Embracing Social Action – An Interview with Alexia Hilbertidou

26 March 2018

Alexia Hilbertidou is a social entrepreneur and the founder of GirlBoss New Zealand, a not-for-profit organisation which aims to empower young women in leadership, entrepreneurship, science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Alexia Hilbertidou

Her social actions began at a very young age.

“My first social action project, at about 9 years old, was organising a pet drive - we rallied our peers to make blankets and brought in old toys from home, which we then passed on to the local animal shelter. This active learning experience really connected with me and I became passionate about social causes and entrepreneurship, and the power of technology to make a huge impact,” says Alexia.

She established GirlBoss at aged 16 in response to her own personal experience.

“When I was in year 12 I was the only girl in my IT class and when I was in year 13 I was the only girl in my Advanced Physics class. I could not understand why, when it was clear that the future was in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), I was the odd one out. I also entered a number of science and business competitions and I was disillusioned by the lack of females present.”

She conducted some investigations around the reasons why and quickly came to some conclusions.

“An alienating culture, misconceptions of difficulty and a lack of female role models were the key reasons why young women were missing in action from influential areas like technology and the C-suite of senior executives,” she says.

Alexia was a winner of a Leadership Award in the 2016 New Zealand Youth Week Awards, an experience she describes as being a real turning point.

“As well as the pride of being recognised at a national level, the most significant impact has been through the lasting friendships and support from other youth on similar journeys who I met.”

Alexia is motivated by her desire to help improve the confidence and bravery of young women so that they can achieve great heights in areas such as entrepreneurship, leadership and STEM. She wants to encourage them “to take risks, feel the fear and do it anyway.”

She had an amazing experience in mid-2017 when she was selected by NASA to ride on board its 747 Jumbo Jet aircraft during a special overnight mission. You get a sense of the awe Alexia felt about this experience when she describes it in her own words:

“In one ten-hour flight, I travelled at -70C and zero per cent humidity while measuring stardust and taking in the breath-taking displays of the atmosphere, such as the Aurora Australis. The flight left from the US Antarctic terminal on the night of 14 July and travelled at 45,000ft towards Antarctica over the Southern Ocean. At maximum altitude, the rear of the airplane opens to allow for scientific observations.

On the trip, NASA organised opportunities for guests to talk to scientists at the various workstations including the Mission Director, science flight planner, telescope operator, science staff and flight crew.

I attended as a guest of NASA's SOFIA 2017 Southern Deployment in which crew seek out new stars and planets. NASA's SOFIA is the world's largest flying observatory based out of California and the Boeing 747SP jetliner is modified to carry one of the most powerful telescopes in the world with a 100-inch diameter. The data provided by SOFIA 'cannot be obtained by any other astronomical facility on the ground or in space'.

SOFIA’s 'VIP Missions' are specifically designed for scientific communicators. Past passengers on similar VIP missions have included Dr Michelle Dickinson and Star Trek's Nichelle Nichols.”

Alexia has plenty planned for the future.

“This year, we have been fortunate to secure great support from the Ministry of Youth Development, Auckland University and TradeMe who are behind some really exciting projects, such as ChangemakeHer workshops in schools, and the soon to be launched GirlBoss Awards.”

We asked her what she thought were the opportunities and challenges facing young people in terms of entrepreneurship. She had this to say:

“Technology is a great enabler as it allows you to scale your impact, connect globally, and foster relationships without leaving home (and if you are in Auckland, you can avoid the traffic!). The challenge is to consistently deliver your absolute best in everything you do. Everything matters when you are representing your business and it is hard to switch off from that.”

It’s pretty clear that Alexia has the skills, attitude and work ethic required to deliver her very best and ensure that her social enterprise is a success.