Public Talk: women mean business at Central Library, 08/03/18

Public Talk: women mean business at Central Library, 08/03/18

On International Women’s Day 2018, I had been invited to talk about my experience as a woman in business by the Business and Intellectual Property Centre at Central Library. I was terrified. I’ve always turned these things down but I decided it was finally time to push myself to get more comfortable with public speaking. I enlisted some coaching support from Su Grainger who gave me so much help and advice as well as some techniques to quell the nerves.

I was introduced by Bernie from The Women’s Org who warned the audience that I was very nervous, while I was stood to one side taking slow, deep breaths and feeling like I just wanted to run from the room.

But I got through it. The audience even laughed at my jokes. By the end of it I felt like I could do an arena tour.

Here’s the transcript of my talk:

Hi I’m Helen, I’m really excited – well maybe excited isn’t the word, terrified, no: honoured – to be invited here, on International Women’s Day to share my experience as a woman in business.

Little Sandbox is a kids tech club which I co-founded, with Chris Huffee, in 2014. But I actually started the business in 2010. Prior to that I’d had some pretty interesting jobs. I’d spent 6 years living and working in London in the music industry, which wasn’t as glamorous or exciting as I’d imagined it to be. And eventually I was in so much debt I decided to move back to Liverpool, where after struggling to find work I became a taxi driver for Delta. I was one of only three female drivers at the time and it was quite an eye opening experience. But nowadays we have a lot more female drivers and I’m proud to have been one of the early ones who helped make that cultural shift.
After that I trained for a level 3 in playwork and worked in an afterschool club for 18 months before joining a CVS where I worked as a communications officer for 5 years.

It was from this job that, due to a change in government and cuts to charitable funding, I sadly got made redundant [insert ‘aaahhhhs’ from the audience, following a bit of prompting and a sad face from me].

I’d had two ambitions when I was younger.
First of all, when I was 9, I told my teacher that my ambition was to be an author… Like Jackie Collins.

Has anyone read any Jackie Collins books? [several enthusiastic responses from the audience] oh right, quite a few of you. Now I haven’t actually read any Jackie Collins books but it’s my understanding that she was the queen of the bonkbuster. Is that right? [more enthusiatic nodding]

Oh right, well then, I can only imagine the reaction that got in the staff room later that day.

Interestingly though, in 2014 I did write a novel. And it did get published. And it was a bit of a bonk buster too, so I achieved that particular ambition, quite literally.

My second ambition, when I was a teenager, was to own my own business, specifically a record company, which explains my years in the music industry. But I think both ambitions show that from an early age I knew I wanted to be self employed.

So there I was, facing redundancy, and I decided this was the time to go for it and start my own business. I decided that in this period of economic uncertainty with massive cuts to third sector funding that this was the perfect time to start a social enterprise.

But eight years later, it’s still going, so I guess I’m doing some thing right.

I registered my company on 26th August 2010 as Geni-i Creations Ltd.
Would anyone like to guess what Geni-i creations was set up to do? [tumbleweed…] no, of course not, it was a silly name, it meant nothing and it gave no clue as to what the service was that I was offering.
I started Geni-i creations as a Web design company, offering affordable websites to third sector businesses.

Before I left, my manager had told me about some funding I could apply for and asked if I’d consider teaching. I said “oh God, no. I couldn’t teach, no way, because that would mean standing up in front of a room full of people and talking, and that is my worst nightmare.” [some encouraging smiles from the front row and a murmer of laughter]

My boss encouraged me to go on a teacher training course, and part of the course involved a micro teach, where I had to deliver a 20 minute class to the rest of my group. Now I was really nervous about this and I had no idea what to do. My intention had been to teach clients to manage their own websites. But I couldn’t very well do that for a whole class with no equipment. My tutor said that it didn’t matter too much what I did for the microteach as it was just to demonstrate that I’d learned the principles and suggested I choose a hobby I enjoyed. I’d always loved silk painting so I bought some workshop supplies, planned how to demonstrate different methods and roped in a few mates for a trial run.

