Elena Sinel - Ed Tech Social Entrepreneur!

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! 


Meet Elena

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.   


The Journey 

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.


Acorn Aspirations

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.  

Follow Elena! 

Louise Deason - Demystifying Coding!

I am so delighted I got to sit down with Louise. She was introduced to me by Christian Hernandez (co-founder of White Star Capital, ex-Facebook) on Twitter because of her very interesting and unusual story - and it is every bit as inspirational too! Louise has worked for some of the biggest most disruptive names in tech - Facebook, Digital Shadows and DueDil, and has gone from PA to infrastructure engineer. She manages to balance a full time degree and a full time job and dispels all the myths propagated about coding! Learn about her journey and ambitions, hackathon tips and how to get started in tech!     



Meet Louise

Current job Infrastructure engineer at DueDil (doing cool stuff with companies house data) 

First Job Extra on Harry Potter 1-3

Favourite book/blog Lucas by Kevin Brooks

Favourite productivity tool Sunrise Calendar

Favourite place in London Lantana Cafe, Fitzrovia

Necessary extravagance Cashmere jumpers

Female inspiration in business Eileen Burbidge

Favourite coding language Python

Hottest tech start-up in London right now (apart from DueDil!) Tough one! Automata


The Journey

Your CV is peppered with some of the most exciting tech companies! Facebook, Digital Shadows and DueDil.  Tell us about your diverse experiences

Facebook came out of the blue! I had left my old job as a PA which resulted in me procrastinating on Facebook as you do! I ended up on their careers page and discovered they were looking for a PA for two directors in the London office. After 6 hours of interviews they introduced me to the MD of EMEA and head of the office! A week later they offered me an executive assistant position to Joanna (Shields). I worked at Facebook for 8 months and towards the end I begun a part time Computer Science course in the evening, which converted to full time in 2013. I was involved in company-wide hackathons and was very fortunate to have the amazing engineers at Facebook to inspire my journey.

After Facebook I joined DueDil for the first time. It was small and scrappy (only 17 people) and I loved that! I did everything: office manager/HR/PA. I was there for 9 months before starting my degree full time. Prior to returning to DueDil I worked at Digital Shadows bridging the engineers and analysts. But I continued to bug my friend Aaron at DueDil, asking whether there was an engineering job for me yet! He went out of his way to pitch for me internally and I officially started about a month ago as an infrastructure engineer! 

What have you learnt so far in your career? 

Culture is so important! It makes or breaks a company. The culture at Facebook was fantastic and the engineers were so welcoming. But as Facebook grew it was hard to hold on to it. 

You are now an infrastructure engineer at DueDil! What does that entail? 

At the moment I am just figuring out the tech stack! I also have individual projects which are internal that will help our team work quicker. It is a very iterative process and there is no right or wrong way of solving problems. For example, I have functioning code but now it is about going through a review process, optimising it, making sure the code is logical. 

At DueDil a lot of our tech is containerised using Docker, which means that every part of the site is essentially in a bucket. Tech wise we try to deploy code as quickly as possible; we are very agile, we want to be able to write code and get it live in response to customer demands. In time I will provision servers and if I see problems I can solve I will have the freedom to go in and do it. 

What has been your biggest challenge? 

Juggling full time uni and full time work, whilst still finding the time to have fun. It's not easy and there were times when I almost quit. I am now in the final year of my degree though, so I can see the light at the end of the tunnel! 

What are your future ambitions? 

I love space, so maybe a masters in space engineering. I'd be an astronaut if they'd let me, although i'm not sure i'd make it off the vomit comet in one piece!

What is your definition of success? 

I think if you can wake up in the morning and love going to work, that's a pretty good indicator of success to me. It's never been about the money. Find something that will make you happy.


Demystifying Coding

What are three myths about coding that you would like to dispel?

  1.  Everywhere is sexist and full of bros - 110% not true. Women might not be a majority, but they are respected and welcomed in all the companies I've worked at.
  2. Coding is really hard and only super smart people can do it - I scraped GCSEs and did acting at college. If you want to do it, you can make it happen.
  3. Coding is for geeks - coding is for EVERYONE, and it's COOL.

What choices did you consider when researching Computer Science? What are the different merits of coding courses v degree?  

A lot of the engineers at DueDil are hackers and have just been coding since their early teens! But I decided to do a degree to have that foundation as I needed more of a kickstarter. There are so many free resources online, I would recommend having a go with some of these courses first and check it's what you want to do before paying up - you have to love it and be committed otherwise you won't have fun! 

In terms of what kind of route to take I suggest thinking about your end destination. The likes of Google, Facebook and Tesla are really focused on education and care about the algorithms and big O notation which necessitates a degree. Whereas startups care more about experience - they want you to be able to come in and smash a coding test. Coding courses like Makers Academy get you up and running in as little as 10 weeks and set you up well for the latter. 

What are some of trends happening in coding right now? 

Everything is about the cloud and big data! Docker and Mesos are also becoming very popular! We are also moving away from old school programming languages to more natural languages like python and Google's language Go

You have an impressive hackathon CV! Share your highlights and any tips...

The first hackathon I did was with DueDil and I had no coding knowledge. It was a whole weekend - two days with no sleep! We got through about 30 cans of red bull between a team of 6. We built an app called Seekr - a map based event discovery app, using server side clustering and matching to detect and classify events based on a realtime feed of social media from various sources. The map was populated from data gathered from Twitter, Instagram and Flickr, as well as a photo capture interface in the app. It was such an energising environment to be in! We came second and someone even offered us £10k to take it further. 

My second one was with #floodhack at Google Campus, which was arranged to help victims of the severe flooding in the UK last year. My team made fludBUD, which connected flood victims to people that could help. We came third. Most recently I took part in an all female hackathon at Facebook. The key is to go for it and be scrappy! 


Girls in Tech

You are part of the Girls in Tech UK team! Talk us through your motivations behind being involved and some of the initiatives that you run.

I started at Girls in Tech when I begun at DueDil - they had tweeted saying they needed people to help with the London chapter, that was three years ago and now I sit on the board! It was about finding a group of like minded women who I could chat to and share advice with given I was the only girl in my team at the time. 

Girls in Tech run fantastic events each month and welcome both girls and guys! We even hosted one at Downing Street! We are also just nearing the end of our pilot mentoring program. The program is a 6-month exclusive scheme for women working in tech and digital roles in London. It consists of 6 evening speed-mentoring sessions with high profile mentors! We will probably run another next Spring - so watch this space! 

Any advice for young girls who may be considering a career in technology but don’t know where to start?

Send me a tweet, I'd love to follow your progress/help out! Find a local coding club (there are quite a few out there), have a look at programming with scratch, move up to codecademy, come to a girls in tech event! You can also find programming jobs on Unicorn HuntWork in Startups and Stack Overflow.

Follow Louise!