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Meet our infocus ambassadors - Maggie Philbin

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The birth of TeenTech 

Maggie Philbin at TeenTech event
Me, at a TeenTech event

TeenTech was born in the Reading branch of Carluccio’s in 2007, when a friend told me he’d just advertised for a chemical engineer and out of over 300 applications, three came from Europe and none from the UK. I’d just filmed in a school where I’d asked students to name a contemporary scientist, engineer or someone working in tech and the only person they knew was Einstein, with the exception of one student who suggested ‘Charles Cabbage’

What was needed, I said, was a really engaging event to enable kids to get hands on with some of the innovative tech being developed in companies they passed every day, where students and teachers could understand more about ‘invisible careers’, the people who worked in them and the skills needed.

‘OK’, said Chris. ‘Do it.’

Finding a way to connect young people with technology

Students at TeenTech event
Students at TeenTech event

On that morning in Reading, I hadn’t set out with the aim of creating a company or a brand, I simply wanted to find a way to connect young people who I knew were keen, enthusiastic and clever thinkers to the technology revolution on their doorstep.

Advice for my younger self

If there’s one piece of advice I’d like to give my younger self, it would be to understand that:

innovation isn’t about creating widgets but about identifying a real need and then finding a way to make things better, simpler, safer or more fun.

Those words are now the strap-line for the TeenTech Award programme, which aims to give young people the skills, experiences and contacts to become the innovators of tomorrow.

Building a company is hard work but immensely satisfying. Getting the right team (and our team are brilliant) is key to help you navigate challenges and there will be many.

Co-founder Chris shared his business understanding, in particular effective ways to scale without exposure to risk and we have a hugely experienced board who help with strategy.

For the most part, I’ve found people very happy to share experience, so I’d also say, never think someone is too ‘important’ to ask. And make sure to let them let them know when their steer or nugget of advice helped you.

Starting young

When I reflect on why it took me so long to lead a business, I think it was because the focus as I grew up had been on getting a job with a ‘good’ company or having a career. The idea of building your own company was simply not explored. I also worried that I didn’t know enough to be able to do it.

I’ve learnt that the most important thing is to:

get going, get feedback, re-iterate, do it again, get feedback and get it out there. Don’t worry about being perfect first time.

And yet you could say I’d taken my first steps as an entrepreneur when I was 10. My parents gave my sister and me puppets for Christmas and when I realised Susan Richmond round the corner had been given one too, I saw an opportunity. We’d run a puppet show, book the village hall, charge sixpence and improve our meagre 2/6 pocket money.

Maggie Philbin, aged 10 620
Me, aged 10

For some reason, it was very important to keep these intentions secret from my parents. Using some of my father’s carbon paper we hand wrote invitations to everyone at school. Weeks later, with the show only days away a parent alerted my Mum and Dad who stepped in to make sandwiches and cakes (so that it was ‘better value’) and also to hand build a small puppet ‘theatre’, something we hadn’t considered at all necessary.

Just before the doors opened I asked Susan’s younger brother to go out and see how many people were waiting outside. He came back saying, ‘Too many to count”. Exasperated, I nipped out myself and I’ll never forget the excitement of seeing people stretch down the village street waiting for the doors to open. I did a mental calculation. A hundred sixpences. I would be richer than my wildest dreams.

My parents made me give all the money to a local hospital, which at the time I bitterly resented and, I think, unwittingly stalled my business spirit.

Admire your fearlessness

Students conducting experiment at TeenTech event
Students conducting experiment at TeenTech event

I look back on 10-year-old me and admire the fearlessness, if not the lack of altruism. It would have been so helpful for me to understand that being bold, being determined to turn an idea into reality no matter how many of my friends told me I’d never do it, was a very useful trait to have and would certainly come in handy forty years later as we grew TeenTech from one event in the Thames Valley to a series of initiatives reaching many thousands of 8-18 year olds across the UK and Ireland. (And, as of 2017, Europe and USA)

I wasn’t much cop at catering or carpentry but hey, I had parents for that 😉

Follow me on Twitter: @maggiephilbin

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