Age matters, but why should it be a barrier?

Over time, I am fortunate to have found a group of people and organisations that can help me now so we don’t have to wait until I’m a certain age.

It’s been a few years now that I’ve been developing the pin badge. Recently though, my age has come up in a couple of conversations about my work, so it feels like a good time to write about experiences and talk about how it has affected the direction of my plans.

Sensor development and Bridging the Gap

I chatted about my progress to the team at Graphene@Manchester in January and it got turned into this blogpost. The surprising thing that came out was me thanking them for always working with me as ‘Ava’ and my work ideas, rarely mentioning my age. I have to remind them of how old I am at times, but other than that it’s not talked about as we move through the roadmap and my own training. It was a surprise for them to hear that not everyone can support young people in the same way. Bridging the Gap is a programme for SMEs that has made a difference to my work and helped me to make progress with the roadmap as we completed phase one in December 2021.

Galileo Masters and incubator programme

The other instance when age became a factor recently was in the final judging round for Galileo Masters. Being incorporated, I’d taken my submission through to winning the UK Challenge and then got invited to more judging for the Galileo Incubation programme. The team were so accommodating to guide me through the process with sensitivity when they realised how old I was.

Things like scheduling interviews and judging early in the morning with the help of the CET time zone made a difference, so that I didn’t miss school lessons or maybe just a little bit of registration time. Some mornings were a bit bizarre, like fielding questions from 30 judges across Europe and then getting into school before first lesson – for my form teacher to tell me not to make a habit of it!! Having confidence in me like that, that he actually thinks it could happen again, also matters! Just being flexible really, and helping me to access the full programme. Adults have other commitments that they need to move around, right?

I struggled to prepare for my final pitch because I worried about making the most of the opportunity if I got through. What I’ve learnt from others in a similar situation to me is that we often need to put together our own programme of training and support, so being clear with goals and ways of working is super important. James Baker has a really nice way of saying that to people he works with through Graphene@Manchester with saying to “make your own luck”.

So here’s part of my introduction after I’d met with Paul Bhatia from GRACE at the University of Nottingham and knew that they could work with me throughout 2022. I led with my age, definitely a nerve wracking first for me, but after a lot of practice it seems like I said what I felt I needed to say with some conviction.

“Today I’m asking you, as judges, to believe in me once more and support me as I take my start-up forward again into a scalable and commercial venture. It’s timely now to mention my age. A first for me during this Galileo programme. As I share details about the partners and advocates that I’m working with, gaining traction over the last 3 years, it might NOT be obvious that their flexibility has been key to my successes. They all understand that flexibility is crucial when working with me as a teenager. Not everybody does!!!!”

It worked! Selected as one of the 6 companies on the programme across Europe and with my first choice incubator partner to embed GNSS into my design. This was huge for me after winning SatelLife back in July 2020. I hadn’t been able to access other spaces-based initiatives, to do what I needed to do, because of my age. Funding tied to office rental space as well as technical support is a no-go when I need to be in school over 70 miles away, but I am grateful for the coaching conversations I’ve had along the way. I’ve learnt that networks are really important and being introduced to different ones in the space sector has been really useful. Back to sensor development, I was welcomed into the Graphene Flagship and as my first experience of being in a network, I know how much it has helped me.

Technology considerations

Starting out with entrepreneurial support after incorporating Perfect Sense AQ, I learnt a lot about leading a startup from a brilliant mentor in Leeds. Her support guided me through the same things that she helps other SMEs with and one area that we looked at was technology and data integration.

Since April 2021 I’ve taken the opportunity to learn about what we identified, and more, with support from different teams at Dell Technologies UK. This is about training and helping me to move from school and self-taught programming and digital tools to what’s used in commercial settings. And that’s been hard at my age in the technology field, so I’ve saved the most challenging of barriers until last for this blogpost.

It took Dayne Turbitt half an hour to put the first steps in place to help me with what I needed at the time. From that I’ve worked with a great team including engineers who can show me how to make a difference in my own work. We’ve made the most of Microsoft Power Apps, which comes free with my school 0365 account, to look at commercial use cases and taken on network architecture and cyber security. We’ve also done wonderful things with presentation techniques in remote meetings with VR and design using PowerPoint – I presented with what I’ve learnt, and talked about progress with designs, in the Galileo judging rounds. Next, we’re linking together my contribution at COP26 with future steps for Perfect Sense AQ, to look at green tech solutions and sustainability.

I’m fortunate to have the chance to learn this way. Beforehand, I’d experienced a glass ceiling with age that I couldn’t break through and that was a trigger to look again for an organisation that could help me at that time, and not a few years into the future. I’d been rejected because of my age for a technology programme with another company when age wasn’t mentioned in the eligibility criteria and I’ve even been asked to get some mates to join me so another organisation could help us as a team. I rejected that offer and came away with more of an understanding of challenges for young people to access what they need. Things do get easier at 16 when bootcamps and online courses start to open up, and that’s something else to think about when you’ve got a summer birthday like me and we want to get started straight away!

Finally

I’ve learnt from it all, and the different directions it’s taken me to find exactly what I need to make progress. There is support for people like me with an idea, a product and a business plan, but it’s sometimes harder to find straight away. I’ve also become more aware of others in the same situation, with tech-enabled entrepreneurship in my friendship group. Age doesn’t have to be a barrier and one day soon I hope it’s easier for everyone with a plan to find their way. For now, I’m grateful I’ve got the support around me from people who know how to help me today and will continue to learn and network with other entrepreneurs, whatever their age.

Header image by @slidebean on Unsplash

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