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Actua Is Breaking Down Barriers, Meet The Woman Leading The Charge

Actua

Jennifer Flanagan was studying her first year of biochemistry when she came across an advertisement asking for help to start a science engineering camp. Interested in STEM and with a love of kids, she jumped at the opportunity.

“It was the best summer job ever. I traveled all over the province with a group of my university peers; it was so fun and it completely changed my path. I became super passionate about education and about learning and equal opportunity to education,” she said.

It’s been over 20 years since that summer, and Flanagan took that passion about equal opportunity to education and turned it into Actua, Canada’s largest STEM youth outreach organization

Each year, Actua engages over 350,000 Canadians with accessible and exciting STEM experiences. They help inspire youth to be innovators and leaders while building employability skills and confidence through learning.

Actua in the North is an initiative that delivers educational programs to Canada’s North. It partners with dozens of communities across the Northwest Territories, Yukon Territory, Nunavut, Northern Quebec, and Labrador. Every year, they engage approximately 6,000 northern youth through school workshops and summer camps.

When COVID-19 hit, it derailed their usual plan of summer camps to engage youth living in Northern Canada. 

Actua took the problem and found a solution: STEM kits.

In place of their regular staff, Actua will be sending STEM kits to communities throughout the summer. They’ll be designed so kids can explore them at home independently or together with family and friends. The free kits will range in themes from Coding & Robot Language to Oceans, Space, Health and Biology. 

Actua has been in the educational sphere for 20+ years, but the current state of the world has pushed the company into exploring new ways to operate. For our weekly Start-Up Spotlight, we spoke with Actua’s President and CEO, Jennifer Flanagan, about the importance of educating Canadian youth, pivoting a decades-old company and being a woman in STEM.

Q&A

You’re the co-founder, President and CEO of Actua, tell us about yourself and how you got to where you are.

I grew up in New Brunswick and I am a very, very proud East-coaster. I did my undergraduate there in a degree in biochemistry and thought I would probably go to medical school or do something in the healthcare field. I was interested but had no real idea of what path I would pursue, then I had this incredible moment of opportunity. 

It was in my first year and I saw a poster up on the wall and it said, “Hey, do you want to start us science and engineering camp with me this summer?” It was handwritten. I thought to myself, “Oh my God, that sounds good.” I was a camp counsellor and I was super into kids and learning, so I went to this meeting and that was the start of this whole journey. 

We started my first year as a summer program to get kids across the province of New Brunswick interested in science and engineering. It was like the best summer job ever. I traveled all over the province with a group of my university peers; it was so fun and it completely changed my path. I became super passionate about education and about learning and about equal opportunity to education.

New Brunswick had a whole bunch of stuff going on, from remote communities to super vulnerable communities and a lot of First Nations communities. And at the time, a whole bunch of girls who did not think that they could do science. It goes back a long way, but it really was the start of what we’re doing with Actua right now.

So fast-forward, I graduated and the conversation of what we were doing in New Brunswick sort of built across the country with other people doing similar things; we started something that was sort of a predecessor to Actua. It started as a national group while I was off doing other things, and then I came back into the fold and it became Actua. 

During that time [I was off doing other things], I sort of pulled all the pieces together. I went and did an MBA at McGill, because I had gone from a very science content and research perspective into not only just making sure that we could get science out into the hands of kids, but I was running a business.

Is there a defining moment that made the person you are today, would you say it’s seeing that handwritten note? Or are there any other moments in your life that you think have really been pivotal in making who you are? 

I think that was just more of an opportunity. A couple of things come to mind with that question. After that first summer, I worked for the camp each summer of university. And as I was graduating my undergrad, I didn’t understand what a path forward could be. So I thought, “I should get an education degree because I want to do education.” I registered for the program, I got in, and I was going to do a Bachelor of Education.

But then I had this amazing professor who pulled me aside, literally the first week of school, and said, “Listen, I’ve watched what you’re doing with this outreach stuff; I’ve been your professor for a couple of years. I think you need to think about whether you want to do this because that’s going to be the deciding factor between whether you make a direct impact on youth. Whether you’re in front of youth day-in and day-out teaching, or do you want to do something more systemic, where you’re working at a higher level organizing and empowering other people to do it?”

It was a very significant “aha” moment, where he basically said, “Look, you can do one of two things. You can go and do the Bachelor of Education and have a direct impact and teach, and you’ll be a great teacher. Or, you figure out something else, which is going to be a harder path, but you might have the potential to have this big systemic impact.” That was a massive change.

I didn’t do the Bachelor of Education, I knew it wasn’t the right thing. I could feel it, but I just needed someone to actually articulate it. So, that was huge. If I had not had that conversation, I wonder what would have happened.

The other pivotal moment goes more towards the beginnings of Actua, relating to the kits and to the North. I moved to Ottawa and I started working at building up Actua as an employee of one—an organization of one, I was the only employee.

