Engineers Alice Brooks & Bettina Chen Are Revolutionizing The Toy Aisle

The engineers (and 'Shark Tank' winners) behind Roominate are bridging the gender gap in STEM fields, one toy at a time. 

By Sharon Lynn Pruitt

Friends and fellow Stanford grads Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen are on a mission, and that mission is clear: to encourage more girls and women to get into engineering. Women's involvement in STEM - science, technology, engineering, and math - fields are criminally low; less than 15% of women in this country go to college intending to major in a STEM field. Alice and Bettina are hoping to change that though, and their medium of choice for tackling this problem? Toys - dollhouses, specifically.

These aren't your grandmother's dollhouses, though. In fact, they aren't just dollhouses at all. Roominate offers "building sets" that come with everything you need to create your own amusement park, classroom, or "luxury townhouse." That's only the starting point, though - most sets comes with hundreds of pieces, as well as motors and electrical accessories that can be used to build a spinning amusement park ride that lights up, a fan for your townhouse, or anything else you can imagine. In a world where the girls' side of the toy aisle is filled with products that are low in educational value, Roominate offers options that will introduce girls to early engineering skills, and are exactly the kind of toy that Alice and Bettina would have gravitated toward as children.

"I wanted to be an engineer before I knew what an engineer was," said Alice, who credits her parents for encouraging her to pursue her natural talents and interests. "I wanted a Barbie, and my dad brought me a saw." She started building her own toys at a young age and never looked back.

"I wanted to be an engineer before I knew what an engineer was."

Bettina, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants whose hard work inspired her, grew up loving Legos. She would use them to build elaborate structures far beyond what was suggested on the box.

Both women - now 27 - spent their childhood years as engineers-in-training, exploring the hobbies and subjects that would one day lead them to their dream careers. The two would meet years later during graduate school at Stanford, and as two of the only women in their engineering program, they gravitated toward each other.

"For me, coming from Caltech [The California Institute of Technology] - where there weren't that many women to start with - and then going to Stanford where I kind of expected there to be more women and to be a more balanced environment, it was just really kind of a shock for me," Bettina said. "That's really what drove us to start talking about what we could do to get more girls in engineering."

"I expected [Stanford] to be a more balanced environment, it was a shock for me."

Thus, Roominate was born. As their website puts it, the goal is simple: to inspire the next generation of inventors. Their products would inspire girls to think creatively and find the joy in building things with their hands, all while developing problem solving, spatial, and fine motor skills. Still, transitioning from having a good idea to producing a good product has been a long journey for Alice and Bettina. They found early support in StartX, a non-profit org that helps Stanford entrepreneurs develop their ideas. They've also launched successful Kickstarter campaigns through which they've raised over $50,000, and have even appeared on an episode of Shark Tank, where they landed a $500,000 investment from Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner. Because of their appearance, they landed a deal with WalMart, and their sales soared to $4.5 million. 

Watch Alice & Bettina's follow-up video to their appearance on 'Shark Tank':

"It's because we're doing this to get more girls interested in engineering and STEM - that's such a personal goal for us, and that's what kept driving us forward," Alice said.

Their hard work has more than paid off. At the beginning of the year, Roominate was acquired by Patch Products, one of the largest manufacturers of family entertainment products in the nation. With the toy behemoth at their side, their building sets are expected to make it into the hands of more girls than ever.

"The best part [of this experience] has been seeing what girls make and seeing their reaction when they first play with it. When we were first starting out and doing a ton of testing sessions, every time a girl would start playing with Roominate and she put together the motor circuit - it's just such an exciting moment to see when that happens," said Alice. "The girls get so excited and they'd run off to show their parents and friends what they made and for them, it's just such an important moment, that they've been able to build this themselves."

With the Roominate sets in hand, young girls all around the world have stretched the limits of their creativity, going beyond the suggested end products of the building sets and creating everything from a replica of the Golden Gate bridge that lights up to a rocket ship, complete with a spinning propeller. The website's Young Inventors page shows off how creative kids can be, and Alice and Bettina are constantly amazed and inspired by what girls can accomplish when given the proper tools.

"There's a lot of research out there that's been done that shows that boys and girls start at a similar level in spatial skills at a young age but because boys tend to play with a lot more learning toys than girls, they develop their skills more," Bettina explained.

But it's not just a matter of making sure little girls have more educational toys to choose from; receiving encouragement from those around them to think outside the box can make a world of difference in a child's life. For parents, it can be as simple as moving beyond the pink side of the aisle when buying toys for their daughters.

"It's really about giving them as many options as possible - things for them to experiment with and see what they actually like, instead of being told by society what they should like," Bettina said.

Both women also stress the importance of providing girls with positive role models early on in life.

"There's a lot more news about strong women in engineering and in business and in places of leadership, and I think that's really important for girls," Bettina said. "To get to that point in their life, I think it's important for them to see other women breaking those barriers."

Breaking barriers? Alice and Bettina would know all about that. Learn more about the toy company that's inspiring the next generation of engineers by watching the video below, and keep up with the Roominate team on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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