Self-confessed “girly girl” Pree Walia is the co-founder and CEO of Preemadonna, a Menlo Park-based technology company with a patented product, the Nailbot, that lets girls use a self-assembled printer and their smartphones to put beautiful art on their fingernails.
Kimberlie Le, daughter of a star Vietnamese chef, is the co-founder and CEO of Prime Roots, a Berkeley-based biotech company that sprang from her early experiments creating plant-based fake salmon which is now also producing credible “bacon” made from koji, a fungus.
Vivian Chu, a UC Berkeley-trained engineer and computer scientist, is the co-founder and chief technology officer of Diligent Robotics, an Austin, Texas-based AI firm that has sent a cheery robot named Moxi into hospitals all over the country to lighten the workloads of busy nursing staffs.
Etosha Cave, who grew up near an abandoned oil and gas waste site in a suburb of Houston, Texas, is the co-founder and chief scientific officer of Opus 12, a startup now based at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory with technology that sucks climate-threatening carbon dioxide out of the air and converts it into plastics and fuels.
Ex-Google engineer Clementine Jacoby, who had a close relative sent back to prison when a forgotten unpaid fine was deemed a parole violation, is the founder and executive director of Recidiviz, a San Francisco-based company that uses data analytics to drive reforms in the criminal justice system.
What all these women have in common, besides their Bay Area connections and their tech expertise, is that they are all still in the early stages of their careers, and they are all profiled in San Francisco tech journalist Zara Stone’s new book, “The Future of Science Is Female: The Brilliant Minds Shaping the 21st Century” (Mango, $19.95, 145 pages).
Stone, 35, has spent more than a decade covering STEM — science, technology and math — issues for multiple publications, both here and in her native London. The book, her first, is a breezy narrative covering both the struggles and the successes of these young scientists, who have applied their skills to projects they are passionate about in the hopes of bringing about positive change. We had several questions for her.
Who forms the target audience for your book and why?
Stone: My target reader is 10 to 14 years old, or maybe a little younger or older, depending on her reading age and comprehension. And the idea is to get them to learn about some of the cool projects that are out there. … When I think about growing up — and to these kids, I’m ancient, I’m sure – with STEM, it was like such a black hole! You knew there were cool things happening and people doing them, but you didn’t really have any idea about the steps or even the breadth of the jobs … And to an extent, I think it’s still like that today. There are so many jobs in industries and sectors that people find hard to even understand, and they also fall under the STEM umbrella.
Was it a strategic choice for you to focus on women who are still really young?
Stone: Yes, absolutely. The Sheryl Sandbergs of the world are fabulous and an inspiration to so many people. But in the same way that I imagine to a 12-year-old that I’m ancient, they would feel the same way about a Sheryl Sandberg, who’s older. I was hoping that the people in the book they would see as like a bigger, older sister, so it’s more relevant to them … When I talk to kids about growing up, and they are like, “You didn’t have a phone?!” It’s such a disconnect to them. So, yes, I wanted to bridge that gap, really.
What were your criteria when you were casting about for candidates to profile?
Stone: I wanted to cover different sectors. The idea was to explore the different areas that are in STEM. And I knew I was never going to be able to cover everything, so I made a list of areas that I thought were interesting. And food was a big one; the future of work was a big one. And criminal justice was one I thought was really important. I had a discussion with my publisher about that because they weren’t sure it was really appropriate for the age group. But I think that chapter turned out to be one of the favorites.
Besides their strong capabilities in the sciences, was there something else you found that these women all have in common?
Stone: Yes, I think they all have this kind of determination which is really impressive. I mean, some of them have had different levels of support, but they are all really driven, in a way that isn’t about making money or getting attention, but by the invention and the creation and what they’re building, which is really engaging. You read about Nikola Tesla, about how his focus was always on how he wanted to make something better. And that’s how they look at problems and what they’re developing, about how they can create something that really does help people live better.
Did you ask them about the obstacles they had to overcome?
Stone: So we all definitely talked about stumbling blocks, and everyone had them. Really, there is no straight path to success. … And money has been an issue for many of these women. Etosha, when she was waiting to raise more money and didn’t have enough, she slept in her car for, I think, about a month. She was like, “I’ll save my rent, and then I can funnel it towards getting the equipment that I think is more important than my comfort sleeping at night.”
When did you first get interested in science yourself?
Stone: I think I’ve always been interested in technology. For me, these tools gave me access to this amazing world. I loved to read, and when I was younger, I would always have a physical book with me. It was heavy, and I had to carry a big purse to fit it in. And then, when the first generation of e-books came along, just the concept seemed so fantastic to me — that I could have as many books as I want and always have them on me.