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Free-D empowers women at risk through teaching them tech skills in 3D printing

Free-D empowers women at risk through teaching them tech skills in 3D printing

Free-D's trainings focus on employment and are led by creativity - taking digital skills from non-existent to high-value and targeted for the digital manufacturing market.

The trainees are women at risk, from a variety of backgrounds, recruited from women’s shelters. Free-D deconstructs the barriers that limit the access to technology while creating female role models for future generations.
We spoke to Katherine Prescott and Louisa Cowell about their idea behind Free-D, why they had to learn how to fix 3D-printers and how they overcame their first challenges as a startup.

If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?
Katherine: I have been described as a “Force of Nature” before. I am not a hundred percent sure if that is a good thing per se as it is loaded with gender stereotypes. But I leave it at that. I have also been described as persistent and I would like to use that, but also caring and driven.
Louisa: Encouraging, positive and a problem solver.

How did you come up with the idea for your startup?
Katherine: We have a male co-founder as well and he and I have been working in 3D-printing for a while. And we always thought that the way 3D-printing was taught didn’t really make sense for how it is actually used. Because in 3D-printing you either have to go to an education institution and get an engineering degree and you might specialise as an additive in manufacturing for 3D printing. Or it’s used to teach school kids as a fun way of learning other concepts. But there is no way the current teaching methods use the creativity and the wonder of being actually able to design and make something in a day to really motivate people to learn those skills through designing creativity. And then there was this colleague in our office, Andre, and he was an absolute wizard. He completely self-taught himself and you could basically ask him to create anything and he made it happen. And my co-founder and I always felt that we had to understand how Andre had become this 3D-printing wizard and how he had taught himself the skills he had and then teach 3D-printing that way. That was our broad vision. At the same time Sia has been working in philanthropy and he has been supporting women, especially women at risk, and we started bouncing around ideas on how we could do a training to help women learn the skills and work in this futuristic, high-tech and high value technology sector and enable them to not only use these skills to begin a new life but also become leaders in this sector in the future.

You combined the 3D-printing background and the social background – did you know each other before? Or have you met along the way?
Louisa: We both worked for different startups but we collaborated together through our work. And it was actually during a Christmas party we both attended that I heard about the Free-D printing for the first time – I heard Katherine talking about it. Interestingly, we were talking completely off topic and were discussing all sorts of issues around women’s rights and at some point we got into talking about how we could use 3D-printing to empower women at risk. That was how I actually came on board with the project.

Why did you decide to focus on India?
Katherine: We looked at different areas and specifically where there were women at risk and did a thorough investigation on where we could actually help the most. We looked at Brazil, we looked at India. But then we found out that there already is a huge adoption of the 3D-printing technology in India, specifically in the jewelry market. The Indian jewelry market has been an early adopter of the technology and we felt that if we were to do this training, there would be many jobs available for the women that we would train. That’s why we chose to go to India.

Katherine Prescott (Photo: Amin Akhtar/ Vodafone Institute)

What were the three first steps of Free-D? How did you start?
Katherine: The first step was a lot of research. Because there’s nobody Indian on our team and so we really needed to build relationships with local NGOs, local partners to really get a good understanding of the problem we are trying to solve and the best way of solving it. And we really wouldn’t be where we are if it wasn’t for all our different Indian partners, giving us so many insight and being personally involved in helping us. We honestly wouldn’t be able to do anything that we’re doing right now. I found they have been so open and that is something I observed in India in general: A lot of people in India, if they cannot help you personally they are willing to introduce you to people who might be able to help. That has really been an amazing experience for me. And that was the first step. The seconds step was when we actually went to India. In January 2017, just after the Christmas party we mentioned, we took our first trip to India. We spent almost a month there and met many different NGOs and organizations. We took a 3-D printer and we took some laptops with CAD software. We had some training material from PrintLab, who also gave us the printer to take with us, and we just went and we ran a few workshops. Some things went so much better than expected, somethings did not go well. For example, 3D-printers are not made to be shoved into the back of a taxi and Ubers and driven over bumpy roads and then expected to work. Quite a lot of our lessons were actually on how to fix a 3D-printer and we also had to accept the fact that technology sometimes goes wrong. But that’s ok. We fixed them and moved on. However, we didn’t know how it was all going to turn out. But through doing workshops with women who came from the level of “I have never even touched a computer before”, maybe knew what it was, quite fearful, quite worried they were going to break something, to getting them to relax and laugh, learn how to use the technology and adapt shapes in 3D all the way to getting them to print on a 3D-printer by themselves at the end of the three days. When we realized we could get the women to that level in three days we knew we had to also develop longer programs in order for them to achieve so much more. That was last January and ever since we worked on preparing the workshops and continued to building relationships. Because when you think about it – there is a group of people from far away who come with this crazy idea, it takes a lot of persistence for them to realize, you are actually serious about it. I remember one person saying: “It was when you came back the third time I knew you were serious.” Building the relationships you need takes a lot of time.

