Inspirational Woman: Maggie Chen | Co-Founder, Girls in Charge

Maggie ChenMaggie Chen is an entrepreneur, doctoral researcher, and non-executive director (NED).

She launched her first company in 2015 when she was still a fresher at university. She now works in the startup space on three levels, in terms of practice, academia, and policy. She runs two businesses, researches and lectures on entrepreneurship, and contributes to policy and strategy to support businesses in the Cheshire and Warrington region. Her non-profit Girls in Charge brings together all three aspects of her work by upskilling, informing, and empowering women globally with entrepreneurial skills through gamified content.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I moved from a fast-paced city in China to a quiet Yorkshire village when I was eight. At the time, I attended the local school, speaking no English. I was terrified. But when break time came around, I suddenly felt a spirit of connection, because as we all know, games don’t require much language. Since then, I’ve been fascinated with communication and community. I completed my undergraduate and Master’s degrees in languages and cultures.

Today, I am a serial hat-wearer. I co-founded the non-profit Girls in Charge where we use gamification techniques to upskill women globally, I run two other businesses (shutup.dance and OxICE), consult for a fabulous sustainability company (UK for Good), support regional policy and strategy as a NED at the Cheshire & Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership, conduct doctoral research on entrepreneurship in the media, and sometimes I even have time for a break and take my cat for a walk – yes, he follows me like a dog.

At the heart of everything I do lies the desire to create positive impact in an innovative way.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No, but I probably should. During the first week of my undergraduate course, I was a good student and went to 9am lectures. By the second week, I started missing them. I realised I would never be able to do a ‘real’ job (i.e. one that started at 9), so a month later, I started my first business. 19-year-old Maggie decided to set the life rule of ‘never getting up before 10am’ (unless I chose to do so). At the same time, I loved getting creative with ideas, solving problems, and working on different projects so I don’t get bored.

Turns out, what I valued most in life was flexibility and creativity, so I built my career around it.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

After starting my first business at university, I joined an accelerator programme. Out of around 40 participants, I was the only girl. I felt rather isolated once again, just as I had done when I first moved to the UK. I began to share my story with my peers, and soon realised the problems experienced by young women when it came to entrepreneurial consideration – mainly a lack of confidence, skills, support, and community in the world of entrepreneurship whilst at university. I wanted to help my peers develop skills and network effortlessly. Thinking back to 8-year-old Maggie, I recalled my own experience of how games can develop knowledge and enable communication. So, Girls in Charge was born!

Since launching, it’s been a crazy journey! We had no resources, just £100 and determination. We were still students, so a lot of people didn’t take us seriously either. Over 3 years, we spent £600 to upskill more than 4,000 beneficiaries in 4 countries, and now with the support of generous large firms who believe in our vision, we’re growing faster than ever. We aim to upskill 1 million women globally by 2030.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Growing the team at Girls in Charge from 2 (my co-founder and me) to 13. By bringing together passionate, talented people, we’ve been able to expand internationally, work with top listed companies, and build a fabulous community of ambitious, supportive women. And yes, we’ve won a few awards along the way too – from prizes for Social Impact presented by the University of Oxford and Cartier, to receiving the Commended Award for Innovation at the Northern Power Women Awards recently, I didn’t even realise we were in the same league as some of my biggest inspirations until I bumped into them at the same award ceremonies!

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

When I was little, my grandfather taught me the ancient Chinese saying “when I walk along with two others, they may serve me as my teachers”. A massive learning curve for me coming out of school was realising that you can’t get straight A’s in every skill or area of your life. So I learned to reflect upon my weaknesses and created a supportive network of amazing people – they may fill a skills or knowledge gap, or they may just be fun, enlightening people to hang out with. As the adage goes, if you’re the smartest person in the room, then you’re in the wrong room.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

Mentoring is a bit like dating, it can be great if the two of you hit it off. It’s not just about the skillset, but also about your personalities. Our NEDs at Girls in Charge are fantastic mentors, we have structured quarterly meetings but also ad hoc chats and brainstorming sessions, sometimes even over food and drinks! They help me see different perspectives, constructively challenge new ideas, and support our work selflessly. Shout-out to Holly Wang, Tzvete Doncheva, Helen Gunn and Clive Hilton for being awesome!

I have also informally mentored some people but never really put a label on it. So far, I’ve felt I’m not ‘grown-up’ enough to be anyone’s mentor. Maybe after I hit 30, that’ll change.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

Upskilling women is important, but we will only achieve true gender equality if everyone is engaged in the conversation. This is something we are keen to work on at Girls in Charge because having more men in the conversation and making sure the conversation is on-going is key. That is why we have brought on our first male NED at Girls in Charge, not only does Clive have a wealth of industry expertise, but he also brings different perspectives and helps engage more people in the discussion; we hope to have a balanced board soon!

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Don’t just do. Take the time to reflect. That’s how you improve.

Taking a pause, celebrating the wins, looking at how far you’ve come, but also mindfully paying attention to the lessons learnt, can all help you become more efficient professionally and more focussed internally.

Answering these interview questions were very good for reflection – everyone should give them a go!

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

Career-wise, scaling and digitising Girls in Charge. We are hoping to expand our impact programme to more universities, colleges, and schools, as well as work with more corporates. And of course, finishing my PhD.

In my personal life – combatting all the engagement, wedding, and baby photos on my Instagram/Facebook feed. There is a real pressure to unlock many life goals in your 20’s, I will try to not be influenced by that and take things at my own pace – wish me luck!

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