Amazing article about supporting youth to learn about STEM and an entrepreneur who saw a way to create an impact. In return, she built a multi-million dollar business!
Contributor: Kathy Caprino
Recent research has explored this important question: In an era when women are increasingly prominent in medicine, law, and business, why are there so few female scientists and engineers? Compelling evidence suggests there are key environmental and social barriers, including stereotypes, gender bias, and the climate of science and engineering departments in colleges and universities — that continue to block women’s progress in STEM.
As an example of what young women hear on a daily basis about why they can’t be scientists and engineers, Sarah Peters, an Engineering for Kids teacher, shared this with me:
One of my teachers in middle school once told me that she wanted to be an astronaut growing up, but was told that she couldn’t. And my mom was told that ‘girls aren’t good at math.’ Even though that was many years ago, things don’t seem too far off today. When I started taking engineering classes as a freshman in high school, I was often the only girl in the class. Even now, as a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, I am still one of few females pursuing engineering, and they’ll often assume by looking at me that I couldn’t be one. I’ve had males in the computer lab tell me that ‘only engineers can log into these computers.’ Organizations like Engineering For Kids are so important because they provide the unique opportunity to inspire young women to get into these technical fields, and we need more of that.
To help young women overcome these barriers, and more children leverage their natural STEM interests, former high school engineering teacher Dori Roberts took matters into her own hands. Dori taught high school engineering for 11 years and saw a real void in quality STEM education, for both girls and boys. The mother of two started an afterschool club that participated in various STEM-based competitions. After membership hit 180 students and the group won multiple state championships, she expanded the program and devoted 100% of her time to develop Engineering For Kids (EFK).
Engineering For Kids began operating out of Dori’s Virginia home as she introduced her programs to local recreation centers. As demand for the programs increased, along with Dori’s desire to impact as many youth as possible, she began franchising Engineering For Kids in 2012. Today, the company operates over 140 franchises in 32 states and 19 countries. Sales have doubled from $5 million in 2014 to $10 million in 2015, with 25 new franchises planned for 2016.
I caught up with Dori to learn more about her powerful vision to fill a need for high-quality STEM education and to explore how she grew that vision in a multimillion-dollar business impacting youth worldwide.
Kathy Caprino: Dori, can you share about your engineering training and teaching background and how that spurred your idea for Engineering for Kids?
Dori Roberts: I received both my Bachelor of Science degree in Math and Science Elementary/Middle School Education and Master of Science degree in Technology Education from Old Dominion University. Prior to starting Engineering For Kids (EFK), I taught engineering at the high school level for 11 years in a traditional classroom setting. I was also an advisor through the Technology Student Association, which allowed me to travel to engineering competitions all over the United States with my students as they competed in different engineering categories. I started EFK after noticing a real lack of math, science and engineering programs to enroll my own kids in. Based on EFK’s early success and positive responses from parents and administrators, I made the decision to dedicate 100% of my time to EFK, and what started as an afterschool club has since turned into a multinational franchise with 145 locations in 22 different countries, reaching more than 250,000 students across the world.
Caprino: What do you see that’s disturbing to you about how kids (particularly girls) perceive engineering and are taught?
Roberts: When I first started teaching, there were mostly males in all my classes. The longer I was there, the more girls I was able to bring in. A lot of the girls I came across have since said to me, “I didn’t know what engineering was.” There really aren’t many girls introduced to the term. The types of fields that women are traditionally drawn to tend to be more focused on human interest; they pull at the heartstrings. Our programs are designed to teach engineering concepts with real-world applications, and the social aspect of engineering is very appealing to women — the fact that engineers improve lives and can save lives.
Caprino: What do your programs do differently?
Roberts: We encourage parents to enroll their children in EFK programs as early as four years old. Between the ages of four to six, kids have not developed that “boys play with this, girls play with that” thought process. They do not yet know about stereotypes or gender roles, and if we can reach them at an age where do not have preconceived notions of gender roles, we can inspire them to continue their journeys in learning more about math and science.
