Over coffee and cake at Iris and June Elena helps you realise that making a difference is perhaps the most important thing we can do, and she lives by this ethos. She is the founder and CEO of Acorn Aspirations - a social entrepreneur making a huge contribution to young people. Through her hackathons she is able to inspire, engage and introduce technology to 11-18 years olds, facilitating relationships with experienced industry mentors. To mark International Women's Day Acorn Aspirations is organising a TEDx-style event at Google Campus on 8th March, where female founders, entrepreneurs and software engineers will be sharing their journeys and stories with the mission to inspire the next generation of female tech entrepreneurs. This will be followed by a 2-day hackathon on 12-13th March, where girls will be creating their own digital businesses. Hope to see you there!
Current Job Founder/CEO, Acorn Aspirations.
First Job Aged 18, Interpreter, British Council, Aral Sea – my introduction to poverty and systemic human rights abuse.
Education MA Conflict, Security and Development, King’s College London.
Languages spoken Russian (native), English, French, Macedonia, Arabic (just because I didn’t think it made sense to learn Amharic in Ethiopia!)
Favourite book The Gadfly by Ethel Voynich had a profound effect on me as I was growing up and nurtured that revolutionary and constantly-challenging-the-status-quo spirit in me.
Necessary Extravagance Tango! I am obsessed with Tango music and dancing – my secret indulgence!
Favourite productivity tool Gruffalo calendar, of course – just waiting for an app version!
Female inspiration in business My daughter says Megan Smith is "cool". For me it has to be the trio: Megan Smith, Sherry Coutu (because she is doing an amazing job at inspiring children into the world of entrepreneurship with founders4schools) and Martha Lane Fox.
Top networking tip As a single mum with 2 kids I am very selective about events I go to. I research well and attend events of strategic importance only, then connect and follow up with people immediately.
Can you tell us about your background prior to founding Acorn Aspirations?
Prior to founding Acorn Aspirations I spent about 10 years travelling, volunteering, living and working in some of the most deprived and corrupt places in the world: Uzbekistan (where I originally come from), the Balkans, Ethiopia and Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh, hoping I would make a difference in the lives of ordinary people, until I had a wake up call and realised the international system was deliberately created and structured in ways that perpetuated conflict, deprivation and underdevelopment. I witnessed corruption at the levels of the UN, World Bank and International Politics, foreign aid being thrown at dictatorships due to vested geopolitical interest, innocent people abused just because they dared to question the status quo and people suffering at the hands of their own governments.
What were your biggest takeaways from those experiences?
My biggest takeaway was the realisation that "development" has to come from people themselves and not us, consultants trying to impose our own solutions to the problems we do not fully comprehend. I would like to think I have helped some people find their way out of poverty: when their lives no longer mattered to the governments (like disadvantaged women in the Aral Sea), or when I co-founded a Business Without Borders network in the Balkans and watched young people across 8 countries communicate through trade and entrepreneurship, whilst their respective governments were having political “disagreements”, or helped inspire and empower local craftsmen in Ethiopia and Bangladesh.
At the same time, my experiences have informed my current work and the social mission I am furthering: provide teenagers and those at risk of becoming NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training) with opportunities to embrace technology and consider entrepreneurship as a viable career choice. I am placing teenagers themselves at the very core of their own development by offering them the tools that could accelerate their growth as individuals and professionally and an opportunity to transform their own lives – there is nothing as rewarding as knowing that you have made a real difference in people’s lives.
Tell us about the inspiration behind Acorn Aspirations
Acorn Aspirations was born at a time when I realised I could no longer "save the world", something I idealistically dreamed about from a very early age (dosed up on a lot of Russian classical literature, I suppose), and that I should instead focus on something more tangible and something that will make a real difference to people's lives in the long-term. I came to settle in the UK, broke away from an abusive relationship and decided to it was time to build my very own something, something I would be very proud of and something that will make my children proud as they grow up.
Education was a perfect challenge: it has not changed in more than 60 years, it no longer reflects the current job market and it simply is not equipping school leavers with skills that really matter in this ever so digital and technology oriented world we live in. At the same time, entrepreneurship was something I have been passionate about since age 18 working in the Aral Sea when I witnessed a real transformation in women who lost everything, but who were empowered to create change for themselves and their families through entrepreneurship.
Fusing technology, entrepreneurship and education was just an obvious choice when I was deciding about what to do next and this is where Acorn Aspirations was born.
What is the mission of Acorn Aspirations?
Acorn Aspirations is pioneering a new approach that puts teenagers aged 16-18 in a position where they are empowered to build their own future. We do this through hackathon/start-up weekends where teenagers collaborate with software engineers, designers and entrepreneurs to build digital businesses of their own based on the problems they want to solve or passions they have. By the end of the weekend they will have learned how to code, have some basic understanding of branding, digital marketing, user experience, and business models, as well as learnt soft skills such as teamwork and communications skills.
