Randi Zuckerberg, the technology executive and entrepreneur behind Zuckerberg Media, doesn’t do things in the traditional way. A strong advocate for STEM education, particularly for females, Zuckerberg has firsthand experienced being an outlier — she describes how, in her early days in Silicon Valley, she was often the only woman in a room full of tech executives or investors. She’s since launched a slew of endeavors, including a book and TV show, aimed at getting young girls interested in science or technology.
True to form, when it came time for her to pick a location for her latest education-focused venture, she looked beyond the traditional tech coasts. Zuckerberg was planning a restaurant pop-up, which she named Sue’s Tech Kitchen, that aimed to serve as a high-tech Chuck E. Cheese. With stations that used edible treats for 3D-printing, coding, and playing with liquid nitrogen, families at the pop-up would be able to get their hands dirty with food, all in the name of exploring science and technology.
Despite her business roots in Silicon Valley and current home in New York, Zuckerberg chose to launch the beta of the pop-up restaurant in the Innovation District of Chattanooga, TN. Zuckerberg says she was impressed by the commitment of Chattanooga’s startup leaders to help entrepreneurs, and points towards smaller cities as being the next drivers of innovation.
Zuckerberg shares more on the importance of exposing children, especially girls, to technology, why she thinks the southern tech scene is thriving, and what’s next for her sweet pop-up venture.
When did you first realize there was a gender gap in the tech industry?
When I was working in Silicon Valley I was often the only woman in any given room at any given time. And if I went to any kind of investor meeting or met with venture capitalists, then I was the only woman in a boardroom full of men who couldn’t relate to anything feminine. They would often shut down ideas before they heard the entire pitch because they couldn’t see a market outside of their own male mindset.
It was actually inspiring because it forced to me to take matters in my own hands.
When did you first decide to dedicate your time and many of your passion projects to closing that gap?
There was no lightning bolt moment when I first decided to focus on closing the gender gap. It was more that I was seeing STEM being promoted without young girls and women as part of the equation. Since our passions usually begin as children, girls need to be given the same opportunities to fall in love with technology and engineering as boys do. That starts by having positive female role models that they could relate to, so I started creating them myself. And the rest, they say, is HER-story.
In your opinion, what deters children from pursuing STEM skills and careers?
For girls, I think it’s from the lack of role models — where’s the female ‘Dexter’s Laboratory’ or Jill Nal the Science Gal? Girls need to see someone that looks like them to want to be like them. It’s also very important that both parents and teachers have the proper learning to teach STEM skills to begin with. So we need more STEM-trained teachers in these fields as well.
How is Sue’s Tech Kitchen making technology and science more fun for kids?
At Sue’s we’ve taken family dining and made it interactive, inclusive and fun for everyone. Kids (and adults) are having these hands-on experiences where they can actually create their own 3D printed food, code robots using candy, and program the design of the dining table. My hope is that these moments of learning and fun, education and sharing — the intersection of growth and enjoyment — sticks with these kids, encouraging them to seek out other STEM experiences.
It’s quite possible that one of the many children who visited Sue’s could one day find a cure for cancer or colonize the moon. It’s important that kids get exposed to the possibilities first.
You launched STK in Chattanooga, not one of the more “traditional” tech hubs like Silicon Valley or New York. What fueled your decision to bring the pop-up there first?
Chattanooga is a beacon of industry that is often overlooked because it’s not one of the more popular coastal cities. But I say people are missing out! In 2010, Chattanooga claimed the title of first municipality to install a citywide gigabit network. Seven years later Chattanooga has added an extra $850 million to the local economy, despite the loss of three major factories in the area. Plus, an entire 140-acre section of downtown Chattanooga has been designated the Innovation District. Startups, nonprofits and government entities work side-by-side, making Chattanooga the perfect city to launch an innovative and forward-thinking company.
How do you see second or third-tier tech cities, like those in the South, contributing towards the tech industry as a whole?
Major coastal cities are becoming too expensive for individuals to afford, much less startups, which makes smaller cities much more desirable. Office space is cheaper and colleges in the area can help drive innovation through its local talent.
Plus, smaller cities are paving the way for entrepreneurs. Just look at cities like Detroit, which has 50 percent more venture-backed startups then it did three years ago. Or Cincinnati, who ranked Number 7 in 10 Cities Secretly Great for Tech College Grads’ by DataFox. And companies in Indianapolis — a city better known for manufacturing — has planned on creating almost 4,000 new jobs this year, with two-thirds in the tech sector!
What is next for STK?
We have some very exciting plans brewing. We’re currently working with collaborators, sponsors and idea makers who want to help Sue’s tech-infused family dinners tour the country. Without giving too much away, let’s just say I’m chipping away at that gender gap one pop-up restaurant at a time.