Joe Davis – Co-founder of Nanogirl Labs
Joe Davis (Class of 1998) is an innovator, change-maker and inspiring human! Co-founder of Nanogirl Labs with wife Michelle Dickinson, Joe and his team are changing the way STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education is delivered, making it accessible and inspiring for a broad spectrum of audiences globally.
Joe has also recently published his first book, 'Silver Linings', sharing inspirational stories of courage and growth that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tell us about what you’re currently doing.
At the moment I’m leading a social enterprise called Nanogirl Labs. My now wife and I co-founded the business in 2016, and it’s been an awesome journey so far… We’re on a mission to ‘ignite the change-maker’ – to make STEM learning, and all the opportunities that flow from that, available to everyone.
Is there such a thing as a typical workday for you? What does it look like? What are the parts of your job that you enjoy most?
As a CEO in a mission-driven start-up, every day brings something new. We’re a significantly larger organisation than we were pre-pandemic, and that’s changed the nature of my role day to day a fair bit in the last few years. I’m still firmly connected to our business development and growth efforts; I’m less directly involved in our operational delivery now… our team really lead that work now. That’s great for the business – though I have to admit I miss being ‘on the tools’ sometimes (every now and then I get to write some code still, and I get a kick out of that!)
A lot of my time and focus is spent in service of our team: understanding and clearly articulating what’s important, making sure they have the support they need to bring their magic to our work together, and ensuring that we’re honouring our promises and continually living up to our values. It’s a real privilege to lead – we have such an amazing team of smart, talented, driven and thoroughly decent people. It’s the most challenging and rewarding part of my role for sure.
How has the landscape for your work changed in the last two years? How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the way you live and work?
Our COVID-19 story is really what prompted me to kick-start and co-write 'Silver Linings', and the book tells the story best. In short, the pandemic was transformative for us at Nanogirl Labs. Pre-pandemic, we’d just opened our offices in California, and registered our US company. We were running a strategy that used live events – explosive, funny science theatre – to introduce our ‘Nanogirl’ brand to families. All that evaporated in half a day as pandemic restrictions came into force around the globe.
We made a major shift in focus to online learning, and engaged more than 340,000 young people in 57 countries as a result, and were able to do that in a way that helped us fund work with families and communities that would otherwise have been left behind. It was a profoundly challenging time – exhilarating, exhausting – but ultimately a real positive for the business… the lessons we were able to learn were incredibly valuable.
Tell us a little about your career pathway to becoming Founder and CEO of Nanogirl Labs. When you left school, was this the path you expected to be on?
When I left in ’98 I was planning to read law… I thought I’d be a barrister. I’d always had the entrepreneurial bug, though – inherited from my dad, I reckon – and ultimately that won the day.
When I was at school I had a computer sales and web development business. From 5th Form (Year 11) on, I’d change my tie and jacket after school and walk into the Albany commercial district and go door to door, selling my work to the companies there.
Two weeks after my last exam my phone rang – a company I’d visited had a major web application project they needed help with. That led to another job by recommendation, that to another, and before I knew it, I had a consultancy practice building around tech and web development (as it was in the late ’90s).
My career since has involved a lot of work in and around tech, but has bounced all over the place – that’s been such a joy! I was involved in founding the National Youth Theatre Company with an amazing group of friends, had the great privilege of leading Coastguard through a time of substantial change, and before Nanogirl Labs I spent a number of years consulting with companies to help them solve challenges around innovation, strategy and growth. At one point I even considered entering politics.
Did I expect to be here? Not at all. Our work at Nanogirl Labs addresses a problem that, prior to meeting Michelle, I didn’t really know existed – ensuring that everyone, everywhere has access to world-class education. When I realised the gap in opportunity for young people in New Zealand – let alone around the world – I saw a mission that I felt deserved urgent and real attention, and an opportunity to make a dent.
There’s a Steve Jobs video online where he talks about things making sense when you look back on them. That really resonates with me. I’ve always loved leading great people in meaningful, exciting work. Combining my passion for business and love for charity work – trying to build a ‘socially conscious business’ that achieves both profit and impact – really seems to make sense at the moment.
What inspired you to write Silver Linings and what has the response to the book been like?
It was our journey through the pandemic that inspired me to kick-start and co-write 'Silver Linings', and I’m so grateful to my co-author and good friend David Downs for coming on the journey!
The pandemic was – and continues to be – an incredibly challenging time. There’s been so much pain and suffering… but there’s also been some incredible examples of resilience, agility and humanity. I felt that those stories deserved to be told.
Between us, David and I interviewed more than 100 business and community leaders about their experience during the pandemic. I learnt so much from those conversations – it was an incredible privilege – and the feedback we’ve had from readers is that those lessons resonate for them too (phew!), and have value outside the immediacy of COVID-19 in shaping their businesses and their mahi as leaders.
Are there any life lessons you’d like to share?
Life is short, life is uncertain, and it’s such an epic adventure. Success means different things to each of us, and that’s beautiful… I’m not sure there are any ‘secrets’ really.
I think the best lessons I’ve learnt so far come back to putting first things first – remembering what’s important (it’s not often work), looking after your health, giving time and energy to the people you love, and being as present in every moment as you can possibly be. Really just make the most of it, and try to leave this place a bit better than you found it.
How do you feel your time at Kristin has shaped your path beyond school?
Kristin was the most incredible place to start. So many of the opportunities I enjoyed at school – the chance to try stuff (and learn from mistakes), the amazing people who took time to help me really think about how I see the world, and what matters to me – it’s all had a huge impact in the years since… the stuff outside the classrooms as much as what we learnt in them.
What do you look back on as the highlights of your time at Kristin?
I genuinely enjoyed school – I love learning, and friendships formed in those years have remained incredibly dear to me in the years since and I’m so grateful for that.
Two specific experiences, though, shaped me profoundly: first, it was my work in the theatre with the brilliant Andrew Churches, who ran the Auditorium tech alongside his teaching practice back then. Long hours rigging lights and sound systems, and learning to design and operate shows. Those experiences, and the love of theatre that ensued, led directly to my contribution in building the National Youth Theatre, and more recently to building a global touring live science theatre show. More than that, though – it was where I really started to cut my teeth as a leader, figuring out what worked and (just as importantly) what didn’t in leading teams. The value of hard work, the power of stories – it all shines through in live theatre, and I’m so grateful.
Secondly, it was an opportunity given to me by Rodney Ford. Mr Ford taught Information Technology back then, and invited me to help teach IT to some of the junior classes when I had free periods, and created a space where I could experiment with technology in a way that I couldn’t during our usual curriculum work. The heated debates I’d have with Mr Ford about life, a deep appreciation for soul and blues music, the huge value in learning to teach something – to pass on knowledge in a way that made sense to younger students – and the incredible lessons learnt in tinkering have all had a profound impact!
If you could give a message to students looking to pursue a similar path, what would it be?
If you see a problem in the world and think ‘someone should do something about that’ – and if you really care about it – then know that you are that someone. Whether it’s fixing something in your neighbourhood or building a global business, get amongst it and learn every lesson you can along the way.
Your community – the people you walk through life with – are so unbelievably important. Leadership and entrepreneurship can be lonely sometimes. Nurture a community that you can lean on when you need to, and be there for them when they need you in turn.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with current students, staff, parents or the wider Kristin Community?
Kristin’s a really special place, and I’d just acknowledge everyone who’s played a part in building that – staff, parents, students and supporters alike. Progress with vision, integrity and love seems like a pretty good idea, all the more so in the times we live in.
For more information visit www.nanogirl.co and www.silverlinings.nz