Beyond Pink and Fluffy: Janese Swanson
by Martha Davidson
| As a girl growing up in the 1960s, Janese Swanson never dreamed of being an inventor. Although fascinated by technology, she had never heard of any women inventors or engineers. Society seemed to be telling her that careers in technology were for men only. Today, as the head of her own company, Girl Tech, Dr. Janese Swanson develops products and services that encourage girls to use new technologies, such as the Internet. Her mission is to help change society's perceptions of girls and girls' perceptions of themselves. "There is a real need in our culture," Swanson says, "to introduce girls to technology-based products and electronics at an early age. It not only increases girls' self-esteem, but helps to broaden the opportunities available to them in the future."
Girl Tech, founded in 1995, has already published four books on technology for girls, launched a web site (www.girltech.com), produced a magazine, and invented a line of electronic gadgets that empower girls to use technology. In the process, Swanson has challenged attitudes towards girls in the toy and consumer products industries and the media as well as in schools, in the home, and among girls themselves. Her understanding of girls' abilities, preferences, and needs is based not only on her personal experience as a woman, teacher, and mother, but also on years of professional training as an educator and developer of software products. She holds seven degrees in the field of education, including an Ed.D. in Organization and Leadership, and before setting out on her own, she was instrumental in the development of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and the Playroom/Treehouse series. She has been recognized in Ms. Magazine's "Women of the Year" issue (January 1997) and received numerous other awards.
Her path to becoming an inventor and CEO of Girl Tech was an indirect one. It began in San Diego, California, where she was the second oldest of six children in a single-parent family. As their sole supporter, her mother often worked two jobs, and much of the responsibility for her younger siblings and for the household fell on Janese. Her interest in children thus began when she was young, as did her concern with management and organization. Because the family lived on a tight budget, Janese learned to repair broken appliances, and she discovered she had a talent for and love of tinkering with machines. In her introduction to the book Tech Girl's Internet Adventures, she recalls:
As a young girl, I was interested in technology in many forms. One year, for example, I received a typewriter as a gift. I played around with typing, tried out some of the exercises, and soon decided it was boring. It would be much more interesting, I thought, to take the machine apart and see for myself how it worked. So I did, and I figured it out and changed the keys around so I could type in my own secret code.
Another memorable childhood incident was her attempt to get a newspaper route. She was the best bicyclist in the neighborhood, and she thought it would be fun to deliver papers and a good way to earn money; but when she went to apply for a job, she was turned down because she was not a boy! The distributor would allow only boys to deliver its papers. She complained to her mother, but was told, "There are some things you just have to accept." It was that same year that she watched the television broadcast of astronauts walking on the moon and fantasized about becoming an astronaut--until she realized that astronauts, too, were all men.
Her grandfather had other possibilities in mind for her: he wanted her to become a fashion model. Despite her lack of enthusiasm, a modeling agency hired her as a cover girl. Her experience in modeling proved to be valuable for two reasons: during the photo shoots she became involved with styling and layouts, discovering she had a talent for design; and she experienced first-hand the values of "lookism," the attitude that one's worth is judged by one's appearance, and learned how superficial and destructive those values can be, especially to women.
Her next experience was in retail sales. While in high school, she worked part-time at Sears. She was the youngest and only female salesperson in the television and sound system department, but her technical knowledge combined with her flair for selling earned her sales awards.
Ultimately, Swanson found that education was what interested her most, and teaching was a career long open to women. In 1981, with a B.A. in liberal studies and a teaching credential from San Diego State University, she started teaching elementary school in San Diego. But she was laid off, along with nearly forty of her colleagues, when the school system ran short of funds. Unable to find another teaching position, she briefly returned to modeling and finally gained employment as a flight attendant.
While working for the airline, Swanson started her first entrepreneurial venture: she persuaded a local computer store to provide her and several other flight attendants with laptop computers, which they used in their time off to teach computer skills. The teaching was done for small groups in private homes, much in the manner of a Tupperware party.
To keep active as an educator, Swanson registered as a substitute teacher in cities on her routes. Because she was interested in children and how they learn, she invented games to amuse them on her flights. Some of the games involved geography and later contributed to the popular software program Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, which she helped develop in her next job as a product manager for Broderbund Software. She worked at Broderbund for four years, leading teams in developing educational computer games for kids, including Playroom and Treehouse. She wanted to know more about the minds and play patterns of preschoolers, and while at Broderbund she headed a project to design a new interface that could be used with this age group. This experience in development of children's products propelled her to start her own company.