What was the biggest challenge so far?
Louisa: There are quite a few. But I am drifting towards communication. I think, the fact that we are working across such big geographical, time and culture difference is a challenge in itself. When you work in a local project you may have differences but it is a lot easier to discuss them because essentially you have the same basis, you come from the same background – geographically, timely and culturally. Communicating across to India, where the language is different and the way you build relationships, you always face tougher challenges than working in your own surroundings. And then you have the logistic challenges such as time difference, bad WIFI-Connections. It makes “normal” business challenges become larger than they need to be. But you can overcome it if you really want it.

What was the biggest highlight so far?
Katherine: Seeing the women really enjoying to use the computer and create something. The whole body language changes. I remember this one girl who attended our workshop. When she realized there were computers involved, her entire body language changed and she was swearing the entire time. I had to do some one-on-one time with her, it really wasn’t easy. And it was so rewarding to see her at some point using the computer and she didn’t even care anymore that she was working on it because she got used to it. She had a fun time in the end actually. You can turn it into something fun and then people don’t realize how far they’ve actually gone during the process.

What are the next steps for Free-D?
Katherine: We started our first official pilot programme in February. We will be training ten women who have signed up for our course to learn and to be able to work in 3D-printing. And that is really exciting and that is what we will focus on during the next 9 months.
Louisa: And in about two years we plan on having a solid curriculum after running 4-5 courses. And we will also think about how we can impact even more people.

Louisa Cowell (Photo: Amin Akhtar/ Vodafone Institute)

How did you come up with your name?
Katherine: Free-D is a play on 3D, obviously, and freedom. With our courses we enable women to be independent and free of exploitation. It is actually as simple as that.

If women come up to you and ask you for advice, what would you tell them from a female founder’s perspective?
Katherine: One thing I have learned is that it is really important to build good relationships around you. They are the key to your success.
Louisa: I absolutely agree and my advice as a person as well as being part of a founding team and a woman is to spend time doing things that you love. You will be much more invested in it if you enjoy it. And surround yourself with people who will support and encourage you. And remember, they know people who encourage them and this is also how you can grow your network. And even during bad days when you get frustrated around something, if you do what you love it will keep you going. I think that would be my advice: Do things you love, and if you keep doing them good things will happen.

How did your family and friends react when you told them you were founding a company focusing on India? You obviously have to travel to India every once in a while.
Katherine: My mum is constantly worried when I travel to India. But that is normal I think as she worries for me to be safe.
Louisa: One of my friend’s reaction was very interesting. When I was just starting to get involved with Free-D she asked how I was going to find time to take care of myself if I was doing all that work for others. There is also concern around me being in India but mostly concerns about my wellbeing in general.

Do you have a motto you work by?
Louisa: Do what feels right! Go with your gut and if it makes sense, keep on doing it.

Who inspires you?
Louisa: I have two people who inspire me, one of them is my mom. She has taken a lot of risks in her life. She moved to a foreign country when she was my age and decided to stay because of a man she just started a relationship with. This man turned out to become my dad and they are still happily together. But things were challenging for her as she was living in a foreign country as she was not speaking the language. But she kept on going and she is the most pragmatic person I know. If there is a problem she says: “We’ll fix it, we’ll find a solution.” And that is an attitude that I have started to adopt. The other person that inspires me is my dance teacher. She set up her company by herself, she runs her own dance school. She is so supportive, engaging and encouraging to all of her students and it’s very interesting because she actually is a really introvert person. But the same time she puts so much energy out there for everybody and you can see how she changes people’s lives. You can see it when there is someone just starting out new and with her guidance they become confident and six weeks later they are laughing and joking and up on stage by themselves.

Louisa Cowell & Katherine Prescott (Photo: Amin Akhtar/ Vodafone Institut)