Stay abreast of all gentlewomanly happenings and Club doings by signing up for our fortnightly newsletter. You wouldn’t want to miss out now, would you?

Anne-Marie Imafidon

Has cracked the code when it comes to engaging young women

Text by Kate Finnigan
Portraits by Bolade Banjo
Issue nº 27, Spring and Summer 2023

Anne-Marie Imafidon is on a mission. Since 2013, the 32-year-old has been busy introducing thousands of girls to the worldwide wonders of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But it’s about more than big numbers for the maths whizz from Walthamstow, east London. Anne-Marie, who earned her master’s from Oxford at just 20, is out to revolutionise the system. Step aside, tech bros: Dr Imafidon and her Stemettes are here to take the digital reins and lead us into a brighter, more connected future.

Ten years ago, at the age of 22, Anne-Marie Imafidon – today a CEO, an MBE, an author and a co-host of the TV show Countdown – had a life-changing experience: she went to a tech conference in America.

It shouldn’t have been a biggie. An established go-getter with a string of astonishing achievements – maths and computing GCSEs passed at primary school; the youngest girl ever to pass A-level computing, at the age of 11; at 15, accepted to start a degree in mathematics and computer science at Oxford; a master’s at 20 – she had already forged a career in tech and was working for Deutsche Bank in London. How could a conference change her life?

Strictly speaking, as an enterprise collaboration strategist, she wasn’t senior enough to be talking at this conference, but through what she calls her “Anne-Marieing” she had finagled her way onto a panel, The Future of Social Media. This had, she tells me, distracted her. She’d had to do so much prep that it wasn’t until she got to Baltimore, Maryland, and found herself in a hall surrounded by 3,500 other attendees that it hit her: the conference was women-only. “I’d always been a technical woman. Always been in technology. As long as I could remember, this had always been my thing. And I’d never seen anything like it. It was incredible.”

This epiphany might have been enough in itself to set Anne-Marie on her mission, but during the conference she also heard a speech by Nora M. Denzel, a veteran Silicon Valley executive, who said that for the past two decades the number of women working in tech in the States had been in freefall. Anne-Marie remembers being shocked by the stats. “And then I get back to the UK and the Institute of Physics had put out a report, It’s Different for Girls, which revealed that 49 per cent of local-authority-run state schools in England did not send a single girl to do physics A-level. I was like, OK, this is not an American problem.”

Anne-Marie is recalling this while sitting in a glass office in Talent House, a box-fresh building in Stratford, east London, a few miles from where she grew up in Walthamstow and close to where she lives today with her husband. She’s in casual clothing: trainers, black leggings, a black jumper with crystal beads glittering around its V-neck. Her youthful face, which she deploys expressively, with a good line in eye roll, is framed by the distinctive grey waves that make her look like sci-fi aristocracy. She covers her hair when she’s out and about, because since standing in for Rachel Riley as the resident maths whizz on Channel 4’s Countdown she’s become a rare thing for a woman scientist: a recognisable public figure. Recently she’s been thinking of dyeing her hair blue, but she says she probably won’t. She shrugs. “It’s a signature now.”

Talent House is a music and dance hub and the home of UD Music, a foundation that gives young people the opportunity and training to become involved in all aspects of the music business, from artist development and events to education. It provides access to impressive commercial-level recording and dance facilities, an IT suite and professional mentoring. The artists Little Simz, Labrinth and Skepta all benefited from working with UD early in their careers. Anne-Marie is a board member and trustee. “There was a programme at the bank I used to work in called Young Professionals on Arts Boards that I signed up for,” she says. “They told us everything about being on a board and all the governance, and then they did a matching process.”

Anne-Marie is now UD’s chair designate; she will take up the role in April alongside her others as the president of the British Science Association, a trustee at the Institute for the Future of Work and at the WoW Foundation, a member of council at the Royal College of Art and at Research England, a member of the British Library’s advisory council, and a member of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports’ Digital Skills Partnership Board.

