Women tech entrepreneurs take root with Dubai’s Stem hackathon

Think of a hackathon and you think of a room in Silicon Valley filled with men in cargo trousers – not women in sleeping bags in Dubai.

Well, one particular hackathon aims to change that. Stem is an increasingly familiar term that stands for science, technology, engineering and maths – and there is a dearth of women in those fields.

US president Barack Obama’s executive office has identified that America needs to produce 1 million more Stem professionals in the next decade than are currently graduating, if the country is to stay at the forefront of science and technology.

Meanwhile data from the US Census Bureau shows that women make up 48 per cent of the US workforce but only 24 per cent of Stem jobs.

Matters are no better in the UK. Women make up only 17 per cent of technical jobs and just 4 per cent of software engineers, according to the lastminute.com founder and government adviser Martha Lane Fox, who says we are “missing out on half the talent pool”.

It all goes back to gender stereotyping according to Meera Kaul, whose foundation is behind the Women In Stem hackathon coming to Dubai next month. “Computing and technology continue to be seen as male arena. But the jobs, car­eers and vocations of tomorrow will be computers. Technology is the future. And women need to be part of it,” she says.

Ms Kaul, 43, an American of Indian descent, is an accomplished Stem specialist entrepreneur. With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law and an MBA from Stanford, she moved to Dubai with the Abraaj Group in 2003, building three businesses in the UAE (The Learning Zone, Momenta and Optimus) before going on to incubate and finance technology ventures worldwide – 15 in the Middle East alone.

Now based in San Francisco, in 2011 she set up the Meera Kaul Foundation, a non-profit headquartered in California, after realising there were few women in Stem across the three continents she worked in.

I was usually the only woman in the room,” she says. “The community and network of professional women in Silicon Valley is very strong and hackathons are a way of life there,” she says. “Universities and blue-chip corporate organisations spearhead them as a hotbed of innovation and hiring. Our mission is global and Dubai is pivotal, as it serves as a gateway for Asia, Africa and the Middle East.”

This is the second year of WiStem in Dubai. Some 300 women attended last year’s event, travelling from as far as Zimbabwe and Europe. More than 100 have registered so far, but only 50 will be selected to participate in the event, which this year has the theme of smart cities.

Those chosen should wear layers of clothes and bring sleeping bags and toothbrushes as well as their laptops. The event, at AstroLabs in Jumeirah Lakes Towers, runs non-stop for 48 hours from February 19 to 20. Food, snacks and drinks are provided.

Teams are made up of a coder, a user experience designer and a marketer. Beginners are welcome, women can arrive as individuals and join a team – and coding experience is not even necessary.

Prizes range from tech goodies to smart home products – but, probably more valuable, participants get to meet potential investors and may win seed funding, incubation and mentoring.

Last year’s winning team, called 110%, comprised five women – four from Saudi Arabia and one Indian from Dubai. Together, they built the prototype of an online game, the Unique Hand, where the user races against time to create henna patterns. “They started off being a shy lot,” says Ms Kaul, “but there was a huge transformation, and the way they pitched their app was inspiring.”

Included in the winning team was Leanne D’Souza, from Dubai, who thinks there should be more initiatives to encourage women and instil confidence.

“We, as working women in Stem, need to believe our contribution is valuable,” she adds.

Sana Odeh, a clinical professor of computer science at New York University Abu Dhabi, says it’s important to empower young women and provide them with cutting-edge skills and knowledge to use technology to make the world a better place

“Hackathons are extremely important to train and inspire the new generation of com­puter scientists to solve real-world problems from health to education to the arts and humanities,” adds Ms Odeh, who is also the founder and chair of Arab Women in Computing, which has 1,300 members in 15 Arab countries and is a sponsor of the hackathon.

Ms Kaul concurs. “By investing in this hackathon, we aim to provide a platform to encourage more women to opt for Stem car­eers,” she adds.

So women, get hacking. And remember, there’s a huge silver lining to being female and working in Stem. While American women earn on average US$19.26 an hour (21 per cent less than their male colleagues), those who work in Stem earn $31.11 and the gap narrows to 14 per cent – although there’s still work to be done to equalise pay.


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