Sophie Deen is the founder and CEO of Bright Little Labs – a kids media company which uses stories to teach coding alongside other 21st century skills like creativity, critical thinking, empathy, spotting fake news, staying safe online, surviving the apocalypse, and the power of a good emoji. Fewer girls take computer science now than 10 years ago + only 14% of the STEM workforce is BAME. Sophie believes wholeheartedly in the power of stories, role models and humour to inspire the next generation.
Before starting Bright Little Labs Sophie worked alongside Code Club, Google and the Department for Education to introduce the computing curriculum intro primary schools in England, and that’s where her love of tech really grew. As a former lawyer, techie and children’s play therapist, Sophie is passionate about creative education and positive role models for kids.
1. Best piece of advice you’ve been given
I love this quote. “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
2. Worst piece of advice you’ve been given
To give a bit of context, our flagship story is about an 11-year-old tech-whizz and secret agent for the Children’s Spy Agency. Her adventures are fast-paced and funny, featuring gadgets, data hungry billionaires and diverse role models, and our first book in the series is coming out in July.
At the start of our journey, we were told repeatedly by industry heavyweights, that boys will not read or watch stories about girls, and that we needed to change our heroine. We were told that male characters can appeal to both genders (e.g. Harry Potter), but that a female lead needs a male sidekick, otherwise it’s just a story for girls. Across the publishing and media industry, this was like some sort of mantra. I’m sure there is truth in it, but
only because everyone is making it true, not because it’s intrinsically valid. We were told to give our main character a brother, make our female robot pink, etc.
We didn’t go down this route, and we’ve tried our best to make sure our story is appealing to everyone, by having lots of different people help make it, and testing it out regularly. This caused some tension along the way, but so far it’s worked – we have children in our spy agency from over 100 countries, and they break down as follows: 38% girls, 31% boys, and 31% say it’s none of our business.
3. What would you tell your younger self?
Your brother isn’t that bad.
4. What excites you most about the future of your industry?
I love how the media landscape continues to be disrupted, giving voice to new ideas, talent, and commercial models that distribute power a little differently. As a newcomer to the industry, it can feel like quite a closed space, and a lot is about who you know. But the rise of VOD and platforms like YouTube are turning everything on its head – kids are given way more choice, and creators have more routes in. In some ways it’s more democratic – content is king.
Technology is also creating loads of opportunity for immersive, interactive world building and new ways to interact with your audience. Your favorite character no longer has to be confined to a book, or a cartoon. That’s great for us – we’re focused on building stuff wherever kids are, rather than for a particular format. Finally, diversity on and behind the screen is on the rise. We’ve got a while to go, but diversity = innovation, better storytelling, better content, and offering stories that resonate with the majority of people watching them, not just the few. As this changes, more kids will be able to see themselves reflected in the stories they watch. That’s very exciting and powerful – you can’t be what you can’t see.
5. Who or what is your biggest inspiration?
So much has inspired me. My mum loved nothing more than fixing a printer and my dad told me repeatedly to ‘question everything’, and they both worked extremely hard. The biggest inspiration for Agent Asha came from my time working as a children’s counsellor in a primary school in Wembley, London. About 80% of my kids were
from a South Asian background and they rarely saw themselves reflected on the TV or in their books, and I couldn’t understand why. The more I looked into it, the crazier it seemed – in cartoons today 0% of princesses code, men are twice as likely to take the lead as women, under 3% of characters are BAME, and Batman doesn’t recycle.*
I also have to mention Sesame Street – they totally revolutionised learning outside of the classroom. It first aired in 1969 – an era of riots and racial violence. It was aimed at poor urban kids – kids who actually lived in apartments with rows of garbage cans out front – and it did more for the literacy and numeracy skills of poor kids in America than any other preschool initiative before. 90% of Latin American and black American kids in America watched Sesame Street – and these kids performed better at schools, at a fraction of the cost, for the same educational outcomes. it costs $5 per child, compared with $7k per child for the government’s pre-school programme. The power of stories is mind-blowing.
*I made that up.