When Alice Brooks was eight years old, she asked her dad, who was a roboticist, if she could get a Barbie. He told her no. Instead, he gave her a saw.
So she made her own doll. For years, Brooks made dolls and other creatures like dinosaurs from pieces of wood that she nailed together and painted. They weren't the prettiest things, but it was a hands-on experience, and she did it all herself.
It's no surprise then, that many years later, Brooks started Roominate, a building toy for young girls to get them more interested in STEM. Roominate is a series of kits that girls can build to make basically anything using wire working circuits, flashing lights, and spinning fans. For instance, the studio kit comes with wall panels, floors, connectors, a motor, furniture building pieces, and more, so girls can use their creativity to build whatever they want.
A Boston area native, Brooks attended MIT for undergrad, where she chose to pursue mechanical engineering because she wanted to take that love of making things and turn it into a career of designing real products. She wasn't sure what she wanted to do with the degree, but she knew she wanted a new atmosphere, so she moved to the West Coast for a master's degree in mechanical engineering at Stanford.
When she arrived, she was surprised to find she was one of very few women. A year into the program, Brooks started talking with her close friend Bettina Chen about why they had chosen engineering when basically no other women they knew had.
"It was these experiences when we were younger that got us interested," Brooks said. "[We thought], wouldn't it be cool to make toys and get more girls interested and have the same influences at home as we did [to] really expand their possibilities."
They took an entrepreneurship course and spent two and a half months with their future customers, doing focus groups, researching, and talking to young girls and parents about what kind of toy they would want. They wanted to make a completely different option than the other STEM toys out there.
The winning prototype for Roominate was originally built out of hot glue, popsicle sticks, and electronics wired together — it wasn't the nicest thing, Brooks said, but kids played for 20 minutes and the first time they hooked up the circuits and got a fan spinning, they were so excited.
"I saw that moment and that experience as totally different," she said.
Once they had their product, Brooks was ready to scale it. Knowing the people in the Bay Area would buy it felt good, but she and Chen thought crowdfunding was the perfect way to test the market. They set the goal at $25,000 and ended up reaching almost $86,000.
Roominate now has an office in Sunnyvale California, and a small team. Brooks heads up product development and is always working on user testing, but she also does most of the fundraising with investors. One of the core values of Roominate is still talking to young girls and finding out what they want, or how to make the toy better.
"That's the fun thing we do, we go to events, engage with the community, and have fun with kids," Brooks said.
She has made sure that all her employees really care about the mission to get more girls in STEM, and want to contribute creatively to the product. That's key even for the people that aren't working on product development — Brooks said she asks new people to sit down and play with the toy. Everyone does something different with it, and approaches it from a different perspective.
One of her favorite things is reading the emails from customers, who write in and send photos of what they've built. One girl made the Golden Gate Bridge, with lights on the bottom. A couple others made car washes and rocketships. One girl even sent in a homeless shelter she made with a soup kitchen attached.
"It's really, really inspiring to see what they're building and how they see the world and what they want to [do] and you can tell they want to help," Brooks said. "And it's so cool to see how creative they are."
Brooks wants to continue to foster more innovation with the toys, so the Roominate team started another Kickstarter campaign. The new product is called rPower, and it's a bluetooth controller that can be plugged into any circuit from any Roominate circuit and be controlled through an app. So if kids are making a ferris wheel, they can get the ferris wheel to change speeds, or make it so when they turn off the overhead lights in their room, the lights on the Roominate will turn on. The Kickstarter ends May 29 and is close to meeting its funding goal of $45,000.
Above all, Brooks is passionate about Roominate becoming a leader in the growing ecosystem of better, smarter toys for young girls. That's the mission.
"It is part of the solution. They all need to work together — one product can't just be the solution out there that's going to change everything," she said. "All these different things are pushing our culture forward and getting more girls exposed to these types of things."
In her own words...
What do you do to unplug?
"I like to hang out with my friends, we don't really do anything that exciting. I play board games, and I play tennis. I really want to get a dog but that won't happen yet. Traveling too much. I travel [a lot. I] go to Asia to our factory, to different toy shows, it's cool. It doesn't leave time for taking care of a dog though."
What is some advice you'd give women in tech?
"When I was in college I had a lot of people say because I was a girl, oh you got in because you're a girl. And at MIT, the 'girly' majors are even still engineering so it's kind of funny and ridiculous when you step back and think about it. But I thought a lot about that when I was in school and I had to let it roll off my shoulders because I knew that it wasn't really about me, it was about them when they were saying it. This is the path you chose and you're meant to be there and you should just go for it. With startups, the whole philosophy is to go as quickly as possible and letting moments of uncertainty like that delay us would have stopped us from starting our business. It's really about just going for it."
What is the best advice you ever received?
"A lot of people were giving us advice all the time and, for me, it was realizing that all these people had really interesting things to say and really good advice but at the end of the day it was our company. We were the ones that had to make the decisions and couldn't follow every piece of advice. At the end of the day, it's not always the best advice at your company. At the beginning we'd say 'Oh, they're an expert, we'll do what they say,' and we weren't making any progress. Learning how to filter through advice was important."
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Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.