In 2012, Marita Cheng won the Young Australian of the Year award for founding Robogals; a youth initiative that aims to boost female enrollments in engineering and technology courses. While on academic exchange at Imperial College London, Marita attempted to expand the movement to UK classrooms. Her recruitment drive was initially met with zero interest — until she employed an ingeniously simple trick that helped grow Robogals into a global phenomenon. If you’re trying to get your own social club off the ground, this is how to boost attendance.
Marita Cheng was one of the guest speakers at Lenovo’s #TECHmyway event which focuses on the role of entrepreneurs in the development of new technologies. During her speech, Cheng explained how she grew Robogals from a tiny Melbourne outfit run by her friends into a leading youth social initiative boasting 18 chapters in four countries around the world.
After founding Robogals in Australia, Marita attempted to replicate its success while studying in the UK. She needed like-minded engineering students to visit UK classrooms to teach girls about the wonders of robotics. Like most university movements, it started with an invitation to a social club. Unfortunately, things didn’t go according to plan:
There were 15 girls out of 150 students in my mechanical engineering class. I realised there was nothing like RoboGals in the UK. If I wanted to see a difference to the young girls there, I needed to be the one to do it. Despite plenty of signups, nobody came to the first two RoboGals meetings. No one.
Allow that to sink in for a moment. Usually, even the most tedious social club will attract a few disinterested stragglers before the organisers pull the plug. Marita was literally sitting all by herself; a self-appointed president on an island of one.
For most people, this would have been the moment to throw in the towel and take up film theory, or something. Instead, Marita pulled up her bootstraps and applied some good ol’ fashioned gumption — along with a tiny dash of dishonesty. Here’s how she got people to show up:
When nobody showed up, I sat in the cafeteria and cried. The second time I cried a little less. Then I did what I think any sensible young person would do in this situation — I bulk emailed everyone who had said they were interested and wrote: “we had a really great meeting, it was really productive. When are you free again?”
On the third meeting we had four people show up and by the end of my six months in the UK, I managed to find a group of young men and women who went on to spearhead the initiative even after I left.
Today, Robogals is an award-winning institution that has been internationally recognised as a leading programme for encouraging young women into engineering and technology careers. It continues to thrive in Australia, the UK, the USA and Japan — but it easily could have died in that lonely UK cafeteria.
The takeaway lesson here is that you need to manufacture interest in the thing you’re passionate about. If your target audience thinks some of their peers are interested, they’ll be a lot more likely to stick their heads in and take a look.