Julia O’Toole of LookiiMedia: Mixing technology and altruism

Lookiimedia is working on an app to encourage young women to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) careers.

Julia O’Toole melds her interest in maths, design and neuroscience to create software packages that are easy and enjoyable to use.

“Each product is an answer to specific needs and pain points that I have experienced myself,” says the founder and head of product of digital agency LookiiMedia.

O’Toole is also pioneering a business model that she says “is the right thing to do” for technology companies.

For every three commercial projects, Lookii commits to building a social app that is made available for free.

“I am a believer that technology should be for good,” says French national O’Toole, during a recent visit to Auckland. O’Toole lives in London with her Kiwi husband and their three sons and joins them on an annual trek down under.

Technology has a big role to fill in society, she says, but at the same time, companies also have to make money as well.

Thus, for Lookii, “The best way to do it is to launch commercial apps then give back to society through social apps.”

With a range of commercial projects in the pipeline at the company, including apps for password retrieval and team messenger, O’Toole is working on an app' to encourage young women to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) careers.

Photo by Divina Paredes

I am a believer that technology should be for goodJulia O'Toole, Lookiimedia

The STEM related app has a project name of Giniloka.

“It may not be the end product name, but it sounds like a girl’s name,” she says.

The app is targeting girls aged 10 to 12.

This age is crucial, she explains. Before the age of 10, girls see being good at maths and sciences as normal. But between 10 and 12, she says, “society kind of separates them from the boys on the areas they can excel.”

“That is the kind of age where you need to hold their hands tight,” she says, in steering them into STEM courses.

She says several studies indicate up to the ages of 10 and 12, girls are as interested in STEM as boys.

“But by the time they are 15, they are interested in other fields,” she says.

There is nothing wrong with going into careers outside STEM, she says, “but we are missing out on the potential of a whole bunch of girls who can give so much, because they never took up the opportunity to go into STEM.”

O’Toole shares the findings of the report by the Girl Scout Research Institute on; Generation STEM: What girls say about science, technology, engineering and math.

The research shows there are several cultural, social and individual factors preventing more girls and women from entering and having careers in STEM.

“The subtleties of society and culture reflect the stereotype that girls are not good at or suited for math and science, and unconsciously discourage girls,” according to the report.

For example, it says experts in STEM education observed how mothers interact with their children in science museums. The mothers encourage their sons more than their daughters to engage in hands-on activities in these museums.

But regardless of teenage girls’ interest in STEM, other factors hold them back, the report states. It finds nearly half (47 per cent) of girls say they would feel uncomfortable being the only girl in a group or class. More than half (57 per cent) of all girls say if they went into a STEM career, they would have to work harder than their male colleagues just to be taken seriously.

“It is quite possible these negative associations create barriers that keep girls from making STEM careers their top choices,” the report states. “As long as these stereotypes and barriers persist, they will likely impact whether girls ultimately consider STEM fields as viable options for their futures. Girls will continue to feed into these barriers or choose to fight them.

“This is society’s problem,” says O’Toole, on the report’s findings.

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Each product is an answer to specific needs and pain points that I have experienced myselfJulia O'Toole, LookiiMedia

Obsession with STEM

O’Toole hopes that with Giniloka, she can help develop the girls to be “full of confidence to want to continue in this field”.

The app will have three levels. The first level will provide “easy brain exercises”, and the girls have to complete exercises to go to the next levels.

She says the exercises can be around maths and physics, and involve real life challenges.

“At the end of the day, there is a ranking for accuracy and speed,” says O’Toole.

“For girls who are competitive in different fields, you can leverage that competitiveness.

“They are not competing to have the best dress, but to be the fastest and most accurate in answering questions to get status.

“Girls love competition and to be part of a community. They will be recognised for their work and intelligence and gain status or bonus points.

“I want girls to be obsessed with STEM,” she says.

“My dream scenario is to have professors and experts contribute to the exercises.”

She says these could include people writing popular science books, or teachers who may not be famous “but are doing a lot of good work with girls in that age group”.

Thinking differently - and ahead

O’Toole's educational background is critical as to why she thinks differently from other technology entrepreneurs.

She says her education in France put a lot of emphasis on maths and sciences, with a broad culture across social subjects and the arts.

Her first degree was in applied mathematics at Universit? Paris Dauphine, while her second degree was business administration at ESCP Europe.

She joined Boston Consulting Group for two years as an associate consultant. She then became founder and CEO of Tara Moor, a French luxury jewellery brand, following in the footsteps of her parents who owned a chain of jewellery stores.

I want girls to be obsessed with STEMJulia O'Toole, Lookiimedia

She was hands-on in the business, working in areas spanning from jewellery design, public relations to retail.

Over the past five years, she has been using neuroscience in technology. While her formal training was in maths, she says she is a “self learner” when it comes to neuroscience.

O’Toole believes her approach to interspersing commercial and socially orientated apps should be a normal way of doing business.

“The business model I have in mind is to make the app free, but to get technology companies to sponsor programmes for girls in developing nations who do not have access to education,” she states.

“As we move along, you see the economy of a lot of countries can not sustain social programmes,” she states. “Private individuals should do more for the community.

“If I think about technology in its [current] cycle, I compare it with the industrial revolution. We are still in its infancy. At the beginning, everybody is trying technology, it feels like the gold rush.”

“For geeks, it is all about technologies, developing products from geeks to geeks,” she says. “At the moment, the broader public only uses a few things that are useful. Technology can do so much more.

Julia O’Toole believes her approach of interspersing commercial and socially orientated apps should be a normal way of doing business.

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