Mary Carty sees a bright future in young STEM entrepreneurs

24 Jun 2016

Mary Carty, co-founder, Outbox Incubator. Photo by Luke Maxwell

Inspirefest speaker Mary Carty believes great ideas can come from anywhere, which is why she’s backing innovative youngsters.

In April last year, Mary Carty was in a room with Britain’s Princess Royal launching a joint venture with Stemettes founder Anne-Marie Imafidon, and what had started her on the journey to this moment was a simple tweet.

Backtrack to three years beforehand and Carty had merely started a conversation with Imafidon on Twitter. Over time, their back-and-forth of 140 characters or less turned into ideas, and the two women started to construct Outbox Incubator, details of which were revealed at Inspirefest 2015.

Future Human

Inspirefest 2016

Launched in 2015 with Princess Anne and Irish sci-tech teen sensations Ciara Judge and Émer Hickey, Outbox Incubator set about tackling the STEM pipeline issue by inviting young women to engage with these sectors through entrepreneurship. That summer, over 100 young women entered the Outbox Incubator house in London during the course of the six-week programme, and they emerged armed with the kind of skills, advice and mentoring even seasoned entrepreneurs would pay dearly for.

Learning to teach

Mentoring and guidance seems like a natural progression on Carty’s career path. She first worked in the arts and began her professional journey as a teacher before becoming CEO of Spoiltchild, an award-winning design agency.

“We built a lot of products – SaaS products particularly. Built them, scaled them and sold them,” she neatly summed up.

Carty was also co-founder of Toddle, an email marketing platform for small businesses that sold in 2013, and, in 2010, co-founded BizCamp BizCamp, an unconference for entrepreneurs.

That combination of teaching, community-building and entrepreneurship has resulted in numerous stints as a mentor and lecturer for Carty, who is full of practical words of wisdom for budding start-ups.

“In the very beginning, I genuinely tell them, like an actor or a writer, work on the craft,” she said, with great emphasis. “You get a really good product that people want. After that, who knows? If the product is strong enough, and you’ve got a strong enough team, and as a leader you’re a good leader, and you bring people in and build a good team around you, anything’s possible.

“To understand what you have is the most important thing, and not to get sidetracked by all the other crazy stuff that goes on. Work on the craft, work on the product, work on the team, work on yourself.”

‘Work on the craft, work on the product, work on the team, work on yourself’

With the experience she has, Carty knows how to lead, guide and give room for growth when necessary. She also knows the importance of getting back on the horse – quite literally, in that, when I met with her last year, she had lived the experience following a horse-riding accident.

From her teaching days, she learned very early on that listening is the most important skill for a mentor to have. “I always learned more than I taught, I felt,” she said. “If you don’t listen really carefully to the problems that a person has and you jump with advice too early, it’s no good. You haven’t gained real empathy for the problem or the person.”

Additionally, when it comes to tackling those problems, Carty believes mentors need to know when to stand back.

“You can get so stuck in operations – that’s not your job,” she said. “The best lesson is to stand back and let that team take up that problem and sort it themselves, and then learn from that and be proud of it.”

Serving the greater good

As well as Outbox Incubator, Carty helps students become innovators and entrepreneurs as executive director of NUI Galway Blackstone Launchpad, which sees her working once again with 2015 Outbox Executive Edel Browne as entrepreneur-in-residence.

At Outbox and now at NUI Galway, Browne has been developing what began as a BT Young Scientist project to tackle gait-freezing in Parkinson’s patients. The device she has built attaches to the patient’s shoe and shines a guiding light in front of the foot.

“She’s tested that and by using this wearable, this device, the gait-freezing problem is solved by 40pc,” said Carty. “That’s huge in someone’s life. To give someone the confidence to go out and navigate the world like they did beforehand is pretty incredible.”

‘I’m really hopeful and I think that this generation of young women are strong and independent and want to do something really important for the world’

Unsurprisingly to Carty, many of the projects that came through Outbox Incubator tackled real problems. “Some of the projects have to do with sustainability and food security, internet of things, wearables – anything to do with making life better for people, environment and place, and that was a very interesting thing,” she said.

“We didn’t set out to have any particular genre of creativity or start-ups included, that wasn’t the idea. The girls brought their ideas to Outbox themselves and, as it happens, a lot of those ideas serve the greater good, and I don’t think that’s unusual. I think a lot of young people do think about the greater good, and the future, and sustainability, and loneliness, and homelessness and lots of these things that they’re passionate about.”

Though she is constantly labelled as one herself, Carty does not count herself as a social entrepreneur.

“I don’t call myself a social entrepreneur at all. I guess I don’t identify as that,” she said.

“I identify as an entrepreneur – somebody who solves problems – and I think social entrepreneurship is a really interesting part of entrepreneurship in that you look at the greater good and you put those funds back in. I think that’s a really nice balance. For me, an entrepreneur, or entrepreneurship, is deeply involved in solving problems, whatever they might be.”

Inclusive entrepreneurship

The tech space is filled with young upstarts hoping to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, and you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that entrepreneurs are getting younger every day. In Ireland alone we’re building a long list of youthful entrepreneurs (there’s the aforementioned Browne, Judge and Hickey for starters, plus Niamh Scanlon, Harry McCann, Jordan Casey and 10-year-old Lauren Boyle) and even some of our greatest successes started at a young age. CoderDojo, for example, is a global organisation that was co-founded in Cork by then-teenager James Whelton.

“I think there is a lot more notice taken about what people are doing right now, and a lot more understanding that an idea from two young boys down in Limerick or Tipperary can suddenly become Stripe in a couple of years,” said Carty.

“We’re waking up to the fact that age doesn’t bring wisdom. That innovation doesn’t come from one quarter only. That innovation and good ideas can come from anybody at any stage. And, if anything, we have to look at everyone, everyone’s voice, and we need to include everyone, whoever you are and whatever age you’re at. I’m really passionate about that idea. It’s very easy to exclude. We need to open up and let people in.”

‘It’s very easy to exclude. We need to open up and let people in’

The trials and tribulations of entrepreneurship are not for the faint-hearted and some might say this is an unsuitable path to set upon while still navigating your way into adulthood, but Carty believes problem-solvers should be encouraged at all ages. Better still, we have the opportunity to teach young people a better kind of STEM entrepreneurship, one that is not hampered by the gender imbalance of its predecessor.

“I’m really optimisitic,” said Carty. “To see 115 young women on that programme over the summer from every type of background, different languages, different countries, different ideas – [it was] absolutely thrilling. I’m just so proud that I had part of it. And I think that if there’s 115 girls who could do that programme [in 2015], there are many, many others in the world who could do just the same.

“I’m really hopeful and I think that this generation of young women are strong and independent and want to do something really important for the world. So it’s up to us to support and help them.”

Citing other movements likes Dr Sue Black’s Techmums, which educates women in digital skills in order to spread that knowledge through a community, Carty added, “I think it’s part of a wider push right now and I think we’re in a good place. We just have to keep shouting and pushing.”

Watch the full interview with Mary Carty:

Mary Carty and a new cohort of Outbox Incubator participants will be on-stage at Inspirefest, Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Book your tickets now to join us from 30 June to 2 July 2016 for fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity.

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic