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Women in Business: Q&A with Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen, Founders of Roominate

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Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen are inspiring the next generation of women into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math fields) by creating hands-on learning fun for 6+ year old girls. Their company, Roominate is an award-winning, educator-recommended line of wired building systems that inspires creative learning and empowers innovative, open-ended play. Alice and Bettina met while in Stanford University's engineering masters program and aligned on a shared experience of having lacked girl-focused, open-ended toys as children, and set out to fill the void in this 7B+ market. Addressing a core problem of underrepresentation of women in STEM with early exposure to engineering concepts, Roominate aims to increase the less than 15% of women who enter college intending to major in STEM and close the STEM gender gap that starts with the low educational value in toys marketed to young girls.

Roominate co-founder and CEO Alice Brooks graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2010 with a BS in Mechanical Engineering. She received her Masters in Mechanical Engineering Design from Stanford in June 2012. While a student at Stanford, Alice spent six months working at Nest Labs.

Roominate co-founder and CTO & COO Bettina Chen graduated from the California Institute of Technology in 2010 with a BS in Electrical Engineering. She received her Masters in Electrical Engineering from Stanford in March 2012. Bettina has conducted research on bionic contact lenses and worked as an electrical engineer at Discera and KLA-Tencor.

How has your life experience made you the leaders you are today?
As female engineers, it was hard to not notice the drop off of women in engineering starting in undergraduate school and continuing through graduate school to the workplace. We wondered why none of our other female friends chose engineering, or those who had, why they had ended up switching paths. We realized that we had two important experiences in common: the things we had played with when we were younger inspired us to love engineering, and early on, we built skills that were important to us sticking with engineering.

Alice: When I was 8, I asked my dad if Santa could bring me a Barbie. Instead, I got a saw. Figuring out how to use that saw, to cut up wood and nail it together into dolls and animals, that's what first got me to love engineering. It's the reason I chose to study mechanical engineering 10 years later when I got to MIT, and then continue on with a Masters at Stanford.

Bettina: I grew up spending hours creating elaborate Lego structures with my older brother. Those experiences of construction with my hands helped me to not only hone spatial skills, but also my hands-on problem solving capabilities, as I had to figure out how to build what was in my imagination. It boosted my confidence seeing that I had the power to make something I was proud of. I think those early established skills were incredibly important for me when I went on to study electrical engineering at Caltech and Stanford.

From both our experiences as engineers and reading research on the gender gap in STEM, we found that skills such as spatial reasoning, hands-on problem solving, and self-confidence, which we started developing as kids through play, are important to retention in engineering. We've designed Roominate to spark that same love for building and engineering that we had as kids through a creative, open-ended, hands-on experience.

How did your previous employment experience aid your positions at Roominate?
We both have strong engineering backgrounds, which has allowed us to design and manufacture really unique new toys with educational value. One thing that also played a huge role in our founding of Roominate is our shared entrepreneurial spirit. This is something that is difficult to teach at school or through a job, but we believe instilling confidence and perpetual curiosity in childhood can be a huge driving factor of entrepreneurship later on.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Roominate?
Kickstarter was a big highlight for us. Not only did it help us start our first production run, but the response was incredible! We had no idea what was going to happen when we launched our Kickstarter back in May 2012, but we ended up hitting our goal of $25K by the fifth day and went on to raise over triple that in 30 days. It was a pretty exciting time for us!

The other ongoing highlight for us is being inspired by kids who play with Roominate. We hold workshops at museums and afterschool programs, and also get hundreds of emails with photos and videos from our customers. Kids are creating things that we, as the designers, had never even dreamed of. One girl, Noelle, used Roominate to build the Golden Gate Bridge complete with light show. Another girl made a car wash and used the motor as a spinning brush. It spun just like the real thing!

When developing the toy set, we studied hundreds of girls, talked to parents and educators, and did a lot of prototyping. At our first Roominate testing session, we finally knew we were on to something when parents came to pick up their kids and they refused to leave. Instead, they were turning to us asking for more circuits and furniture pieces made from foam core, hot glue, and Popsicle sticks!

How is Roominate making a real difference in the STEM community?
Roominate is opening up more possibilities for girls. With Roominate, we are challenging girls to do things that they can't with their other toys: build, wire up circuits, and be inventive--all at the same time! By being completely open-ended, Roominate empowers girls to create and tell their own stories.

Roominate also helps develop skills that are crucial not only for STEM success, but for any career choice. Girls are learning creative and logical problem solving, developing spatial reasoning, and building up their self-confidence. Most importantly, girls are beginning to realize their potential and seeing that they can accomplish anything.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Bettina: Exercise has always been a big stress reliever for me, ever since college. I ran track at Caltech and now play on a competitive Ultimate Frisbee team in the Bay Area. While it's hard to not be thinking about work 24/7, playing sports forces me to focus on other things for a brief period. It's important to give yourself a little break from work time to time!

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Alice: Coming from engineering and the tech industry, I'd say sexism. Speaking from my own experience, female engineers have to "prove themselves" as deserving of being there, whereas, for males, they are often assumed to have earned their way there. Starting in school, I had many males implying and even saying outright that I was only there because I was female. This turns females into outsiders, which is problematic in many ways.

Bettina: It's difficult and intimidating being constantly outnumbered by men. You learn to get used to being the only female in the room. You have to learn to not be afraid to speak up, to have confidence in all the work that you've put in to get there and that you deserve to be there. I think it's hard for women to aspire to be successful in science and engineering when they don't see many women who are. However, hearing news about women like Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg being in high positions at tech companies is slowly changing that perspective; it's showing other women that this is something they can aspire to as well.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
The book and movement have opened up a whole dialogue about why there aren't more women in leadership positions and the actions we can all take to get there. It is so important for women to not only create their own paths, but also see that they can. We are big supporters of the movement and with Roominate, we think of ourselves as active participants.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal lives?
The mentorship we've received has been incredibly invaluable. We try to learn as much as we can from the mentors we surround ourselves with. At the same time, we've learned to take in all the advice from these amazingly accomplished mentors, but not feel like we had to follow every single piece of advice. As the founders, we are the people who spend the most time thinking about our company and what's best for it.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
We look up to strong, smart and powerful women who are changing the game and shifting perceptions in their field. Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg, Meg Whitman, Maxine Clark, Indra K Nooyi, Michelle Obama, and Hillary Clinton all immediately come to mind.

What are your hopes for the future of Roominate?
We hope to open up possibilities for girls and boys across the world, and inspire the next generation.

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