When Marita Cheng was helping her mum clean their housing commission home in Cairns in Far North Queensland, she dreamed of a day when a robot could take care of all the household chores. Bit by bit, as she began to read science-fiction novels and pay attention to her big brother’s interest in maths and science, she started to think that perhaps it was something she could create herself.
Her passion never wavered, and she graduated high school with marks in the top 0.2% of the country. She went on to found Aubot, which builds telepresence robots that, among other applications, help children with cancer attend school. Marita also co-founded Aipoly, an application that recognises real-world objects via a smartphone camera and relays that information to the visually impaired.
In 2008 she created Robogals, which has brought robotics workshops and STEM education to 100,000 girls and young women in 11 countries, encouraging them to excel in the world of robotics and engineering. She was also named Young Australian of the Year in 2012, and one of Forbes’ Top 50 Women in Tech 2018.
Here’s how she went from Cairns to conquering the world.
When Did You First Think You Might Be Interested in Robotics and Engineering?
Because Cairns is so remote, growing up it felt like it was my whole world. It was hard to imagine what was beyond its boundaries. I thought that Google was really amazing – that I could type anything into a computer and get information. Also, I read a lot of books, especially science-fiction novels, which is when I started to think that technology was really cool.
I was really into nanotechnology, and I began thinking about how you could have nanobots inside your body that could clean up your arteries after you ate junk food, or have robots that could do all your household chores. It really made me want to get involved in robotics; I wanted to make robots that would help people in their everyday lives.
How Did Things Progress From There?
Throughout high school, I kept learning more about the real-world applications of maths and science. I decided to study mechatronics engineering and computer science at The University of Melbourne.
We’re so fortunate in Australia to have the HECS (Higher Education Contribution Scheme) model, which paid for my fees. I was also very lucky to get a scholarship from The Patterson Foundation for $5,000 a year. It was a real life-changer for me and let me support myself – albeit living frugally – through university while getting Robogals off the ground. I see it as a big privilege to have received this scholarship.
Did You Have Any Jobs While You Were at School and What Lessons Did They Teach You?
Yes, I was a tutor, a waitress and a dental assistant. I gave all the money I earned to my mum to help with the family. Being a dental assistant definitely made me more thoughtful about my teeth! But it was also good to have a job where I was meeting the public every day and learning how to interact with different kinds of people. Working as a waitress was great for that, too – you learn how to deal with customers, ask the right questions, bring things out at the right time. It was fun and a good life skill.
Do You Consider Yourself a Natural Leader?
While I was at school, I didn’t have any leadership roles. I wasn’t school captain or part of the Student Representative Council or anything like that. So when I founded Robogals in 2008, I had to learn to be a leader. I had a vision but I had to learn how to have people listen to me and to engage people so they’d show up every week, get excited about the project and take it on as their own.
What Were the Challenges in Transitioning to Becoming a Leader?
People quit, or weren’t committed. And sometimes it was just me mismanaging. I didn’t give people defined, clear responsibilities, or have a good enough focus so that people would share the same common goal. I set goals that were too ambitious, which was demotivating for people.
How Did You Overcome These Hurdles During Your Career Progression?
You learn from each challenge and grow a thicker skin – it makes it easier to deal with the next one. Then once you’ve dealt with smaller challenges, even if your challenges get bigger and bigger, you have a greater risk tolerance and more of an appetite to deal with them.
What Have Been Your Career Highlights?
Whenever our team hits milestones or when we deliver robots. That’s always really exciting. But really the most exciting project for me is always the one I’m working on. I try to make it so I’m as engaged as possible in whatever I’m trying to achieve.
What Tech, Gadgets or Office Supplies Do You Find Invaluable?
Obviously my laptop, and I like to listen to audiobooks with my headphones in the morning. I also love a label maker to label boxes, robot parts and things around the office. Plus Post-It notes are always good!
When I was at uni, I had something called my Wall of Change. I’d get A4 sheets of paper and write my goals, deadlines and inspirational quotes on them, then stick them on my wall. Now I like experimenting with more aesthetic ways of doing that, like whiteboards and magnetic boards. Right now I have a corkboard. And I also have a reliable black and white laser printer from Officeworks for printing. I’ve had it for more than 10 years now. It’s indestructible.
Do You Set Yourself Specific Long- and Short-term Goals?
When I started Robogals, I became focused on short-term goals and milestones as a way to create really clear goals and milestones that we could work towards and achieve. Longer-term? It’s just too hard to predict what you can achieve. There’s this quote by Bill Gates I like: “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in 10 years.” I think it really means you do your best with what you’ve got and work hard towards specific milestones. As long as you’re moving in the right direction, you’re doing okay.
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