From the time we’re young, we love to create. A booming toy industry has developed to encourage this joy; Lincoln Logs have been a popular toy for the last century and LEGOs for over 80 years. But one woman in STEM took this love for inventing and turned it into a mulit-million dollar business: founder and CEO of littleBits, Ayah Bdeir.
Bdeir was born in Montreal, Canada in 1982. Her parents, Syrian immigrants to Lebanon and then Canada, returned the family to Beirut, Lebanon, when she was a child. From a young age, she had a passion for electronics and programming, which her family encouraged. In a 2018 interview with Marie Claire, Bdeir said her father “infused in us this idea that there are no girl hobbies and boy hobbies. He would get us electricity sets and chemistry kits.”
She completed her bachelor’s in computer and communications engineering with a minor in sociology from the American University of Beirut in 2004. Following graduation, she briefly relocated to Boston to finish her master of science degree at MIT’s Media Lab in 2006.
In 2006, at the age of 24, war between Lebanon and Israel forced Bdeir to flee the country, and she eventually moved to New York City. She worked several different jobs in the New York area, including serving as a financial software consultant for Murex, an adjunct professor for New York University and a fellow at Eyebeam Art and Technology Center. She even spent a month in 2010 as a mentor on “Stars of Science,” a reality TV competition for STEM inventors and innovators in the Middle East.
Her efforts to make innovation accessible to all earned her a fellowship at Creative Commons, a non-profit organization helping make public knowledge and innovation easier to find online. Her work with Creative Commons led her to co-found the Open Hardware Summit.
In 2011, Bdeir took the biggest leap in her STEM-centered career: she started her own company. LittleBits are electronic building blocks that lock together using magnets, allowing users to customize and create their own circuits. The pieces are color-coded by function to help children learn what each piece of a circuit does.
Bdeir’s 2012 TED talk, “Building Blocks that Blink, Beep and Teach,” has over a million views. This year, Ms. Bdeir partnered with Disney for “Snap the Gap,” a $4-million project to get 10-year-old girls interested in STEM using littleBits kits.
Bdeir has won dozens of awards for her innovative approach to helping others pursue STEM, including the 2018 STEM Hero of the Year Award at the VEX World Championship Competition. She was listed as one of the 35 Innovators Under 35 by MIT Technology Review in 2014, Marie Claire’s America’s 50 Most Influential Women in 2016 and Inc. Magazine’s Top 100 Female Founders of 2018.
Her advice to girls interested in STEM, from a Power of Girl interview, is to get involved and take control of one’s individual learning. She advises girls to take part in school and community programs and start researching new ideas in their own time.
“Lead your own self-discovery and lifelong learning journey,” Bdeir said.
Are you interested in empowering women in the STEM fields? The Women in Science (Wi-Sci) group wants you! Email President Emily Larner (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information.