Ria Riaz, winner of Startup Weekend Peel

How To Seed A Movement – encouraging young women to explore tech-based ideas

“People who didn’t see me pitch automatically assumed it was a guy’s idea, which to me was mind boggling”

said Ria Riaz, conceptualizer and founding member of StartUp Weekend Peel’s winning team, Access EZ.

She’s not alone — one of the great divides in the STEM industry is the gender disparity that leaves women in these fields at a disadvantage; crippling their ability to meet the demands of the current workforce and build successful careers. It’s no secret that gender disparities need to be dealt with, and it starts with women in STEM taking advantage of opportunities to deconstruct the myths that undermine their capabilities.

One such forum, StartUp Weekend, is a globally recognized non-profit organization and platform for entrepreneurs to pitch ideas, collaborate with cross-functional teams, and launch promising ventures in a span of 54 hours.

This year, one StartUp Weekend chapter decided to do things a little differently. StartUp Weekend Peel, held in Ontario in early June, made a bold declaration: They wanted to be the first StartUp Weekend event worldwide to achieve gender parity. This year, through proactive outreach and by leveraging their advocates, they achieved this success.

StartUp Weekend Peel organizer Saadia Muzaffar stated: “Although this is a small step in moving the needle forward in creating parity as an essential tenet of technology and creative careers, it is both encouraging and telling that we were able to demonstrate that with prioritization and team effort, it is possible to create spaces and opportunities that are representational, open and welcoming to all.”

Ria Riaz is one of the women who took advantage of the opportunity to change perceptions. She is the the Digital Media Strategist at Bitmaker Labs and Toronto Chapter Lead at Girls Raising, an organization that provides women entrepreneurs with resources to start, build, fund and grow businesses. Her winning business idea, Access EZ, is a crowd sourced accessibility mapping tool that allows users to find out whether a place is wheelchair accessible. It also allows users to edit the maps and add on to them to assist others.

We interviewed Ria about her experiences as a competitor and female entrepreneur at StartUp Weekend, and her empowering advice for women in STEM:
Ria and the winning team.1. How would you describe your experience with StartUp Weekend?
The experience was extraordinary. I have mentored at StartUp Weekend before and have attended demos several times but this was the first time ever that I managed to muster up the courage to pitch. Needless to say, it was a nerve-wracking experience, albeit a rewarding one!

2. What were the challenges you faced with the team and also the product?
My first challenge was that the idea was not selected as the top eight popular ideas. However, one other attendee believed in me and the concept and hustled to form a team. (Thank you, Harpreet!)

The second biggest challenge was coming up with the revenue generation model. My concern was that I wanted to make the app so that those in need can benefit from it and it was hard to come up with a business model that seemed ethical. I guess that is the biggest challenge for tech for good but the weekend taught me to strike a balance between solving a problem while generating revenue. The team was awesome!

3. What are some of the challenges faced by women in STEM fields?
There are as many challenges as there are opportunities. Listing the challenges is just going to make me sound like a broken record and a really bad one at that. Don’t let anything stand in your way and strive for excellence in everything that you do. Do your best and the challenges will, one by one, turn into opportunities.

4. Is there anything else you want to add?
One of my favorite quotes is by Calamity Jane, “I figure if a girl wants to be a legend, she should go ahead and be one.” I believe that is something every girl should strive to live by but it takes effort and dedication. There is a lot of support available and I urge more women to come forward and be a more active part of the industry and community. Participate in hackathons, in StartUp Weekends, show up at community events and support one another. All this so that being a woman in STEM fields becomes the status quo and questions such as “what are the challenges faced by women in STEM fields” will not have to be asked.

Judges at Startup Weekend Peel.

Judges at Startup Weekend Peel.

Written by Aathira Kottapurath & Julie Tyios
Photos provided by Nikki Tudico: nikkilambtudico.com