Getting young girls interested in science and technology has always been a challenge in the U.S. Sociological factors have generally encouraged boys to enter such fields while girls have been “left out in the cold,” so to speak. Janese Swanson, founded Girl Tech to change that. Her company specialized in creating toys and other products aimed at making technology more interesting for girls.
Swanson was one of six children, born in the late ‘50s at a time when girls were not typically interested in technology or inventing. At first, Swanson wasn’t interested in either of these fields either, other than having a knack for fixing broken appliances and tinkering with electronic devices. She remembers having an interest in being a doctor while growing up in San Diego, California, but no one really encouraged her to do that, she says.
Raised by a single mother after her father was killed in Vietnam, Swanson held odd jobs as a teenager to make extra money to help support her family. Most of these jobs had nothing to do with science, but they did help shape her future interest in science education; specifically, she was interested in changing the perception of gender roles. Swanson’s grandfather pushed her to become a fashion model, which she did, and she gained valuable experience through learning about styling and layouts and discovered her a talent for design. She also worked in retail sales at Sears. Although she was the youngest and only female salesperson in the television and sound system department, her technical knowledge and sales ability helped her earn sales awards.
Swanson went on to college and earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies in 1981 from San Diego State University. Soon after, she became a teacher, but when she was layed off she began working as a flight attendant and resumed modeling for a while as well. While flying, Swanson convinced a large computer company to donate laptop computers; she taught fellow flight attendants how to use them during their spare time. Swanson also continued to attend school, and eventually she earned a total of six academic degrees, including a PhD in organization and leadership. Her doctoral dissertation was on gender issues in product design and focused on play patterns and gender preferences.
In the late ‘80s, Broderbund Software hired Swanson as a product manager to lead teams that produced educational toy and game products such as 'Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?,’ ‘Playroom’ and ‘Treehouse’. The idea for ‘Carmen San Diego’ actually came from her experience as a flight attendant. She collected post cards everywhere she went so she could share with kids on the plane. Then she made up games with them based around geography. “When I produced Carmen, it was natural. I didn't even really think,” she says.
Her experience at Broderbund inspired Swanson to found her own company, which she did in 1992. At Kid One For Fun, she developed and licensed toys such as the Yak Bak, a handheld voice recorder for kids. By then, Swanson had become acutely aware that girls had been typically “left out” of technology. When her daughter was born in 1992, she became even more certain of what she really wanted to do, and that was to help develop the minds of the next generation of girls, who would enjoy, relate to, and use technology just as much as boys did.
With that goal in mind, in 1995 Swanson founded Girl Tech. At Girl Tech, Swanson developed products and services that encouraged girls to use new technologies, such as the Internet and video games. The company also published four books on technology for girls, launched a web site, produced a magazine (“GirlZine”), and invented a line of electronic gadgets especially for girls.
Swanson's dedication to helping girls is reflected in the many awards she has won, including the "Annual Leading Change Award" from Women in Communications, Webgirls, "Top 25 Women on the Web," YWCA of the USA "Advancement of Girls and Technology", and "Women Entrepreneur of the Year Nominee" from National Association of Women Business Owners. She was also featured in Ms. magazine's "Women of the Year" issue in 1997.