Inside one designer\’s career championing STEM for girls

Janese Swanson is an American innovator and software developer who has advocated for girls’ education in STEM throughout her decades-long career. She codeveloped the first of the Carmen Sandiego educational games and is the founder of Girl Tech, a first-of-its-kind company that created products to spark young girls’ interest in technology. She spoke to Doreen Lorenzo for Designing Women, a series of interviews with brilliant women in the design industry.

Doreen Lorenzo: When did you first realize you had an interest in design?

Janese Swanson: I was interested in education, technology, and design from early on. I come from a family of engineers and artists, so as a child I loved getting things like typewriters and tape recorders and taking them apart to see how they worked then trying to put them back together. My father was an air traffic controller and trumpet player in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, and my mother was an artist. I’d watch her paint and create everyday. She’d take interest in things like silversmithing to learn how to make jewelry out of turquoise rocks she collected from nature. My stepfather was a carpenter, so he helped my mom with making things, and I’d spend a lot of time with him in the family garage as he worked on projects. They all contributed to my interest in design and helped me grow up with a design-thinking, problem-solving and creative mindset.

Janese Swanson

How did your interests evolve throughout your studies?

I flourished in college because I loved learning new things. I also loved a good challenge. I was a student at San Diego State when my math professor gave us the choice of taking a final test or doing a project where he had to program data cards in the computer lab. There was a new tech company called Apple coming up at the time, so I jumped at the opportunity to choose the project and get some hands-on tech experience. I went down to the computer lab and met all the young guys there. Back then, there were no women in the room. I was the only one. Still, I saw how important it was to collaborate with other programmers, exchange each of our expertise, and combine it into one program.

We all learned different ways to code from one another. When I finished my project and created a working program, it blew my mind because all it took was me entering data points, letters, and numbers to get there. It was pretty fascinating to see that language with analytics. Later, when I had my first teaching job, I taught my students to program using BASIC code as part of their math lessons and even added in fun coding programs for them to play with as a reward.

How did you end up at Broderbund Software?

I graduated from San Diego State in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies. Right out of college, I taught elementary school, then went on to become a flight attendant. I decided to take a leave from flying to attend Berkeley for my master’s in education and ended up having my baby girl. Between studying and parenting, I managed the computer department for My Child’s Destiny, a store created by the founders of Victoria’s Secret. At My Child’s Destiny, I would often use this software published by Broderbund called The Print Shop.

While working at the store, I got to meet a representative from Broderbund and then applied for a job as a product manager at the company. I remember being nervous in my interview. I had just had my baby, and I wasn’t sure I could handle such an important role. Then my soon-to-be boss Ann Kronen told me, “Let’s see, UC Berkeley in education and tech, managing an entire tech storefront of software, and you’re raising a child? I think you can handle it!”

I was hired into this analytical yet highly creative environment immersed in technology where I got to work with and learn from so many talented people. At Broderbund, I produced educational computer games like Playroom, Treehouse, and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? My focus was educational play, or “edutainment.” I was creating products that challenge your thinking and learning as well as opportunities for fun—to enjoy the creativity of play because really, playing is learning.

What motivated you to explore and confront gender issues in the design industry?

I grew up with two brothers, and I was one of the eldest, so I didn’t leave the gate fully aware of the gender discrimination out there, but I sure discovered it along the way. I learned there was a certain way people thought about the role of women in society, our work choices, and how we raised our families. I had my own challenges in the workplace with bro culture. But as a woman, I think I was able to connect on deeper levels with people, and you end up becoming the leader. I’d form relationships with my male colleagues and use empathy to understand their motivations. It was rewarding because that’s how we were able to successfully work together as a team. I deeply cared for my team. I’m still in contact with many of them.

When I transitioned from the software industry into the toy industry, I knew that because I was a woman I needed every bit of credibility that I could have to stand out. I decided to continue learning and further my education by pursuing my doctorate in organization and leadership technology. For me, it was a calling card, access in the door. During my doctoral research on gender issues in product design, I found that it wasn’t only men closing doors to women, but sometimes women were also not supporting other women in the field. Not only do I wish for men to be by our side when we’re standing up for ourselves, but also for all women to support each other. That’s what you had to do in order to survive in the industry. Be smart, be aware, and bring other women with you. We have to strive to get us all in the same place to create together.

[Images: courtesy Janese Swanson]

What led to your founding Girl Tech?

I eventually left Broderbund to start my own company. I had produced hit product lines, so I didn’t think that it would be as hard as it was to get funding. But there weren’t any women-funding companies. I was always meeting with men to talk about children’s education. I didn’t get their investments, but I did it anyway, with credit cards, myself and my little girl, and a team of really great people who believed in my mission.

Before Girl Tech, I started a company called Kid One For Fun, but our first licensed toy ended up being marketed exclusively to boys. At that point, all of the commercials for the products I had designed only featured boys playing with all the different devices. The girls were always the props that pleaded to play with the invention toy. A discriminate pattern was so very visible. One day my little girl and I were sitting on the couch when we saw a commercial for Kid One For Fun’s first product, the Yak Bak. They hadn’t shown the commercial to me before they launched it, but sure enough it followed that same format. Then at the end of the commercial my daughter asked me, “Mom, why did they make it for boys?” That’s when I decided I’m going to build Girl Tech and make a product for her.

How did people respond to Girl Tech’s products and services?

The data at the time showed girls were behind in science, math, and technology. I didn’t want those barriers for my daughter or any girl. Our mission was to encourage girls to use technology. For two years after I founded the company, toy store buyers would say, ‘Can you make it pink?’ or ‘Can you make it for boys?’ And I would say, ‘No, this is what girls like to play with.’ I remember trying to get buyers at Toy Fair interested. Again, most were men. One buyer of the largest toy distribution chain told me Girl Tech would never sell! He turned me down. Then a female rep came to see my offerings, and we decided to fly to Target headquarters right then and there so I could pitch to Target.

After developing and selling popular Girl Tech products like the Password Journal and Door Pass over the next number of years, we eventually sold Girl Tech to what is now Mattel for $7 million, and I continued to follow my passion for education and became a STEM and art teacher. I know creating Girl Tech was the right thing for my daughter and for the girls of her generation. Now I work as an art gallery administrator and technology producer at the Bill Wyland Gallery. There’s a young woman there who took all these coding classes. She doesn’t even realize how good she is as a coder, but I’m encouraging her to keep learning.

What advice would you give to women aspiring to have a career in design or STEM?

You have to make some choices along the way. Everything changes, and there are always new jobs. It’s a good idea to strategize about the direction you want to take and follow that path with an open mind, so you’re ready to make changes along the way.

Learn as much as you can because that’s your ammunition to success. For women entering STEM fields, expect to have roadblocks, but know that with determination you’ll overcome them. And remember, when you work for a company, you are not owned by them. Your soul is yours, your life and creativity are yours, and you can choose how you want to live this life. Strive to develop, share, and contribute your ideas that make our world a better place for us all. Work with a team because ideas are often put together with talent from many minds. We are here in this life together.