Ep 20: Jillian Winn: Game On and Follow Your Passion

In this episode, we got the chance to sit down with savvy and generous entrepreneur Jillian Winn, who shares her insights into start-ups, gaming and women, and more.

Jillian was an only child until she was 15 years old. She remembers never being pushed into science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) fields, but remembers being taught that the “sky was the limit.” When she grew up and went to college, she studied Political Theory and Telecommunications focusing on web design.

 “You don’t really know what you will like until you do it,” Jillian said. Pursuing knowledge along two different (and seemingly unrelated paths) offered her a two-pronged way to explore her two biggest passions. After graduating, she considered many options, but settled on a graduate program for her master’s in telecommunications. While at graduate school, she also dove into gender studies in technology and gaming.

How do you get girls to like science and think it’s fun? She was involved in game research studies in graduate school which explored this question. Jillian said it helped her learn to be conscious of gender roles and women in technology. Some of the studies brought up the question as to whether women had or made enough free time to play games. Jillian’s research provided the first research evidence of a relationship between leisure time availability and how much digital games are played. 

The findings suggested one reason women play fewer games than men is because they are required to fulfill more obligatory activities, leaving them less available leisure time, which in turn makes them less likely to “make” time for games. It was found that not only do women report having less free time than men, but their free time is available in smaller chunks, and they play digital games for shorter periods of time than men. What programs are out there to get into gaming? How does it become a part of career? Jillian shares information on Michigan State University’s Game Design & Development program (http://gamedev.msu.edu), which is one of the top game programs in the country.

After Jillian finished her master’s degree, she entered the world of entrepreneurship, doing more research, and then working as Faculty at MSU in the Department of Media and Information (http://tism.msu.edu) (previously the Telecommunication Department) where she taught web and technology course, ran “game camps” and summer programs. She noted that, if you’re younger, there’s lots of pre-college programs (http://mi.msu.edu/camps/) around technology, web development, and gaming with some designed specifically for women, covering a plethora of different topics.

 “One of the things with games in particular ---  it’s one thing to play them,  it’s a different thing to make them,” she said. Lots of the kids who go to camps discover if they really want to pursue a career in gaming.

 Jillian reflects on how she really had independence to drive and create initiatives while at Michigan State University, a characteristic that helped her become a full-fledged entrepreneur. She subsequently co-founded a mission-oriented company called Signing Savvy (https://www.signingsavvy.com), a sign language resource, which aims to provide the most comprehensive online sign language resource for parents, educators, interpreters, students, or anyone interested in American Sign Language.

 “You type in a word like ‘apple’ and you can then watch a video showing you how to sign apple,” she said. “You can look up signs, you can study signs. It helps you learn.” Parents can use the tool to make word lists to share signs with teachers, kids, and other relatives to better practice sign language. Signing Savvy was built with a mix of coding languages, and is available online and on iOS and Android applications. Jillian stressed how passionate she is to help others learn and use their resources, providing some free access for users.

 What’s been the most rewarding thing for Jillian? She has seen over 10 million people use the Signing Savvy website, so far, and she loves to see and hear stories on how they are using it. Sometimes it’s a veteran who lost his hearing at war and needed a resource to learn sign language; sometimes it’s children and parents, but the tool can be used for any age.

 There are definitely challenges with starting a technology company. Jillian says it can feel lonely, and sometimes people don’t understand the work it takes.  “I have a website up; what more could you be doing?” she claims is sometimes a stereotype she hears. There’s often a misunderstanding on how long it might take to launch a technology company.

 Jillian likes to volunteer and connect with others who have an entrepreneurial spirit. She’s an active leader in the Lansing area technology scene and a Co-Founder of the Michigan Technology Network (http://lansing.mitn.org) She’s also a third-generation MSU “Spartan,” and loves to teach and give back to the university when she can.

How has being a woman in tech affected her? Jillian says she was fortunate to have women bosses at her first two jobs at the university. She says it’s rare to get to work with mentors and successful women in tech; so she’s grateful that for her, it was twice in a row at the start of her career.

 Her advice for women in tech:

  • Take risks
  • Find what you’re passionate about
  • You can’t be afraid of failing

Jillian reflects back on when she was one of the first female pole vaulters in the state of Michigan. It was a very male-oriented event, and she was one of the first woman participating in the pole vaulting segment. It taught her not to be afraid to try new things or to be the first to do something, but also helped her to be a team player.  “I really believe you always need to think in terms of a team aspect and how the team can succeed,” she said. Volunteering often helped her show her this too.

“Be humble and help others. You’re not going to reap all the rewards, and that’s a good thing. You want everyone to reap the rewards. Together, we make things happen,” she said.

From pole vaulting, to gaming, and starting a tech company with an incredibly worthwhile mission, Jillian said she’s most lucky to just have followed her passion. That passion has created a tool that helps people and knowing that drives her forward each and every day.

To learn more about Signing Savvy go to: signingsavvy.com

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