Every time we speak up about the lack of women in tech and related fields, we’re told that it’s not because companies don’t want to hire them – it’s because statistically fewer women train in STEM (science, tech, engineering and maths) subjects and thus the pool of candidates is smaller. Well, while statistics from the Institute of Engineering and Technology would disagree (50% of STEM enrolments at university are female, if you include the majority-female medicine field), it’s fair to say that women are still under-represented on core STEM courses like Physics (39.9%) and Computer Science (17.4%).
Gangly Sister Productions are hoping to change that. The US-based startup is working on a comic book series to encourage girls to get excited about science and tech, and hopefully pursue that passion to an eventual career in STEM. Starring the distinctly un-princessy Purple and Nine, the comics are down-to-earth, funny and relatable – childhood me would have loved them.
We spoke to Rebecca Rachmany, one of the company’s founders, to hear more about what Gangly Sister’s trying to do and what we can expect from the adventures of Purple and Nine.
1. Gangly Sister Productions is an amazing name! Can you tell us a bit about the company?
The three original founders are entrepreneurs who have run profitable companies in technology. We might be the only comic book producer that calls itself a “startup,” because we all come from tech and that’s what you call a new business in that industry.
Miriam and myself were having lunch one day, and we were talking about the lack of women in tech. I went to college in the 80s and said “Didn’t we think this problem was solved 20 years ago? I was absolutely sure when I finished college that this was behind us. Where did we go wrong?” We talked about VC funding, college majors, high school programs, and STEM initiatives for girls, and we kept saying, “No, it starts earlier.” You can overcome any obstacle if you want to become an engineer or entrepreneur — but you have to want to. You have to value that or have that as part of your identity.” Girls are encouraged to value good relationships, good looks, and motherhood. Boys are encouraged to value smarts and money.
It’s no wonder that in that value system, you have women dropping out of technology and entrepreneurship because of the idea you need to give up your entire life to succeed. That’s a myth, by the way. What we always loved about entrepreneurship was making our own hours. Miriam and I are active moms and Ofer is an active dad. Sometimes that means we are exchanging mail at midnight, because the afternoon was spent making sandcastles.
In any case, it seemed to us that if we wanted more women in tech, we needed to plant the seeds in girls’ minds when they are developing their dreams about who they want to be when they grow up.
Regarding the name, Gangly Sister, it refers to that age of adolescence when your arms and legs seem to grow to the wrong lengths and you feel awkward. Although we’re targeting a younger audience, we liked the imagery. We all feel awkward at times, and we all have those moments when we don’t fit in, especially as geek girls. We loved the name and it just fit.
2. Your first project is a comic book about characters called Purple and Nine. Can you tell us a bit about them? How did you come up with the characters?
The premise behind the comic book is to get children excited about technology based on the results they can get. In other words, technology, at its core, is about contribution. Is your friend falling asleep in class? Technology can help. Do you want to cure malaria? Technology. Is your ice cream dripping on Mum’s clean floor? Yes, that, too, can be resolved through technology. I’m not saying we don’t take some fair jabs at corporations or regulatory bodies. We do that, but we don’t portray any of those organizations as evil. We wanted to create plot lines where nobody has to be defeated or destroyed.
The comic book is our third project with Purple and Nine. One of the core values we want to instil in future scientists and entrepreneurs is that you aren’t going to succeed on your first try, so I don’t want to pretend that we succeeded on our first project. You need to try a lot of things to find the one that works.
The first project was a video we did more than 10 years ago to pitch the idea to children’s television networks. That was before the days of YouTube. We had no connections in the entertainment industry and we had some interest. Also, the idea of girl protagonists in a techie show was way over the heads of the producers. We shelved it after about a year. We haven’t shared that before, but if you are really interested, you can go over and check it out here.
