After noticing a startling dearth of female students in their graduate engineering classes at Stanford University, Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen decided to address this gender gap by taking action. In January 2012, they formed Roominate, a toy startup whose flagship product is designed to encourage girls to become interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). So far, their efforts have been paying off handsomely. Since its inception, the company has enjoyed brisk sales on both Amazon.com and the company website. And just this fall, its products debuted at a number of top retail chains, including Toys “R” Us and Barnes & Noble. According to both women, the company is on track to generate $5 million in sales by the end of the year. Not bad for a company whose founders raised $86,000 on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to seed their launch. Recently, Brooks and Chen, both 26, spoke with business writer Iris Dorbian about why they are so passionate about using their company as a vehicle to get girls interested in STEM, and how a $500,000 investment from “Shark Tank” is helping take the company to the next level.
ID: How did you come up with the Roominate concept?
Alice Brooks: Bettina and I were both finishing up graduate school at Stanford, getting our degrees in engineering. Before that, I had been at MIT and Bettina was at Caltech. We noticed pretty quickly that there were very few females in our classes. That was something we always talked about. So we both had a mission to get more girls interested in engineering. We realized we were inspired by things we both had played with when we were younger that weren’t necessarily traditional girls’ toys. For me, when I was eight, I asked my dad if Santa Claus could bring me a Barbie and he said “No, Santa doesn’t bring Barbies.” Instead I got my own saw that year. With it, I made dolls, dollhouses, and little animals. That experience got me interested in building and engineering.
ID: What resources did you leverage for research and development?
AB: As we were finishing up school, we were in Stanford where they’re really supportive of startups. So we started taking advantage of the resources around us. We started researching with girls—going to homes, talking to parents, and reading the studies that were coming out about the gender gap with STEM. We saw our personal experiences really lined up with the research in that when girls are exposed to things that practice their spatial skills early on, it really increases the chance that they may choose engineering or another STEM field. And doing that in play is what’s really most effective.
We decided to make a toy because we were inspired by toys. And that toy will help build up girls’ spatial skills. It will get them comfortable with circuits and build up their problem-solving skills. It also boosts their confidence to take a set of tools and build something really cool.
ID: It’s kind of like Legos but not quite?
AB: Yes, it’s different. We spent a lot of time looking at the way girls play. We wanted to enhance our products by making it both more engaging and educational. [For instance], we give them these tools so they can start by building a dollhouse. And inside that dollhouse, they’ll have to figure out using our motor how to make an elevator and that takes a lot of engineering. We don’t tell them exactly how to do it. It’s really cool for them because they can come up with these unique solutions and really be proud of that.
ID: What were some of the startup challenges that you faced?
AB: Making the product was one challenge, but also doing all the things beyond designing it. We all have engineering backgrounds so it’ s been a great experience for us to learn firsthand about getting our manufacturing set up, raising money and expanding our team—all of these things that we didn’t learn in school.
ID: How many employees do you have?
Bettina Chen: We have three full-time people now and we have a few part-time workers. So we’re still small.
ID: Recently, you broadened your distribution channels to include several notable brick and mortar retail chains. How did that happen?
BC: Last year we were mostly selling online at Amazon and our website. And then this year was our big retail launch. We met with a lot of retailers in February at the New York Toy Fair and got set up for the fall.
ID: How did you do your marketing early on? How did you get the word out?
BC: It’s been mostly a lot of word of mouth. We’ve gotten some pretty good press, which has been great for us.
AB: Our message has really resonated with parents and kids from the beginning. But we also owe a lot of our coverage to Kickstarter. People really rallied behind what we were doing and wanted to support it and see it actually happen.
ID: How are you using the $500,000 from “Shark Tank” to grow the company?
AB: We are using the investment to help fund the growth of our team and for new product development.
ID: What is your ultimate goal with Roominate? Where do you want the company to be in five or 10 years?
BC: What would be really exciting for us is if in ten years girls are in college and doing engineering and saying they were inspired by Roominate.
ID: Based on your experience and insight, how would you advise other young female entrepreneurs who want to encourage women to get involved in STEM fields?
AB: Draw from your own experiences and think about what worked for you. For us, it was looking at how we played as kids and figuring out how to make those experiences more accessible to girls today.
BC: Also, get out in front of your customers and get their feedback. Don't try to decide things for them.