Marita Cheng had a single objective when she considered her future career: To help people live better lives through robotics. And, in just a few short years, she’s managed to do just that.
At 29 years old, Marita has already built a high profile as a preeminent expert in engineering. She’s regularly called upon to speak at public forums—like the upcoming Cisco Live Melbourne to discuss the role Artificial Intelligence
(AI) will play in the future workforce. Moreover, she’s firmly entrenched herself as an advocate for young women considering a career pathway in technology and related fields.
Growing up in housing commission in Cairns with her brother and single-parent mother, Marita says she developed an unlikely fascination in the world of robotics early on. She graduated high school in 2006 in the top 0.2 percent of the country before going on to achieve a Bachelor of Engineering (Mechatronics)/Bachelor of Computer Science from the University of Melbourne.
It was while studying here, Marita came to recognise how few young women were embarking on a similar course to her own. Drawing support from her fellow peers, she founded Robogals as a way of inspiring girls to consider careers in engineering; delivering workshops in schools and teaching the fundamentals of robotics. It wasn’t long before the organisation expanded throughout Australia, the UK, the USA and Japan.
For girls considering a career in this field, “breaking into the industry is the first barrier,” says Marita. “I think girls should be actively encouraged to get involved in engineering and technology so they can see other women and think ‘well if she can do that, maybe I can do that.’”
“Breaking into the industry is the first barrier.”
In 2012, Marita founded Aubot (formerly 2Mar Robotics) with the ambitious goal of engineering a unique telepresence robot. The technology (Teleport) was ground-breaking; enabling kids in hospital to attend school, people with disabilities to attend work and elderly people to access better care and social interaction.
Since those early days, the ‘Teleport’ technology has improved dramatically and along with it, Aubot has rapidly expanded as a company. Its headquarters remain in Richmond, Melbourne but a rapidly growing team has allowed the business to build out ideas and capability.
“It’s been a really amazing journey”, Marita shares. “I work really closely with my team to implement all our strategies.”
“Through Aubot, we can help kids with disabilities go to school or help people to work remotely,” she says proudly. “There are so many cases that are really inspiring and make a difference to people’s lives.”
“When I thought about starting a company, I wanted to do that too and contribute positively to people’s lives.”
“Growing up in Cairns, I volunteered for a number of not-for-profits that contributed to society and helped people,” Marita tells me. “So, when I thought about starting a company, I wanted to do that too and contribute positively to people’s lives.”
Aubot technology is now used across the country. “It’s in museums, offices, in people’s homes, security; there are just so many applications and it’s a really exciting space to be in.” She coyly adds that there are a number of exciting projects in development which she’ll share publicly in later months.
“We’re looking to really ramp up our presence in Australia and get out to more events and expos and just have more people know about us and know what we do.”
For Marita, female engineers are critical to the success of the company and she’s proud to have a great bunch of women working with her.
“Having women on the team is really fantastic. It’s great to have different input and different experiences and different ways of seeing the world,” she says.
“I accept a lot of young women into different programs at my company, so we always have young women doing mechanical engineering and software engineering and just being supported and included in a really practical way.”
“It’s great to have different input and different experiences and different ways of seeing the world.”
This initial leg-up into the industry is important because barriers for women rising through the ranks remain common, especially when it comes to money, believes Marita.
“I think there are a lot of barriers for women in terms of securing Venture Capital (VC) funding to grow their businesses,” she says. “VC firms have had great success with male founders, when they see a young woman pitch to them, they’re not used to seeing that which can lead to gender profiling” and essentially women losing out.
She believes there are a number of ways that employers can better support their female workforce and encourage career opportunities in STEM. Doing so takes a step towards closing the yawning gender gap that still exists and making it easier for female tech entrepreneurs to secure investment.
“There are some really great initiatives across lots of leading companies,” says Marita. “Whether it be mentorship and sponsorship programs, or networking events like Empowered Women’s Network at Cisco Live Melbourne, or celebrating excellence such as in the Women in IT Awards. I think a lot of companies are learning that in order to encourage women, they need to have these programs. Because when women feel supported in their careers and by their employers, they’re much more likely to apply for jobs and stay at companies.”
“It’s good for men and women; for everyone to feel included and not to have anyone judge them on what they look like.”
You can view the finalists for the Women in IT Awards, here.