An Interview with Janese Swanson
Photo of Janese Swanson

Interview by Jill Wolfson, San Jose Mercury News; and
Allison dePeralta, Senior, Mt. Pleasant High School

Interview photos by Len Lahman, San Jose Mercury News

Transcribed by Jean Ricket, Tech Museum volunteer

Allison dePeralta
Janese Swanson, 39, is founder and CEO of Girl Tech, which specializes in creating toys and other products aimed at making technology more interesting for girls.

Swanson, one of six chldren, didn't start out in technology or inventing. She worked as a model, sold electronics at Sears, taught school and worked as an airline flight attendant. She began working at Broderbund Software in San Rafael after her daughter, Jackie, was born nine years ago. There, she headed teams that produced products such as ''Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?, Playroom and Treehouse.

Swanson left Broderbund in 1992 to found Kid One For Fun, where she also developed and licensed toys such as the Yak Bak, a handheld voice recorder for kids. She started Girl Tech in 1995.

A native Californian, she has six academic degrees. Her doctoral dissertation was on gender issues in product design and focused on play patterns and gender preferences.

She credits her daughter, Jackie, 9, with helping her invent toys and keep in touch with what girls want and need. Her mother, Jenna Plein, also works at the Girl Tech.

From her office in San Rafael, Swanson talked with writer Joyce Gemperlein and high-school student Allison DePeralta.

Gemperlein: Many of us had Barbie dolls and we still think fondly of them and they're a piece of Americana, even though they have some negative messages about women. Here at Girl Tech, what's the view of Barbie? Do you hate Barbie?

Swanson: I think you should ask all the girls what they think of Barbie. Everyone has a different opinion. Most of us agree that Barbie is an icon. Barbie was developed in the '50s during a time when our culture placed value on the ideal-looking female, and 'lookism' is rampant in our society today.

I think you should ask all the girls what they think of Barbie. Everyone has a different opinion. Most of us agree that Barbie is an icon.

Barbie was developed in the '50s during a time when our culture placed value on the ideal-looking female, and 'lookism' is rampant in our society today.

It's not a healthy view of girls. I don't know if you've read 'Reviving Ophelia,' that's where they talk quite a lot about lookism, and what that's about. And that's what we'r e trying to do here ... it's about dispelling some of the myths around girls and offering them opportunities to participate in technology and other options for purchasing products.

And we provide products and services that encourage girls in technology use. And the icon Barbie and lookism, it's not healthy for girls. The sad thing is, what are we teaching our daughters? And what are we teaching our sons if we take Barbie as a rol e model? It goes right in subconsciously.

I would rather have my daughter (age 10) have another opportunity to take a look at who she is and not necessarily identify because of her body being (similar or not) to Barbie's. Our society really condones that lookism feature. I don't. I want an al ternative to that.

And so that's why we started Girl Tech.

dePeralta: OK. You've often spoken of your destitute childhood in in San Diego and the things you were told you couldn't do because you were a girl. How can a childhood that isn't easy positively effect a person later in life?

Swanson: You know, I, we grew up poor. So, if that's what you mean by destitute. But, we had so many great experiences. My mom was a single mom, and there were many of us kids. We had to be very creative in what we did.

We didn't get a lot of toys and that kind of thing. But one summer we lived in the back of a truck. There were, you know, 6 kids. And I was in about 5th grade. It was in San Diego, during the summertime, which was the most beautiful weather. And we were at the the beach!

So, every night my brothers and my sister and I, we would lay down in the back of the truck and look up at the stars and point out which stars were planets. And we watched the moon over the water, and we could smell the salt air; we heard the waves. Now, it wasn't hard on us; it was hard my mom. Because she wanted a different life for us.

So for me there were adventures, always. But we always used our imagination to make up things. So, I have great memories of my childhood in that we were always creating. And I think that's why I am where I am today, creating and making up games and toys.

I was always also fixing things because my mother couldn't afford a lot. And, when you had to repair something, you had to figure it out. So I was always taking things apart and helping her figure them out. So here I am today, in technology.

