"I’m a person who wears many hats. Some days you’ll catch me as an entrepreneur. Other days you’ll catch me as a daughter, a sister, or a student. If you boil it down, the common denominator is that I’m a person who is trying to do something bigger than herself, and to help other people."
In celebration of International Day of the Girl, we’re spotlighting social entrepreneur Mylene Tu. A management engineering student at the University of Waterloo, Mylene is also the co-founder and CEO of Lumaki Labs (formerly FEM in STEM), a startup that helps connect students and employers through virtual internships. We chatted with Mylene about her goals for the startup, the gender disparity in STEM (the combined fields of science, technology, engineering, and math), and why she loves to “put a ring on” her accomplishments.
H&B: What was the inspiration behind your startup, Lumaki Labs, and what are your goals with it now?
As a female in engineering, I realized early on that there was a big disparity in the number of boys versus girls. Even when I was putting myself out there, going to events and conferences, I didn’t see much representation in terms of women and young people. That sparked me to start my first venture, FEM in STEM, which was a social enterprise to help empower other young women and provide them with resources to succeed in STEM.
Then last year, I started Lumaki Labs. It’s an edtech startup that focuses on revolutionizing the future of work through virtual internships. As a student, internships are invaluable in terms of gaining real world experience and just figuring out what adulting is like! For myself and my peers, a lot of these opportunities have disappeared or been canceled because of covid. At Lumaki, we saw an opportunity to shine a light on how people provide experiential learning and create opportunities for students to work virtually and attain experiences they might not have access to otherwise. The platform we’re currently building is designed to help employers recruit and onboard interns virtually.
Is there a way that these virtual internships are more accessible to women?
As a young woman in STEM, you do hear those horror stories about tech bros and how your ideas can get drowned out in meetings. But in a virtual setting—especially in times like these—everyone is looking for new connections and a sense of community, which I think translates to increased opportunity for women, but also just all people, to speak out. Traditionally, people look for internships close to home because it’s hard to pay rent or commute a lot when you’re an intern, but when things are virtual, you can access opportunities outside your home town. It also gives employers a chance to reach different demographics of people and diversify their talent pools.
What do you think are some barriers that prevent women from becoming involved in STEM in the first place?
One of the biggest things is exposure. I grew up in Windsor, Ontario, and so I didn’t really have a lot of exposure when it came to STEM fields. I originally entered university in chemical engineering, then broke into the technology and business side of things. But I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I didn’t have the opportunity to try different internships and stuff like that.
Another barrier is the way people talk about STEM in general. There’s a big move towards empowering women in STEM, but I’m hopeful that one day we no longer have to emphasize the fact that there’s a gender disparity. I want it to become really normal for everyone to have equal access and resources. When I ran FEM in STEM, a lot of young women would ask, “How should I deal with any kind of discrimination from male peers?” But the number one thing I always said was that you shouldn't be thinking about how you’ll react or respond to that stuff—you should just be thinking about your own career path and your success.
Using our business model as a force of good, specifically in terms of female empowerment, is really important to us at H&B. What does being a social entrepreneur mean to you personally?
For me it means building things for good. My initial impression of business was that it was all men in suits trying to make money. But as a social entrepreneur, you’re working towards something bigger than yourself, not just for the money, but for the good of other people. And during tough times when business is difficult, it’s really nice to think back to your purpose and the potential impact you’re having on people. Social entrepreneurship also means doing business in a sustainable way. Because one thing I’ve learned from my previous work with FEM in STEM, and from other strong female entrepreneurs, is that you do need that revenue to help move your mission forward. That additional capital helps you do greater things.
What excites you about the world of technology?
Technology has always been confusing to me. It’s inter-rooted in our daily lives but we don’t often sit down to really think about how everything works. The not-knowing gravitates me to want to learn more. Trying to figure out how these systems work, why they have certain impacts on people, and what makes them effective—all of that interests me. Because it could be knowledge I can use to help impact other people positively.
How do fashion and accessories fit into your life? Do you use them mainly for self-expression, or for other reasons?
I use my jewellery for a few different reasons. If I’m going into a pitch or an important meeting, I like to wear jewellery because it makes me feel more confident even though it’s such a small touch. Another reason is accountability. I have a habit of buying rings, especially if I want to keep a promise to myself. I remember last year I bought a little knot ring that stood for a promise I made to myself. Also, for engineers in Canada, when you graduate you get an iron ring. The whole idea of getting that ring when I graduate has been really motivating and I guess that’s played into how I view other parts of my life. If something happens with my entrepreneurship, either something that I’m proud of or want to work towards, I’ll buy a piece of jewellery.
What does empowerment mean to you personally?
To me, it’s breaking free of your comfort zone in a way that only you can do. Often, with the way education is set up and the way people are raised, you just kind of wait for opportunities to come your way. You work hard because you think that getting your degree is going to guarantee you a job. But I think empowerment is being able to break free from the norm and push your own limits to define your own path. I think empowerment has a very unique meaning for each person that chases after it.
The answer to this may seem obvious, but I’m wondering if you can articulate why it’s so important to have more female representation in STEM? What are some of the tangible benefits to having this field be more diverse?
You really do need diverse perspectives in order to drive new ideas and innovations forward. Half the population is made up of women, so not having those perspectives at the table—it’s really an injustice when you’re designing products you want everyone to use. From a psychological and biological perspective, the way women think and act can be so different from men, and so to be able to have both voices present when you’re actually building something will ensure your business has twice the impact.
Writing: Mica Lemiski