For this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed CEO-Story Engineer Jenn Halweil. A former Electrical Engineer, she launched #GoBeyond to elevate stories of women and minorities in science, technology, and the arts. She has been featured in Forbes, Scientific American and Mic. For further information, visit www.gobeyondlab.in.
Q: What are you currently working on? Tell us about it.
I founded an educational media consultancy, #GoBeyond, to create content about women who are doing groundbreaking scientific research. I’ve led content strategy and creation for a number of world renowned brands including Deloitte, World Science Festival and the Geena Davis Institute. As part of this initiative, I directed a 2-min mini-doc called “Woman of Steel” on the woman who built the Brooklyn Bridge.
Q: What was the inspiration and impetus for doing this project?
My journey began as an electrical engineer. I was fascinated by how scientific and technological breakthroughs could benefit society. I became passionate about scientifically literate and feminist storytelling, when I found myself to be one of only three women in a 200-person circuits class. This passion transformed into a lifelong pursuit as I found myself to be the only female consultant for various technology startups and one of the few women engineers at America’s largest utility company. This motivated me to become involved in science storytelling, or as I like to call it: story engineering.
Q: Who are your artistic heroes – who have had an impact on you and your work?
I love the way Andrew Niccol has been able to tackle social issues through brilliant character arcs and narrative storytelling, and incorporate science fiction and technical elements in a way that doesn’t feel esoteric or soapbox driven. Lord of War, Gattaca, The Truman Show, and In Time are some of my favorite films. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched them and the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with friends and family about the really complex challenges that society faces in terms of wealth inequality, surveillance, gene editing and gun regulation as a result.
Q: What keeps you motivated and inspired as an artist?
How to translate complex scientific concepts into a beautifully compelling visual narrative that is easy to understand. I want to help the world fall back in love with science and wonder the way Carl Sagan inspired a generation of engineers. JFK inspired scientific revolution with a speech that galvanized us to go to the moon by reminding us that while science isn’t easy we do it because it brings out the best in us as humans.
Q: If there were no barriers to entry, what is one thing you would be doing?
Outside of finding a million women STEM leaders and sharing their fascinating stories and breakthroughs with the billions of people on this planet … Build a massive science lab to study and repair our oceanic ecosystems, design and build water purification systems, build trash islands like those in Singapore that will rival the Maldives as a destination, create parabolic solar farms, and basically learn more about this wild planet we inhabit. Also probably study moons on Jupiter since they have water and we have a better chance of living there long-term than Mars.
Q: What has been big your biggest obstacle in achieving your vision?
Funding. Let’s get real. I’d love to pretend money doesn’t matter but money to be able to help us reach a wider audience would go along way. As would funding for some of our larger scale narrative / documentary feature length projects. As a feminist, I am constantly thinking about what we can do as women to make sure our crews are paid comparable to if a man was leading; and how we could fund-raise the same way as our male counterparts, who can raise millions out of a garage when they’re young and hungry and have no experience. I don’t need a million dollars right now, but intros to companies like Ford, GE, Merck, Novartis, etc who have women in STEM initiatives so we can amplify the achievements of the women on their teams would be great! Or even intros to the diversity and inclusion and CMO / CTO folks at NBC, FOX, ABC, etc.
Q: What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?
Hang out in nature and unplug.
Q: If you could let go of something that has held you back, what would it be?
Focusing on consistent busy work and small wins instead of working hard to level up impact, audience, and scale of projects.
Q: What is your favorite piece of art?
I love how Yayoi Kusama used geometric repetition and reflective materials to explore the concept of infinity visually. It’s a brilliant reminder that we’re all made of the same stuff and when we look at one another we’re staring the universe directly in the eyes.
Q: What person do you most admire, living or dead?
Sally Ride. I feel a strong kinship with this woman in the sense that she was a scientist and explorer but couldn’t be seen for who she was because her calling card became tokenism. Her actual STEM contributions were always secondary to her achievement of being a female astronaut in a male dominated field. It’s a shame because what we should celebrate her for is: the fact that she single-handedy identified the causes of both the Challenger and Columbia explosions; she built the satellite architecture in space that enables our modern communication systems; she was the driving force behind NASA’s focus in studying our oceans and natural climate, Mars, and the upcoming female led moonwalk; and she was a brilliant educator and advocate for young women to be respected and represented in STEM.
Reading her biography is what inspired me to form #GoBeyond, so much so that our early promo video features a modified version of a speech she used to give at science fairs for young girls. The speech always began, “What would you do if gravity wasn’t holding you down?” Visually, the video traces the transmission of information from a group of girls, around the world via satellite, finally landing in space where it is received by an astronaut, to highlight Sally’s contributions to communication, feminism and beyond.
Q: If you could be known and celebrated for one thing, what would it be?
Breaking the binary stereotype of gender or the idea that a woman who builds, engineers, designs or creates something technical is behaving in a masculine way. It’s not scientifically accurate for two reasons:
If we look at chromosomes and hormones there are more than two genders. We just create a bimodal distribution with two peaks when we plot these because it’s easier visually and also its based on historically sexist social systems influencing the science towards creating a very dangerous oversimplification.
In reality women have been HUGE drivers of scientific and technological innovation. Every modern industrial revolution has been tied to women rapidly joining the workforce but up until 100 years ago, women could not own property, vote, or establish legal individual personhood and so they did not receive the proper credit for their work.
Q: If you could describe yourself in one word what would it be?
I don’t think there is a singular word that could describe me although a few ex business partners and lovers could probably have some choice words. I guess that would make me ‘ineffable’? (I think this joke plays better when read out loud).
Q: What is your guilty pleasure?
Coffee, binge watching TED talks and reading Wikipedia pages until I’ve lost entire days.
Q: If you could sit down with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say?
That bucket list you set out for yourself – you’ll do it all by 30 except purchase a movie and record store and combine them because movie rental houses and records won’t be a thing anymore. So dream bigger. Put stuff on that list that’s so ludicrous you can’t help but cross it off the list because trying it will be such an insanely fun challenge.
Q: Where would you most like to live?
One-hundred years in the future where ~ 50% of our world leaders, scientists and creators are women. Our oceans, rainforests, and nature preserves have been protected under a universal climate agreement. We have global electric mag-lev transportation systems, universal basic income and AI / robotic systems that do most of our task oriented jobs. And we’ve established life on Mars and are building towards expeditions on Jupiter’s moons.
Q: What is your idea of success?
People love that woowoo of happiness, focusing on yourself, learning you can’t control the world and can only control how you respond to it, but F*** that. Change the world. This world has been changed millions of times over for us to bring it to where it is today. So dream of a better model than the one that we have today and chase it into existence even if you have to fight, claw, and start a revolution.
Q: What is your idea of happiness?
Being surrounded by men and women who respect each other as equal contributors and work hard to discover how to create things that have never been done before and leave the world better than we found it.
Q: Final Thoughts?
I hope not. Hopefully I’ve got a few more good decades in me before it comes to that!