Meet the Reinventor: Mara Lecocq, helping girls crack the Secret Code

Through personalized books, this creative director is rewriting the narrative and inspiring girls of all backgrounds to see themselves as the heroes of their own tech adventures.
Mar 14, 2019 2:00 PM ET
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Creative director Mara Lecocq knows what it’s like to excel in a traditionally male-dominated profession. She’s spearheaded digital campaigns for Nike, Starbucks, Verizon and other Fortune 500 companies, making a name for herself in an industry where, according to AdWeek, only 11 percent of creative directors are female. She also knows what it’s like to be the only woman in the room, a feeling she hopes won’t be familiar to the next generation of young professionals — specifically those in the tech and engineering fields.  

In 2015, Lecocq self-published Secret Code, a children’s book that allows readers to be the hero of their own tech adventure, with her partners Nathan Archambault (writer), Rodolfo Dengo (tech partner) and Jessika Von Innerebner (illustrator). With a customizable protagonist, from hair and skin color to name personalization, the story follows a young coder who builds a robot to clean her room. The book earned Lecocq a grant from Sophia Amoruso’s Girlboss Foundation and representation at the talent agency William Morris Endeavor (WME).

“My passion is coming up with solutions that solve societal problems involving diversity,” says Lecocq, who was born in the Philippines, attended school in France, and now lives in New York. “Tech and storytelling — that’s my thing. I want girls to be exposed as early as possible, to open their minds. It’s not: ‘You have to get into technology or you’re doomed.’ It’s: ‘Have you considered technology? It’s really cool.’”

An updated version — Rox’s Secret Code, published by POW! and told from the perspective of Rox, a central protagonist — hit shelves last November and features an augmented reality coding game that readers can access by aiming a smartphone at the book’s cover. Following a successful first run, the latest iteration of Secret Code — fully customizable once again thanks to HP printing technology — will launch in March, to coincide with International Women’s Day. For Lecocq, the return to personalization is especially exciting.

“There’s a saying: ‘You can’t be what you can’t see,’” explains Lecocq. “We’re literally making girls see what they can be, and we’re making engineering exciting. We’re showing that, if you want, you can wear a princess dress and be a badass coder at the same time.”

The Garage spoke with Lecocq about her earliest influences, the benefits of introducing women and minorities to engineering fields and why tutus and tech aren’t mutually exclusive.

You’ve spoken in the past about the necessity of introducing girls to science and engineering early, because, as you say, women don’t become empowered tech leaders when they’re 30. Did your parents start you on that path?

Both my father and mother were very influential, and they both lent different pieces to who I am today. My dad pushed me in the direction of technology at a very young age. He taught me how to dismantle a CPU when I was 6. He also bought me a book on how to code when I was 12 — I was the first kid in school with a website. Every time I would ask him something, even the definition of a word, he would never just give me the answer. It was “Open the dictionary!”

My mother was very rebellious and spoke her truth, but also very open and friendly, never mean. She was a total feminist, even when it wasn’t necessarily “cool,” and she taught me to question the status quo. When I was 8 years old, she made me tell my teacher to say “humankind” instead of “mankind.” [laughs]

What other female role models have inspired you personally and professionally?

A leader at an agency where I worked, Mercedes Erra (co-founder of BETC in Paris), was an inspiration to me. Because of her, I never saw any barriers and never saw myself as a gender.

There are also some fictional characters. I saw Hackers when I was 12 or 13, and I still have short hair because of Acid Burn [a character played by Angelina Jolie]. She made me realize you could be cool and smart and feel comfortable in your own skin. Oh, and Gem and the Holograms, because it was tech-focused and magical. My life probably sums itself up in those two pop culture references!

How did growing up outside of the U.S. influence your thinking?

I grew up with a female president in the Philippines and that freedom of thinking anyone can be anything. It was only when I arrived in the U.S. that I realized, “Wow, women are held back here, and I don’t know why.” I was one of the only female creative leaders at my company with a specialty in technology. I didn’t see any other women, and one reason is because they weren’t brought up that way.

What was the “aha” moment for Secret Code?  

It was in 2015. I was looking for a gift for a girl, and I saw all of these princess and fairy books. I was struck by the lack of empowering options. So I talked to a librarian and asked if she had any suggestions. She showed me two books, one featuring a blonde character and one featuring a redhead. I asked myself, “What about the black girls? The Asian girls? Why don’t they have the same empowering books?” We can’t expect every story to have a version for every skin color. Someone is going to feel excluded, no matter what. So I thought, let’s just customize a story so it’s relevant to everyone.

What type feedback have you heard from parents?

They see the impact on their girls immediately. Someone told us that she gave Secret Code to her 6 year old, and now she plays engineer and wants to go to robot camp. Another parent introduced her daughter to a friend who’s an engineer, and she freaked out, thinking she was meeting a celebrity!

You originally self-published the book. What was the advantage there?

I had no knowledge of the publishing world. I went on Skillshare and asked how you create a children’s book, but I knew that it might take two years for a book to come out, and I wanted to do it right away. It took our team six months to launch. Also, customization doesn’t really work in bookstores.

It seems like a best-of-both-worlds scenario now: Landing a publisher helped grow your audience, and now you’re reintroducing personalization with the newest version.

From a business standpoint, a recognizable character can push licensing and merchandising opportunities. A lot of parents have asked for the outfit that Rox wears. We wanted to show a girl who is fashion-forward and cool, so girls know that just because you like tutus, that doesn’t mean you can’t be a badass engineer.

And relaunching the customization feature feels like, “We’re back!” Our team got to know HP through their buzzworthy work in technology and storytelling. When we first connected, we didn’t even know that Secret Code was printed on HP printers — they were just excited about the story. When they found out, they were very proud. [laughs]

And there’s a coding game built into book, right?

Yes! It’s my inclination to do interactive things, so there’s an AR coding game [that you play on the cover]. The reader downloads an app, customizes a robot with head, body, and color options, and uses simple coding blocks to make that robot pick up toys. She learns how to delegate — how to be a boss!

What’s the benefit of diversity in the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] fields? That seems like an obvious question, but enlighten the person who might say, “I don’t see a problem with the way things are now.”

The problem is creating products that society as a whole can relate to. Diversity is actually better for business. For example, if 50 percent of the population are women, and only 5 percent of tech leaders are women, that means 95 percent of the people who are leading product creation have no idea what half of the population actually wants. So you’re missing a lot of opportunities.

From your observations, are women and minorities making inroads in those fields? Is it getting better?

There’s definitely movement, especially thanks to initiatives like Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code and others. The next generation is really scary in an amazing way. They’re so much smarter — Gen Z is so advanced compared with how we were at that age — and part of that is the democratization of tools and access to the Internet. Think of it this way: Our tiny team of four created Secret Code; back in the day that would have required 20 to 60 people. It feels like a revolution coming. People are less ashamed to share their struggles and to point at the issues they’re facing. It’s very positive. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Meet another woman reinventing inclusivity in tech: gamer Stephanie Harvey.