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Annie, Get Your Screw Gun
Diana Kapp | Photo: Gabriela Hasbun | March 22, 2013
How a fully wired, build-it-youself dollhouse could foster the next generation of girl geeks.
Chen and Brooks shipped 3,000 Roominate kits this past holiday season, packed with the help of Chen’s Frisbee team and both of their boyfriends. “They’ve figured out it’s the only way they’ll see us,” Brooks says. The rush was motivated by their mentor, Mike Cassidy of Google X, whom they met through StartX, a Stanford incubator for student businesses. “Speed is the ultimate startup weapon,” he told them. “His view is that it’s better to jump in and learn by doing than to wait around trying to perfect everything,” Chen says.
Indeed, the indie Roominate will have to move fast if it wants to break through in an industry dominated by mega-brands. After five years of research, Lego introduced its Friends line in 2012—building blocks with BFF figures that roadtrip in their pop-up adventure camper or play soccer. The Barbie Build ’n Style line is girlier: pink blocks that transform into ice cream carts or boutiques. There’s even competition from another Stanford-educated engineer: 30-year-old Debbie Sterling, creator of GoldieBlox, a new book–interactive toy combo whose main character tears apart her music box to figure out its inner workings and devises a cookie-swiping machine. Roominate and GoldieBlox are inventing an entire category of toys, says Berkeley toy analyst Stevanne Auerbach (aka Dr. Toy). “A computer engineer Barbie is a step forward. But Barbie also needs to learn to do math and fix her computer and to understand the tech behind all this. The integration of circuits and building and education is really new.”
Still, there is some skepticism about how the concept actually delivers once in little girls’ hands. “One question I have is, how will the girls play with this,” says Susan Levine, chair of the University of Chicago’s psychology department. Will they do the building and electronic tinkering? Or will they let their parents take over? Will well-meaning, understandably envious moms and dads be able to stop themselves from helicoptering this aspect of their kids’ lives, the way they hover over so many others?
Levine asks whether Roominate isn’t playing into stereotypes more than combating them. “We would like girls to do spatial activities not just around pink things,” she says.
Chen and Brooks don’t pretend that their product will close the STEM gap. Nor do they deny that some girls will do little but stick stickers. Still, they are sure that they’re on to something. Photos of girls mugging with their creations keep flooding in, and, other than one disappointed Forbes reporter who thought that the hefty price warranted more electronics, the press has been stellar. Chen and Brooks lost their third partner, a Stanford MBA candidate who was involved early on, but have managed to get manufacturing going in China, break into Amazon, and raise enough funds to keep going “for a while,” Brooks says.
Meanwhile, they are busy devising new electronics—a buzzer and a light—and reworking the tangle-prone battery wiring. Solar panels to power the circuits are in development, as are levers and pulleys. “At some point, we want girls programming,” Chen says. Sure, some kids are clamoring for more decor options, but Chen and Brooks are committed to including something electronic in every add-on pack. “It would be higher margin to just give them more stickers,” Chen says, “but that’s not the mission.”
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of San Francisco.