Following the hackathon, teenagers will continuously be mentored by software engineers and business mentors, attend free workshops and events in coding, IP law, marketing, branding and network with entrepreneurs and peers embarking on the same journey. At the same time, we are building a digital platform that will encourage teenagers from across London, as well as outside of London to showcase projects they work on, seek expert support online and fundraise to take their businesses to the next level. Powering this with online courses and offering work experience incentives would make this one-stop shop for teenagers that are looking for something other than a traditional route to university or employment.
What is the single best piece of business advice that helped shape who you are as an entrepreneur today?
It would not be business advice, but a book (How the Steel was Tempered) I read in that highly impressionable age of 13 that somehow left an imprint in my mind and defined what I do in life and in business:
Man's dearest possession is life. It is given to him but once, and he must live it so as to feel no torturing regrets for wasted years, never know the burning shame of a mean and petty past; so live that, dying he might say: all my life, all my strength were given to the finest cause in all the world…
To me, this cause is very simple: make a difference in people’s lives.
Tell us everything about your upcoming event #ACORNHACKGIRLS !!
#ACORNHACKGIRLS is very much a passion project, but could well open a very special chapter in the core business of Acorn Aspirations, although I have never intended to have a specific gender-focused business agenda. A number of things have happened that made me want to do something in this space: In January in a conversation with my daughter's teacher with regard advice on GCSE subject selection, she mentioned the usual core subjects. I asked about Computer Science, which she simply brushed off with, "It is not what the government considers as important or necessary, besides, she is a girl".
A few weeks later, I was invited to a private viewing of "Debugging the Gender Gap" which highlighted the shockingly low numbers of women in tech jobs, the gender pay gap and the stereotypes about what girls should or should not study. I will never forget my daughter's reaction after the film: "Mum, I remember this woman from the film, we met her in Parliament [Megan Smith, CTO of USA] you never told me she was THAT cool!" I wondered: "If a 40 min film had such an impact on Victoria, what would happen if ..." And this is how #acornhackgirls was born: a 2 part event where girls first hear inspiring stories from 20 powerful female founders, CTOs and software engineers, followed by a hackathon/start-up style weekend where the same girls get a chance to transform their lives and potentially, lives of many people around them.
What were the highlights of your previous hackathon event - #MakeItHappen?
#MakeItHappen was an incredibly proud moment of my life: I did not imagine I would be able to bring together entrepreneurs, designers and developers with the sole purpose: to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs. It was amazing to watch the transformation of our young participants and watch them grow within just 2 days, embracing the challenge and confidently pitching ideas they truly believed in in front of some very accomplished entrepreneurs and CEOs: Mike Butcher (Editor-in-Large, TechCrunch), Neeta Patel (CEO, New Entrepreneurs Foundation), Stewart Niblock (CEO, Autotorq), Will King (CEO, King of Shaves), Nancy Fechnay (Flight.vc; Interim Director, Techstars) and Amali de Alwis (CEO CodeFirst:Girls). I wanted to create something big and for people to notice how incredibly important entrepreneurship was and how, if injected from an early age, it could transform lives.
What is the vision for Acorn Aspirations?
The vision is very much global - Acorn Aspirations has big plans and our vision is to connect young people from across the world to opportunities that would accelerate young people’s potential and turn them into change-makers and confident leaders.
Women in Tech
Which business networks do you value?
I am incredibly proud of being part of women-in-tech networks such as Ada’s List, Girls In Tech and Women Who Code and a very active pioneer of women’s and young girls’ right to be part of global technological revolution, not only as consumers but as active creators.
How do you handle being a working mum - any advice for others?
Embrace it! Children transform us in ways we never expect them to – life is never the same again, and yet life is unimaginable without them. It is a challenge, but a challenge I enjoy: I had my daughter Victoria when I was very young, she travelled since birth and has always been part of everything I have ever created. I try to involve her in my work, I discuss projects with her and make her and her friends part of all events and hackathons I organise. My son is only 2.5 and an absolute joy of a little boy – he has been coming with me into lecture halls since only a few weeks old!
How can we do better to attract and retain women in technology?
Immersing girls into the word of technology and entrepreneurship needs to start when girls are still in primary schools. Coding should be embraced and become compulsory, just as English or Maths is, because girls should understand how technology transforms the world around them and become creators rather than consumers – there is no reason why such entrepreneurial spirit cannot be injected from an early age as children by nature are incredibly creative.
What you cannot see you cannot be - so make female software engineers and female CEOs visible, precisely what we will be doing during our AcornHack:Girls events; nurture intra-generational mentoring relationships, create and reinforce role models and make work flexible, particularly when family becomes an important consideration.