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With an eye to the future, Inspirefest 2017 was bolder than ever

“Inspirefest unapologetically has diversity and inclusion at its core,” said founder Ann O’Dea while onstage at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre on July 6, delivering the opening to Dublin’s Inspirefest. Billed as “a unique international festival of technology, science, design and the arts,” the festival's programme boasted three days of fascinating speeches, panels, presentations, and workshops.

The festival, held from 6-8th July, boasted a colourful programme of STEM- and creativity-focused topics

The festival, held from 6-8th July, boasted a colourful programme of STEM- and creativity-focused topics

The festival brings together founders, innovators, educators, investors, and techies, mostly within STEM but also in business and the arts, and its central mission champions diversity and inclusion in a sector that is famously scant on those values. In his welcoming address, An Taoiseach, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, praised Inspirefest for its emphasis on equality and on the fusion of arts and science to create change.

“Inspirefest unapologetically has diversity and inclusion at its core.” - Ann O'Dea, Editor-at-Large of Silicon Republic & Founder of Inspirefest

These proclamations were borne out in Inspirefest’s programming, which included 75% female speakers. Many of the speakers--both men and women--discussed gender equality in the workplace and in STEM, as well as equality and diversity of race, age, and ability. Dr. Anita Sands, a Board Director of three Silicon Valley public companies, discussed the jarring absence of women as leaders in business, and Colin Graham, Director of International Compensation and Benefits at Facebook, talked about the need for new technologies like facial recognition to include people of color and reflect the diversity of their users. Ana Matronic, author of Robot Takeover, went beyond the human realm, discussing the importance of accepting not only transgender people but also transhuman cyborgs, a technological certainty of the future. Young entrepreneurs Ailbhe and Izzy Keane talked about their business, Izzy Wheels, which sells beautifully designed and decorated wheelchair spoke-guards.

Inspirefest speakers made sure to keep the discussion nuanced and honest, balancing their praise and excitement around technological innovation with discussion about the dangers that technology can pose, especially in today’s global political climate. Despite covering  serious topics, the speakers were not pessimistic. Rather, they gave the audience calls to action--read an article before you post, for example--in the hopes of a better future.

Ashoka Fellow Matt Flannery is the founder of Kiva and Branch, two fintech social enterprises that are empowering those who are underserved by banks.

Ashoka Fellow Matt Flannery is the founder of Kiva and Branch, two fintech social enterprises that are empowering those who are underserved by banks.

Two Ashoka Fellows, Matt Flannery and Bart Weetjens, took the stage to highlight the intersection of social enterprise and STEM. Matt talked about his journey to founding the microfinance nonprofit Kiva, and the digital loaning platform Branch, both of which serve entrepreneurs in developing countries. His three main lessons: work in the field first, do what you love, and get started fast. Bart Weetjens, whose Tanzania-based organisation, APOPO, trains African giant pouched rats to detect landmines in post-conflict areas, and to sniff out tuberculosis infections in health centres, spoke about the importance of innovative thinking in solving global health challenges. Bart’s talk included video clips showing how the rats are trained by experts, and revealed that more than 900,000 landmines and 82,000 TB infections have been detected by APOPO since 2000.

Ashoka Fellow Bart Weetjens is the founder of APOPO, which trains rats to sniff out landmines and tuberculosis infections

Ashoka Fellow Bart Weetjens is the founder of APOPO, which trains rats to sniff out landmines and tuberculosis infections

All of Inspirefest’s speakers envisioned a bright future for humanity and for STEM. As Marcus Weldon, president of Bell Labs and corporate CTO of Nokia, said, machines will take over but only “over the mundane things, freeing humans up to do cognitive, aesthetic, creative things.” Indeed, the Inspirefest speakers showed that these aesthetic and creative pursuits were already happening, and in new and exciting ways, as many of them discussed the convergence of STEM and the arts. Several gaming experts discussed the importance of art and design in creating a powerful and beautiful gaming experience. Keri Krukal, first a dancer, then a biochemist, and now the founder and CEO of Raw Science TV, told of how she had blended art and STEM in her career because “technology alone is not enough.”

