I first encountered Sally French at the "Women in Drones" breakfast, held at the International Drone Expo & Business Conference in Los Angeles. After I shared the picture I took at the conference of a room mostly full of men listening to this panel of women, one of my friends joked, "But how are they going to fit all five women into the drones?" Funny...or is it?
As in a lot of STEM areas, it appears that women are under-represented in the commercial drone space. And while I think most of us can agree that we need more women in STEM, I would argue that the same is true for drones, which are poised to become a big business, like it or not.
I caught up after the conference with French, the moderator of the panel. She is the founder of TheDroneGirl.com and Social Media Editor for The Wall Street Journal's MarketWatch. French was named one of Fortune Magazine's "4 top women shaping the drone industry." She has spoken at South by Southwest (SXSW) and the Harvard Business School's "Engineering & Entrepreneurship: Making Robotics Fly" event, held at Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
French shared the top three reasons she sees women as the future of the drone industry with Inc.com:
1. Women have been pioneering technology for a very long time.
"Ada Lovelace is credited as being the world's first computer programmer -- and that was back in the 1800s," French notes. "Today, many of the pioneers in the drone industry are women. Helen Greiner, co-founder of the company that makes the Roomba robot vacuum cleaners, is now an executive at CyPhy works. Maria Stefanopoulos is a producer at Good Morning America and the person behind all the drone broadcasts on the show. Natalie Cheung with Intel was in charge of bringing drones to nighttime entertainment shows at Disney World. I could go on forever listing names of female pioneers in drones. Even one of TacoCopter's founders, Star Simpson, is a woman -- and that's one of the drone applications people are most excited about today!"
2. The demographics of drones are diverse, so the people making them should be too.
"The drone industry is not about just people who like flying RC or taking aerial images. It's about revolutionizing search and rescue, building inspections and the way we shoot Hollywood movies," French explains. 'The great thing about the drone industry is that we actually need people from all sorts of backgrounds. We certainly need people who deeply understand the mechanics of drones, but we need expert farmers, journalists, artists, building inspectors, law enforcement and policy makers to help make drones a viable technology in both the near and far future. We need all types of voices heard if drones are to be optimized to their full potential."
3. Women are a (mostly) untapped market in drones!
"A lot of drone companies target their products to men. I've seen toy magazines and walked down the aisles of stores, and drones are classified in the 'boy toys' section. But you don't need any type of 'masculine' skill set or extra strength to fly a drone -- anyone can do it!" French encourages women: "Drones can save so much time and money in so many fields of work, it's important that all people are exposed to drones. Once people see how useful they are, they'll buy them, use them and love them -- so let's market them to all people!"
This last point really resonated with me, because when I tried on the new Epson BT-300 glasses on the expo floor, they literally fell off my face. They had been designed for a much larger person (aka, a man). As with air force cockpits in the 1940s, which were not adjustable and thus resulted in higher crash rates, it is time for this industry to get on board with the women who are ready to fly and adjust accordingly. The drone girls aren't coming - they have arrived.