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Everything it took to Abi Olukeye making the career leap from a secure corporate gig to becoming an independently funded solo entrepreneur was an involuntary push from his two daughters, ages 7 and 10.

In 2018, Olukeye left his role as Global Product Manager at Ingersoll-Randthe Davidson-based international industrial manufacturer, to launch Smart Girls HQan online learning platform and suite of products designed to spark interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers for girls aged 6-12.

It was Olukeye’s personal experience of finding educational tools for her daughters that discouraged her and convinced her that there was a huge market for more targeted STEM products, especially for young girls. .

“I was frustrated looking for educational toys for my daughters to give them broader exposure to STEM and the world of possibility,” Olukeye said. “As I shared options with them, they would refer to various toys as ‘boy thing’ or ‘girl thing’, whether it was the product such as toy cars or the color of a particular toy, such as rose.It became clear that there was a gender disparity here that children perceive at a very young age.

Olukeye began to explore the field of STEM education for young girls – an area which she said hadn’t changed much in a decade. “There has been a lot of discussion within government and industry about the [lack of] female STEM talent at high school and college level, but limited attention to younger ones.

“Light Bulb Moment”: What she found was telling. “The data indicates that it was at the age of 12 that girls began to move away from STEM compared to their male peers,” Olukeye said. “It shocked me, because that’s the age when they graduate from elementary school. I’ve come to recognize what’s going on in elementary school programming around STEM and science at that level is very abstract and not very career oriented. It was an enlightening moment for me and sparked the idea of ​​a business.

It’s a business that, with the right help, would eventually expand to hands-on learning kits, computer games, an artificial intelligence app, and a school curriculum that’s been tested in a science-loving school. technology in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system.

Bitten by the entrepreneurial bug: Going from enterprise product research and development to a startup arena didn’t scare Olukeye.

“I loved what I was doing and the role I had in the business,” she said. “But it was safe and I wanted to push myself. I was bitten by the entrepreneurship bug and saw a big problem that needed to be fixed.

A chance introduction to networking led Olukeye to Ventureprise Inc.the UNCCharlotte innovation incubator to support small start-up businesses in the Charlotte area. The nonprofit serves as a business development tool for academic researchers, students, and community organizations and innovation-driven companies like Smart Girls HQ.

Ventureprise is located in the university’s PORTAL building on campus and offers a range of resources that help entrepreneurs meet the needs of startups, from intellectual property management, technology transfer and licensing, to connections and networking with university professors, researchers and students. The incubator also helps companies find state and federal small business grants.

The connection was a game-changer for Olukeye, which set up Smart Girls’ headquarters at PORTAL, joining 35 other innovation-focused companies based there.

“Abi represents the gold standard of how the university partners with entrepreneurs in the community,” said Devin Collins, Executive Director at Ventureprise. “Generally, new entrepreneurs [rush to] create a business plan, invest in space, hire attorneys, and move quickly to establish yourself as an LLC. We believe that the best process is to spend considerable time researching and analyzing the market. »

Through the program, Olukeye connected with Marie Lou Maher, currently director of the Center for Education Innovation in CCI at UNC Charlotte. Maher’s research overlapped with the 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 begin development of a ” recommendation app” on the Smart Girl HQ website. The app uses artificial intelligence to suggest exploration topics and learning sequences for girls expressing an interest in various STEM fields.

STEM education outside the classroom: Back when she began her research that would spark her startup, Olukeye discovered that most career-focused STEM education and exposure for elementary school children took place outside of the classroom. , and therefore fell to the parents to provide.

“My first big assumption was that parents are an underserved audience for STEM resources for their children, especially young girls,” Olukeye said. “Parents want something easy that could fit into the edges of their day that will fulfill the purpose of helping their children learn in an interesting way, provide a bonding experience, and be something they can feel good about. good.”

It wasn’t long before Olukeye realized that there was a real need not only for awareness and education, but also for real products and educational tools that parents could use with their children. A newsletter she created, Raising Smart Girls, to share research and resources with friends was an instant hit, became Smart Girl HQ’s first product, and evolved into a website.

Fun and interactive learning tools arrived soon after. Among Smart Girls HQ’s most popular products are hands-on STEM learning kits, including the Dear Smart Girl Electrical Engineer Learning Kit ($50), which teaches girls about electricity while they learn (with the adult help) the parallel circuits to build a headband that lights up. Last year, the company sold over 3,000 of these kits.

A “cosmetic engineer’s kit” that teaches chemistry and pH levels came later, and four more are planned.

The global educational toys market is currently a $68 billion industry and is expected to reach $132 billion by 2028, with demand for STEM toys driving growth, she said.

Entering schools: In addition to its game-based learning, hands-on kits and AI programs, Smart Girl HQ has created a program called “Smart Girl Squad”, a 20-week experiential learning program for girls in fifth grade. grade that was tested last year at Dorothy J. Vaughan Academy of Technology, a CMS elementary school. There are more schools registered for next year, Olukeye said.

Olukeye said she had two big motivations for growing her business: enthusiasm for entrepreneurship and her passion for her mission.

“I want to be involved in the response to the STEM talent crisis we’re facing and help build the pipeline in a sustainable way. People see this as a social issue,” she said. it’s much more than that.If we can apply the same rigor that we apply to trade problems, we can solve this problem.

Michael J. Solender is a Charlotte-based feature writer. Contact him at [email protected] or through his website, michaeljwrites.com.