Yuka Nagashima: ‘Girls weren’t born hating science’

15 Jun 2018

Yuka Nagashima, member of the Astia global advisory board. Image: Astia

Teacher, entrepreneur and Astia adviser Yuka Nagashima warns that even in tackling diversity, we must not allow hierarchies to develop. She talks to John Kennedy.

“Women entrepreneurs do not need to be fixed. We are not broken.”

There are rare moments in a writer’s career where something happens and it seems that time itself has stopped and the air feels electric. That moment was a year ago at Inspirefest 2017 when the moderator of a panel discussion on women entrepreneurs navigating the world of venture capital simply called it.

‘I think that what we encountered last year was chaos in terms of the fact that #MeToo had not happened yet but all of the underpinnings of an insurgence about to occur were there’

Future Human

No one asked Yuka Nagashima to say that. She simply said what many in the room felt but were not saying, and the air crackled and fissured with agreement and expectation.

It is a lamentable truth that women founders and CEOs encounter more hurdles than their male counterparts – be it in Silicon Valley or elsewhere – in persuading investors to back their ideas. Less than 7pc of investment in Silicon Valley goes to women-led companies and a corresponding number of partners at VC firms in the region are women. It gets worse when it comes to minorities, with less than 0.1pc of funding going to black women founders.

“I really felt heard, thank you,” Nagashima said ahead of her appearance at Inspirefest 2018 next week.

At the time, Nagashima was Astia’s president, in charge of its entrepreneurship programme. She has since retired from the organisation but remains on its global advisory board.

Astia and its investment arm, Astia Angels, are endeavouring to counter the general issue at the heart of the tech industry, and in Silicon Valley in particular: that very little investment goes to women or minorities.

Astia has participated in a total of 67 investments in 46 companies, and last year announced its first exit with the acquisition of Ciel Medical by Vyaire.

Born in Japan, and educated in Canada and the US, Nagashima taught and created the science curriculum at Punahou Academy, and was a co-founder of LavaNet, one of Hawaii’s first internet service providers, before she led Hawaii’s innovation efforts as the executive director of the High Technology Development Corporation for seven years.

“I have had a very non-linear career path that doesn’t make sense to a lot of people,” said Nagashima who studied at the same college as Steve Jobs, Reed College.

Thinking logically

A scientific and rational mind is the reason why Nagashima does most things the way she does, and why she went from being a teacher to an entrepreneur to a government adviser at various stages of her career.

While teaching in Hawaii, she was perturbed by the small number of girls taking physics as a subject in school and effectively wrote a new curriculum to give all students, boys and girls, a good grounding in physics, biology and chemistry.

“I was born and raised in Japan but left Japan aged 11 to go to boarding school in Canada because I wanted to learn English.

“I was always interested in asking the bigger questions and I would use those questions to frame my thinking and pursue what I wanted to know and what I believed the world wanted to let me know. I use physics like a language in the same way we use words to frame our thoughts. Writing is not only a way to frame thoughts but a process to improve your thoughts. In the same way to me, physics was naturally where I went to problem-solve and reduce problems down to the essence of things.

“I like chaos but I want to get in there and make sense of things.”

Making order out of chaos

Nagashima explained that her comment – “women are not broken” – was driven by the very process of trying to make sense of things that were happening in Silicon Valley and the debate about investment that was about to unfold.

“I think that what we encountered last year was chaos in terms of the fact that #MeToo had not happened yet but all of the underpinnings of an insurgence about to occur were there. It would be an insurgence because it was by victimised women who were victims of gender power play, the power gradients between people who had money versus people asking for money, and a very narrow Silicon Valley culture, which is very provincial when you think about it.

“Silicon Valley’s structure is being touted as a kind of gold standard for the capitalist world to follow. But yet, when you look at the methodologies and the way things are done and how a small group of powerful people know each other, it is very provincial.”