Gemperlein: What's the most important thing you learned from your mother?

Swanson: To keep going. Don't give up. Keep going, and stay focused on your dream. And try your best not to compromise. Just keep going. When people tell you you can't do it, just look at them and keep going. You know where you need to go and you just keep doing it.

dePeralta: A lot of young people have fathers who are not instrumental in their lives. How did you cope with that situation?

Swanson: Well, my father went to Vietnam when I was 7, and he didn't come back. I remember missing him very much and thinking about him. I remember on television, which was very high-tech in those days, you could watch the Vietnam War, parts of it on the news. That was really disturbing to me. I remember watching and looking for him in the news.

He was an air traffic controller and he was also involved with flight. So he was, like, a pilot. And he called me from out in the field, and he was telling me how you have to say 'Over' when you're finished with a sentence. And I didn't understand, what is this technology that he's using?

I was dying to know about communication. I wanted to talk to him. And it's really weird, because I'm really into communication ever since.

You know, I missed him very much. But what I do remember of him, he influenced my life.

I would say, you know, use whatever memories you do have if you do have some. And if not, look around you. Because there are people who care about you. And who will influence your life. And that do, everyday, and give them credit for that. Enjoy it.

Gemperlein: Do you, or did you, ever have problems with self esteem? And if you do, what do you do to overcome it?

Swanson: I think in our society, many girls have issues with self-esteem. Some have to do with that lookism issue that we talked about. The way you look is your value in our society, which is not what I condone at all.

I think as far as my self-esteem issues go, I remember in junior high, having big issues there. I focused on my books and my school, and I also loved sports. It was a great way to release energy. And also to keep trying and to find out what you can push your own limits to. That really helped me in junior high. That was a tough time. I think for most girls, that's a tough time in their life on self-esteem issues.

I'm a lot older now, and every day is a new experience, and I welcome that. And I welcome challenges. What I've learned is that you have to confront those challenges. Straight on, with words. You know, just say what you feel and what you see and how you see it. And learn from other people and their views. But you've got to stay true to who you are and I think you find out more about yourself and the inner strength that you're born with, and that you have power. We are all very valuable in our society.

dePeralta: It seems you grew up in a family atmosphere pretty typical of the times in that girls were not encouraged to do the same things that boys were? How did you break free of that?

Swanson: Well, I do remember when , in '69, men walked on the moon. And I would just pretend and dream that someday I would see a girl doing that. Maybe I could do that. So I suppose I fantasized a lot because I was trying to figure out who I was. And, thinking about, knowing that you have an opportunity, no matter how hard it is, to be who you really are.

I mean, you try on different roles. In our world, there are obstacles and challenges to becoming who you are. Sometimes our society sets up these roles that are hidden. But you have to ignore that, and you have to stay, again, true to yourself and how you feel. And keep going in that direction.

I wanted to become a a doctor. I remember reading everything I could and trying to understand how the body worked. It's like, mechanical. It's electrical too. I was reading quite a bit about that. But I was really not encouraged to do that.

In the books that I read in those days said that there was a very low percent, like 1%, of the graduates from from medical school were women. Well, I was told enough (that I couldn't do it) that I started believing it. And that was wrong. But I also knew that. . . I was really compelled to play with technology. I was doing it all along, but it never really, was reinforced. . .No one ever recognized that. And you never saw it on television. Your peer group didn't really recognize it.

You didn't see it in school, where somebody said, 'Wow! Janese, you can fix this!' It was never supported, and thoroughly encouraged. So I ended up getting my doctorate; I ended up being a doctor. And I loved school and education.

And if this doesn't work, I'll be a professor. I'll go back to teaching, and I love teaching. That's basically what I'm doing now in Girl Tech. I'm teaching. It's really exciting. I have the opportunity to teach many, many more people about what my mission is and what our mission is here.

And I'm finding that it's the same mission that many people have. . . which is encouraging girls in technology use. And by providing role models and validation to girls and their contribution to our society through our Internet experience as well as our electronic toys.