When, on New Year’s Eve 2022, Anne-Marie guest-edited an episode of BBC Radio 4’s flagship news show, the Today programme, she had Flames Collective, a group from UD, play out the show.

Anne-Marie wears a blue cotton-mix dress by COS. In the opening image, she’s in a gold cashmere funnel-neck jumper by VINCE.

“It was enough of a goal to say, I’m going to focus on the maths, because at the end I’m going to solve everybody’s problems.”

In terms of encouraging and facilitating opportunity and diversity in a certain field, UD shares a similarity of purpose with Stemettes, the award-winning social enterprise Anne-Marie co-founded in 2013 after attending the conference in Baltimore and now runs as CEO, or Head Stemette. Her idea had been to take the sense of wow she had experienced and offer it to a younger generation of girls by throwing a series of fun events to get them excited about science, technology, engineering and maths – or Stem. “I thought, Someone’s got to build something where they can have this as a formative experience, be in that majority-female technical space,” she says. “Get them in cool spaces for free, have free food and see how it goes.”

How it went was that by the end of the year she had been summoned to Downing Street. At a round table, Michael Gove, then Secretary of State for Education, and David Willetts, then Minister of State for Universities and Science, pleaded for help. “It was like me – Science Girl – and one other women’s tech organisation,” Anne-Marie tells me. “They called us the insurgents. They said, ‘We don’t have enough people graduating with physics degrees every year to fill the teaching deficit, let alone do all the other things that physics graduates will do. We don’t have enough women in tech, we don’t have da-da-da,’ and I was like, ‘OK, this is maybe bigger than I realised, so let’s bin the Stemettes project.’ And they were all like, ‘No!’”

Today on the Stemettes website you’ll find a list of upcoming events – all free – around the country and online for girls and non-binary young people from ages five to 25: a technology and coding session in Manchester; a food waste solutions workshop in Basingstoke; a Stemettes Leadership Academy at Amazon’s London office, with the lure of Echo Dots and gift cards as prizes. And, in the holidays, a casual opportunity to make your skills real-world-ready with high-level certifications in the programming language Python, Agile software development, and cybersecurity tools. “They’re 13 to 20ish, and they’re doing qualifications that 30-, 40-, 50-year-olds are doing. And they all just do it.

“It’s nice because they meet others who are like them. In 2015 we ran a programme called Outbox Incubator. It was a six-week programme, and they were all living in one house and were, I don’t know, exchanging maths jokes and so on. We brought them together for Stem, but the number of girls who wrote to us afterwards and were like, ‘I was in a pretty dark place coming into this, and this has changed my life, because I’m not alone. I’m not the only one. I can be more than one narrow definition of teacher’s pet or genius.’ Stemettes provides a safe space for them.”

Floriane Fidegnon was one of the girls who attended Outbox Incubator. “Stem is a vast industry with opportunities that are not necessarily visible to the average 15-year-old,” she tells me by email. “Stemettes is doing its bit to change this.” Fidegnon, now 24, is a mechanical engineer and policy advisor. “I have not looked back,” she says.

The no-fuss approach of Stemettes is drawn from Anne-Marie’s own experience of accelerated learning as a child. When she passed her own maths GCSE, she was interviewed on the Today programme. The interview was played back to her on air during the episode she guest-edited in December. “It’s really funny. My voice has changed so much. But 11-year-old me had a point. I said, ‘Just let people give these things a go.’ If you give enough kids a go in year six to rock the GCSE, some of them will get something. If I’d sat a GCSE at 10 and failed, it wouldn’t have been news. It’s the way we socialise these things.”

