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OMG Tech! – A Low-Decile Educational Charity Trojan Horsed as a Tech Startup

Duncan Greive watches the launch of OMG Tech!, a charity with the mentality of a startup, featuring a superhero using her power for good.

They came into the city just to be near her. So that, perhaps, some of her magic might rub off on them. Phil Goff knew his eternally unannounced mayoral campaign could one day require her help. Len Brown, still living with the corpse of his third term, felt that she might be key to reviving his fortunes. He conjured a “cyber pathway coming out of our schools” sounding every inch the well-meaning but confused uncle.

She didn’t just attract local politicians: a number of MPs had made the journey, and Nikki Kaye spoke ardently of the “potent cocktail” present only in “the greatest New Zealanders I have ever met”. Kaye was speaking about one woman, and one woman alone.

Doctor Michelle Dickinson. A scientist, writer and lecturer also known as Nanogirl – like a comic book superhero, walking amongst us. Dickinson has intelligence and charisma and a sense of motion; she infects minds and can bend anyone – politicians, broadcasters, CEOs – to her will. It is a great power, and she uses it responsibly. She watched the stage from the crowd, heard all the words, absorbed all the platitudes. And then took to the lectern herself.

Once there, she spoke very quickly. Not from nerves, I felt, but because she was in a hurry. She has a lot to do, and is somewhat impatient to get it all done. “Hold up your phones,” she told us, like a tech Taylor Swift. The whole crowd obeyed. “Keep them up if you know how the touch screen works.”

The phones go down – well, most do; there are devs in the crowd. “We use it,” she said, “but we don’t know how to read it or write it.”

A neat trick. She had the room. Spread across the vast atrium of Spark* City – the slightly grandiose but not entirely inaccurate (it has a Subway!) name for Spark’s headquarters – were, in addition to local and national politicians, an array of business leaders, each holding their institution’s cheque books. There were so many very important people that a big cheese like Theresa Gattung, the mercurial My Food Bag investor and former CEO of Telecom, as Spark was then known, was able to sit on a couch to one side and tinker with her phone, unmolested.

Dickinson’s star had gathered these luminaries here for a reason. A higher purpose. And, unlike many such gatherings, one of real worth. It was the grand launch of OMG Tech! A charity with an adolescent name attached to big grown up goals. The aim is to bring science and technology into low decile classrooms and make it dance in the minds of the kids who flow through them. So that one day they might become inventors and big dreamers, like her.

That is what drives Dickinson. Taking the power and cultural capital she has lately built up amongst the elite, and channeling it into something bigger, something which might change lives. Because the sad fact is that Dickinson, as a woman, was in a small minority here. Just prior to the speeches starting I spoke with Spark’s head of communications, Richard Llewellyn, and my friend Brody Nelson, CTO of sharing economy startup Parkable. We three middle-aged white men looked out across a sea of us. “This is what the technology industry looks like,” Llewellyn said, “and we’ve got to change that.”

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The idea for OMG Tech! came from Vaughan Rowsell – the smiling, extravagantly moustachioed head of cloud-based retail software startup Vend, a four year old company valued at a cool $100m. He spoke first, and best, telling us about tapping out an email to Dickinson late at night with the seed of what would lead to this moment. She replied immediately: “I’m in.”

Rowsell went on to describe his own background. A low income, single parent household. His mother a paraplegic. His life transformed by “a simple act of kindness”, when mum, having noticed he and his brothers’ interest in computers, went and secured a bank loan to finance the purchase of a ZX Spectrum.

“She saw that that device would change our lives forever,” said Rowsell. He would go on to become one of the first Business Computing graduates at AUT, and eventually found a company with offices all over the world, one with a headcount already numbering in three figures.

Rowsell recognised how lucky he was that his mother cared enough to make that trip to see her bank manager, to take on that financial burden. With OMG Tech!, he wants make sure that for other kids it doesn’t come down to luck.

“It shouldn’t make a difference what background you come from,” he said. Then later, in conclusion, “it’s not about listening to people talk. It’s about opening your wallets.”

Few with wallets of any scale could have heard his story and failed to be moved to reach for them. Rowsell and Dickinson are smart cookies. They’re not appealing to sentimentality alone – that only goes so far, particularly in New Zealand, with its relatively enfeebled philanthropic culture. The appeal is also to the hard, finite logic of the balance sheet.

As more than one speaker noted, New Zealand imports 30% of its ICT workers. 30% of one of the best paying sectors in the country, and one of the few areas of our economy with strong growth prospects into the future. Madness. But necessary, for now, given that we create far too few suitable graduates locally.

Importing workers is expensive and time-consuming; far better to grow your own. To accomplish that New Zealand needs to change one dynamic in particular: participation in the industry for women is woeful; for Maori and Pasifika, worse. Forget social justice – this is a clear waste of human resource. The idea is that getting kids interested in science and technology when their young will help produce more STEM grads down the line – ultimately benefiting both business and society.

In creating OMG Tech!, then, its founders were neatly aligning doing good for the country in the long term, with doing good for the economy. Even more adroitly, they were framing OMG Tech! in entirely different terms to similar well-meaning but dull programs. “It is a startup mentality company,” said Dickinson – ‘company’ a word chosen very deliberately over ‘charity’. “We fail fast and we fail hard.” When a teaching technique doesn’t work, they’ll toss it without a second thought. (One thing they might have to toss is the name; in trying to be current it already feels dated). The mentality, she said, would be wired into every part of the way OMG Tech! is run; it will evolve and grow aggressively.

The reality is that many in this room work for businesses which struggle to embody that thoroughly modern attitude. Big, unwieldy banks or telcos or insurers. The preponderance of ill-fitting suits alone communicated that. But every big company right now is trying to import a little of that startup mentality into their processes. Some will succeed, most will fail, and a good number will eventually be overrun by a startup from here or somewhere else. But the genius of Rowsell and Dickinson lies in understanding the power of the idea to this audience: that this is a new philanthropy, one which won’t be wasteful, that works for both underprivileged kids and – eventually – well-heeled corporations.

On stage Dickinson hustled to a conclusion. She wanted to take key potential donors through mock classrooms elsewhere in the building, to show how OMG Tech! looks and feels in the flesh. But you got the sense that she wanted even more for the event to be over, for money to be in the bank, for OMG Tech! to be out in the field doing its work. Creating new Vaughan Rowsells and Michelle Dickinsons for future politicians to fawn over.

“Kids who are not afraid of failing,” she said, neatly tying the trial-and-error of scientific progress to that of startups. “Kids who know what success looks like.”


* Declaration: Spark are a sponsor of OMG Tech!, and The Spinoff has two Spark subsidiaries – Lightbox and Lightbox Sports – as clients.

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