National Post (Latest Edition)
EMPOWERING STEM MINDS
THE WHOLE POINT OF INSPIRING YOUNG PEOPLE IS TO PROVIDE A REALISTIC EXPECTATION WHERE THEY CAN BE SUCCESSFUL IN LIFE.
— ANU BIDANI I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M GOING TO BE DOING IN 10 YEARS. I JUST KNOW I WANT TO MAKE AN IMPACT.
— NAILA MOLOO
Anu Bidani is passionate about STEM and getting more kids interested in science, technology, engineering and maths. She knows firsthand the career opportunities that STEM can bring and she wants young people to make the most of them, just as she has. That’s why this year’s WXN Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 honouree in the BMO Entrepreneurs category launched STEM Minds, a B Corp.-certified social enterprise, making the leap from a successful career in capital markets for the many unknowns of a tech startup.
National Post spoke with Bidani about her love of STEM, her path to entrepreneurship, and how she is making STEM accessible and exciting for young people. Here is an edited version of the conversation.
Q How did you get interested in STEM?
A I am curious. As a child I was always asking ‘why?’ My parents bought me chemistry lab sets and microscopes that kept my interest piquing and growing. When it came time to decide what to do, we were living in Egypt and I attended the American University in Cairo, which is associated with Columbia University in the U.S. I decided to study computer science. When I moved to Canada, I came with a degree that had value. I was able to quickly get a job and settle.
Q What were some of the pivotal moments in your career?
A I joined Scotiabank as a junior technology auditor. This opened a brand new world for me because even though I graduated with a degree in computer science, I didn’t enjoy coding. It wasn’t my thing. What I really loved was how to use technology as an enabler. I did technology audits for three years in Canada and then three years internationally. I travelled to South America and the Caribbean with the bank and learned so much about different cultures and technologies, and I saw the power of understanding what technology could do to grow businesses and grow people. Then I went into security governance, project management at an enterprise level and was selected to be in a leadership program where we worked with the president and board to come up with new innovative ideas for growth. I moved into capital markets and became part of the trade floor team. Everything I had learned came together. I launched the bank’s first precious metals e-store, we were the first on Bay Street to do that. I was part of large initiatives and really enjoyed what I did.
Q Why did you decide to start STEM Minds?
A On my corporate journey, I got married and had two boys. Despite the fact I had put them in private programs I never saw them have the curiosity or interest in STEM that I did. I knew as a woman in tech I was successful because of that interest and my STEM skills. My mind went to how do I get my kids excited about STEM? I only have a few years before they go to university, how do I get them ready? In 2015, I left the bank and decided to go into entrepreneurship to solve this problem. I had been solving problems for the bank for years. My energy went into transferring that skillset. I understood business, strategy. I knew how to do product development. I understood technology as an enabler. What I didn’t know was how to teach, but that also gave me the advantage of looking at education through a different lens. We wanted to make it easy to learn STEM subjects. There are so many myths that make STEM learning complicated when it doesn’t need to be.
Q What are some of the biggest misconceptions about STEM?
A That STEM and coding is a limited numbers-based thing. The connection to the real world is never fully explored. We called our online learning platform STEAM Hub because one of the important pieces that has been missing is art. That’s why we offer courses like 3-D design, film and photography, animation, graphic design. The whole point of inspiring young people is to provide the realistic expectation of where they can be successful in life. Not everybody will be a coder, designer or engineer. If you can help kids understand that technology is an enabler, they will learn enough to inform the choices they have to make to achieve their aspirations.
My oldest son was diagnosed with ADHD when he was in grade two and struggled with learning. He was the inspiration for STEM Minds. He was in grade seven when I launched it and did all my courses. Today, I am proud to say he is in the University of Toronto’s environmental studies program. He understands what technology can do to address climate change. To me, that is connecting. Bringing this mindset that you can impact society and be successful and not be a coder to children is the forefront of the business.
Q What was it like to transition from a corporate career to entrepreneurship?
A It was a big leap and I was not prepared on day one. In a corporate setting, I had a network and support structure and suddenly I’m the CEO and founder and had no network or support. I changed verticals from finance to education. I am never shy to knock on doors for help. The first door was the York Region Small Business Centre, which I found through Google search. I called the 1-800, spoke to an adviser, told her my situation, and that was the start of building my network and connecting to the resources I would need. Venture Lab, my local Chamber of Commerce, the Government of Canada’s Concierge Service program … I discovered this really strong ecosystem for entrepreneurs. I knew if I could find a path, I could execute. So that’s what I did.
Q How did you navigate through the pandemic and make the shift from in-person to live-virtual classes and online self-directed learning?
A I had started building an online self-directed learning platform in 2019 based on research I had done. The World Economic Forum talked about self-directed learning as key to building a workforce ready for tomorrow. Yet, when I talked to parents and schools about courses, they weren’t ready. Then, in March 2020 we were able to pivot overnight. Our content was much stronger than it was before. Our focus now is on virtual and online learning. We have grown from a York Region community-based business to one that has opened its doors Canada-wide. We’re looking to grow into the U.S. and Asia markets. Our content has been used by more than 55,000 students and 3,500 teachers. There are 5,700 users on our online selfdirected learning platform.
Q What do you want young women to know about STEM?
A There is a place for you in STEM. Give yourself the opportunity to explore it. When we launched STEM Minds, 80 per cent of our students were boys, and 20 per cent were girls. Six years later, 60 per cent are boys and 40 per cent girls. I’m happy to see that shift.