Every month, Madison Reed spotlights phenomenal women who are making a positive impact on the world. Let’s celebrate their accomplishments and the possibility for all of us to make a difference!
Meet Bettina Chen, co-founder of Roominate and a lifelong challenger of the status quo. From working in a traditionally male-dominated field, to starting a company focused on empowering young girls, Bettina is opening up possibilities for future generations of women.
What does Roominate do?
We make building toys for girls, ages 6 and up, that get them excited about engineering. There are a lot of categories for them to make buildings and circuits with pieces that are really modular. There are motors to make windmills, elevators, lights that actually light up… it gets them interested in the craft of design and storytelling, and that sets them up to be so much more creative.
What inspired you to start this company?
I met (co-founder) Alice Brooks in the master’s engineering program at Stanford. We were both shocked by the drop off of women every year at our undergrad schools, MIT and Caltech. By the time we were in grad school, the class was less than 10% women. We have to get more girls entering the field!
Alice and I found out we had common backgrounds that helped us stay on track. We grew up with toys that encouraged us to problem solve and do things with our hands. We took our skills and experiences as engineers, and we translated that into building cool toys that could inspire girls in the same way we were.
That sounds incredibly inspiring. Are you having an impact already?
We’ve already had emails from parents telling us how their daughters’ interests are changing. They can see them going through that thought process and figuring out how to make something. With our toys, they’re constantly problem solving. It’s really fun seeing how fast they learn and grow.
We’re not expecting every girl to become an engineer. What we do is open up all opportunities. Let them see they really can be anything. Roominate is helping girls see engineering as an option for themselves.
How can parents help their children explore their options?
It’s important for kids to have support and encouragement to study and play with anything that interests them. Toys are the starting point to get kids exposed early.
It’s tricky when you go to a toy store where things are separated as toys for girls and toys for boys. Parents feel obligated to shop by those categories. Give your kids the opportunity to explore different paths and find the one they’re really interested in.
Speaking of different paths, is it hard to be a woman working in traditionally male-dominated engineering and tech startups?
It’s always been hard. Ever since junior high, when they split math and science into different levels, there weren’t too many girls in my classes. Luckily, I had two teachers who really encouraged me. That made a huge difference.
A lot of guys don’t seem to think it’s normal for women to do engineering and to like it. It’s been challenging. I want to change that.
What’s your advice for women who want to work in male-dominated fields?
Follow what you’re really passionate about. Ignore what other people are saying. That’s a hard thing to do, but it’s your life that you’re living.
It helps to have support networks. Find other women in your field so you can help each other share your experiences.
What are the main challenges of building your own business?
As a startup, we’re really small. It’s hard to find enough hours in the day to get everything done because we’re doing everything. I have a to-do list that never ends, but I know it’s a matter of how to prioritize. We have experience managing difficult schedules.
We have to try new things and not be scared of putting it out there, get the feedback, and grow from that. We had a tough time in undergrad, and that made us tough enough to start our own company.
That sounds challenging. What keeps you motivated and excited?
I’m focused on getting more women into engineering. I just think it’s such a cool field. There’s a lot of the creative process that goes into engineering. I wanted to help people, and I also wanted to make things. This lets me do both.
There’s so much opportunity for kids to get exposed to new interests with things like 3D printers and STEM camps. Everyone should try for new experiences and pursue what they want to do. That’s what builds confidence.
Seeing the pictures and videos of what girls come up with using our kits, and how much fun they’re having, keeps us excited about what we’re building.
What kind of projects are you seeing from the kids?
On the first Christmas after we launched, people were opening up their Roominate kits. We didn’t know what to expect, but we started getting emails showing us what kids were making.
The first one was a girl who made a doggie hotel with a pool, balcony, and cotton candy maker. She used the motor for the candy machine, and when it spun it looked real. She had come up with that completely on her own!
There are such creative ideas. We started out with a dollhouse because that’s what girls have, but they’re building carwashes with brushes, rocket ships… even a rock concert with a spinning stage. Now we have a Young Inventors section to show how they’re bringing their cool ideas to life.
Wow, that must feel great! What’s the most recent thing that made you smile?
I was really excited about a girl who sent in pictures of a soup kitchen that she made with Roominate. It was incredible to see how in tune kids are with other people’s needs.
What makes you feel beautiful?
I’m like a lot of other girls. I like shopping and wearing dresses. In engineering, you don’t get to as much, but I do like dressing up and feeling special.
This is really about the girls. We want them to see that engineering is fun and a real option for them. They can still be into makeup and dressing up and be into engineering.
Thanks for sharing your story, Bettina. We can’t wait to see how this inspires future generations of women.
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