My tutor feedback was great, she said she hoped I would go on and do the certificate or diploma because I was a natural.

So emboldened by this new turn of events I applied for that funding and I ran 2 successful silk painting courses in a local community centre.

One day I was on a networking course and as we all introduced ourselves, I listened to everyone say things like ‘I’m Jim from 123 finance and we provide book keeping services’ and when it was my turn, I said ‘I’m Helen from Geni-i creations and I make websites and run art classes. And I heard it. I felt the confusion in the room. I realised that no one wants to buy a service from someone who does a bit of everything.

I made the decision to stick with digital and changed the company name to Sandbox Digital. A good techy name with digital in the title. And my client list grew steadily.

But it wasn’t very social enterprisey.

Then I met Chris. Chris had also been working in the voluntary sector, and Chris had also been made redundant. And Chris also decided to go self employed making websites for charities. GRRRR!! [laughter – from Chris too, thankfully]

We found ourselves with a mutual client, I was making the website and he was making an app which needed to be embedded in the website. We got together to discuss how that would happen. I mean, we both knew how that would happen so it took us all of 2 minutes to discuss and agree a solution, and while we finished our coffee, we got chatting. Chris said he wanted to get kids more interested in technology, which evolved into an idea for a tech club for nerdy kids who don’t fit in at other clubs. And so Little Sandbox was born.

But we were a bit ahead of our time, no one else got it. We wrote so many grant applications to get this started and got rejection after rejection. Finally just as we’d reached our limit, BBC Children in Need came through for us and we opened our doors on Saturday 5th September 2015. Over that year we had 22 kids come through our door – a 50/50 split of girls and boys – and we watched shy, socially anxious kids, grow in confidence and make friends.

At the end of the year, parents asked us to keep it going, describing how much the club had helped their kids. I explained that we had no more funding: “well charge us, we’re happy to pay, just keep it going.”

And so we did. And our membership grew. That strange thing where, when something is free people don’t value it, but as soon as we started charging we doubled our membership.

Initially we thought we were adressing a skills shortage in tech but actually, we were creating a social environment for kids who don’t like being in social groups. We noticed we were having a particular impact on kids with ASD who were thriving in this environment where the common ground wasn’t a condition but an interest in computers, robots, video games, just nerdy stuff.

We have created a really welcoming environment where kids can find their people and feel a sense of belonging. And we’ve created something that, I’m so proud of, I’m even prepared to stand up in front of a room full of people and talk about it.

Thanks for listening.

Make Your Own: Bet Generator Money Box

Make Your Own: Bet Generator Money Box

In this make I’ve built a money box with a bet generator using an Arduino. For more information on why you can read previous blog entries and follow the progress I made in working out this build. But here I present you with the instructions to make something similar.

For this make you will need:

  • Arduino
  • LCD1620 screen
  • Header pins
  • Breadboard
  • Male to female jumper wires
  • Male to male jumper wires
  • Female to female jumper wires
  • Push button
  • 220 ohm resistor
  • 3mm plywood
  • 2 M3 bolts
  • 3 M3 nuts
  • 2 zip ties
  • Velcro strips
  • Prototyping board

You’ll also need access to:

  • Soldering iron
  • Laser Cutter
  • Scissors


The Circuit

Step 1: Solder the pin header to the LCD1602

Step 2: Assemble the Arduino and screen on a breadboard as follows:

From the LCD screen:

  • Both end pins (VSS & K) go to ground and the next pins along (VDD & A) go to 5V
  • VO goes to the middle pin on the potentiometer
  • RS goes to Arduino Digital Pin 12
  • RW goes to ground
  • E goes to Arduino 11
  • D4 goes to Arduino 5
  • D5 goes to Arduino 4
  • D6 goes to Arduino 3
  • D7 goes to Arduino 2

The push button:

  • connect the resistor between the positive leg and 5V
  • connect ground leg to ground
  • connect positive leg to Arduino 8

The potentiometer

With the turner facing you the left pin goes to 5V and the right pin goes to ground.


