Women in Tech

Women in Tech: Megan Gilmour, CEO & Co-Founder of MissingSchool

Welcome to our Women in Tech series, where we spotlight inspiring women who are breaking barriers and making a significant impact in the technology realm. Today, we are truly privileged to share the compelling story of Megan Gilmour, the CEO and co-founder of MissingSchool, an Australian non-profit organisation.

Megan’s personal journey is one of resilience and transformation, inspiring her to devote more than a decade of her life to advocate for children battling serious illnesses and their families. This profound commitment led her to leave behind a career in social and economic development spanning 24 countries, a testament to the importance of the issue she’s championing.

The inception of MissingSchool wasn’t just a moment of professional revelation, but a personal one. The struggle her son, Darcy, faced due to school isolation stemming from a life-threatening illness was an eye-opening experience. As her world revolved around the Sydney Children’s Hospital for 16 months, Darcy’s longing for normalcy and the simple joy of attending school became the catalyst for Megan’s mission.

In this conversation, we dive deep into Megan’s inspiring journey, her tireless advocacy, and the instrumental role technology has played in keeping seriously ill children connected to their educational lives

Book your Early Bird ticket before June 30th and join Atomic Habits author James Clear this September to discover how tiny changes can deliver monumental life transformations.

Hi Megan, thanks for joining us today. Your personal journey, including your son Darcy’s struggle with school isolation due to a life-threatening illness, led you to co-found MissingSchool in 2012. Can you share more about your experiences and how they inspired your mission to support students facing similar challenges?

In 2010, my son, Darcy, was diagnosed with three rare blood disorders. Darcy was flown from home in Canberra to Sydney Children’s Hospital for emergency treatment that ended in a bone-marrow transplant. For 16 months, our entire family relocated from our home in north Canberra to Sydney Children’s Hospital. 

The hospital became Darcy’s life and his days were filled with painful procedures and, eventually, relentless medical isolation took away any connection with friends and the things that make life worth living. As he bravely faced the illness and treatments, he wanted us to know this: he missed his friends and school – the fun of playing, learning, and just being a kid. 

To put it bluntly: if the illness and treatments were a hard punch, then missing school was like a second, harder blow, because it was robbing him of the hope he needed to fight for his life.

I came away from the experience with a determination to help other children who miss school due to serious illness. In 2012, three mums launched MissingSchool in a Canberra lounge room, a charity that advocates for keeping seriously sick or injured kids and their siblings connected to their regular schools. Missing School makes assistive school telepresence, including robots, a viable solution for seriously sick children. And, critically, the wraparound service to make the technology stick.

As a social innovator, technology trailblazer, and CEO of MissingSchool, how do you see technology playing a crucial role in addressing the needs of students with medical or mental health issues?

Telepresence technology, including but not limited to robots, allows students with serious illness or injury to connect with and participate in their regular school, even while physically absent. Options range from static technology such as Zoom or Teams to more advanced telepresence robots such as those used by MissingSchool. 

Telepresence tech allows students to see and hear their teachers, be seen and heard, receive the same instruction as their peers, have the agency to socialise with friends, and participate in as much of the school day as possible with their classmates. The kids can share lunchtime and other special moments (or rites of passage) with their friends, and critically, play. MissingSchool’s data shows that having a telepresence service in place for these students can reduce their anxiety and support their transitions in/out and back to school.

Your inspiring TEDxCanberra talk touched on some of the challenges facing kids who miss school due to serious illness or injury. Can you elaborate on the key findings from the Australia-first report commissioned by MissingSchool in 2015 and how they have informed your organisation’s initiatives?

In 2015, MissingSchool commissioned and co-wrote “Who are they, how do we know what works, and whose job is it?” – an Australia-first report on the challenges facing kids who miss school because of serious illness or injury. 

Despite the good intentions and efforts of some individual educators, parents, policymakers and others in the field, we found there is a gap in application of policy and provision for students with significant illness or injury. 

We found that while data on both school attendance and illness are abundant, there is nothing linking the two in order to quantify the impact of significant illness or injury on school attendance. We had to build an estimate from a range of datasets that shows the number of seriously sick and absent kids in Australia exceeds 60,000.

And whose job is it? Legislation in Australia confirms that continuing provision of education services to students with illness is the responsibility of their school. It’s confronting to consider that some kids miss weeks, but others are gone for months or even years. They can fall behind, have friendships drift apart, and their mental health takes a huge hit. Being cut off from school has negative effects that can last long into adult life.

