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GirlBoss’ founder is the youngest person ever chosen to go on a NASA SOFIA mission

GirlBoss founder Alexia Hilbertidou, who is 18 years of age, has been working to get more girls into STEM careers the past two years, with almost 8000 women now members of the GirlBoss network. Now, her efforts to increase diversity in tech have scored her an invite to be the youngest person to go on a mission with NASA for its SOFIA project. 

GirlBoss was founded in 2015 to encourage and empower more young women to venture bravely forth in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, where women are underrepresented on both an national and international basis.

Hilbertidou founded the business while at Albany Senior High School on Auckland’s North Shore. She says the idea for GirlBoss was sparked to encourage young women to think ambitiously and consider fields in which they are underrepresented in.

“Only two percent of New Zealand’s NZX50 CEOs are women - at GirlBoss, we’re changing that,” she says. “We want women's voices at the board table so that policies reflect the diverse nature of our society.”

Other statistics don’t paint a pretty picture for the representation of women in STEM, either: In New Zealand, the July 2016 Absolute IT Remuneration Report shows women make up only 21 percent of the tech workforce - the same as last year, and up only 2 percent on 2013.

Meanwhile, over in Silicon Valley, Google’s diversity stats released in July showed only 19 percent of the company's technical roles are held by women, while over at Facebook, the figure is 17 percent.

Hilbertidou says recent reports that have emerged, such as the World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs  have found that the rise of automation is going to impact on women in particular, due to them being more likely to work in fields that are highly likely to be automated (like administration and retail).

“If we do not take action to ensure women are equipped with future-focused skills, we can expect mass-unemployment and growing gender and social inequity,” Hilbertidou says.

“Ensuring that women are equipped with 21st century skills is not a nicety, it is a necessity.”

But she says GirlBoss is making in-roads to change this. Since it was formed, it has grown to encompass nearly 8000 members, while Hilbertidou says it has had an impact of tens of thousands of young New Zealanders.

It also attracted corporate sponsorship from Xero, KPMG, Chorus and BNZ, which helped it hold an interactive Careers Expo stall in Christchurch and Auckland that promoted women getting involved in STEM. Nearly 3000 women signed up to become members, while 291 signed up to become ambassadors.

But Hilbertidou is most proud of the work it’s doing in schools with its one-day workshops.

While the company is currently looking for a corporate sponsor to roll the idea out further, the workshops it has hosted so far in schools are customised for each audience and explore themes effecting women’s careers, such as the future of work, entrepreneurship, confidence, leadership, and wellbeing.

Hilbertidou says she’s inspired by the feedback they receive from students who attend them.

“Attendees are leaving empowered, engaged and ready to foster change within their communities,” she says.

Her efforts to get New Zealand women into STEM haven’t gone unnoticed internationally, either. She is the youngest person to ever be invited by the United States ambassador to New Zealand, Scott Brown, and NASA, to be part of NASA’s SOFIA Project and ride onboard NASA’s 747 jumbo jet during an overnight mission while the crew seek out new stars and planets. Past passengers on similar VIP missions include Dr Michelle Dickinson.

The Boeing 747 Special Performance jetliner used for the mission is the world's largest flying observatory. It has been heavily modified for star gazing, with a 17-ton, eight-foot telescope mounted behind a 16-by-23-foot door that opens up the infrared telescope to the skies. The aircraft will travel at -70C towards Antartica over the Southern Ocean. On previous trips, passengers have been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Aurora Australis (the Southern lights).

Hilbertidou says it’s a privilege to have been asked to be a part of the special mission.

“The pursuit of science and knowledge is and will always be the reason that humanity moves forward,” she says. “To be 45,000 feet high with some of the most intelligent NASA scientists alive today is mind blowing, and will allow me to bring future-focused global learnings back into my own community, and beyond.”

The flight will leave from Christchurch airport on Friday 14 July.