As a teenager, Anne-Marie was often the youngest person in any exam hall or lecture theatre. But, she says, “I never felt self-conscious about it, never felt like a freak. I didn’t feel that I always had to be the smartest person in the room, because I was like, I can also be the funniest person. There’s often an assumption that I’m strait-laced. People are so used to the stereotype of the scientist, the technologist. But I like making people laugh – and comedy sometimes does feel like an elevated way to get a point across.” She is very funny, the digital entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox tells me by email, “and that’s part of her joy. But Anne-Marie shows that you don’t have to look like a white tech bro to be successful and inspiring.”

Since 2013, more than 50,000 people have attended Stemettes events and activities, not including school groups. Some now have careers in banking, technology, academia. Anne-Marie tells me about a girl who attended Outbox Incubator in 2015. “I remember the morning she came in and said, ‘I’ve decided I’m not doing medicine, I’m not going to university.’” Instead, she did a technology apprenticeship and now works in a bank. “She says she would have ended up languishing on a medicine course somewhere, only doing something because people think science equals medicine, maths teacher or mechanic.” Anne-Marie laughs.

More seriously, she believes there is an urgent need to stop people saying that the low proportions of students who do science GCSEs will equal the percentage who end up working in the sciences, “because that’s total nonsense. We don’t have a lot of people doing GCSE music, and I don’t see the music industry crying about that. The problem lies in the early stage they need to commit. You have to make this decision at 14, and then you have to make that decision at 18, and you have to make that decision at 21, and only then you’re eligible. What else in your life are you committing to at 14 that stays on till you’re older?”

Nonetheless, she is optimistic that the narrative can change. “There are a lot of moving pieces, a lot that goes wrong, but in Monday morning meetings there’s always a letter or a success story,” she says. Because she’s Anne-Marie, she reads me some funny feedback from a year-seven pupil who recently heard her speak. “‘I really enjoyed the constant humour and inspiration… and that no matter where or who you are, you can make a difference. To me, Anne-Marie didn’t look like a big success (the grey hair) but looks don’t matter.’” She shakes her head. “And the school sent that.”

Pictured at Talent House, in Stratford, east London, Anne-Marie wears a black silk jumpsuit with spangly silver embroidery by GIORGIO ARMANI.

“At Downing Street, it was me — Science Girl — and one other women’s tech organisation. They called us the insurgents.”

Anne-Marie Imafidon is the oldest of five siblings who have all been prodigies in their own right. Their parents are Nigerian academics; her father was an ophthalmic researcher and now runs his own business in education. They both encouraged Anne-Marie to pursue her curiosity and didn’t scream when they discovered she’d taken the video recorder apart to see how Simba from The Lion King had got in. “For some people it’s music, for others it’s drawing, for me it was tech,” Anne-Marie says.

“The problem-solving capacity drew me in. I can make this database, and the structures that I put in mean that someone else can get utility from that, and that’s really nice. We forget sometimes that the app you’ve got on your phone, someone built that, and they don’t know you, they’ll never know you.” It is the possibilities that excite people in tech, she says. “It was enough of an end goal to say, I’m going to sit and focus on the maths, work through this IT thing, that computer science thing, because then at the end I’m going to be able to solve every-body’s problems.” And solve them she did.

In her 2022 book, She’s in Ctrl: How Women Can Take Back Tech (her second after 2020’s How To Be a Maths Whizz, written for children), she describes how, aged nine, she worked out how to transfer her dad’s lectures onto PowerPoint so he wouldn’t have to lug a case of slides around. After his first PowerPoint lecture, his colleagues wanted to know how they could do it, too. “Dad left some time for me to meet his colleagues, and I ended up running a workshop for them,” she writes. “Nine-year-old me teaching a group of ophthalmologists how to use PowerPoint!”

This sharing of knowledge and know-how combined with altruism is what gives her a kick. “The times at Stemettes when we’ve taught someone how to build a basic web page and then they send an e-card they programmed themselves for someone’s birthday – it’s a really small form of control and agency, but that’s now a part of them.”