This provincial mindset is the cause of chaos for many people, especially women, just trying to build companies or do their jobs. It is as true for Silicon Valley as it is for Hollywood and elsewhere.

“Any time that level of impact occurs where people affected are not just a minority but 50pc of the population, whether we were affected directly through physical or sexual abuse or indirectly, it is obvious that they were exploited because of their gender. When something like that happens, it is hard for the rest of society to not be affected.

“I think, in our space, in the entrepreneurship area where it is the system that we need to fix, not the women, similar sentiments apply because there is an inherent power gradient similar to that between a movie producer and an actor. Who has the power and how do people work in that structure that the power moguls have established?

“I think there is definitely that application and translation.”

Trust your curiosity

Returning to her days in Hawaii and her decision to take a logical and proactive approach to encouraging more girls to study science in school, Nagashima said that all students should be allowed to follow the innate curiosity they were born with.

“People are born not hating. Girls weren’t born not liking physics. We all have this natural curiosity where as toddlers we investigated and explored, and I tied that curiosity with storytelling, which is also an element of what drives us as communicative beings.

“And so, I decided to not just teach biology, chemistry and physics, but I wanted boys and girls to experience science again as a way to look at the world, and it is a very useful lens to have for further investigation about themselves, their psyche or the world around them.

“It was easy for me to craft an interwoven curriculum around where we are on Earth – how did we get here? The Big Bang theory is astronomy, how the Earth got formed is geology, and how come things went to the core and lighter things stayed up top? Well, that is gravity and physics.

“When you are a kid, you don’t need to know how those things are categorised, but if you allow them to follow their natural curiosity and not tell them where chemistry starts and ends but just teach the concepts in that, then they are naturally learning all of the sciences.”

She continued: “Girls are not born hating science, but the American curriculum is such that you are taught biology in the first year of high school, chemistry the second, and usually by third year science is an option so most people don’t take it because of the stigma of being a nerd.

“By eliminating society’s taboo in the third year, I made it into a two-year curriculum and condensed it in order to teach biology, chemistry and physics in two years.

“I was being an entrepreneur as a teacher, underwrote it with grants, and inspired other teachers to teach it, too.”

For a better society

Nagashima’s entrepreneurial instincts also led her to forming one of the first internet service providers in Hawaii because she and her colleagues needed quality internet.

This nous and appreciation for entrepreneurship and a better society led her to a career in economic development and government advisory.

A time living in Denmark only served to inform Nagashima about the problems of the wider world and how inequalities exist even in some of the world’s most advanced economies and civilisations.

Eventually, she wound up in Silicon Valley where Sharon Vosmek invited her to work with Astia on the entrepreneurship programme.

“I’m still involved with Astia as part of the global advisory board.

“But now, I would like to dedicate my energies and resources to tackling diversity beyond gender.”

Pointing to the recent ban passed by Denmark on niqabs and burkas, Nagashima said systemic problems exist even in the wealthiest nations.

“If national wealth, education levels, and other privileges and resources still lead to racism, then what chance does the rest of the world have? And so, it really hit me hard.

“And, in all our fights, whether we are rooting for women or veterans or disabled people or whatever category, it is so easy to root for the most privileged of that group by default.

“What I am saying is that, even in trying to level the playing field for women entrepreneurs, if we are not mindful, we would end up helping to level the playing field for white women entrepreneurs because the white women in our community are the most privileged.”

Crucially, Nagashima believes that entrepreneurship is an opportunity to attempt to solve the wider problems of inequality and injustice.

“Entrepreneurship can be a great equaliser if it is done through meritocracy and people are not blocked by gender or economic barriers like education.

“I’m interested in the start-up ecosystem because this is a great experiment, a sector that could be the key to solving the larger systemic challenges we see in gender and racial injustice and the lack of diversity in the world.”

Yuka Nagashima will be speaking at Inspirefest, Silicon Republics international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Get your tickets now to join us in Dublin on 21 and 22 June 2018.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years