I got a random call from someone, and he said, “I’m a teacher in Baker Lake, Nunavut—then, still a part of Northwest Territories, and we’re bringing kids from all over the territory and we wondered if you’d come up and do some science workshops with us for the week.” 

I had never even heard of Baker Lake, I didn’t know anything about the North, but I was super game to try and to go. So, I did that. I spent a week in the Arctic—above the Arctic circle, and it completely transformed me as a leader. It transformed my view of Canada. It transformed Actua’s work. Recognizing that I was actually standing in the geographic centre of the country, with as much North as there is the South, East and West, it was mind-blowing. 

Baker Lake in comparison to the rest of Canada. Credit: Google Maps

The youth in those communities were spectacular and so eager to learn, and had so few opportunities to engage in this way; but there was so much science happening and the traditional knowledge is full of science, engineering and innovation. So that was a big moment. I went up for the next couple of years, and it reinforced our relationship with the North. It all started from there. Now we’re delivering in every community in Nunavut, and all across the North. So, that call was really pivotal.

In fact, the teacher that called me was Jim Kruger, and he just retired this week from Baker Lake. He’s been there all this time, he’s an amazing person.

And with your experience of being able to head up North, do you think that’s what sets Actua apart? There are lots of companies that offer STEM camps for youth. What makes Actua different?

I would say that you’re right, thankfully, lots of people are doing this work cause we need a lot of it. But I would say that what sets Actua apart is the focus from day one on inclusion and diversity. That has been, from the very beginning, one of our values, one of our strategic priorities, one of our corporate objectives. It has always been about increasing the diversity within the STEM field, but also bringing more equitable access to educational opportunities. It’s been a key tenant of our organization from day one, and it continues to be our number one priority and a driving force. It’s what I’m most proud of.

Actua has been working with Indigenous communities for 20+ years. We have been committed to gender equality for 20+ years. We’ve been working with racialized communities and vulnerable, remote Arctic communities all since day one. This is not a flash in the pan, you know? It’s a long-term commitment for change. We will continue doing it until we don’t need to do it anymore. 

And then the other thing that makes us who we are, is that we bring in such a diverse group of partners. We’re working with the private sector, all levels of government, the formal education system and at a community level. The multi-sectoral approach is necessary to create the kind of system change we’re looking for. 

Given current circumstances, Actua made a bit of a shift from traditional summer camps. Why is it so important to continue to engage youth, especially in remote communities during COVID-19? 

While all of us are home to work, to learn, or whatever there is to do, it’s important to understand that a lot of youth don’t have access to technology, the internet or hardware; or, their home is not a safe place for learning or a safe place period. Actua typically works with a lot of those youth during the summer. We also work with a lot of youth who thrive on these kinds of opportunities [summer camp], who can’t wait for us to get there and who look forward to it all year—youth who are brilliant and capable, super curious and creative. So when this happened, we quickly pivoted into remote learning and online delivery, which is something we were already doing quite a bit of.

We increased that [online learning] dramatically, but recognized that there would be a whole bunch of communities and youth that would not be able to pivot in that way. So the idea came about as all of our ideas do, by listening to communities. We talked to them and asked, “What do you need? And what would help? How can we  continue to be the partner that we’ve been for decades?” Overwhelmingly the communities, especially across the North said, “You know, we’d love to have resource kits. Things that kids can do, either we can bring them together and do it, in a community centre, if that’s safe, or we can send it home.”

What we have long-known is that engagement and positive experiences that boost confidence are key. It’s not just about science and technology, it’s about mental health. It’s about feeling good about yourself. It’s about staying engaged with education and learning. So we didn’t want that to stop just because we couldn’t be there face to face. 

This is our way of continuing that relationship through this period, which might be a long time. When you consider how vulnerable the territories are to outsiders coming in and potentially bringing COVID-19, this could be an ongoing model. 

Actua
STEM kits in progress. Photo provided by Actua
Actua
STEM kits in progress. Photo provided by Actua

How do you define your success? What is success to you? 

For me, I’ve always viewed success as being relevant and being impactful. Are we contributing something that has value, that matters to people, that’s improving people’s lives or changing a system that needs to be changed? That’s what I’m personally committed to and passionate about. That’s how I lead. So, for me, success looks like doing that, being relevant, and knowing that we’re having an impact. Whether that’s through very anecdotal things—seeing the impact firsthand of how engaged kids are, or the evaluation and the research that we do. Or the partnerships that Actua has been able to confirm and the trust that people have in us as thought leaders in this space, those are all things that I define as success.

I would say also from a professional perspective, I feel successful when my team is working at full capacity. So, when I see that I have these colleagues who’ve got the right tools they need to do their work, and they’re getting it all done, pushing things in different directions. It like, “Okay. I’ve done my job here”; I’ve either supported them in some way or created the environment for them to do their best work. 

