Anna Gross sits smiling on the floor in a circle of six people. She has very short brown hair and is wearing glasses, a cream top and black skirt.
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Anna Gross: Co-founder and CEO of Project Access UK

The #SheInnovates stories team sat down with Anna Gross to discuss the role of women in innovation. Get involved at She Innovates Global.

#SheInnovates Stories: Innovation is solving the world's problems. What problem are you solving?

Anna Gross: A state school student, with exactly the same grades, is five times less likely to go to a selective university than a privately educated student. At Project Access, we’re recruiting and training thousands of university students to become mentors who help disadvantaged students gain places at selective universities. Our mentoring programme is built to one day be able to help 10,000 students per year, so that we can bring about systemic change and level the playing field in access to prestigious universities.

#SheInnovates: When did you realize your innovation was a breakthrough?

AG: At a ceremony in a Cambridge college last year, a student received a scholarship for outstanding academic achievement. As he accepted, he spoke about where he had come from and how unlikely it had been for someone from his background to make it to Cambridge. He finished off his story by saying that he wouldn’t be at Cambridge if it wasn’t for Project Access and the help of his mentor. None of us were there to see it, but the college rang us up later that day to thank us for the work we were doing. This was a heartwarming moment for us and it was the first time we truly felt we were making a difference.

#SheInnovates: What were some unexpected obstacles you overcame in the innovation process?

AG: Where do we begin…education is a minefield. It’s a minefield because everyone is scared of getting it wrong. People commissioning projects are scared of failure because they risk losing their jobs, and they’re scared of success because they risk losing their budgets. For many of the people we work with, they are taking a personal gamble by working with a young organization like ours; but they do it because they believe in what we do and they want to make a difference. So we’re incredibly grateful to our partners for believing in us, and for staying with us for this journey, as we learn to get better at what we do and solve this problem together.

#SheInnovates: What inspires you to love your work?

AG: The mentors! It never ceases to amaze me that these very busy students are so generous with their time and energy to help us solve this problem. They could be receiving a hefty payment for the type of work they do with us, but instead they choose to do it for free because they recognize that this is a problem. It’s an incredible community of people, and I hope we can give back to them in career opportunities, conferences and other ways, to show our appreciation for the amazing work that they do!

#SheInnovates: What do you hope that young women coming behind you take from your work?

AG: Go with your gut. If you think something is wrong, or solvable, or could be done better, you’re probably right. Go out and find out how you can solve it. If you haven’t found someone doing your idea yet, chances are they’re not, so go and try it. The world needs people who are willing to put themselves out there to solve problems and think independently. Also, be choosey about who you work for and make sure you’re always learning. The way I see it, everyone is here to become an independent thinker and doer. Give yourself the opportunity to learn the things you want to learn, so that you can then do the things you want to do.

#SheInnovates: Why are women in innovation important?

AG: Half of the world is made up of women, yet only 2% of venture capital funding goes to all-women founding teams (and only 15% for teams with a woman on them). We can’t wait for the role models to appear; we need to try to become them. There is a wealth of innovation waiting to happen if we just allow ourselves to break through the stigma and take ourselves and our ideas seriously.

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Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and length.