[This is the twelfth in a series of posts exploring the personal stories of real women in technology. Every woman in tech overcame, at the very least, statistical odds to be here; this blog series aims to find out why, and what they found along the way. This week we met up with Melissa Pickering (ln), founder and CEO of iCreate to Educate. If reading her story inspires you to share yours, please email me.]
Among edtech digest’s most fascinating edupreneurs, Melissa Pickering, is founder of iCreate to Educate, a local Boston startup aimed at empowering students to blend the arts and sciences with hands-on learning. An impressive background as a mechanical engineer at Disney Imagineering, Melissa harnessed her experiences to fan the flames of passion for STEM in the future innovators of America: K-12 kids. (View some of the stop-motion films students have created with tools iCreate to Educate provides.)
1. Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I am the founder/CEO of iCreate to Educate, a small learning company in Boston that engages kids with simple tools to blend hands-on exploration with digital creativity. I’ve built up the company for three years to unleash the imaginations of kids in both homes and classrooms around the world.
2. Can you take us back to your “eureka!” moment—a particular instance or event that got you interested in technology?
I first became interested in technology through my half-credit intro to mechanical engineering course as a freshman in college. We were exposed to and challenged to create various types of robots out of LEGO MINDSTORMS, programming them with the computer to achieve certain tasks such as walking or picking up objects. From that point on I started becoming heavily involved in leading similar activities in local K12 classrooms, recognizing the skill-sets each student (elementary or university level) could gain from the integration of technology into the core curriculum.
3. Growing up, did you have any preconceived perceptions of the tech world and the kinds of people who lived in it?
Growing up I was generally exposed to the engineering and tech worlds because my dad was an engineer and my younger brother was always taking apart and rebuilding computers. I definitely had more of an understanding of the hardware side of technology than the software side, so really only thought about the physical applications of technology rather than the digital, just because I wasn’t exposed to that side on an application level.
4. As founder of iCreate, what led you to this career path? When did you first start working with tech? Was it by choice?
Starting out as a mechanical engineer at Disney Imagineering, I began working with tech right away. However, even at a place like Imagineering, I noticed there definitely weren’t a lot of other females or the younger generation entering the fields of engineering. I started thinking back to my college days of working in the classrooms with LEGO robotics and other hands-on technologies for the K-12 classroom and realized it was experiences like those that could give access to more students entering the technology fields. This drove me to eventually launch iCreate, and I’ve never turned back!
5. Did you experience any personal or systemic setbacks at any point of your academic or professional career?
I grew up in a small, rural Montana town so didn’t have access to a lot of the academic opportunities that I had wanted or would have been involved in if I lived in a more populated area. This definitely made it tough as I went into college, where many of the intro to math and science classes were all new to me, but repetitive for the majority of my colleagues. Ironically, though, I braced myself so much for the setback that I worked extremely hard and performed far better than most of my colleagues.
6. Whom do you look to as mentors and/or sources of inspiration?
Successful entrepreneurs that build strong revenue-generated businesses from innovative product offerings inspire me. I also bring mentors around me who challenge my thinking, in a good way. I’ve met these mentors through the incubator I went through with iCreate, at former jobs, and through networking. Anyone who understands the integrity it takes to not simply build a website or product, but to truly build a business, inspire me.
7. Can you tell us a little about iCreate? The inspiration behind it and the goals of the organization, the workshops and educational tools you provide?
iCreate was born out of my passion to excite and engage kids at an early age in problem-solving and creative thinking. I was fortunate enough to have access to many different types of K-12 technology and curricula under research and development at Tufts University, and discovered a project that really had both inspirational and commercial potential. This project was known as SAM Animation, and through the launch of iCreate we were able to build out the prototype into a viable product for integration into the K-12 school curriculum. Since that initial launch mid-2010, we have focused on continuing to provide simple tools that put students at the center of learning through creation. Our goals are to have every child, whether at home or in the classroom, have an opportunity to be engaged to drive their own learning.
8. Why is getting women and young girls involved with technology and the computer sciences important to you?
As I mentioned before, with a background in mechanical engineering and experience working at both a defense contractor and roller-coaster design company, I have always been one of the few women in my career. From my experiences in design meetings and general brainstorming sessions, I think it’s really important to have balanced perspectives in the room, and this is why we need more women in these fields. The ways women think about things and ask questions can bring a rich dynamic to the design table.
9. Do you have any suggestions for how to get more girls interested in computers and computer science?
I think that showing the integration of these fields with the arts and humanities is an important first step in engaging more girls. Subject areas are not naturally in silos, even though that’s how and what we are taught in school. Giving girls opportunities at an early age to understand the design, aesthetics, finances, consumer behavior (the list goes on) can be integrated with computer science arenas is a first step. For example, our software and app at iCreate do a great job of integrating the arts and sciences.
10. Do you have anything to add that you haven’t had a chance to mention?
One of the best things I did was leave a “real job” and launch iCreate. While entrepreneurship is tough, finding what it is that you’re truly passionate about and that is rewarding is something that doesn’t just happen in college or even right after college. I’m so thankful I founded iCreate. However, it’s good to not force what that particular thing, as it will come, and when it does, it will be worth waiting for!