And then on the opposite end of success, what has your biggest failure taught you? 

It’s a really interesting question that I get asked and kind of struggle with. I really tried to avoid failure—I’m a classic case of “You must succeed,” “You must get good marks,” “You have to do things in a certain order.” That’s how we’re raised, both in school and at home—to avoid failure. I like to say I’m like a reformed anti-failure addict, I now see the incredible value of failure. The reality is that as an organization that’s super entrepreneurial, and I like to think of as almost constantly in the start-up phase, there are failures every day. There are approaches that we take that just don’t work. There’s ‘smart mistakes’ that get made. 

I like to tell the team that failure is like learning leapfrog. You get so much learning packed in so quickly when you actually fail at something, because it’s all laid out in front of you. I’ve moved forward with how important failure is, and how important it is to talk about it, to highlight it and not hide it. We certainly do that on our team all the time, so that people know failure can be a really good thing—smart failure. I don’t mean not applying what we already know, of course, I’m talking about failing smart, 

It’s also what we want to instill in kids, and it’s really difficult because the school system is designed to have kids avoid failure for their entire school career, right? So when we talk to kids in high school and say “Look, you gotta take more risks. You gotta be willing to learn from failure.” They say, “No way, I’m not doing anything that’s going to impact my marks negatively.” They know it’s important, but they just can’t take that risk. And so that’s part of what we’re trying to do with our programs, give kids the space to experiment and to fail and to learn from that failure. So when they get into the workforce they’re innovating, they’re thinking in an entrepreneurial way because they’re not afraid of that failure.

Kind of backing up here, earlier you mentioned a time when girls didn’t think they could explore STEM. Why is it important to you, and for the industry as a whole to share that skillset with young girls?

There’s so many reasons, but first, it doesn’t make sense for a field like science and engineering and technology to leave out half of the population in terms of workforce. These are fields that are facing major workforce gaps. It just doesn’t make any sense not to take advantage of our full human resource potential in the country. From a very practical perspective, economic perspective and pure science perspective, the results just aren’t as good. If you’re only doing research and looking at an issue from one world view, you get that kind of a result. 

We need female perspectives at the table to achieve the full potential of those of those fields. This is critically important in computer science. When we look at data sets that are driving artificial intelligence, again, we want to make sure that women’s voices are equally present and that their data is equally considered, so that we’re not living in a world that is designed entirely by men. Because we’re on the ground in so many different communities, we also see that the societal messages about who can do science and technology are still very strong and very stereotyped. So, we need to continue talking about the societal issue.

It’s not an issue with girls, a lack of interest or a lack of ability. It’s all about that societal construct that that can harm girls from the beginning, so this is long-term work. We’ll always be doing this, and celebrating when we make progress—and we have made progress, but it needs to continue. The voice still needs to be strong, people need to know that this very much is still an issue.

We have incredible work to do at the leadership levels within science and tech companies, within the startup community, and certainly on boards. All of those things are still massive issues that need attention.

What piece of advice would you want to give women in the STEM fields who are trying to get into it, or who are in it currently? 

The advice that I give the most, whether it’s to my staff, to my girlfriends or to my kids is to be unapologetic about asking for what you want. Just ask for it, and don’t be deterred by an immediate, “No.” This tends to work really well in my professional life… sometimes in my personal life, it doesn’t work so well… but just not taking no for an answer. Especially if it’s something you think you deserve or something that you believe in. 

Whether that is asking for a raise, asking for a different position or asking for a seat at the table. Whether it’s asking for a program, a product or an approach that you know is valuable and valid, just keep asking. Reframe it, build a stronger case, ask someone else, but keep asking for what you want. There’s so many examples, and I still see it all the time, people just don’t ask. They have things they want to achieve or want to do, and they—especially women, do not ask. So I say to just ask for what you want in an unapologetic way. 

And well that would be advice to all women in STEM. Do you have any specific advice that you would give to your younger self? 

I would say, just generally coming back to failure, don’t be afraid to make more mistakes and take more risks—especially when I was younger and had a lot less responsibility. Know that it will be okay doing things at your own pace; you’ll still get to the place that you want to get to. 

Then the other thing I would say is that you know way more than you give yourself credit for. Especially in the early days when I was running this organization, fundraising and working at all different these levels while I was in my early twenties; I struggled with thinking, “Is this the right way to do it? Is it a legitimate business? Like, am I a legitimate CEO?” I felt like I needed someone to validate that I was doing things the right way, or that I needed a business degree to validate starting a business. 

We say this to youth all the time, “You are not an empty vessel that we are filling up. You already have incredible skills and incredible strengths and you know a lot. Your experiences and your voice are already valid, and you are very, very smart.” 

So that’s a big one for me: you know way more than you give yourself credit for.