Alex Wolf is a Co-Founder and the Creative Director of na2ure, a line of games and app that help kids learn about Nature. Alex is featured as one of 30 Women Entrepreneurs in "In Her Company," a web series on women-owned businesses produced through TakePart Media and Eileen Fisher. Here, Alex talks about many of the issues surrounding women in business and women in science, and how they must be addressed if we are to create an equitable workplace and, subsequently, a more dynamic toy industry.
You just went to the White House for a briefing on women in business. What was that like?
I have no idea how they found me, but I was so excited to go! Fifty women were invited by the National Women’s Business Council and Business Forward to meet women at the White House who work in science, tech, and digital services—including the Administrator of the SBA, and the First Lady’s Chief of Staff, who is also the Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls—to discuss ways to empower more women in business.
Megan Smith, the new CTO of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, talked about two things that hit the nail on the head for me: the dismal portrayal of women in science/tech in the media, and “death by a thousand cuts.” There used to be a much higher percentage of women in science, and that number is dropping off due to a myriad of impediments—glass ceilings, discriminatory pay, access to capital, and lack of adequate child and family care, for starters—that all add up to death by a thousand cuts. With girls outperforming boys in schools, there needs to be an accurate representation of women currently in science/tech, which is not happening. Showing a more accurate percentage of women in those fields would draw more girls, and shore up the numbers to their previous levels—if not increase them.
Basically, we need more role models. And I am bound and determined to be one.
Well, then! How do you think we get more women in science/tech?
One of the most startling things I learned at the White House was that the US had more women in STEM fields 20 years ago than it does today. The biggest reason why those numbers shrank is due to the culture within those fields, not a lack of skill or abilities for the women working in them.
In order to effect a sea change within those cultures, we need more female-founded, science-based game companies. Those companies need to take the dearth of women in these fields seriously, and act as role models for young girls, change the industry environment, and advocate to parents for more STEM toy and game inclusion at home and at school.
We’ve got a few great ones already. Ayah Bdeir of LittleBits, Debra Sterling of Goldieblox, and Limor Fried with Adafruit come to mind. The fabulous Women in Toys which I just joined also comes to mind. But we need more.
So if that’s how we get more women in science/tech, how do we get them in the toy industry?
Since women are still primary caregivers in most households, they need to have direct input into the toys and games their kids are playing with. As mothers, teachers, day-care workers, or babysitters, women spend more time with kids, giving them real insight into the nuances and intimacy of children at play.
We should be capturing women’s insight into play and pouring it back into what we make for kids as actionable research. Some great examples here include Mia Galison, Founder and Creative Director of eeBoo, and Andrea Barthello, Co-Founder of ThinkFun. These women are leading the charge, but more women need to follow their example.
With more women founding companies, the balance of the workplace, which includes equal pay, equal access to capital, and better maternity and child-related policies will evolve.
What should real STEM games look like?
Science games are more scarce than other types of games, despite the fact that young children are naturally interested in science. Constantly experimenting in play, children exhibit the behaviors of a true scientist just as Einstein said. My desire is to connect those two dots. In early childhood kids are insatiable and have little fear of failing because everything is an experiment to them. They are developing more neural connections from 0-5 than any other time in their life. Why do we wait to give them “real” things to think about? They ask all the questions: let’s give them ways to play their way into the answer.
You make science games yet come from an art background. How did that lead to the idea of na2ure?
Actually I’ve only ever taken one biology class—which I both sucked at and hated. A vegetarian slicing open a frog reeking of formaldehyde? I don’t think so!
I loved nature—animals, plants, rocks, and the microbial mystery world—because it felt so alive. Yet in bio class everything seemed so dead, and learning was dryly academic, verbally dense and boring. I was a good student, and eager to learn, so if they were losing me then heaven help the people who were barely motivated to do more than pass!
After RISD I spent a great deal of time piecing together what I intuitively understood about science—from physics, to light, color, and chemistry—and realized it’s really not as hard to learn as we make it. I worked for a high-end florist for many years on flagship couture brands, and started reading about how nature makes color, and then moved on to structure.
Once I had my daughter, I wanted to share all of this with her and found there was nothing for small children on the market. Since I had a very good idea of what to make, I got to work.
Your co-founder comes from a science and behavioral studies background. How do you work together?
My co-founder Vijal majored in Biology and Behavior and went on to medical school. He is now in Psychiatry residency. It’s a natural pairing for me as an amateur scientist with a design background who is inventing learning tools to work with a scientist. IWe make sure the science is correct, and presented in the clearest way we know how, then seeing how the play aspect is meshing with how kids learn at different ages.
Vijal’s experience with child development also allows us to include children who may be on the spectrum. I have an autistic niece so I have some firsthand experience with those kinds of learners, and Vijal adds his knowledge of deeper brain functions and developmental abilities. He will test the games at his hospital and we can’t wait to see how it goes.
What is the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
I was kidnapped into my family’s real estate business and spent over 20 years actively trying to escape (sadly, that’s how long it took). I was essentially dragged into a crisis… but learned I was great at solving problems. Paving parking lots and fixing roofs was so boring to me and I really despaired at the prospect of part time property management as a permanent “day job” when my calling was in art and design. One day I up and quit, and sold my share to fund my dream job: being an inventor.
What do you love about what you do now?
The delight of parenting is spending time with kids as they explore the world around them. Every parent thinks their child is a genius because they watch them learn things very quickly.
What we need is for these powerful young minds to connect to the big ideas behind what they see. If a toddler asks about a ladybug or flower or dog, why don’t we start explaining nature to her then? Just as a child repeats the same drawing over and over again to get it right, Mother Nature has designed species by evolving and adapting creatures over 3.8 billion years. For example, in a “same and different” game a child sees a picture of a bulldog, a poodle, a chihuahua and a beetle, and finds which one is different. Children know dogs have four legs and a beetle has six, but know also the first three are all dogs, no matter how different they look from each other.
I deeply believe we should harness kids’ curiosity at the time they have it, as young as we can, with big ideas they can chew on. We should talk up to them. I feel four-year-olds’ minds are tremendously plastic and powerful and we in the play industry should be at their service with smart tools to harness their creative thinking and feed their intellect.