render obsolete, like retail, and under-represented in the STEM jobs the revolution will create.

Hilbertidou calls herself a feminist. What does that mean to her?

"To me being a feminist is around breaking down the stereotypes that harm both men and women. I think no-one can reach their full potential when they're being put into boxes."