Sophie Deen featured

Inspirational Woman: Sophie Deen | Founder, Bright Little Labs

 

Sophie is a former lawyer, techie and school counsellor, she is the founder of Bright Little Labs - a media startup on a mission to create Sesame Street for a digital age.

Starting her career in law (Herbert Smith), Deen worked on internet strategy for regulators worldwide (SamKnows), learning about the transformative possibilities of technology and the growing digital divide. Deen also volunteered as a play therapist in a London primary school and this experience led her to pursue a career in edtech. She then joined Code Club, and worked with Google and the Department for Education, to devise a nationwide CPD training programme for primary school teachers in the new computing curriculum. She also worked on Code Club’s international strategy in over 80 countries.

Her first story, Detective Dot, is about a nine-year-old coder and agent for the CIA (Children’s Intelligence Agency). The idea is to help teach kids - especially girls and underrepresented groups - to code. Detective Dot provides a low-fi and accessible route into coding by using stories. Starting as a Kickstarter, it’s now in 30 countries, with Cabinet Office backing. She has a 3-book deal with Walker Books and Detective Dot has been named the Best Coding Toy in the UK by the Independent (against amazing competitors like Lego and Hasbro). Later in 2018 they are launching curriculum in 22,000 schools with the support of EDF Energy. Detective Dot. Sophie is now creating an interactive world to edutain - games, animations and on-demand content.

A regular speaker at conferences on technology and education, the empowerment of women, and social impact, Deen also consults on all things edutech, including how to communicate tough concepts to a tough audience (kids under 12!) and teaching children to code.

Deen encourages women into technology through outreach work and has been awarded Start-up Founder of the Year by FDM Everywoman, EDF's Pulse Award for inspiring children into STEM, and named as one of Computer Weekly's 'Most influential women in UK IT' 2016 & 2017.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

My unlikely mix of experiences working as a lawyer, techie, and primary school counsellor inspired me to set up Bright Little Labs - a media startup on a mission to create Sesame Street for a digital age. Sesame Street was amazing - it was accessible to kids from all backgrounds (in its heyday, it reached 98% of US families). Kids who watched it achieved the same standards in numeracy and literacy as they would in pre-school, at a fraction of the price ($5 per child, compared to pre-school which was $7,000). I believe digital skills are as important in this digital age as reading and writing, and that we need to create ways to make it accessible to all kids.

In my most recent role, at Code club, alongside Google and the Department For Education, I helped to introduce the new coding curriculum in schools.. That’s when I first started thinking that a narrative led approach to digital skills would be really cool. I love cartoons and stories, and believe wholeheartedly in the power of creativity, toilet humour and stories to inspire the next generation.

With that in mind, I launched our first story on Kickstarter. It’s about Detective Dot, a nine-year-old coder and agent for the CIA (Children’s Intelligence Agency). The idea is to help teach kids - especially girls and underrepresented groups - to code, and it’s working! Starting as a book and a kids club, Dot has reached over 30 countries, has Cabinet Office backing, and is launching in 22,000 schools later this year with the support of EDF Energy.

Bright Little Labs is widely recognised for its story-led approach to 21st Century skills (recipient of EDF Stem Pulse Award 2017, named ‘Top Coding Toy for Kids’ by The Independent in 2017 and the Evening Standard in 2018). I’ve had a lot of support along the way too. I was named one of Computer Weekly's 'Most influential women in UK IT' 2017, Barclays/Everywoman ‘Startup Founder of the Year’ 2017, the British Interactive Media Association's ‘Innovator’ in 2017 and London Tech Week ‘Changemaker’ in 2018 for my work to inspire children into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). As well as making my mum happy, the recognition has really helped us to open doors and grow the company, and it’s also so encouraging to see so many people get behind our social mission.

We’re now building an interactive world for kids to enjoy - games, animations and on-demand content.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No! I never imagined myself running a children’s media start up when I graduated from University. I was always running into trouble at school and rarely attended lectures at University. I was going to be a lawyer - I’m a from a third-generation East London family, and my brother and I were the first to go to University so it was a big deal. Becoming a doctor, accountant or lawyer was the holy grail and I didn’t really question that until later on. I’d never even heard of engineering or considered a creative path - we didn’t know any engineers, artists or writers.

That said, I am very lucky to have supportive parents and they’ve backed my many career moves. After I left law, I retrained as a child psychologist, and started working for a technology start-up. We helped governments all over the world monitor their countries’ internet performance: I worked in America, Europe, Brazil, and Singapore That’s when I became really interested in technology. It made me think about what it means for these countries and the people living in them to have access to the internet - and what it means for those who don’t. The digital divide is exacerbating existing inequalities and I wanted to do something to address that.

