“I’m optimistic about the US’s future because women are getting more seats at the table. Since 2014, more women than men earn college degrees each year; and while they are increasingly finding a place in tech companies, they are still not fulfilling their share of technical roles. Part of the reason for this is that too many companies are trying to tackle the so-called “pipeline problem” in the wrong places — at work, in the media, via strategic investments — but where they really need to be tackling it is in the eighth grade, when many girls make a final decision as to whether or not to pursue STEM careers. Now that we understand the problem, it’s so encouraging to see so many amazing organizations coming up with programs that target young girls and strive to make a difference. Black Girls Code, Girl Scouts, and public companies like Microsoft all come to mind.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ayah Bdeir, Founder and CEO at littleBits, Ayah is an engineer and interactive artist. An alumna of the MIT Media Lab, Ayah’s TED talk: “Building Blocks that Blink, Beep and Teach” about littleBits has garnered more than one million views. Ayah has lectured and advised extensively on how to get more girls into STEM, including at the White House “Breaking down gender stereotypes” panel, at Forbes Under 30 “Closing the Tech Gap” and at Women in the World with Tina Brown.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Physically, I grew up in Lebanon, a gorgeous country with enormous potential. I had a beautiful upbringing full of love, family, and delicious Mediterranean food. Throughout my childhood — and its history — Lebanon has been through many ups and downs with respect to internal and external violence; but, this makes for a very resilient and entrepreneurial population.
Culturally, I’m from the era of LEGOs and erector sets. As a kid, the more I played with these types of toys, the better I became at building and inventing — and approaching my experiments with a sense of fun, creativity, and learning. My early experiences with play are one of the reasons that I wanted to be an engineer. In better understanding how things work, I learned to think about ways to make them work better.
And, really, that’s what littleBits is trying to do at a high level — to bring that same playful, inventive, educational experience to the 21st century for kids that are much more tech savvy but still have the same desires to play and learn. We want to expand kids’ minds and give them the tools they need to think outside the box and create solutions to challenges that they see around them. I think that’s the greatest form of activism there is.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
I had always had an interest in attending MIT, so I applied multiple times as a teenager. In fact, I first learned about the Maker Movement in the first class I took at MIT’s Media Lab in 2004. It was called “How to Make Almost Anything” and it was one of the most competitive classes to get into at the Media Lab.
When I was accepted for admission at MIT’s Media Lab at the age of 21 for my Master’s Degree, I moved to the U.S. and, just like that, I was witness to the birth of a movement that would change my life.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
I’ve moved around quite a bit since my childhood.
In 1982, my family fled my home country of Lebanon because they feared for our lives during the Lebanese-Israel war; we were welcomed in Canada with open arms. In 1989, a civil war broke out and my parents fled violence again to Canada, where we were again welcomed and allowed to live with dignity and respect.
In 2004, I came to the U.S. as a new member of the MIT Media Lab! The experience changed my life and made me who I am today.
In 2006 I moved to NYC and I have been here ever since.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
My move to the U.S. was made exponentially better by Chris Csikszentmihályi, the former director of the MIT Center for Future Civic Media and the Computing Culture research group at the MIT Media Lab. He was my advisor, and the one that accepted me into the program when I first came to Boston.
So how are things going today?
littleBits was originally meant for consumers, but as educators continue to discover how our electronic building blocks enhance their curriculum we’ve quickly moved into the education space in parallel. It’s energizing to see the impact we’re having in classrooms, libraries, and makerspaces around the world.
We currently work with more than 20,000 schools, and earlier this year we announced a partnership with education publishing giant, Pearson, to inject a little extra interactivity into Pearson’s STEM/STEAM curriculum. Pearson will be incorporating littleBits into its grade three to eight science curriculum in the form of “Pearson littleBits STEM Invention Toolbox.”
An educator at a littleBits Inventor Club in Gdynia, Poland said, “littleBits are a tool, not just destination in my workshops. They have magical force to open some creative doors, especially within kids. I’ve heard kids say ‘It will move?! But how?? Electronics??! I don’t know anything about it…’ and after a while when you look at them, they are fully engaged with sparkles in their eyes.”
Education is a huge focus for us and we are very committed to it. Our team is constantly visiting teachers, creating programs for teachers and students to improve our offerings and help educators with their very difficult task of preparing students for the future.
Things are going well!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ve always been an activist, and I consider littleBits to be an activist company. Since our early days we’ve always stood for gender neutrality, universality across countries, and empowering kids. After all, kids are at the heart of everything we do.
A few months after littleBits launched back in 2011, I got a Google alert for a YouTube video showcasing a project a boy invented with his dad. I watched it, then decided to search YouTube for the word “littleBits.” Suddenly, I found all sorts of projects that people had made — from South Africa to Singapore, Mexico to Canada! It was so exciting for me to realize that littleBits is a universal product that was already making an impact on a global scale.
