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Everything it took Abi Olukeye Making the career leap from a secure corporate gig to an independently funded sole proprietorship was an unintended boost from her two daughters, aged 7 and 10.
In 2018, Olueye left her role as Global Product Manager Ingersol Randthe Davidson-based international industrial manufacturer, for the market launch Smart Girls HQan online learning platform and range of products designed to stimulate interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers for girls aged 6-12.
It was Olukeye’s personal experience in finding educational tools for her girls that discouraged her and convinced her that there was a broad market for more targeted STEM products – especially for young girls.
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“I was frustrated looking for educational toys for my girls to give them broader access to STEM and the world of possibilities for them,” Olukeye said. “When I gave them options, they labeled different toys as ‘boy thing’ or ‘girl toy’ whether it was a product like toy cars or a specific toy color like pink. It became clear that there are gender differences here that children notice from a very young age.”
Olukeye began exploring the realm of STEM education for young girls—an area that she felt hadn’t changed much in a decade. “There has been a lot of talk in government and industry about that [lack of] female STEM talent at high school and college level, but limited focus on younger age groups.”
‘Aha moment’: What she found was eye-opening. “Data suggest that by age 12, girls were beginning to turn away from STEM compared to their male peers,” Olukeye said. “That was shocking to me because that’s the age they finish elementary school. I realized what happens in elementary school programming around STEM and science at this level is very abstract and not very career oriented. That was an aha moment for me and the trigger for the business idea.”
It’s a business that, with the right help, would eventually expand into hands-on study kits, computer games, an artificial intelligence app, and a school-based program being piloted at a technology magnet school in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system.
Except for the entrepreneurial error: The move from a company’s product research and development into a startup arena didn’t scare Olukeye.
“I loved what I did and the role I had in the company,” she said. “But it was safe and I wanted to push myself. I was gripped by entrepreneurial fever and saw a big problem that needed to be solved.”
A random networking introduction led Olukeye to this Ventureprise Inc.the UNC Charlotte Innovation incubator supporting small start-up companies in the Charlotte area. The non-profit organization serves as a business development tool for university researchers, students and community organizations, as well as innovation-driven companies like Smart Girls HQ.
Located in the university’s PORTAL building on campus, Ventureprise offers a range of resources to help entrepreneurs meet the needs of startups, from intellectual property management, technology transfer and licensing to connections and networks with faculty, researchers and university students. The incubator also helps businesses find state and federal small business grants.
The connection was a turning point for Olueye, which has located Smart Girls’ headquarters at PORTAL and joins 35 other innovation-driven companies based there.
“Abi represents the gold standard of how the university works with entrepreneurs in the community,” he said DevinCollins, Managing Director at Ventureprise. “Usually first-time entrepreneurs [rush to] Create a business plan, invest in premises, hire attorneys and quickly establish yourself as an LLC. We believe that the best process is to spend a lot of front-end time conducting research and market analysis.”
Through the program, Olukeye is affiliated with Mary Lou Maher, currently director of the Center for Education Innovation in CCI at UNC Charlotte. Maher’s research overlapped areas Olukeye was exploring with Smart Girls HQ, and through a collaboration, they were able to secure a Small Business Innovation Research Grant to research and help develop a “recommendation app” on Smart Girl HQ’s website to start. The app uses artificial intelligence to suggest topics for exploration and learning sequences for girls expressing interest in various STEM subjects.
STEM education outside of the classroom: As she began her initial research that sparked her start-up, Olukeye discovered that most of the career-oriented STEM education and training for elementary school kids was happening outside of the classroom, and so fell on parents to provide it.
“My first big hypothesis was that parents are an underserved audience for STEM resources for their children, especially young girls,” Olukeye said. “Parents want something simple that fits into the fringe of their day, that serves the purpose of helping their children learn in an interesting way, providing a bonding experience, and being something they can feel comfortable with.”
It didn’t take long for Olukeye to realize that there was a real need for not just awareness and education, but actual products and educational tools that parents could use with their children. A newsletter she founded, Raising Smart Girls, to share research and resources with friends, was an instant hit, becoming Smart Girl HQ’s first product and growing into a website.
Fun, interactive learning tools soon followed. Some of Smart Girls HQ’s most popular products include hands-on STEM learning kits, including the Dear Smart Girl Electrical Engineer Learning Kit ($50), which teaches girls about electricity while they (with an adult’s help) learn about parallel circuits, around to build a headband that lights up. In the past year, the company sold more than 3,000 of these kits.
Later came a “cosmetic engineer kit” that teaches about chemistry and pH levels, and four more are planned.
The global educational toys market is currently a $68 billion industry and is projected to grow to $132 billion by 2028, with demand for STEM toys driving the growth, she said.
Entry into schools: In addition to her game-based learning, hands-on kits, and AI programs, Smart Girl HQ has developed a program called Smart Girl Squad, a 20-week experiential learning program for fifth grade girls who are seniors at Dorothy J Vaughan Academy of Technology, a CMS primary school. More schools are registered for next year, Olukeye said.
Olukeye said she has two big motivators as she grows her business: the excitement of entrepreneurship and her passion for her mission.
“I want to be involved in providing the answer to the STEM talent crisis we are facing and help build the pipeline sustainably. People see this as a social issue,” she said. “For me, it’s much more than that. If we apply the same rigor that we apply to commercial issues, we can solve this problem.”
Michael J. Solender is a Charlotte-based features writer. You can reach him at [email protected] or through his website michaeljwrites.com.