Connect the breadboard positive and negative rails to  the Arduino 5v and Gnd pins.

The Code

Connect the Arduino to a computer and log in to the online Arduino web editor or use the IDE to create a new sketch.
Copy and paste this code and upload it to the Arduino.

LiquidCrystal lcd(12, 11, 5, 4, 3, 2); //set the LCD pins to Arduino rs, E, D4, D5, D6, D7

  char * scores [] = {"1-0","2-0","3-0","4-0","5-0","2-1","3-1","4-1","5-1","3-2","4-2","5-2","4-3","5-3","5-4"};
  char * goaltime [] = {"First","Last"};
  char * player[] = {"Salah", "Firmino","Mane","Shaqiri","Milner"};

long betscore;
long bettime;
long betplayer;

// constants won't change. They're used here to set pin numbers:
const int buttonPin = 8;     // the number of the pushbutton pin

// variables will change:
int buttonState = 0;         // variable for reading the pushbutton status

void setup() {
  lcd.begin(16, 2);
void loop() {
  pinMode(buttonPin, INPUT);
  buttonState = digitalRead(buttonPin);
  betscore = (random(sizeof(scores)/sizeof(char*)));
  bettime = (random(sizeof(goaltime)/sizeof(char*)));
  betplayer = (random(sizeof(player)/sizeof(char*)));
   if (buttonState == LOW) {
    lcd.setCursor(0, 0);
    lcd.setCursor(0, 1);
    lcd.setCursor(6, 1);
   else {



Assuming it all works you can move on to making a casing for it.

Download file – Case design

Cut the design using a laser cutter.


While using the breadboard you probably used male to male jumper wires. We can now attach wires directly to the pin header on the screen using male to female wires. We can also connect the potentiometer to the screen using a female to female wire.

I used 2 pieces of prototyping board and soldered all the ground wires  to one and all the 5V wires to another, ensuring there was a connection between all the wires. Remember the resistor also connects to 5V so you may need an extra wire between the resistor and the prototyping board.

Plug in the Arduino again to make sure it is all connected and working and then assemble the box.

  • I started with sticking the USB socket through the square hole on the side panel.
  • Push the button through the round hole on the top piece and the LCD screen through the large rectangle hole. If there’s a nut for the push button add this to the front to secure it in place. The screen should be a snug fit so won’t require screwing.
  • The hole on the remaining side panel is for the potentiometer.

Glue all the side pieces together with the base and then carefully bundle together all the wires and fit them into the space before adding the lid. Do not glue this in place as you may need to access the wires inside in future.

If the wires push the lid up secure it with elastic bands.

Plug the Arduino in and check it’s still all working….



Optional Money Box

I used the following design for the money box which includes a space for depositing money and a hatch at the back to retrieve the money. I secured the betting generator box to the top using velcro strips. And then cut a fancy front piece for decorative purposes.

Download – The money box design file

Download – The front piece design file

  • Use zip ties to attach the hatch to the box forming hinges
  • Attach the small rectangle with 2 holes to the outside of door plate using a bolt and secure it on the inside with a nut.
  • Thread a bolt from inside the money box through the 3mm hole above the hatch, secure with a nut and then push through the remaining hole of the small rectangle and secure with a nut. This will be the open and closing mechanism for the hatch.
  • Glue all the sides together.
  • Glue the front piece to the front of the box and use velcro strips to secure the bet generator to the top of the money box


Holocaust Memorial Day

Holocaust Memorial Day

There’s been some shocking revelations this week about the number of people who either don’t know or don’t believe that the Holocaust happened.

While this is disturbing to say the least, because if you don’t believe that something this awful happened, perhaps because, maybe it is unthinkable or too awful to believe it’s even possible, then you won’t recognise the triggers that caused it, or could potentially cause something unimaginably terrible in the future.

