Spotlight Interview: Hub21’s CEO Didem Cikse discusses how they’re closing the digital gender divide

Interview with Didem Cikse, the co-founder and CEO of Hub21. In August 2022, BOOST announced that the 2022 Women Innovators champion in Turkey is Hub21, a women-led startup building a new way to help young people master tech skills via an online platform for teachers, students and parents. BOOST is a regional acceleration programme for social impact innovation, financed and supported by Koç Holding and the Ministry of Finance of the Slovak Republic.  

What’s your personal story? How did it all start? Where did the idea come from? 

As the daughter of two academics, I grew up surrounded by teachers. I saw my parent’s passion and efforts to educate students from my generation. But even though I respect and love them, I couldn’t see myself embracing the same path and becoming part of an outdated educational system. I decided to study Economics at one of the best public universities in Turkey, grasping all the tools I needed to become an accomplished businesswoman. I also chose to spare time for others and joined a nonprofit involved in the education of students from economically disadvantaged regions in Turkey. 

I was selected to be part of the Young Guru Academy (YGA) from among 50,000 applicants in Turkey. I traveled all around my country and organized scientific, and educational workshops for children, living in economically underdeveloped regions. By participating in leadership schools and camps, I in turn developed my own leadership skills in order to empower children from disadvantaged regions. Then,  I decided to join the YGA and help them with marketing and business development. I worked hard on many case studies from the Turkish startup ecosystem to develop the future of YGA. 

I worked closely with early-stage technology startups as a growth manager in an incubator based in Istanbul. After creating an ex nihilo crowdfunding platform in Turkey, I continued to work with entrepreneurs as a senior associate in Venture Capital. Defining business models and growth strategies for early-stage companies, building venture structures, I paved the way to become the co-founder and CEO of my own company. 

During all these years, I observed a growing gap between the current education system and the digital and innovative world I experienced in my business life. In 2018, I met with my co-founder Sylvain Roussarie, at one of YGA’s events. He has been working as a private tutor for over 10 years and during all these years he kept his passion for education alive. Both of us observed the same problem from two different aspects: there is a lack of interaction between the education system and the digital innovative world, and a huge gender gap. To increase interaction, and close the gender gap, we decided to start Hub21 Learning in 2019.

How is your platform preparing today’s kids for the future? What is your impact vision? What is your impact so far? 

Today, we are preparing children for a world that no longer exists. This world is torn between two realities – an educational system anchored in the past and a digital world moving faster every day. Only 19% of the classrooms are equipped with the right technology and methodology. Hub21 is creating a positive impact on the quality of education by increasing the number of young people and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment and entrepreneurship. 

We have also taken action on closing the gender gap existing in tech because, with the rise of digital use in our society, it is necessary to break down stereotypes to attract more women to technology. With Sylvain, we share the same vision: “The future of education must be personalized, self-paced, and guided by near-peer tutors.” Our platform has three main features that help fuel the impact I am talking about: 

  • Blended Learning: We have a balance of live, online 1-1 and small group sessions with personalized self-paced programs. 
  • Inspiring, Young Tutors: We have brilliant tutors from the top universities who are experts in their fields and love sharing their knowledge with the next generation. While kids are getting fresh, up-to-date information from their tutors, they also get the chance to have a role model by their side. 
  • Personalized, Project-Based Curriculum: Our way of creating a personalized learning model for each student enables them to progress at their own pace and follow a learning path of their own. Because every child is different, we don’t adopt a “one-for-all” state of mind at Hub21. 

How many boys and girls are using Hub21 and what is their feedback? 

Since we founded Hub21, we have empowered more than 800 children from 10 different countries. We always try to keep the number of boys and girls very close to equal. We recently received the following feedback from the parent of one of the girls, taking part in Hub21: 

”My daughter was always very successful at school and was interested in technology. Unfortunately, the education opportunities are limited in our city and school. My daughter Nazlı and her teammates needed to learn software skills to get a degree in robotics club projects at their school. She achieved this dream with the Hub21 for Girls program and they are preparing for a global competition with their projects. We would like to thank our valuable trainer Merve and Hub21, who mentored my daughter not only in learning software but also in the competition process!” 

You founded Hub21 in 2019, how did the pandemic impact your work? What challenges have you faced along your journey? 

We started Hub21 by organizing summer camps and face-to-face workshops in coding, game development, and robotics. Six months later, we faced the first COVID-19 lockdown, followed by an uncertain period for students, parents, teachers, schools. At first, we felt like we are at the end of everything, but then we realized that it was an opportunity to think out of the box and create new solutions. We adapted our content and the whole learning experience and brought it all online. We were able to do it quickly, and it gave Hub21 an opportunity to grow internationally. 

However, we also realized that there’s a digital divide. Many children in the different regions of Turkey had, and still have, very limited access to technology in order to continue their online learning. Even though we’ve received applications from such regions, kids are facing serious internet and hardware issues. That’s how we decided to act to solve this digital divide as much as we could. We started collaborating with schools in those regions; with corporate and personal in-kind donations, we restarted tech classes in some of them. In this way, students were able to connect alternately and continue their online learning. 

What has your experience been with BOOST? What was the most useful for you within the BOOST programme? 

The BOOST programme is all about giving a chance to create real impact. At the heart of the programme are brilliant women entrepreneurs, who have come together with a common mission: to share the best practices with each other and build a better future. It is an honor for the Hub21 team to be selected as one of the winners in the programme. We will continue empowering young women to find their place in the tech ecosystem. 

What is your favorite story that you like to tell about Hub21? It can be about a student on the platform or feedback you’ve received from a user. 

At Hub21, we share a lot of happy messages from our students, as well as positive feedback from their parents. This is extremely valuable and our team is dedicated to continue offering the best experience to parents and students. This is however only one side of the story. The messages we receive from our tutors are as important as the ones from students and parents. They were selected for their excellence, their hard-work and a majority of them have received scholarships for their studies. But this financial support isn’t enough, and they found in Hub21 a source of revenue that helps them continue their studies in large cities such as Istanbul, London etc. They are thankful for sharing their experience with the younger generation, while at the same time ensuring astable income..  

What’s your message to women innovators in Turkey and beyond? 

First of all, I am really happy that they have taken the step to create an innovation. As we show the courage and hard work to step up for making an impact in the world, we are not only empowering ourselves, but we are also becoming role models for little girls out there who don’t believe they can. With the existing gender gap especially in the areas of entrepreneurship, technology, and innovation, it is harder to achieve what they dream. But with our encouragement, they will slowly learn that they have the power to make those big dreams come true. Not all of them will be as lucky as we are in terms of accessibility, that is why it’s also our job to try as much as we can to create the right conditions for younger generations. So, let’s keep up with the hard work, support each other, and be an inspiration for others to believe they can

What are your plans after the BOOST programme? How do you plan to use the BOOST grant? 

With the BOOST grant, we will reach out to 200 girls starting mid-September. We will be opening tech classes at village schools in Van, and students will have the chance to have 4-month long weekly STEM courses. Our aim is to be able to do the same thing in many different locations and empower more children and with the outcomes we learn from this journey, to create a more scalable solution. 

One of our main goals is to build a self-learning adaptable product that it’s accessible by many more people. This is something we are always working on in the background. 

For more information about the BOOST: Women Innovators programme in Turkey, read the press release here

Learn more about Hub21, see here

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