Mary Carty, Outbox Incubator
23rd September 2015
To go in just 10 years from teaching art to a company CEO, globe-trotting management consultant and co-founder of an X-Men-style ‘house’ in which girls are encouraged to try science and engineering – well, the mind boggles.
Words: Áilín Quinlan
But that’s Mary Carty for you. After graduating from the Limerick School of Art and Design with a degree in sculpture, the Roscommon native taught at second-level for some years and then worked in the public sector, but entered the technology sector about 10 years for the simple reason that her husband Alan O’Rourke had started a business.
“At the time I was Arts Officer with Meath County Council, but I was also very interested in what Alan was doing. He needed a CEO for the business,” says Carty simply. So Carty became a CEO, joining an Enterprise Ireland initiative to learn the ropes.
She credits that Internet Growth Accelerated Programme, geared at high potential start-up businesses, with giving her the tools to navigate the business sector, she says. “I’m very adaptable,” the 39-year-old explains, somewhat unnecessarily. “Being an arts officer taught me a lot about programme development, but in terms of working in a tech company and bringing products to market and developing a good network that programme was superb.”
Carty now works as a business and marketing consultant in the UK and across the EU, regularly consulting on anything to do with start-ups and marketing from Swindon to Sweden.
Which is why her latest project – the wildly acclaimed Outbox Incubator project – is based in England rather than in Ireland, where she lives with her family at Bettystown, County Meath. “I travel a lot,” she says simply.
The second reason Outbox Incubator is in the UK is that’s where the Stemettes – a social enterprise group set up two and a half years ago to tackle the scarcity of women in the STEM sector – is based. “The Stemettes was set up by my friend and colleague Anne Marie Imasidon who works in the finance sector in the UK.”
The idea was to raise awareness of what girls can do and bring more of them into the STEM she says, adding that, however, she and Anne Marie eventually decided they needed to do something more. “Girls were saying they weren’t being taken seriously; that friends and families thought they were ‘weird’ because they liked coding or maths.”
“We kept coming across these amazing girls for whom there was no outlet.” The stereotypical entrepreneur, scientist or investor is exclusively male – yet these girls would blow your socks off. “Anne Marie and I were wondering why there was no incubator for girls so we decided to set it up.”
They started work on it about a year ago: “We launched it in April of this year with Princess Anne,” she laughs – “I got to meet her and do the curtsey!” The Incubator is an actual house in South London, and the first programme got underway in the summer as the house played host to 110 girls from Ireland, England, Poland, Spain, the Netherlands and France, aged between 11 and 22. Thirty of them were Irish.
The Outbox Incubator project is fully supported by the tech firm Salesforce, which has a large foundation supporting similar programmes such as Coder Dojo. Salesforce funded the whole programme. “The house is rented for the summer and this is our first programme, it started in late July. We compare it to the X-Men House because it’s the coolest place you can think of!”
“Anything can happen on any day. We have all these like-minded people under one roof,” she says. As part of the six-week programme the girls have some 90 ‘talk sessions’ with top industry professionals who give presentations on everything from finance and marketing to building a business, pitching and working in the STEM sector – and on personal development.
“There are talks about resilience and self-confidence, and self-awareness, and activities such as bin-bag fashion shows, yoga, sing-songs and a céilí. At the end of the first three weeks we had a Demo Day, where the participants pitched ideas to a panel of investors, to win awards such as Best Use of STEM, Most Investable Company and the like.”
The Irish girls did well there, she says with pride – Edel Browne (19) from Galway, invented a device for people with Parkinson’s Disease – it helps prevent gait freezing and won three awards. “We also have a 13-year-old Irish girl from Mayo who pitched an idea called Agri-tag to help farmers and vets collect data on livestock – this was a category winner.
There’s a 12-year-old from Dublin, who came up with an idea called Recharge My E Car, a device which tells you what charging devices are available in Ireland and where, for people with rechargeable cars. “Another girl from County Louth came up with a Positivity Pack for the rainy day – a lolly, a notebook and giro, a stress ball, some chocolate, some bubble wrap and teabags!”
When she entered the tech sector, recalls Carty, she was so preoccupied that it took a while for her to notice the glaring scarcity of other females in STEM. “I was so busy running the business I didn’t initially see how much of a gender divide there is in tech.”
Her ‘Road to Damascus’ moment came during a big tech conference when she suddenly woke up to the fact “that I was pretty much the only woman in the room.” Not long afterwards, she noticed that she was the only female sitting on an investor panel in Sweden. “I was the only woman on the stage! I’m sure many women avoid careers in the STEM sector because of the complete lack of either role models or even female company in the room,” she says.
This is partly down to parents wanting ‘safe’ careers for their daughters and partly down to the ‘story’ that maths, science and engineering are “difficult”.
“The important thing for girls to know is that the door isn’t closed, that you can pick things up and try them out at any age,” says the mother-of-one. “While programmes like Outbox Incubator prove to girls that they can try anything and do anything, it’s the girls here who show us that anything is possible!”