Jillian Kenny – founder of Machinam

FYA logoThis is part of a series of interviews with members of the Foundation for Young Australians Young Social Pioneers program which supports Australia’s best and brightest emerging social entrepreneurs and innovators, aged 18-29. The program amplifies their social change purpose, builds networks of support and develops their business skills and capabilities to drive successful purpose-driven ventures.

Named as one of 2014’s ‘100 Most Influential Australian Women’ by the Australian Financial Review and Westpac, Jillian’s passion for providing opportunities for non-traditional entrants into science, technology, engineering and maths professions has led her to establish two social enterprises serving this space.

As Founding Director of Machinam, Jillian develops innovative mathematics resources that are engaging and relevant to real life. Employing the experience gained through her doctoral research, Jillian is committed to ensuring the delivery of thoroughly researched and tested, world-class products.

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In 2012, Jillian co-founded the non-profit organisation Power of Engineering, which runs nationwide events for female and regional Year 9 and 10 students to inspire them about the engineering profession; showcasing it’s diversity, creativity, and most importantly, that it is an avenue to making a real difference in the world.

Jillian has a Bachelor of Civil Engineering and is currently in the final stages of completing her PhD at Queensland University of Technology.

Can you tell us a little bit about your idea and what made you decide to take the plunge and make it happen?

At Machinam we’re creating an app-based resource that tackles the age-old question ‘Why do we need to learn this?’ by framing maths problems in a way that allows students’ to connect what they are learning in class to real life and future careers.

For an idea of what we mean, imagine for a moment that you love fashion. You might start your lesson by watching a video showing a day in the life of Heidi and Sarah-Jane from Sass & Bide talking about how they use algebra and geometry every day in the work they do. Then based on what you have learned in that video, you get to go and design your very own digital fashion line. So you’re working on something that’s of interest to you, while at the same time learning the maths concepts you need.

In 2012, myself and one of my two Machinam co-founders, Felicity, co-founded Power of Engineering, a non-profit organisation that inspires female and regional Year 9 and 10 students about what’s possible from an engineering career. In the three and a half years since starting, we have reached 3,000+ students, 90% of which would now consider an engineering career, and 50% of whom changed their mind from a ‘no’ to a ‘yes’ when asked that question after attending an event.

After creating Power of Engineering, we discovered two things. The first was realising that the problem is not just the lack of girls in engineering, it extends to girls and boys engaging in maths and science in their high school years. The second discovery was that the impact we could have was limited by the structure of the non-profit model. This was the point when our other Machinam co-founder, Claire, shared her ideas and passion for creating change in STEM, and late in 2013, after spending many hours talking in a quaint cafe at the Barracks in Brisbane, Machinam was born.

Can you explain your business model to us? 

Machinam is a for-profit, for-purpose company – the purpose being that all students can relate to the maths skills they need to create their future. While the reason we exist is to solve a social challenge, we are going about this in a commercial manner. This means that while we are eligible for grants and funding directed towards social enterprise projects we are not reliant on this income for our future sustainability. Rather, we are employing a subscription-based business model, where the schools select our resource and the parents pay (much like the existing textbook system used by most private schools). 

What are you working on right now and what are you most excited about in the next year?

Over the past couple of months we have been trialling our basic content in a number of schools to test how it impacts student’s learning outcomes. Following on from these trials we are now starting to develop the low-tech version of our digital product which should be complete by the end of this year! 

How do you make ideas happen?

Making sure we have the right people for the project and the right combination of people working together. We make sure we pair up people with complementary skills – an ideas person and a delivery person, a big picture thinker and a details person, etc. We also take advantage of our size and use all the agility tools we can find: Trello, Slack, GoogleDrive. 

Jillian Kenny

What does your typical day look like?

We work on a weekly cycle so it really depends on what the focus of that week is. It could be head down, nutting out new maths content or coffee meetings with other people who are doing great work in this space.  Ultimately though, I’m happiest when I’m working towards any or all of my values on a given day: education, diversity and innovation.


What challenges have you faced when starting or growing a business/organisation in Australia?

Building a strong network of people in the social change space – getting to know the right people has made everything easier. Also, knowing what advice to take and what advice to leave. Education is a beast of its own, so advice that works really well in corporate settings sometimes isn’t that relevant. We have to trust ourselves to know what does and doesn’t apply.

What is one idea you are willing to give away for free?

Do what makes you happy, even if it doesn’t make you money…yet. This idea was born from my non-profit organisation, Power of Engineering. I want to make money from this so that I can continue to do this work that I think is important, and hire other people to also make a difference in this space.  

What people/companies/organisations do you think are doing really cool stuff in your industry, in Australia at the moment?  

Maths Pathway – This company was founded by two former teachers who really care about creating something that positively impacts students and teachers. Their focus is on providing individualised learning for each student, depending on their current abilities. 

What about internationally?

Jo Boaler – Youcubed – Inspiring and educating maths teachers by transforming the latest research on math learning into accessible and practical forms.

Dan Meyer – MrMeyer – Teaches high school maths to students who don’t like high school math. Successfully. 

Name 3 websites you would recommend to our readers.



The Blue Economy

Name 3 Australians we should follow on Twitter.

Adam Spencer – @adambspencer – Comedian, mathematician.

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki – @DoctorKarl – “An answer looking for a question”

Women’s Agenda – @WomensAgenda – Where professional women go to set the agenda on how they achieve.

Are there opportunities for people to get involved with your idea (e.g. are you looking for funding, interns, marketing help)?

Yes. All of the above! We are particularly looking for people who use maths in their jobs every day (engineers, scientists, accountants, teachers, etc.) to help us develop content (we have structures to make it easy for you). More information is available here. 

What’s your favourite bar/café/restaurant?

Kinfolk, Melbourne


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