More of Inspirefest’s wonderful programme is available on Silicon Republic’s coverage of the festival, live social media (follow #Inspirefest on Twitter or Facebook), or the InspirefestHQ Youtube account. Cheers to the inspiration gathered and lessons learned from the strong and diverse stories, speakers, and ideas of Inspirefest! Let the countdown for next year’s festival begin.

This post was written by Aviva Klein Meyers, Programme Intern at Ashoka Ireland, Stanford University Class of 2019.

Read Matt Flannery's interview with Silicon Republic here. Find out more about Bart Weetjens in Fiona Koch's profile on APOPO here.

Empowering diverse voices in STEM: Inspirefest conference lives up to its name

How many tech conferences place diversity and inclusion at the heart of their programme?

Last week, Dublin’s Inspirefest - “a unique international festival of technology, science, design and the arts” - brought a packed, two-day schedule of keynote speeches, talks and panels to Ireland’s ‘Silicon Docks.’ With a lineup of over 70% female founders, creators, coders, venture capitalists and leaders, Inspirefest managed turned the traditional 9:1 male-to-female tech conference ratio on its head, and lived up to its mission.

Ashoka Fellow Jamila Abass (founder of M-Farm) addresses an audience of over 1,500 at Inspirefest

Ashoka Fellow Jamila Abass (founder of M-Farm) addresses an audience of over 1,500 at Inspirefest

Speaking to The Irish Times in advance of the festival, founder Ann O’Dea cited the social benefits of challenging traditional spaces and workplaces. “It just so happens that men and women tend to have quite different backgrounds but it’s the same thing with people of different ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientation, you name it. Often their circles are a little bit different and you just end up with a conversation that’s a little bit richer,” she said.

In a welcoming address on June 30th, An Taoiseach, the Prime Minister Enda Kenny, praised O’Dea’s commitment to celebrating STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills and jobs, citing that, “the world needs curiosity, understanding, innovation and knowledge. A scientifically-educated society is essential to solving the challenges we face now and in the future.” He also extolled the crucial importance of diverse perspectives in tackling social challenges, saying that, “if we can for an instant see the world through others’ eyes, we have the opportunity to change things.”

Ashoka Fellow Alex Bernadotte (founder of Beyond12) speaks at Inspirefest

Ashoka Fellow Alex Bernadotte (founder of Beyond12) speaks at Inspirefest

Much of Inspirefest’s programme highlighted companies and leaders from the STEM sectors, with a mix of executives from major global companies joining founders from smaller startups, to provide insights on trends. Judith Williams, (Dropbox), gave an electrifying talk on the economic benefits of a diverse workforce, while Claire Calmejane, (Lloyds Bank) emphasised the importance of innovative thinking in the financial sector. Ashoka Fellow and founder of the Kenya-based tech company M-Farm, Jamila Abass, described how her mobile app helps farmers across Africa access new markets, share information on price transparency, and collaborate together via a simple tech platform. Scientist and founder of Nuritas, Nora Khaldi, spoke about the challenges and rewards of running a business in a sector “with very few women.”

Other speakers shared perspectives from the intersection at which STEM, social enterprise and the arts collide. Ashoka Fellow and founder of Beyond 12, Alexandra Bernadotte, told the story of how, “born in the wrong zip code to achieve higher education,” her experience of gaining two degrees motivated her to build a data-driven tech platform that empowers first-generation college students to complete their degrees, creating a more inclusive education system and workforce. Blogger and academic Sinead Burke shared her story of forging a path in the fashion world: She founded fashion website Minnie Melange to document the ‘sartorial challenge’ of finding fashionable outfits for her 3’5” frame, and with it, has created a community of diverse voices, fashion-lovers and activists alike.

Blogger Sinead Burke (Minnie Melange) tells her story at Inspirefest

Blogger Sinead Burke (Minnie Melange) tells her story at Inspirefest

Many more examples of Inspirefest’s stellar programme can be found in Silicon Republic’s coverage of the conference, and one need only glance through the live social media feeds (follow #Inspirefest on Twitter and Facebook) to see that the conference left many audience members not only inspired, but actively motivated, by the stories, role models and ideas that were shared at Inspirefest.

Ultra-earlybird tickets for Inspirefest 2017 are now available at www.inspirefest.comRead special feature profiles on Ashoka Fellow & Inspirefest speakers Alexandra Bernadotte and Jamila Abass on Silicon Republic.