The Women Behind the XPRIZE Ocean, Safety & Global Learning Initiatives

  • By: joannafurlong
  • Posted: December 8, 2016

If you want to be overcome with gratitude—for your quality of life; for access to clean water; for your education and well, the list could go on—and astonished at what humankind is capable of, then a visit to XPRIZE headquarters in Los Angeles will accomplish both. In an increasingly complex and crowded world, it’s easy to feel like one person can’t make a difference. Or, that you must have a PhD to solve the most intimidating challenges.

The team at XPRIZE defies all of that. XPRIZE is a non-profit leader in innovation. The organization boldly takes on some of the world’s biggest challenges; the challenges that, if solved, could provide a better-quality life for all of us. We’re talking about access to healthcare data and diagnoses triggered by a device the size of your hand; affordable space exploration; discovering ways to scale access to education for adult learners worldwide. Think something is impossible to solve? XPRIZE will change your mind.

A look inside XPRIZE

XPRIZE leverages the power of crowdsourced innovation. They develop unique prize competitions, dangling multi-million dollar winnings to create a powerful incentive for competition teams around the globe. Their theory: their prize platform makes it possible to make ten times the impact in the area of their grand challenges (versus just 10 percent). Check out their current prizes here.

The XPRIZE headquarters is an inspiring place. Once through the front door, you’re greeted with a model of SpaceShipOne, casually hanging in the lobby among a backdrop mural of outer space, dotted with stars.  SpaceShipOne was the result of the Ansari XPRIZE, the first-ever XPRIZE, launched in 2004. The $10 million competition resulted in a spacecraft that could carry three to 10 people 100 kilometers above Earth. It was later licensed by Richard Branson as the foundation for Virgin Galactic. A journey through the halls of XPRIZE, too, won’t let you down: an interactive display proudly showcases each prize to date, including photographs, key stakeholders and models.

This is a testament to the culture of XPRIZE, which values innovation and diversity inward and out. From few walls within the office, and panels of clear glass (to promote transparency), XPRIZE strives for gender balance every step of the way, from the headquarters to globally-dispersed prize teams. And the best part? Women are leading the prizes and strategies for several of their newest challenges.

Meet the Women XPRIZE innovators

XPRIZE Dr Emily Church

Dr Church speaking at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.

Dr. Emily Church, Director of Education & Impact, XPRIZE Learning

Dr. Church has more than 12 years of experience in both higher education and non-profit organizations.  Prior to joining XPRIZE, she served as a college professor at Lafayette College, Trinity College, and American University, where she specialized in African history, human rights, and women’s global issues. She’s tasked with designing complex research projects, and managing programs for XPRIZE Learning.

The challenges: (1) Adult Literacy: $7 million prize competition for transforming the lives of low-literate adults. (2)  $15 million prize competition to develop software tools to enable children to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic within 18 months.

Zenia Tata in India

Zenia Tata, Executive Director of Global Expansion and Global Development 

Tata, originally from Mumbai, India, has more than 21 years of experience in program design, management and business development for not-for-profit organizations and social enterprises. Her work has spanned 20 countries in Asia, Africa and Central America, focusing on diverse issues ranging from water and food scarcity, economic enhancement, climate change, land rights, healthcare, education and child welfare.

The challenges: (1) The Anu & Naveen Jain Women’s Safety XPRIZE, a $1 million competition aimed to innovate a technology solution which guarantees women’s safety. (2) Water Abundance XPRIZE, powered by Tata Group and Australian Aid, a $1.75 million competition focused on alleviating the global water crisis through energy-efficient technologies.

Dr. Virmani XPRIZE

Dr. Jyotika Virmani at Forum for Future of Ocean Floor Mapping, with GEBCO Chair Vice Admiral Shin Tani, and former Chair and former Director of National Oceanography Center, UK, Sir Anthony Laughton.

Dr. Jyotika Virmani, Senior Director, Energy & Environment

Dr. Virmani brings more than 10 years of experience in the oceanic and atmospheric sciences, including both research and leadership positions. Previously, she was the Director of Technical Operations for the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE. Dr. Virmani leverages her scientific and technical expertise and knowledge of ocean and atmospheric observing systems to help address the challenging problems we face in understanding the Earth’s climate system.

The challenge: Dr. Virmani leads the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, a $7 million competition for creating solutions that advance ocean exploration and the mapping of the ocean floor.

On leadership, women in STEAM and how women can help one another

Dr. Church, Tata and Dr. Virmani gathered in a conference room amidst the bustle of the XPRIZE office, to discuss their histories, what it means to be a woman in STEAM and how women can help one another—and the next generation. The highlights:

“I was told I was shouting. But I just needed to get my voice heard…I wasn’t good at art though. I knew where my strengths were.” –  Dr. Virmani reflected on her early education, being told she was always talking too loud. She was the only person in her physics class and was once pulled aside by a teacher, who asked her “are you sure you wouldn’t rather take an art class” instead.

“I was always the only girl [in my classes]. It taught me to survive in that environment, to be as loud as the boys.” – Dr. Virmani

“You have to play devil’s advocate against yourself, while still moving forward with cultivating an idea.” – Tata on what it takes to dream big and design prizes, while still being realistic.

“India is a great testing ground for grand challenges. The innovation and startup ecosystem there is vibrant. Not all places are ready for an XPRIZE; it’s about having the support mechanisms in place to support innovation.” – Zenia, on why XPRIZE is now expanding to global locations for prize launches. The Anu and Naveen Jain Women’s Safety XPRIZE launched in India.

“Women can look out for one another. The big picture [gender imbalance in STEAM careers] can be so overwhelming. But there is so much that can be done. It starts with just being aware and encouraging each other.” – Dr. Church, on how companies and women can support women.

“It can crop up in places like mommy circles. I love being a mom. But sometimes the women get stuck talking about kid stuff. And then men are talking about business and politics. What if I want to talk about business and politics?” – Dr. Church, on how we all tend to get pushed into traditional gender roles in social settings.

“Getting your daughter into robotics and dinosaurs at an early age can help. Early exposure is important.” – Dr. Church, thinking of how her daughter (now four) sometimes gets pushed to play with the dollhouses (versus legos).

“When women have make a point or an argument in a meeting, other women can speak up and back up that point of view, and place the attention on the original speaker. Women reiterating another women’s point of view has been shown to help get women heard, and to get them the credit they deserve for ideas.” – Dr. Virmani, referencing a strategy she had heard women in the White House use to make themselves heard.

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