Working in the software industry had given her an insider's understanding of the corporate world. While she felt the knowledge was valuable, she did not enjoy the experience. She was much more interested in "true learning organizations," in which innovation and open communication are encouraged at all levels, and she wanted to create a company with a different management style. She was excited about the potential of sound recording chips and voice recognition technology and had ideas for several new products. She was also concerned about the dearth of technological toys for girls.
In 1987, her daughter, Jackie, was born. As a parent, Swanson became even more sensitized to gender issues in toys. She pursued this interest in graduate school (taking Jackie with her to evening and weekend classes), culminating in a dissertation on technology, gender issues, and children's play preferences. Swanson was aware that the technological toy industry aimed almost all products at boys. She explained her findings in an article in the San Francisco Business Times (April 4-10, 1997):
Research shows that girls have been left out of technology. A child's introduction to the world of technology is often through video and software games, and technology toys. However, existing technology companies focus almost exclusively on the tried and true boy's market. . . . Although half of the world's population is female, and over $45 billion is spent by girls in retail purchases every year, leaders in the commercial technology industry have not considered girls as a potential market. . . . In their minds, and quickly developing in the minds of a generation of girls, was the idea that girls do not enjoy, relate to, or use technology (e.g., computers, video games, electronics.)
She left Broderbund and set up her first company, Kid One for Fun, Inc., in 1992 to market her ideas. The company's first licensed product was a voice recording chip in a hand-held device that could appeal to both girls and boys. Swanson was excited when Yes! Entertainment wanted to produce the toy, which it marketed under the name YakBak®. But when she and Jackie saw the first YakBak® commercial, they were horrified! It showed a boy using the YakBak® to argue with his sister while he ignored her. When Jackie asked her mother, "Why did they make them for boys?" Swanson knew she had to find a way to design and market technology toys for girls.
In 1995, after licensing other electronic toys, including one sold by Tiger Electronics as TalkBoy FX®, Swanson started her second company, Girl Tech. It was difficult at first. With limited finances, the company operated out of her living room. But this time, with her accumulated wisdom and experience, an ever-expanding network of contacts, and great determination and persistence, she was able to succeed. She found people with the skills needed to make a strong and effective team.
I slapped down my credit cards and opened my home to a few believers who were willing to work for pennies to make the dream come true. All along, there have been people committed to making the industry and the world more receptive and encouraging to girls' abilities. Not surprisingly, most are women and fathers of daughters. Though none of them had much money, they had a wealth of talent, ideas, and motivation which brought us to where we are today: Girl Tech.
It was the kind of work environment she had been seeking: a creative, true learning organization, which over time began to feel like a family. And it was one in which her own family was involved, with both her mother and Jackie contributing creative ideas, time, and talent to Girl Tech product development.
Today, Girl Tech offers a line of electronic toys and gadgets; a popular web site called Club Girl Tech; and a line of publications that includes a magazine called GirlZine and books that deal with technology and other issues that matter to pre-teen and young teen girls.
Girl Tech's line of gadgets comes in jazzy combinations of orange, lime green, purple and other colors--not in the stereotypical pink that other companies use to designate products for girls. Girl Tech products include the Safe-N-Sound Notebook®, which opens through voice recognition technology; a room protector Door Pass® that requires a voice print match for access; and Athena's Gems®, a game where girls pose questions and receive positive advice.
The web site, Club Girl Tech, was launched on MS. Magazine's Take-Your-Daughter-to-Work Day, 1995--the same day that Swanson defended her dissertation at the University of San Francisco. Jackie was with her for both events--and accompanied her across the stage in cap and gown when Swanson received her Ed.D. diploma.
Club Girl Tech offers over 400 web pages geared for girls, with games, a diary, an advice column, and features on sports, invention, science, and women role models. There is a special area to foster communication between girls and boys, and sections for teachers and for parents/mentors. The site has pages in several languages and receives over two million hits a month from more than eighty countries. (Visit GirlTech yourself to learn more about the site as well as about GirlTech's products and publications.)
Girl Tech also works with community groups. Swanson developed a technology curriculum for several Girl Scout councils (with a new Girl Scout patch for computer activities) and collaborated with the YWCA to create a National Tech Girl Day after-school program.
In February, 1998, Swanson became the first inventor on the Lemelson Center's newly established Advisory Committee. And in March, she and her daughter Jackie were featured speakers in the Lemelson Center's Innovative Lives program, where they met with girls and teachers from four middle schools in the Washington, D.C., area, to talk about the activities and mission of Girl Tech.
Though she did not set out to be an inventor, Janese Swanson's innate curiosity, creativity, and desire for change led her to become one. Now she is opening doors for a new generation of girls to develop technological capabilities that may lead them to become inventors themselves--or anything else they wish to be.
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All text and images © Smithsonian Institution. Updated 3 March