EFK offers a proprietary curriculum that is extremely diverse with many opportunities to learn S.T.E.M. through content and technology based programs. Some examples of content-based programs include aerospace, mechanical, environmental, civil and chemical engineering. Technology-based programs include robotics, electronic game design, software and hardware engineering. While other programs in our space focus on LEGO kits, students enrolled in EFK’s aerospace engineering programs design and build rockets, parachutes and lunar landers. Students enrolled in mechanical engineering programs design and build rollercoasters, sails and catapults.
Caprino: How did you build your franchise, and what are your top five entrepreneurial tips/advice for other entrepreneurs with similar ideas?
Roberts: I started running EFK out of my home in the summer of 2009, using local organizations like the YMCA to conduct programs in. We opened our first brick and mortar corporate location a year later, and two years after that we began franchising. Now, our franchisees have the option of running programs through partnerships with local school districts and organizations, or opening their own traditional locations. The flexibility is great for our franchisees, because it allows them to grow as necessary in every market.
My top five tips for others to make their dream a reality would be:
Go for it.
It may seem simple, but my biggest piece of advice is to just go for it. Follow your heart and realize that your dream is your dream for a reason. If you feel led to dream it, why not make it a reality? This is especially true for young women who wish to make an impact in the business world.
Develop your leadership strength.
Remember that it is important to wear many different leadership hats. Being an entrepreneur has taught me to be a leader for myself and others; someone who continually reaches my goals and sets new ones.
Love what you do.
Starting your own business is a very difficult thing to do, but it’s lot easier when you’re passionate about your purpose; that’s the best way to stay motivated.
Make everything a learning experience.
As an entrepreneur you have to solve problems and learn on the go. Even failure can be a good thing if it helps you to grow.
Everyone’s heard the adage, “work smarter not harder,” but it’s especially true for entrepreneurs. I learned early on that I wouldn’t be able to thrive if I tried to do everything myself. Instead, I surrounded myself with the right people and took advantage of every available resource I could.
Caprino: What were/are the biggest challenges to scaling your business that you’ve overcome?
Roberts: The most challenging part of my role has been letting go of some control. As the founder and original owner of EFK, I have been heavily involved from day one. But my role has changed as the business has grown. As a result, I now have to rely on my amazing staff to take on many of the tasks that I once did myself because it is no longer possible for me to “do it all.”
As we have grown, we have maintained placing a high value on finding franchisees who truly align with our mission instead of just partnering with everyone for the numbers. We look for longevity in our franchisees, and we never want to lose sight of the importance of staying connected, and giving back to, our communities.
One way we are striving to do this, and allow more students to participate in our programs who cannot afford to, is by creating the Engineering For Kids Foundation as a bridge to reach at-risk youth. Through the foundation, kids are sponsored and partnered with a student mentor from a local high school for a six to eight week program, during which the franchisee heavily donates much of his or her time.
We’ve been able to scale our business so successfully (for example, we’ve seen 73.45% growth in overall gross sales from 2014-2015) over the years thanks to a solid foundation. We remain focused on constantly developing countless resources for our franchisees so that they can get their business up and running faster than ever. Additionally, we work alongside our veteran owners to develop systems that allow our newer owners to have the knowledge and resources they need to run a successful operation.
Caprino: What are the results you’ve seen from children participating in your programs, and what is your ultimate dream for Engineering for Kids?
Roberts: My dream is that Engineering For Kids reaches as many communities as possible, inspiring the next generation of young and inquiring minds. In 2016, we expect to add 30 franchises in target markets across the country and internationally as well.
Additionally, since the start of our Engineering For Kids Foundation, we have had the chance to see our mentors benefit from the rewarding experience of helping a child gain confidence and knowledge while having a good time. These mentors are juniors and seniors in high school, and already are shaping the future of the generation that will follow them. That is an empowering opportunity, and a joy to watch.
Caprino: What is your hope for both young women and men becoming more involved in engineering and what that would that mean for the world?
Roberts: My hope is that we can introduce children to S.T.E.M. -related fields at a young age and encourage them that an integrated, cooperative approach to learning from our failures is vitally important to their education and the future success of our nation. It has always been my goal to inspire the next generation of engineers. Children are our future, and by giving them the tools and the passion for S.T.E.M., we equip them to not only develop fulfilling and successful careers, but set them up to find solutions for both the problems we struggle with today, and the ones we will encounter down the road.