That being said, we live in an age where, on the one hand, we have access to information and education, literally in the palm of our hand, but we also live in an age where the most powerful people; whether that’s wealth power or celebrity power; control the messages that are being shared. Fake news, manipulating social media algorithms, technology, whatever, we’re all at the mercy of being told what to believe by people who have their own agenda – and let’s be realistic, those that use their power to control the messages you hear are unlikely to do so in YOUR best interest.

I have always known, on a basic level that the Holocaust was something that happened during World War 2 when the Nazis killed the Jews. I couldn’t picture it, I accepted it as a fact but I had no real feeling other than, “God that’s awful”, but I couldn’t really imagine it. I believed that, because it was so awful and because people are more enlightened these days, more culturally aware and more socially conscious, that there is simply no way anything like that could ever happen again.

However last year I watched Schindler’s List. And it stayed with me for weeks. I felt almost bereft in some way. I felt remorse that I hadn’t really understood before what the Holocaust meant. I felt pain for all the suffering of the millions of Jews who were killed. I felt anger at the injustice of it all and finally I felt fear that this could happen again.

Some bloke with a platform and a prejudice, finding a common problem that his country can get behind and blaming all their problems on one particular race? Sounds a bit mad, but when you consider President Trump wants to build a wall to keep the Mexicans out… it’s not that much of a leap.

What got me the most about Schindler’s List was the apparent glee with which Nazi officers shot and killed people in the street for no reason. There’s a scene in which Amon Goeth (played by Ralph Fiennes) is shooting at Jews in the ghetto from his balcony. That these people treated it like a sport, is abhorrent. It is frightening just how much evil there is in the world and how quickly people would be willing to embrace murder and torture if it was suddenly legitimised.

A few months ago I visited Auschwitz. We toured Auschwitz 1 but we couldn’t face making the trip to Auschwitz 2. We’d seen enough. The vast piles of hair, the room full of shoes, the cabinet filled with glasses and other items left behind by those murdered in the gas chambers. It is, quite frankly, horrific.

But the reason I’m writing this is because, until last year, I didn’t really understand what the Holocaust was, because I simply couldn’t imagine it. I’m 41, I learned about the World Wars at secondary school, but it was pretty boring and difficult to take in. I forgot it all as soon as school ended. I don’t watch news or many documentaries. The masses, perhaps, don’t generally want to watch documentaries about things like war and politics – not when there’s a chance of watching a celebrity fall over on ice, or a chance to make fun of a kid who mistakenly believes he can sing.

The point is, I’m not surprised, the further away we get from the 1940s, the less people remember – or believe – that the Holocaust happened. We really must make sure that it is never forgotten, and that it is never allowed to happen again.



Adventures in Electronics: A betting generator

Adventures in Electronics: A betting generator

In my last update, I’d just written the code in C to randonly create a bet determining the score line by which Liverpool would win a match and who would score either the first or last goal. Having already written it in the (quite frankly much easier) Python, I had come up against some issues getting my LCD screen to work with a Raspberry Pi and so had turned to Arduino, despite my reluctance to attempt to write anything in C.

Having written the code and successfully tested it printing to the console, I logged into the online Arduino IDE and copied the code into a sketch that I had previously used to test the LCD screen. However, when I came to verify it, it failed. Repeatedly. Even though the code worked for the console.

I did some more googling and came across this instructable for Arduino that randomly chose a name from a list and printed it to the LCD.

I downloaded the sketch and tested it with the Arduino which worked fine – although it automatically changed the name every 5 seconds which wasn’t what I wanted, I wanted mine to only generate the information on a button press.  So I set about changing the code gradually. First of all I copied the format for generating the array of names and repeated it twice so I had the scores, timing and player.

So far so good, the information being shown was now random bet information, but it was automatically changing every 5 seconds. I needed to work out a button press so I used the sample digital button sketch and added that to my code, I removed all the remaining code from the previous example and would you believe it? It worked.

Then came the casing.

I measured all the parts, generated a box on box-designer and added some cut outs for the screen, potentiometer and USB cable.