Her approach is the opposite of the scientific gatekeeping she loathes. “So many conversations we have about technology are, ‘I’m the scientist that knows all the science, and I will do the thing on your behalf, and I will tell you how it works.’ I get why someone might gatekeep, because that’s where their status is, that’s where their identity is. But your status doesn’t need to be that fragile. If you share [your knowledge] with others, then it can multiply, it can grow, and then you can come back and maybe be a part of the next iteration. Holding the knowledge, it doesn’t grow, it doesn’t multiply. There’s no new perspectives, and it becomes kind of destructive.”

Anne-Marie has endless tales, from sitting at breakfast with Michael Bloomberg, Martha Lane Fox, Jimmy Wales and Tim Berners-Lee – “my idol!” – to being invited to co-present Countdown with Anne Robinson while Rachel Riley was on maternity leave. (Rachel’s handover tip was “Memorise your 75 times table.”) Countdown was the first programme aired on Channel 4, in November 1982. It’s an institution, watched every weekday by 1.2 million people, who tune in to see contestants choose nine random letters and turn them into the longest word possible in 30 seconds or arrive at a randomly chosen target number by multi-plying, adding, subtracting or dividing six other random numbers.

“I’m in Rachel’s seat – not even seat; spot. I’m in Rachel’s spot. It’s five episodes a day in front of a live audience, three days on the trot.” Anne-Marie talks me through the process; it sounds like juggling on top of a moving car. “It was like, the hair, lips, outfit, trainers changed five times a day, then you actually have to come and do the maths – obviously there’s that. You have to spell the words and put them up. You’re doing this, trying not to cover the letters or numbers. If I moved my head like this, I’d cover one of the numbers, or if I go too far that way, then I’m blocking Anne’s camera. Meanwhile, I’ve had to calculate the whole thing, make sure I’ve got it right. Then, as I write it on the board, check what they’re saying as they say it. If they get it wrong I have to say that they got it wrong, leave space for the next person to do it, and if they get it wrong, leave space for myself to do it, and make it legible.” At one point someone on Twitter declared that she was not supposed to write sevens the way she did.

From December 2021 to March 2022, Anne-Marie presented 60 episodes. And when we speak, she has just filmed two episodes of the spin-off 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, which aired in January. “Looking back, it was cool,” she says. “It was so different from the things I ordinarily do.”

For now, she is back doing the things she ordinarily does: Stemettes, speaking engagements (filming for Countdown had to be rescheduled to accommodate a speaking tour to the Caribbean and the States), UD Music, and connecting to the community. “I’ll be reconnecting personally as well,” she says, “with different people that I haven’t seen in 10 years, because Stemettes has meant that there were definitely years early on that I just didn’t talk to anybody at all. I wasn’t at weddings, wasn’t at birthdays, wasn’t at Christmas, wasn’t at anything.” These days, when she’s not working, Anne-Marie, who has been a vegan since 2017, cooks – “I’m a jollof rice pro” – or relaxes watching comedy series, often on repeat. Abbott Elementary was her favourite in 2022, but she regularly returns to Chewing Gum, Parks and Recreation and The Office.

That isn’t to say her work is done. The pandemic has, she says, “taken us backwards. The amount of VC funding for women has fallen. It’s just sexism really, isn’t it?” So the aim in this second decade of Stemettes will be to “kick things up”, get parity for women, give people access to organisations so they can skill up. “The aim is to push for progress in one way or another. I’m a very positive person, but I’m also very realistic,” she says. “We’ve been really clear about doing things so that girls and young women can see what success looks like and will have the right connections to make it happen for themselves.” Anne-Marie is confident that in 10 years’ time Stemettes will not exist. Or that’s the plan. “Stemettes will be obsolete because the problem has been solved.”

And after that?

“After that I’m going to stay at home. You know, like Enya. Enya has a castle in Ireland. She just stays there and does what she does. So I’ll stay at home and watch TV,” Anne-Marie says. “And probably do some maths.”