LittleBits Founder Ayah Bdeir Wants to Ignite the Inner Inventor in Us All
Editor’s Note: Inspire Me is a series in which entrepreneurs and leaders share what motivates them through good times and bad, while also sharing stories of how they overcame challenges in hopes of inspiring others.
LittleBits CEO and founder Ayah Bdeir thinks that everyone can invent and innovate as long as the technology is accessible. It’s a mindset that led to her founding LittleBits in 2011, which offers a range of maker kits of electronic modules. Think: an echo-locator for the visually impaired or a pet-activity monitor, to name some possibilities. It forges inventions and inventors of all stripes. However, the very success of her growing business is also what can distance her from the creativity and joy she seeks to offer others.
Almost seven years after it was founded, the award-winning company has developed nine different kits, hired a staff of more than 110 full-time employees, raised more than $62 million and also works with more than 20,000 schools across the country.
But in order to scale the company and manage all the moving parts, the MIT-educated artist and engineer says she can go weeks at time caught in the weeds of budgeting, business operations and human resources. When she starts to feel a disconnect from the joy and creativity her products inspire, she reboots by connecting with her team members and makers using her products.
“Every other Tuesday, we have an all-hands meeting where different team members share what they are working on and feedback from our customers and community,” Bdeir told Entrepreneur. “I try not to miss any of these, as they are hugely inspiring.”
Along with maintaining the fires of her own creativity, she hopes that the straightforward approach that LittleBits takes allows her to scale that creativity by making its kits as simple, visually enticing and gender-neutral as possible for the invention curious to build everything from robots to musical instruments. “This level of accessibility helps everyone to unleash creativity and instill a love of STEAM through the cycle of inventing,” she explained.
Bdeir shared with Women Entrepreneur why her biggest inspiration is derived from the solutions her customers come up with to make the world a better place.
What was the moment that you realized you wanted to go into business on your own?
Before I started LittleBits, I didn't even know what the word “entrepreneur” meant; I just had an internal drive to make things happen. The idea for LittleBits came from a very personal experience. I have a background in engineering, but always felt constrained by it because it wasn't creative or playful enough. Also, it wasn’t inclusive to people who hadn’t spent time studying it. LittleBits was my experiment to make engineering and inventing more fun, more playful and more inviting to people who are not engineers.
When you know you're facing a serious challenge or obstacle, how do you motivate yourself to tackle it?
I'm inspired by all [our] makers, especially the younger ones. We have an 11-year-old girl in our community named Anahit who is teaching herself to code with Arduino and prototyping amazing inventions with LittleBits, like an echo-locator device for the vision impaired. [Another user] Simon, and his two children, 8-year-old Ollie and 4-year-old Scarlett, have made a variety of inventions, from a pet activity monitor to an autonomous driving robot. It blows my mind and helps me to realize that people are capable of virtually anything.
What is a quote that inspires you, and why?
It’s from the poet Wallace Stevens. “After the final no there comes a yes / And on that yes the future world depends.” I love this quote because it’s a reminder that some of the most worthwhile things to do are the hardest, and it's normal to face obstacles.
What is a book that inspires you, and why?
I really love the book Dieter Rams: As Little Design As Possible, by Sophie Lovell. Dieter Rams is one of the most influential product designers of the 20th century. He believed that really good design is innovative, useful and aesthetic. At LittleBits we’ve taken this to heart. We make it a point to design our “Bits” to be as uncomplicated as possible so people of all ages, genders and technical backgrounds can use them.
Was there someone who really encouraged you?
I have always been inspired by both my mother and father. Their drive, passion and hustle was instilled in me. My father was an entrepreneur who traveled the Arab world, and my mom went to school to get her degree at the same time my sisters and I were going to school. She later became a banker.
Who is a woman that inspires you, and why?
Melinda Gates has always been a woman that inspires me. She’s a champion for bringing STEAM to every student, especially girls, which is a cause that is near and dear to LittleBits.
What inspires you at work?
A few months after LittleBits launched back in 2011, I got a Google alert for a YouTube video showcasing a project a boy invented with his dad. I watched it, then decided to search YouTube for the word “LittleBits.” Suddenly, I found all sorts of projects people had made, from South Africa to Singapore to Mexico to Canada. It was such an exciting moment for me to realize that LittleBits is a universal product that was already making an impact on a global scale.
We still get a lot of fan letters from all over the world -- from parents who have seen their kids suddenly take an interest in STEAM, to kids who have discovered that they are more creative than they think, to people who finally feel like technology is accessible to them. We also hear from teachers who report that kids who were doing poorly in class are often the ones who became the most engaged with LittleBits. Learning through play is a very effective technique, and it’s energizing to realize that LittleBits is playing even a small part in helping students to connect with STEAM and find their “moment.”
Are there lessons from earlier bosses or mentors that you think back on when you need encouragement?
Developing something new, something that never existed before, takes time. Solving real problems takes time. In order to be successful, you need to devote time to your passion. That’s why entrepreneurs should not start a company just for the sake of starting a company. Only start a company if you are obsessed with a specific problem and starting a company is the only way to solve it.
What has inspired you to be a better person?
When I see children creating inventions that will make a difference in someone else's life -- anything from a helmet to help the visually impaired to a bicycle that could prevent accidents -- I am inspired to be a better person.
I want to encourage boys and girls to create things that will change the world by exposing them to things they may not have known they were interested in. From the color of our circuit boards to our packaging, each product is deliberately designed to appeal to both girls and boys. This level of accessibility helps everyone to unleash creativity and instill a love of STEAM through the cycle of inventing.
When you are feeling your worst, what lifts you?
I look at what some teachers are doing with LittleBits: They do everything from using the technology to teach grammar, to teaching coding through invention. We’re living in a time when technology has permeated almost every area of our lives, but most people are content to be only passive consumers of it. We spend more than 11 hours with electronic devices every single day, but most of us don’t know how they work, or how to make our own.
I am inspired by empowering people to invent. I want the next generation of inventors to be equipped with the technology literacy, critical thinking skills and the creative confidence to develop solutions for 21st-century problems. Based on the inventions I’ve seen, we’re well on our way. That is inspiring, and it makes me feel hopeful.
For those women who are looking to start a business, or have begun one, what advice do you have for them to keep going?
First, don’t concern yourself with what society tells you you should be. Instead, find ways to feed your curiosity and learn for yourself what gets you excited. Your passion will be what makes or breaks you -- make sure you nurture it as much as possible.
Second, get exposed to STEAM as early as you can. STEAM doesn't have to be a specific profession; it can exist in any profession, hobby or activity you like. But it will be a huge factor in the future of work, and you should get in on the ground floor.
Third and finally, don't spend too much time thinking about being a woman. It takes too much space in your brain and in your life. Just try to do the best possible work you can every single day and be proud of it. Hopefully, this will inspire others, too.