Woman of the year in tech

Eleanor Harry, founder of tech start-up HACE, which aims to combat child labour, speaks to workingmums.co.uk about her work and winning the 2022 FDM everywoman in tech Woman of the Year award.

 

Eleanor Harry grew up above her mum’s nursery and got an up-close view of children and child development. “It was a unique opportunity to see how children thrive in the right setting, how their paths can go any which way depending on the decisions made about them. Early child development is in my blood,” she says. She has carried that sense of what is right for children – and what isn’t – through her working life, from her work for environmental justice charities and in teaching to her role as founder of a charity which aims to stop child labour.

Eleanor’s work for HACE, the start-up she founded in 2020 to combat child labour, has earned her this year’s Woman of the Year award at the recent FDM everywoman  in technology awards.

From fashion to education

Eleanor’s career began in fashion. Born in South Manchester, she moved to London as an undergraduate to study business management at the London College of Fashion. There she learned about every aspect of the fashion industry, from product development to point of sale. She combined studying with working at the Environmental Justice Foundation and began to see fashion in a more critical light.

While she was doing her master’s in 2013 the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing nearly 1.5K women and children.  The tragedy brought attention to the issue of child labour, but also created some misconceptions, says Eleanor. “People tend to think child labour only happens in the fashion industry, but it is much more widespread,” she says, adding that it often occurs much lower down the chain, in the agriculture sector, with most children being family workers.

After finishing her master’s, Eleanor got an Erasmus scholarship to study sustainable fashion in Copenhagen, but she began to feel increasingly overwhelmed about all the various injustices and challenges facing the world and felt powerless to change anything. Feeling unsure about what to do next, she decided to move to Italy and try something completely new. She stayed in Florence for over five years, teaching linguistics at schools and universities and writing a national curriculum for English. She was director of four schools and a lecturer in business English at a business university.

Nevertheless, she felt something was missing and that she could do more. She quit her job and returned to the UK in 2019 not knowing what she wanted to do. She worked for a while at her mother’s Montessori nursery and thought about doing a PhD in child labour. “I still had that fire in my belly,” she says. The more she researched a possible PhD the more she realised nothing much had changed since 2013. “There were the same narratives and misconceptions and oversimplifications,” she says.

Start-up

So Eleanor decided to found a start-up that would address the complexity of child labour by providing better data on what works. She started HACE in February 2020 and it was incorporated by August, building on contacts from her past work. It aims to provide analysis on the key drivers of child labour via easy-to-use dashboards, as well as recommendations of target areas for improvement. It says decision-makers, in both the public and private sector, can then implement targeted policies and effectively allocate resources to prevent the negative impact of child labour on children, families, national economies and companies.

HACE works mainly in four countries – Bangladesh, India, Tanzania and Nigeria, but also does additional work in West Africa and the DRC and is reliant on links the organisation has developed on the ground with student volunteers. HACE’s biggest project is in Bangladesh where it has funding to collect data on what might work to address child labour. “It’s about having a baseline measurement of how communities live so you know how to create impact,” says Eleanor. That might mean understanding that building a school will not increase girls’ education if the road to the school is unsafe so they don’t go.

Eleanor says that in many ways Covid has set girls’ education back, with girls facing the triple whammy of paid, unpaid labour at home and schooling.  She says financial problems are leading to more early marriages for girls as well as increasing the likelihood of child labour generally. Eleanor points out that due in part to concerns about the PR impact of using child labour, firms are keen to address it, but she thinks they are often wasting their money because they lack the metrics about what might be effective ways of combating it – such as educating mothers. Data shows the links between child labour and mothers’ low levels of education. Eleanor makes the point that early child development research shows how vital role models are.

She works with employers to educate them about how they can best address child labour and says many don’t have the expertise to deal with it. While they may have a person or people dealing with labour rights issues, there is a big difference, she says, between human trafficking, modern slavery and child labour, with child labour being four times more prevalent than modern slavery. “Very few corporates have a child labour expert on their team,” she states.

Eleanor has also been working with the UN university arm on international policy guides about the interventions corporates could make to address child labour. She says that under their Environmental, Social and Governance programmes, many corporates have focused a lot on the environment and on governance, but less so on the social side. That is where they could have a competitive advantage, she says, adding that child labour is a relatively untapped area.

Women in tech

Eleanor’s work has made her a strong role model for women in tech, as acknowledged by the Woman of the Year award.  She feels positive role models are important, but that fighting gender stereotypes needs to start before children enter primary school.  She says there is a vicious circle occurring where women do not see themselves represented in tech so are discouraged from going into it, meaning they have less say in how the tech world is designed. Yet, she says, tech is just about a way of doing things and collecting and analysing information. The problems that need to be solved, that tech can measure and monitor, are age-old human ones, such as poverty. At HACE many of her employees are social scientists. They work side by side with data scientists.

For Eleanor, it’s all about diversity – of people, of thinking, of disciplines. That is why diversity underpins everything the start-up does. Her own experience of working in a range of industries, from fashion to education to tech, is testament to that. She says: “Every job I have had has led me to this point. Nothing has been a waste of time. The future of work is being adaptable. You don’t have to stay on the same trajectory.”

 



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