“The best way to predict the future is to create it”.Unverified
The origins of this saying have been speculated over- it has been attributed to Abraham Lincoln by many, but historians can’t confirm its accuracy. Dennis Gabor, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, wrote a variation of this in his book, as did consultant Peter Drucker. Perhaps it was coined by computer scientist, Alan Kay, in a speech he gave to eager Xerox executives. It’s a sentiment echoed through many generations, across industry, and is a trademark of leadership and cutting-edge innovation. Each of these men were pioneers of their industry, redefining the way we view their respective fields.
The consensus is that trying to keep up with trends is a losing battle. The effort to stay relevant is, perhaps, a fallacy; once we have caught up to the times, we find to our chagrin that they no longer exist. This weighs heavy on our minds at Thimble.io, as we’re educating future generations and preparing them for the workforce- a workforce on which we have no authority, as we can no more predict it than we can predict the future. So, the question becomes: what does the future of entrepreneurship hold for incoming generations? Maybe the best thing we can do, rather than teach students to fit in, is to instill confidence in our students to create their own reality, to ‘carve their own path’. Malcolm Forbes said it best: “Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one”.
In the fields of science, technology, and business, we know we cannot predict the future. We have entered an era of exponential advancement, yet we know that STEM is at the forefront of this. How can we help students take their STEM education into their own hands? In celebration of Global Entrepreneurship Week, we’re harnessing the spirit of passion and innovation (i.e. the entrepreneurial spirit). I sat down with Manjusha Tipre, entrepreneur and advisor on the board of Thimble.io, to hear her take on the intersection of entrepreneurship and a STEM education.
Where did your interest in STEM begin?
I was born in a very small village in India. I started my early education there. I wanted to be an engineer, I was fixed on that from the age of 6. It wasn’t the norm at that point in time for girls to go to engineering college. There were very few, but I was very much adamant on that. I studied quite hard. There were only a few government schools in India. My father was the only breadwinner of the house; we had a large family, he didn’t have the means to send me to a private school, so I was keen on getting into a government engineering college, which I did. In the infrastructure of these places in the early 90s, the exposure was low: no equipment, no computers to practice on, no good professors to teach you. It was a lot of self-study.
I graduated in 1992 in computer engineering. Computers were very new then. I wanted to pursue a career in that, but it was very hard to get a job in that area. It was mostly just data entry, the programming was very little, so I moved to Mumbai to search for jobs. I tried quite hard, it took me a long time, about a year or so to find a job. People would ask me, “hey you’re going to get married and have kids, so why would we recruit you?” I was battling all kinds of conceptions. I got a job in Aptech Computer Institute which was doing computer training for students. That was my first job. Based on that job, I got a job in an engineering college as a lecturer- I taught AI and machine learning in 1997. It was mostly a lot of theory, different models and algorithms of machine learning and AI, because we didn’t have access to powerful computers or data to prove our theories.
How has the industry changed in the past twenty years?
Technology is becoming the lifeline of every business. We’re unable to function if we don’t know the technology of the time. That impacts how each business is run. No more mundane data entry jobs; it’s all about processing, automating, and increasing efficiency. Because of that, STEM education is becoming extremely important whether you’re actually a coder or not, since understanding technology is pivotal to be able to do your job.
What does the future of STEM industries look like?
I think the need for the workforce to know STEM- whether you consider it in the hardware space or software- it’s only going to go up given the amount of automation and the amount of AI advancement. That puts a lot of pressure on the educational institutes to create relevant skill sets for their graduates. Whether we look at India or the US, outside of the metro areas, the rural education institutes have no infrastructure in place- labs, equipment, or teachers- that could teach these subjects. In our case, we didn’t hear about computers or programming until we entered college. These days it’s made available earlier. I believe there’s been a lot of progress in online education reaching the wider group of people, which is important in order to create a level playing field for people, in terms of skill sets. I believe that access to education should be a birthright for everyone.
How can we go about making it more accessible?
There are lots of online education sites that are available- Thimble.io is one of them- making STEM education accessible to places where there is no infrastructure. Having a curriculum, a learning management system, the ability to train teachers and help them monitor the progress of their students, and having that all online increases the access and the reach. These kinds of initiatives will become very important in democratizing access to the information that’s currently not available to many people- whether for monetary reasons or geographical reasons. That’s why I’m part of Thimble as an investor as well as an advisor.
What would you like to see taught in schools that isn’t currently?
STEM is an area which is close to my heart. I believe the exposure I got… even though I didn’t end up in the technical career, the mindset it gave me is important. I would certainly like some of the entrepreneurial skills to be taught in early stages of the educational ecosystem. Educational, social, as well confidence-building activities are the necessary skills in terms of figuring out: how does one get onto a particular track and not just compare their journey with everybody else around them? How do you build that confidence that everyone can have their own journey and have success in different points of life, and not feel left out?
I feel like everybody’s in so much of rat race, how many marks you get, what school you get into, as if all of that defines who you are as a person. This isn’t true- I think all of us have a lot more than those things. Everyone has their own journey, some people get it sooner, some people get it later. That’s missing in today’s education, for people to do things with a lot more love of learning rather than doing it for someone else.
What do you see as an alternative to the traditional structure of higher education?
I like self-paced learning because it gives you your own path and lots of creativity to explore what you really like, and the things you like you excel at. With something like Thimble.io, which caters to that self-paced education, some people can finish it in middle school or high school, and some people could take it further. There’s scope to continue it even beyond the classroom, whether you’re out of high school or college, since it gives you freedom to keep building things. It’s application-oriented, you see the direct results of what you’re building. That’s not the traditional classroom learning structure, it’s more tangible and I think that education works a lot better in terms of building interest over time.
I wanted to touch on something you mentioned at the beginning of the interview, how access to the kind of education you were seeking was made difficult by your gender. How might a self-paced education change this?
This is something very close to my heart. Having gone through all of this, I really had to be perseverant about my future, and I don’t know how many girls will be able to stand up to that societal pressure. I was lucky to have a progressive father, so that gave me a bit of confidence. Things have changed now, but I still believe the staggering amount of girls in the STEM field is concerning, so introducing it to them young and keeping that interest going would go a long way. It’s all changing at such a rapid pace that access is the more important part of it. Bringing everybody to the same playing field and giving them the relevant skill set, channeling the energy of the youth, making them employable- it’s a really good mission to have. I consider myself very proud to be part of this mission, and being able to make a difference in a few lives if I can would be very satisfying.
Necessity is the mother of invention.Plato
Another well-known saying: necessity is the mother of invention. It may also be the case that invention breeds necessity. The caliber of ideas which emerge from any given generation dictate what shows up in classrooms of future generations, the technologies that make up a workforce. Entrepreneurs can think of themselves as educators, with a responsibility to teach the world something that matters.
Oscar founded Thimble.io to address gaps that he found in the education system, and now our program is fostering future entrepreneurs who will find their own set of solutions to their own unique problems. They are not just creating their own futures, but they are for whom we seek to innovate. Manjusha had no resources to learn existing technologies, so, in the true spirit of entrepreneurship, she sought out her own solution. The passion within young girls to pursue an education in their chosen field breaks the mold. More important than any job they could get or any industry they might break into is their curiosity and desire to learn. We, students and educators, must inspire each other in our continued evolution.