I used 2 bits of protyping board and soldered all the ground wires to one and all the 5V wires to another

I swapped out the male to male jumper wires for male to female and connected the data pins to the Arduino.

And I chose a push button and soldered the LED and the push button pin wire to the positive terminal.

I plugged the Arduino in and nothing. Well, the screen came on but there was no data being pushed to the screen. It was blank. I was devastated. I tried rebuilding it on a breadboard and again, nothing happened. I was gutted,

I took everything home with me with a view to tackling it again over the weekend.

It was about 12:30am while in bed that it hit me – I’d forgotten to ground the RW pin. Maybe that was it. My very understanding other half said “Do you want to to test it?” And 2 minutes later I was enjoying my hot chocolate in bed, watching Brookside surrounded by wires.

Except, I couldn’t tell whether the problem was fixed because actually, the potentiometer was no longer working. I tried a different one, still nothing. I couldn’t adjust the screen contrast to see if the data was being written to the screen.

Another blow. The only thing I could think of, was that the connections on the LCD had been damaged. I would need to try another screen.

So Saturday afternoon, I head over to work, I assemble the whole thing again on a breadboard and again, nothing. So I tried an alternative screen and that worked. My hunch, may have been correct. So after soldering a set of header pins to the screen I reconnected all the wires I’d soldered the day before including an additional ground pin from RW and finally the whole thing worked.

I quickly assembled the box and all the wires before it could somehow change its mind! Throw in a Frank Spencer moment where I squeezed the glue too hard and the whole thing burst over the desk, chair and floor, and you have a faithful account of my bet generator adventure.

The finished make has put me in such a great mood. This is my first make that involved coding, electronics and crafting and I’m so proud of myself I could burst.

If you would like to make your own the full instructions are here.






The importance of finding your people.

The importance of finding your people.

We all have people we’re close to. Siblings, cousins, friends. We might have friends we’ve known for so long they’ve become family. But despite the close connection we might not necessarily have much in common in terms of hobbies and interests.

I love my sister and my niece with all my heart, they’re among my favourite people to socialise with. But I don’t understand their love of reality TV. And I’m fairly sure they look at my  lounge walls covered in Spider-Man comics with a bemusement bordering on horror.

When I was a kid I didn’t really fit in at school. I had little in common with my class mates, and spent most of my break times alone reading a book. It’s only recently that I’ve realised I made the choice to be alone, because I wasn’t interested in my classmates. On the occasions I tried to fit in, I felt uncomfortable and didn’t enjoy taking part in their games and activities.

But I was lonely. And I grew up believing I was weird, stupid and unlikeable. And that stayed with me into adulthood.

For kids like me, university is the first place you find yourself surrounded by people who share your interests. But that’s a long time to have to wait to find your people.

When I started Little Sandbox, it was to provide an environment for nerdy kids to gather and learn and have the freedom to pursue their interests. It was as much about the social aspect as it was about education.

And the feedback we get from kids and parents always includes references to confidence, feeling safe, belonging, and making friends.

Kids need places they can be themselves, where they can do stuff they love with people who understand them. Where they don’t feel judged. Where they can be proud of who they are and what they’re doing.

And so do adults. I’m quite socially anxious. I hate going in to places I’ve never been. I hate meeting new people. I don’t even like making phone calls. And it occurred to me that I’m probably not the only adult that feels this way. So I thought maybe there’s room for a Big Sandbox. A tech club for adults.

And then I discovered makerspaces.

Against all my usual instincts (and after months of putting it off ) I eventually went along to a Maker nights at DoES Liverpool. I didn’t make anything, I just wanted to see what went on there.

And what I found was my people.

I’ve been back a few times, sometimes I make stuff but mostly I just go to hang out. I like being around people that make stuff, I like talking about tech and just feeling like I’m around people that get me.

So that’s why at Little Sandbox we’re developing a makerspace in Norris Green Library – to grow the makerspace community so more adults like me, can find their people.