Career

Meet the inspiring 19-year-old Kiwi woman who was invited to tea with the Queen

Alexia Hilbertidou is working to change career expectations for girls and was this year awarded as one of the Commonwealth’s brightest young stars.

By Fleur Mealing

Kiwi teenager Alexia Hilbertidou and Meghan Markle share one very special honour. Not many people in the world can claim to have made the Queen laugh in public, but Meghan and 19-year-old Alexia have done exactly that.

As the founder of GirlBoss New Zealand, an organisation dedicated to empowering young females and closing the gender gap in science, technology, engineering, maths, entrepreneurship and leadership, Alexia was presented with a Queen's Young Leaders Award in June.

She wasn't the only young person to be recognised that day, but none of the other recipients can boast that they got a giggle out of Her Majesty.

"As you go up to accept your award from the Queen, you curtsy and you shake her hand and she asks about your work," explains Alexia. "I said, '[In New Zealand] we've got more CEOs named John than CEOs who are women. And the young women who I am working with are going to go change those statistics. And she started laughing and said that's very good work, and then as I walked off I was pounced on by the media wanting to know how I'd made the Queen laugh."

The Queen's Young Leaders Awards – a four-year programme – were established in 2014 to discover, celebrate and give support to the Commonwealth's brightest young stars aged from 18 to 29.

Since then, more than 20,000 nominations have flooded in and a few Kiwis have been among those recognised in previous years. Alexia was part of the group acknowledged in the final year of the awards programme.

"I was really strident that my vision was for New Zealand to be leading the way in terms of gender equality and the fact that I was selected for the awards shows that the royal family believes in that vision too," she says.

Not only did the Hibiscus Coast teen delight the often rather aloof monarch, but she also charmed Prince Harry and Meghan, and even got a wink from football legend David Beckham.

Alexia was one of just five Young Leaders chosen to have a private audience with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex after the awards ceremony. The photographs of her meeting Harry and Meghan were used globally in news reports of the event. "It was amazing, and when Meghan first walked in she introduced herself and said how excited she was about visiting New Zealand again," says Alexia. (Meghan spent 10 days touring the South Island in 2014 and is scheduled to make an official visit here with Prince Harry later this year.)

When Alexia spoke to Prince Harry about the inequality of women in leadership in New Zealand, she says he was quick to respond with, "That really needs to change."

"He was very charismatic and he said, 'I'd really love to see your work and so would my wife when we come to New Zealand.' I don't know if that will happen but it will be so cool if it does," Alexia enthuses, with the same excitement other teenage girls may have about meeting a pop idol. But Alexia is not one to fit a stereotype.

Nor would she be one to underestimate the significance and privilege of her experience at Buckingham Palace, and at 10 Downing Street, which she also visited.

"Every small detail is just the best version that it could be, from the handles on the doors to the soap in the bathroom," she says of the palace.

"Everything you can imagine is just absolutely beautiful. What was incredible about 10 Downing Street was that you really had this sense you had been there before, and at Buckingham Palace as well – the sense of history is incredible."

As well as attending leadership programmes in Cambridge and London, Alexia also met past and present British Prime Ministers John Major and Theresa May, but a highlight for her was meeting Jamie Oliver.

Self-confessed foodie Alexia was among 10 of the young leaders chosen to have lunch with the celebrity chef in London.

"He was so generous with his time; we got to have a meal with him. He's really committed to supporting young activists and that has been part of his success that people know he's making a difference in the lives of others."

At first glance, Alexia is every bit the typical teen. She exudes the confidence of someone with their newfound adult freedom but there is still a hint of endearing girlishness. However when she speaks, you realise there is so much more than meets the eye.

Alexia created GirlBoss New Zealand at the age of 16, while still in high school. It was born from the realisation that she was the only girl in her IT and Applied Physics classes.

"I was so confused because my female friends were so intelligent and capable and weren't having the confidence or awareness to go in these fields."

These days her role as founder and CEO of GirlBoss (girlboss.co.nz) sees her travel the country visiting classrooms in order to educate and inspire young girls to take up the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects, leadership and entrepreneurship.

GirlBoss now has more than 8000 members. It's a remarkable achievement for anyone, let alone a young woman not yet 20. But Alexia is not deterred by age. "I am a big believer that you are never too young to create change, you are never too young to go out there and make a difference in your community; young people don't have to wait until they reach a certain milestone."

Following on from her own royal acknowledgement, Alexia has now created the inaugural GirlBoss Awards. The competition is open to girls aged 11 to 18 who have defied stereotypes or overcome adversity to make a difference in their community.

"I would see these incredible stories in the classrooms across New Zealand, and think these need to be shared," she says.

"Other young women across New Zealand need to see these girls the same age as them as role models, and they need to realise that they are never too young to create change… that they can overcome adversity and still be such strong, powerful leaders. They need to realise that they don't need to follow the paths where they see a lot of women – they can consider fields such as coding, they can consider doing engineering and they can be trailblazers in the field."

And of course there is no better date to hold the awards than September 19 – the 125th anniversary of women's suffrage in New Zealand.

"We want to commemorate 125 years of women's suffrage and find the young women of today who are following on in Kate Sheppard's legacy and the legacy of all the incredible women before us who have been committed to pushing and advancing women, and are committed to defying those stereotypes and to making a better world for their sisters to come.

"Young people need to realise that they have everything within themselves right now to make a difference – they don't need to wait."

Although New Zealand, and the world at that, may still have a long way to go in terms of gender equality, the work Alexia has done, and will continue to do, can only provide hope that future generations of women are heading in the right direction.

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