The second project was the updated video we released in January 2014. We came back to the project in 2013 after Miriam and I had lunch again. We’d just been approached by Microsoft Ventures and another large company to create a startup to solve a problem they were having finding the right companies to invest in. We did some initial research and found it was worth pursuing but during that fateful lunch we asked two questions:
- “How fulfilled will we be in 5 years if this is what we devoted our lives to, get all those great connections Microsoft can give us, and it’s wildly successful, we’re rich and we are known all over the world as the ladies who solved this problem?”
- “How fulfilled will we be in 5 years if we go back to Purple and Nine, start from scratch, devote our lives to it, and at the end are anonymous and bankrupt?”
The answer was clear. Our daughters, 10 years later, still were asking about Purple and Nine. That’s what we wanted our lives to be about.
Any startup is going to swallow your life for a few years, and the chances of success are slim, so you had better be super passionate. Obviously, our intention is for Purple and Nine to be wildly successful, become rich and all that. You may or may not become successful doing what you love, but you get the privilege of doing what you love every day, which is one of the secrets to happiness. So we went with Gangly Sister and came up with the second pilot.
Creating the characters Purple and Nine was a group effort. Our original creative team was Ofer Rubin and Michael G. Church, who probably the best writer I know. Along with Miriam and myself, we sat around and talked about the characters. We brought in my daughter, Maya as well.
It was important to us to appeal to the largest range of girls possible. We wanted to address the issues of self-expression versus fitting in, so we created a tension where Purple is a middle child, concerned with how to be accepted in her family and in school, while Nine is a single child and just blurts out whatever she thinks.
We also wanted to emphasise that you don’t need to be a geek or even love science to become an entrepreneur. Purple loves robotics and science, but Nine doesn’t have any particular affinity for STEM. Despite that, Nine is the leader because she is always trying to solve problems for her friends and penpals. She might be ignorant about how to implement the technology, but it’s irrelevant because she cares deeply and surrounds herself with the right resources (Purple and Ferret).
3. How will you be getting the comic book into kids’ hands? Will there be more media featuring Purple and Nine?
We will be releasing digital comics that can be viewed on any tablet or smartphone, and PDF versions as well. We aren’t necessarily targeting comic book fans and collectors, so digital format makes sense. When the books take off, we’ll consider print runs, in particular in countries where children might not have smartphones and can chip in for a comic book they can share.
The intention is to make a webseries, but we aren’t pursuing that right now. The return on investment just isn’t clear with online video today. You need an audience of millions to turn a profit. Our mission is to reach as many girls as possible, and we can only do that if we have a financially viable company. Comic books are a great start.
For us the natural development will be to build up a big enough audience for the comic books that we can put out bi-weekly or weekly comics, and from there move to creating apps. We have a ton of ideas for apps that will have girls doing all kinds of activities that will give them the skills, confidence and creativity to become entrepreneurs and inventors. That’s next. The videos will probably be last, both because of the development time for 3D animation and because of the return on investment.
4. What are you aiming to achieve with the comic book? How will you know if you’ve succeeded?
Our goal is to reach a million girls and to transform how girls are portrayed in the media. The video had 70,000 views, and if we reach that number with the comics, that’ll be enough for us financially to have a comic out every 2 weeks.
Success means different things to different people. For Gangly Sister, success would mean that girls make up 50% of the characters in children’s movies, television shows and comic books, and that those characters are representative of a wide range of personalities, preferences and cultures. It would mean a dramatic drop in sales of merchandise of the overly feminine and sexualised toys for girls ages 7 and over.
For me personally, every day I contribute to someone is a success, and that’s most days.
5. What’s next for Gangly Sister?
We’re focused right now on the comics, so our next goal is building up a great team, including comic book artists and marketing managers.
This summer, we’re going to be putting out some sneak previews of the comics to our subscribers and fan clubs, so if you want to be in on some secrets available prior to the official launch, you’ll want to either join our mailing list or email us.
Gangly Sister, this has been awesome. Thanks so much for talking to us – we can’t wait to see more from Purple and Nine.