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Jun 26, 2018

National Portrait: Alexia Hilbertidou, Young woman of influence

Her experience as the only female student in her high school IT class motivated YES alumnus Alexia Hilbertidou to create GirlBoss NZ, which began as a YES company in 2016.

A Hilbertidou Girl Boss

When Alexia Hilbertidou's teacher announced to her IT class that she'd won a national coding competition, she was mobbed by her classmates. They weren't extending their unfettered congratulations to the class's only girl.

"Do you think you won that just because you'll be used for the promotional material?" the boys asked. "Do you think just because you're a confident speaker that's why you won it?"

"I remember being quite upset about that at the time. And I remember being surprised because I thought I was quite a confident person and that if I was faced with digs like that I would be able to handle it. But I really felt myself shutting down."

The news about women in science didn't get better. Three days later she went to a women in technology event. Michelle Dickinson, aka Nanogirl, was talking about her experiences and Hilbertidou was so inspired she approached her afterwards and told her about the put-downs. Dickinson shared how just the other day she'd been at a tech board meeting in which someone suggested she was the board's token woman.  "Obviously we all know why Michelle's here."  

"I remember her telling me that and I remember feeling really angry and really shocked," Hilbertidou says. "And then she gave me a hug and we got a photo."

But the anger Hilbertidou felt at her own and Dickinson's belittling didn't go away.

Browse Hilbertidou's Twitter account and you'd be forgiven for thinking she was a 30-something corporate boss. The serious clothes; the endless speaking engagements; the overseas conferences; the Nasa space flight. She's like a walking TED talk, spouting facts and figures about female participation in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) and the pending disaster that is the future of work. Close your eyes and you can picture her on stage talking to Trade Me, Air New Zealand or Xero about why young women aren't studying science and tech.

But open your eyes again and here is a 19-year-old, sitting at the dining table of her mother's North Auckland home, where she still lives, dressed in a GirlBoss T-shirt, embroidered leather jacket and slouchy pants.

While her peers are out partying, getting drunk (she doesn't drink), studying and generally easing their way into adult life, Hilbertidou has ditched uni in favour of working fulltime for the startup she launched in 2015, at 16, to get more young women to study STEM subjects.

Her mum, Vicky Crawford, also works for GirlBoss. She floats around the kitchen offering coffee and gems of information. Hilbertidou was born in Cyprus, to a Greek Cypriot and Crawford, who is part Samoan. They met in a nightclub in Mykonos, Crawford adds, cackling. Hilbertidou looks mortified.

"I'm a bit naughty," Crawford explains. "And I just had this very good girl."

That very good girl was always an overachiever. She just rediscovered the CV slideshow she made when she was eight. One of the bullet points said she liked making PowerPoint presentations.

"It's quite funny," she laughs. "Because now I go around schools speaking to thousands of young women using a lot of PowerPoints. I'm living the childhood dream."

GirlBoss is two-pronged, holding events to inspire young women to consider working in technology and aiming to be business CEOs, and holding workshops with school kids to help break down barriers to studying science and maths. It's free to join and now has 8000 members, as well as an Australian offshoot called ChangemakeHer.

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