The 2015 report galvanised our mission: to get sick and absent kids educational equity through better data collection and advocacy, and give them a palpable presence in their classroom for ongoing learning and social connection. There’s no proxy for presence, so we turned to technology.

Embark on a transformative journey with James Clear, the acclaimed author of Atomic Habits, this September.

Secure your Early Bird ticket by June 30th to save $100 and unlock the power of habit for lasting success. Dive into a unique workshop, get access to exclusive content, and learn to build habits that revolutionize your life. Register now!

With over 190 robot placements and close to 5,940 classmates reconnected, can you share some success stories and the impact telepresence robots have had on students’ lives? How do these stories inspire your work as CEO of Robots4Good?

Since 2018, an estimated 5940 classmates have reconnected through the deployment of close to 200 robots. At the same time, 594 teachers have been trained in robot use, with an additional 1980 teachers gaining insights through observing. 

While these numbers are noteworthy, the real magic unfolds within the rich qualitative data – the touching personal stories and experiences that go beyond the figures. I think about Ethan’s story. His long-term illness kept him away from school, but the robot kept him present. He wrote gratefully to his principal, “Your compassion has let me complete my education and have the same chance as everyone else and I will never forget this.”

From conducting over 1,000 surveys and long-from interviews with parents and teachers, we have found this technology helps friendships, eases often crippling anxiety, increases interest in learning and, critically, reactivates school support. We see collaboration with teachers and health professionals working, and exciting unexpected progress that the technology catalyses simply by enabling the student to “be there”. 

After experiencing the potent capability and simplicity of telepresence robots, I felt inspired to amplify the technology’s impact in other sectors and launched Robots4Good in 2019. As the pandemic hit, the technology took off. With all of that experience in running robots-as-a-service in education, it was a logical step to introduce these robots into new models of care, including aged care, disability services, healthcare, and other industries.

You’ve been recognized for your work both nationally and internationally, including being a finalist for the ACT Australian of the Year Awards in 2018. What do these recognitions mean to you, and how do they motivate you to continue advocating for children’s access to education during difficult times?

These awards are a great way to highlight MissingSchool’s mission and help to create a positive feedback loop of attention towards our cause. Of course, they’re not just about me, but about the collective effort of our talented and dedicated team and the resilience of the children we serve. It’s all fueling my determination to push forward, knowing that our work is seen, appreciated, and making a difference.

As co-founder and CEO of Robots4Good, you are also exploring the potential of robots in health, disability, and aged-care settings, as well as education. Can you tell us more about the vision behind Robots4Good and how your experience with MissingSchool has informed this vision?

We humans are hardwired to connect because our survival depends on it. Yet social isolation and the disability of distance are causing suffering at scale. So many long for connection to people, so many need an operational presence in important places.

But current models can’t keep up: they’re costly, intermittent, and rely on physical access. Whereas, telepresence robots can put anyone in a room from anywhere, so they can see there and be there, be seen and heard, and move around.

During COVID-19, when David, a senior – living alone – didn’t answer his phone, his son dialled in to our supplied Ohmni robot and drove it from room-to-room. He found David on the floor and, soon, help was on the way. This is the difference between a robot and Zoom.

We are proud to be an exclusive partner of Silicon Valley’s OhmniLabs. As well as working with education systems, we’ve given mobility and access to people with disabilities. And we’re getting telehealth on the move. The technology is remote controlled and affordable – a one-click connection to a powerful presence. Robots provide a platform that scales. 

Based on your experiences as a parent and advocate, what advice would you give to parents, teachers, and peers who want to support students facing school isolation due to physical or mental illness?

COVID-19 has highlighted the significant impact that education gaps and lack of access to peers has had on the current generation of Australian children and the way technology can be used at scale for students at home in a public, or personal, health crisis.

In Australia, sick students who are absent often struggle to get equal access to education and are invisible to support. Schools have a blindspot in applying the Disability Standards for Education in this context, but the Standards absolutely cover students who are seriously ill and can’t attend school physically. These students can be offered telepresence technology to keep learning and maintain social connection. 

Co-creating an individual learning plan is a crucial first step to address any additional support the student may need. For example, which subjects should be prioritised? Does the student need alternative assessment methods or assistive technology? You can also discuss how technology can enhance communication between all parties.

No matter how long the student may be absent from school, it’s important to validate their experience. Talk to them about their feelings and preferences, considering not only their education but also their social life and wellbeing. Technology can be a powerful tool in maintaining normalcy during challenging times, and hopefully it becomes a trustworthy ally. 

Before you go…

If you’d like to sponsor or advertise with Balance the Grind, let’s talk here

About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.