Serial entrepreneur Ayesha Khanna wants to bridge the skills gap

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Interview with e27, Asia's largest Tech media platform - covering emerging and disruptive businesses across the region. October 20, 2015 by Isis Leung

As the Founder of coding school ’21C Girls’ and upskilling hub ‘The Keys Academy’, this education expert is helping spawn the next generation of tech-minded Millennials.

Employment opportunities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) are on the rise. According to CareerBuilder’s Skill Gap study in 2014 on the US job market, the number of technology jobs will grow from 7.2 million in 2013 to 8.2 million by 2018. All the while, 71 per cent of surveyed roles requiring computer and math know-how were cited as the toughest to fill.

As the war for talent rages on, Singapore-based innovators like Ayesha Khanna, are stepping in to bridge the gap. An education, technology and urbanisation expert of 15 years — Khanna is a serial entrepreneur who has founded a number of edtech startups. What’s palpable is that skilling up the next generation of tech-minded Millennials is near and dear to her heart.

“The gap between how we are teaching students today and what they need to thrive in a technology-mediated economy in the future, is felt by every country across the globe. Singapore is proactively taking steps towards closing this gap.”

Khanna told e27 that during her time on the Singapore’s Ministry of Educations ASPIRE Steering Committee, where she reviewed applied learning in higher education, she was impressed by the overall dedication to amend the country’s education system so that it equips students with much-needed skills in technology.

Her project 21C Girls (21st Century Girls) is a Singapore-based non-profit created to upskill young girls and women in the tech world, offering free coding and robotics classes. They’ve currently taken 250 students under their wing for their ‘Tech Stars’ programme, which is a 20-lesson introduction to coding course.

The other three programmes available include: ‘Little Robot’, an introduction to robotics; ‘Moms Who Code’, which is exactly what it sounds like; and ‘Smart Citizen’, which is an upcoming eight-week course for developers who want to hack together Smart City apps.

Besides 21C Girls, Khanna also started The Keys Academy to help boost the entrepreneurial spirit and leadership skills of students in Singapore. Besides offering classes in academic subjects and guidance for college applications, the academy also launched an innovative education concept called ‘externships’, where challenges provided by companies are externally worked on at The Keys Academy centre.

“The key to an externship is that it’s a win-win model for both the company and the student: The company is able to get fresh innovative thinking and prototypes from Singapore’s brightest young minds, and students get real-life challenges that are unpredictable, interesting and help them understand the industry,” said Khanna.

In her quest to do her part in bridging the gender and skills gap in the tech world, Khanna said that there needs to be a shift in mindset as well and that starts with viewing schooling less as a “discrete stage in education” but more of a lifelong learning opportunity. She gives a nod to the Smart Nation program in Singapore as it evolves past the traditional smart city concept to create an environment that is conducive to creativity and entrepreneurship.

“John Seely Brown says the future belongs to those who embody both the qualities of homo sapiens, man who knows; and homo faber, man who makes. In my mind, that is the definition of a smart citizen in a smart nation.”

Indeed, it isn’t enough to simply pack in academic knowledge, but also important to learn how to tinker and build — and Khanna’s vision is to help Millennials combine the two.

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