Even today, we still get a lot of fan letters from all over the world — from parents who have seen their kids suddenly take an interest in STEAM, to kids who have discovered that they are more creative than they think, to people who finally feel like technology is accessible to them. We also hear from teachers who report that kids who were doing poorly in class are often the ones who became the most engaged with littleBits. As we continue to grow as a company, I am fortunate to see kids experience this moment of realization on a global scale — from Sao Paulo to Bangkok.
Since I can’t vote in America — or run for office — some of the best ways that I can make a difference are to donate to causes I care about, support people who are doing work that I agree with, and speak out about issues that are important to me. I can make sure that littleBits is committed to making a difference, and I can use my platform as a founder to make a difference.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
First, I would change the tone of the conversation — figuratively and literally. Immigrants are treated with suspicion, despite the fact that most of us come to America to contribute and be forces for good. Despite that, we’re often spoken to like lesser humans.
Second, I would put more emphasis on supporting entrepreneurs, scientists, and inventors who are coming here to help create value and jobs. They bring with them a different mentality, marked by grit and persistence.
Third, I would re-clarify that asylum-seeking is not illegal. There is a lot of confusion and miscommunication around this issue right now, and people are spreading the rhetoric that they are all illegal. Some of these people are fleeing atrocious living conditions and fear for their lives. It is not only legal, but also humane to allow them to seek asylum and treat them with empathy.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
Learn as much as you can from other people. For a full 18 months after littleBits launched, I still called myself the company’s lead engineer. One day, I realized I was doing very little engineering, so I accepted the title of CEO. Now, I am excited about how far other people have taken littleBits — beyond what I would have ever imagined. There’s so much to be learned from other perspectives.
Embrace what you care about. By the time they are eight-years-old, girls decide whether or not they want to go into STEM careers, or not. Today, only 20 percent of STEM jobs are held by women, suggesting that too many girls are opting out early. I have always been passionate about getting more girls involved in STEM, and this has informed my work throughout my career. In fact, at littleBits, we’ve garnered a user base of 40% girls, which is 4X more than the industry average. That’s because we’ve embraced the challenge of women in tech as one that we deeply care about and we’ve worked diligently to incorporate inclusiveness in everything we do.
Take risks. I find this is key both in business and in life. People ask me often about my biggest failures, and I don’t have a great response to that question. If we dwell on our failures, they sink us. We have to take big risks, learn from them, and move forward.
Never give up. Developing something new, something that never existed before, takes time. Solving real problems takes time. As an entrepreneur, I’ve learned to devote time to my passion. You will make progress, and when you get close to something happening you will feel it and become so energized you won’t be able to stop.
Use your differences to your advantage. A lot of people ask me what it’s like to be a woman in tech — as though being female is a hurdle to overcome. To that, I’d say: don’t spend too much time thinking about being “other.” It takes too much space in your brain and in your life. Just try to do the best possible work you can, and be proud of it.
Invent the world you want to live in. In January 2017, President Trump signed an executive order that which applied an immediate 90-day moratorium on admitting people from seven countries — Syria, Libya, Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Sudan — from entering or re-entering the country. In response, littleBits placed an advertisement on a billboard in Times Square that projected this message loudly and unabashedly: “We Invent the World We Want to Live In.” This mantra has always embodied my values of empowerment, creativity, and hope for the future. The billboard read in English and Arabic to send a message of inclusivity and diversity, and our hope for a peaceful future that celebrates all people.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
We’re using our “dollars” to communicate our values. Companies are speaking out, directly and indirectly, for issues they care deeply about; consumers are using their dollars to speak their values. Putting support — and money — behind causes we care about and organizations we trust is fast-becoming another powerful way to bring our values to the forefront. There are so many ways we can make a difference!
We’re becoming increasingly competitive. The U.S. is finally starting to acknowledge the importance of education, and more specifically, STEAM. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in STEM currently make up 6.2 percent of all U.S. employment. Not only that, but the majority of STEM-related occupations boast wages above the national average and demonstrate above-average growth. We’re realizing the impact that STEM and STEAM will have on the future of work, and we’re working to equip the next generation of kids with the skills they’ll need to succeed in these fields.
Women are getting more seats at the table. Since 2014, more women than men earn college degrees each year; and while they are increasingly finding a place in tech companies, they are still not fulfilling their share of technical roles. Part of the reason for this is that too many companies are trying to tackle the so-called “pipeline problem” in the wrong places — at work, in the media, via strategic investments — but where they really need to be tackling it is in the eighth grade, when many girls make a final decision as to whether or not to pursue STEM careers. Now that we understand the problem, it’s so encouraging to see so many amazing organizations coming up with programs that target young girls and strive to make a difference. Black Girls Code, Girl Scouts, and public companies like Microsoft all come to mind.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
I’d love to have a power lunch with Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft. I am consistently impressed by Microsoft’s education initiatives and focus on getting more girls into STEM.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter at @ayahbdeir or @littleBits. littleBits is also on Facebook at littleBitselectronics.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Originally published at medium.com