Bettina Chen and Alice Brooks, co-founders of the toy company Roominate, are part of the exciting trend of new companies founded by young, smart (did we mention they're engineers out of Caltech, MIT and Stanford) entrepreneurs that want to engage kids in STEM-related play in the hope of inspiring the next generation to embrace science and technology.
Roominate takes a very classic kind of play and gives it a brand new twist. Bettina and Alice want girls to play with dollhouses. The difference? They want girls to build their own pretend setting, complete with lighting. Contrary to many of the toys we review, Roominate is not an instantaneous experience. Kids have to read the directions and make decisions as they build. At first we thought most kids would walk away because the payoff doesn't come right away, but we were delighted to discover that kids loved the process and were satisfied with the ultimate outcome.
Here's my interview with Bettina and Alice:
SO: I came to toyland after a stint as a corporate attorney. People always are intrigued when I tell them that I play with toys for a living, I imagine you both get much the same response?
Everyone always asks to visit our office. There are toys everywhere!
SO: How did you find yourself in the toy business?
Neither of us expected to end up making toys. We're both engineers: Bettina studied Electrical Engineering at Caltech and Alice studied Mechanical Engineering at MIT. Three years ago, we met at Stanford while doing our Masters. We were both shocked at the dropoff in the number of women in engineering once we got to graduate school. That got us talking about why we had both chosen engineering.
We realized that things we played with when we were young got us to love engineering before we even knew what the word meant. For Alice, it was her own saw as an 8-year-old, and for Bettina, it was building elaborate Lego creations with her brother. When we looked at what is being offered today in the girls' toy aisle, we didn't see anything that could recreate those same play experiences and inspire girls in the same way that we were inspired.
Reading education research and talking to professors at Stanford, we learned that researchers have found that playing with toys that practice spatial skills increases retention in college engineering. We also talked to elementary school teachers and heard about how girls were hanging back when circuits were introduced in the classroom. They would see boys getting excited because they had played with toys with circuits, and the girls would think that maybe this wasn't meant for them.
Bringing together all of that information, we saw an amazing opportunity to use our engineering skills to design toys that could spark a love of engineering and technology in girls today. We hope that by doing so, we'll inspire more women into STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) in the future. With Roominate, we are encouraging creative thinking, tinkering, hands-on problem solving, spatial skills, and confidence, all essential skills for success in STEM. We also think it's very important to show girls (and kids in general) how creativity is a huge part of STEM.
SO: You're both getting a lot of well-deserved attention for bringing a product to market that encourages girls to build and learn about circuits. Were you builders?
Alice: When I was eight years old, I asked my dad if Santa could bring me a Barbie. My dad told me that Santa didn't bring Barbies. I ended up getting my own saw instead. I was pretty excited about the saw once I realized we had some scrap wood in our basement. I used the wood, some nails, colored push pins, and water colors to create my own characters. My favorites were a doll with nails for legs and push pins for her face and a dinosaur with movable legs. Those weekends spent sawing and building inspired a love of being creative with my hands and a confidence in being able to create my own things from scratch.
Bettina: Growing up, my brother and I would spend hours playing with Lego together. We had an imaginative world with characters called Black Robot, White Robot, and Gray Robot. We would build elaborate creations for this world, which now that I think about it, was mostly filled with spaceships. When I wasn't playing with my brother, I would build houses with Lego or Lincoln Logs. I remember being especially proud when I realized I could repurpose a sushi mat as a roof for my Lego house! It was those experiences of building with my hands and the joy I found in it that drew me towards engineering later.
SO: You've tested your product with lots of kids. What’s the best feedback you've gotten in the process?
At our first testing session for the idea of the buildable and wireable dollhouse, our prototypes were made of foam core, hot glue, popsicle sticks, and clipped together electronics. When parents came to collect their daughters, we kept hearing, "Mom! Go away! I'm not done yet!" They were too busy wiring up fans, asking us for more electronics, and trying to perfect their creations. That was the moment we knew we were onto something.
SO: My folks bought me a beautiful dollhouse when I was little...that I never played with. My brother's Hot Wheels always seemed much more interesting. Did you play with dollhouses and dolls when you were growing up?
Alice: I loved Barbies! My favorite part was perfecting their outfits. My mom refused to buy the extra outfits you can get separately, so I was forced to get creative. I would take a (clean) sock and cut three holes: one for the neck and two for the arms. Eventually I learned how to do a little sewing, so they weren't all stuck in tube sock dresses. I think I spent a lot more time on the clothing than anything else. Also, once my older brothers moved onto video games, I was able to use all of their building toys freely.
Bettina: I was a big fan of stuffed animals. I still have boxes filled with them at home (and took some of my favorites with me when I went to college!). I'd sometimes pretend I was a teacher and they were my students, or just act out stories that I made up. I even wrote a couple short stories that my stuffed animals starred in.
SO: What has been the most surprising aspect of your bringing your toy to market?
One of the most surprising things has been seeing how girls have been so much more creative than us. We designed Roominate to encourage creativity, but we had ideas of what we thought they would do with it. We were so surprised when we started getting pictures from girls posing next to these amazing, complex creations that we never would have dreamed of making.
One girl took Roominate and turned it into the Golden Gate Bridge, complete with a light show! She only had Roominate for two days before her dad sent us a picture. We were blown away. Another two girls made a spinning amusement park ride at an event we hosted. It was modeled after a spinning mushroom ride at a local amusement park. While they were demonstrating it to their Girl Scout troop, there were oohs and ahhs from the group and the other girls immediately knew which specific ride they had recreated.
We've received hundreds of other pictures, all with unique and creative ideas! We love the look of pride on their faces. We didn't expect to feel so connected to and so proud of all of these girls.
It has also been surprising just how rewarding it is to get out there with our toys. We do role model workshops with a fantastic organization called Techbridge. We go into their after school program, bring buckets of Roominate pieces, and give the girls a design challenge. When we first decided to make a toy, we had no idea that we'd be going into schools and seeing our toy make such a positive impact with girls.
From my point of view - in an ideal world boys and girls would play with the same toys. From your experience, do you believe the divide is mostly cultural?
We definitely believe the divide between boys and girls is mostly cultural. We observe brothers coming in and playing with their sisters' Roominate. Both of us played extensively with toys that were originally given to our brothers. We had our older brothers as huge influences, which pushed us towards playing with their toys. The solution we see to breaking down gender barriers in toys is to flip what defines a boys toy versus a girls toys on its side. Take aspects from both and infuse them into more traditional settings (like the dollhouse).
SO: What's next for Roominate?
More toys in 2014! More complexity and more opportunities to be creative. Our customers keep pushing us for more. We hope to deliver on that and design toys that keep on challenging them.
SO: Favorite ice cream flavor?
We just learned something new about each other: We both love mint chocolate chip ice cream! We might need to get a container of it to keep at the office...