My next move was to Code Club, to help introduce the computer science curriculum in primary schools in the UK. This married my passion for kids and education with my love of tech. One sleepless night while I was still at Code Club, I came up with Detective Dot, and the ball has been rolling and gaining in momentum ever since - and is usually way in front of me. So while I’m extremely happy to be in my position now, I never set out to run a media company, or work in a startup.

Have you faced any particular challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?

It might sounds obvious, but doing something for the first time is really challenging. I’ve worked in tech and with kids, but building a global media company is brand new to me, and so is being the CEO. I’m learning about the industry as I go along and often feel like the new kid on the block. Fortunately we are backed by Turner (which owns Cartoon Network - SWOON), have a very strong team, experienced advisors, and a lot of grit. What we don’t know, we learn, and we don’t mind failing because we just dust ourselves off. It works to our advantage too. Being a blank canvas means that we can approach problems without any preconceptions about what can or should be done, so we’re reshaping what a media company looks like in 2018. We apply the principles behind building good technology across the wider business. That means we’re iterative, agile, and user focused. It also means we make plenty of mistakes, but we value progress over perfection!

If you could change one thing for women in the workplace, what would it be?

Harassment takes on many subtle shapes and forms. I think we need to work on how we deal with the less obvious forms of harassment. I’ve seen so many women struggle with insidious or snide comments and behaviours that are subtle and nuanced. That’s what culture is - it’s in the detail. The onus is so often put on women to recognise and report incidents that make them feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or compromised; and whether we like it or not a woman has to then weigh up the consequences on her own career or bringing something up. Often we are made to doubt ourselves - we’re made to believe we are over-sensitive or imagine things. I think if we educate everyone to spot the signs and to take action too it would help make the workplace more inclusive and welcoming for everyone.

However, if I could do one thing tomorrow, I’d change maternity law and force parental leave to be shared equally, like in Iceland and Norway. I think this is great for the child, and great for equal opportunities at work too.

I’m not sure if this is the silver bullet. There’s no one size fits all and any moves to improve equality for men and women are welcome!

How would you encourage more young girls and women into a career in STEM?

Girls are intrinsically as curious about the world as boys - science, technology, engineering and maths are all disciplines which seek to understand and to build the world around us. But girls are conditioned over time to think that STEM is not for them. I think media portrayal is the biggest issue - the images and language we are exposed to in movies, on TV, in adverts, in the way kids toys are marketed (science kits for boys, toy kitchen for girls). This filters down into the classroom and in the home and serves to perpetuate negative stereotypes around gender. The underlying message is that STEM is for for boys - it’s not ‘feminine’ or ‘normal’ for girls to like science. Stereotypes are set early on: research has shown that by the time kids are 8, they think science is ‘more for boys’.

At Bright Little Labs we make stories so ALL children can imagine themselves in a STEM career. We use positive and diverse role models so children can see themselves in a range of careers.

The issue with STEM education is wider than gender. There’s too much emphasis on memorising facts, and insufficient focus on encouraging enquiry and inquisitiveness in the classroom. Science is all about discovery - creating and creativity is a skill. At the moment, STEM education can feel like an exam factory with the sole purpose of getting into University. We need more creative approaches to teaching STEM.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

Mentoring has played a huge part in my life and helped me in all sorts of ways. Starting with my parents, who remain my biggest mentors, I’ve been privileged to have had mentoring at every step of the way in Bright Little Labs. My mentors have helped me navigate a new industry, new responsibilities, and emotional difficulties around starting a business too (it’s really hard and can be very lonely!).

I also mentor people, from children in a local school to other startup founders at the start of their journey.

It’s a real privilege to work with my mentors and mentees and I would encourage everyone to get involved. You don’t need to be working in a startup, everyone can benefit from a mentor. Find someone you admire either at your own company or in the wider world and reach out to them and explain what you want. Be clear about what you expect (e.g. a meeting every quarter with a clear agenda) and pay it forward - mentor other people too.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Signing a deal with Turner (who own Cartoon Network)! Our dream to positively challenge stereotypes and make 21st century skills mainstream through an accessible medium is within reach.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

Our next challenge will be expanding our small but passionate team. Team is everything, so building the right and creating the right culture is our most important task and it takes time. We’re committed to finding people who care about our mission, and we value diversity and smart people over experience and qualifications. Currently we’re looking to hire developers, creatives and operational people. We offer a fun and inclusive environment and it’s a really exciting stage for the business.

Looking ahead we’re focused on developing our core IP and developing our interactive platform to bring our spy-world to life. We are building a world for kids that exists wherever they are, whether it’s on a tablet, TV, in their back garden, the supermarket, or at a live event. Going forward, the investment lays the foundation for further leverage across Turner’s wider animation, licensing and merchandising portfolio, and we’re looking forward to scaling operations globally.