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Female Disruptors: Anna Gilbertson and Alana Aamodt of Momentix Labs On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Be Authentic — Less of a word of advice, and more of a life philosophy. As long as you interact with others from a place of authenticity and put out an authentic image, people with similar values will find you. We’ve found operating this way not only feels best, but also leads us to the right opportunities. Once we started doing this on our social channels especially, we’ve seen a lot of organic growth. We’ve even had a couple museums reach out.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anna Gilbertson and Alana Aamodt.

Alana Aamodt and Anna Gilbertson are co-founders of Momentix, a toy company creating research-driven products and experiences that bring design skills — like iteration, creativity, and collaboration — into STEM education as a way to create space for more diversity in technical fields. With their toys, they’ve observed hundreds of kids in homes, at schools, and at camps and museums challenge themselves and fall in love with engineering.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Alana: Well, I loved Rube Goldberg machines (chain reactions) as a kid. I first had to build one for my fifth grade science class and despite notebooks full of ideas, I struggled to build them with duct tape and cardboard. I ended up studying physics in college, which was where I met Anna. We started talking about the culture of science, especially physics, and the ways that pushes girls and women out of the field. We took our idea for Momentix to our university pitch competition, and that gave us a little funding to get started. Since then it’s been a lot of networking, coffee meetings, cold emails, and design software tutorials.

Anna: Prior to college, I worked with an Americorps program teaching small groups in a middle school. The psychology of education is fascinating to me and K-5 is such an important time developmentally. So, when Alana brought up her idea to design a chain reaction machine toy, it collided with my love of physics, design, education, and all those conversations we had had about the culture of STEM. I’ve done some bioengineering, rehab engineering, and robotics engineering during college, and Alana worked at NREL for a summer and for a physics professor doing research on closing the STEM gender gap.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Anna: Well, I don’t know if you’ve been down a toy aisle lately. But there are three things that always stand out to me. First, there is SO much plastic. Second, the gender divide — blue trucks on one side, pink make believe sets on the other. And third, everything says STEM toy on it. Just because a toy is made with science and technology or requires the laws of physics to work doesn’t mean it’s teaching kids actual science skills.

Alana: We wanted to make something gender inclusive and sustainable that would focus on teaching what the research tells us are the most powerful tools for closing the STEM gap: exciting, hands-on activities that emphasize creativity, resilience, and problem-solving as STEM skills. I think the motionKit doesn’t look like a traditional STEM toy, and that’s very much on purpose.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Oh my goodness, so many mistakes of course. When we were filming our Kickstarter video, we were in this rented apartment and we were building a machine at 1 am involving a glass jar as a pulley weight. The machine failed and it absolutely shattered. We’ve also shattered a coffee pot trying to build a coffee pouring machine and ruined too many CNC bits to count.

We started doing #failurefriday on our social media channels, which is when we share a moment of failure from the week. Our job is basically one long string of failures, since that’s such a huge part of building rube goldberg machines. We always joke that we’re practicing the very things our kit teaches to kids. Failure and resilience is a big part of that. I think we’re still learning it.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

One of our biggest mentors has been Elliott Hedman from Wonder Stories and mpath. He’s a MIT Media Lab Alum and he does a lot of design research and consulting, especially in the educational space. The first time we met him we were at a startup fair, and he basically walked up to us and told us if we hadn’t tested our toys with kids then it wasn’t a product yet — he’s really blunt like that, which is awesome. At that point, we had already been working on Momentix for at least a year, so it was hard to hear. That started a long journey for us of toy testing, which has been so important in helping us make something that really works and in finding ways to bring what we’re doing to more types of kids.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I think a really relevant example for us is the advent of plastic. Plastic was a huge industry disruptor for the toy industry, because it’s so cheap and you can pretty much make anything with it. The problem is that the toy industry is now the most plastic-intensive in the world, and the culture of toys now revolves around having the newest, coolest thing, not product longevity. All that plastic is polluting our oceans and our drinking water — the toys we’re buying for our kids today will become direct threats to their health and safety in the future.

I love that what we are doing with wooden STEM toys is this really cool bridge between the toy industry before the advent of plastic and the cutting edge of the industry now: teaching 21st century skills and diversifying STEM.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

  • Be Authentic — Less of a word of advice, and more of a life philosophy. As long as you interact with others from a place of authenticity and put out an authentic image, people with similar values will find you. We’ve found operating this way not only feels best, but also leads us to the right opportunities. Once we started doing this on our social channels especially, we’ve seen a lot of organic growth. We’ve even had a couple museums reach out.
  • Negotiate — There’s this misconception that negotiating leaves someone the winner and someone the loser, when in reality I think it’s more about finding an agreement that works for both parties. For example, we started working with this wonderful toy factory, but we wanted to lower our risk of doing Kickstarter. So we ended up negotiating delivery and payment in stages rather than all at once. That gave us the freedom to move into our Kickstarter campaign with a lot less stress.
  • Network — When taken along with authenticity, networking is so much more about curiosity and sharing interests rather than seeing what you can get from people. People love to help each other. We’ve been able to meet so many interesting people and we’ve learned so much from just reaching out and offering to buy someone a coffee. That’s how we got involved with the Junkyard Social Club and Chicago Invention Convention as well.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

When we first did our university pitch competition a few years ago, we didn’t know much about making a product, we just had a mission. Wood is difficult to manufacture and it’s expensive, and those costs have to be passed onto the customer. But that means there are a lot of families who can’t afford our kit. Plus, the kids who have parents seeking STEM products often already have the encouragement they need.

We’re really excited about starting to partner with museums, schools, and makerspaces so we can share these ideas and the joy of science with kids who might not have that exposure anywhere else. We also plan to roll out more free content and activities.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I think the challenges women face are deeply reflected in our product and in our ethos as a company. The culture of gender in the professional world and the STEM world is what keeps STEM so white and male.

As women, we’re often starting in much lower esteem than a male colleague who walks in at six feet tall with a booming voice. We have to work a lot harder to be taken seriously and seen as legitimate. And while I can’t speak for those of other identities, I think this experience is similar, but magnified for people of color, especially women of color. We’ve faced a lot of imposter syndrome, we second guess ourselves, and the message seems to be that our value is determined by money raised rather than impact. It can be hard to tune out those voices and to refocus on the impact we want to have and use that to guide our progress.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

Anna: How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough. This came out awhile ago, but I read it while I was working for Americorps and it has really shaped how I understand learning from a neurophysiological perspective. The gist is that trauma (for example, conflict in the home, familial instability, poverty) will overload our bodies’ coping mechanisms for stress. That chronic stress is a chemical presence that changes the brain itself, making learning, paying attention, and managing emotions more difficult. But, since the brain is plastic — it’s changing and growing on a moment-to-moment basis — this is actually really encouraging. Because if we can decrease stress, we can improve learning.

This information was critical for me, because it reframed learning for me as a process heavily impacted by stress. Play is the opposite of stress — decreasing that chronic stress through play creates the neurophysiological conditions necessary for kids to learn. Our toys have been used in special education classes with students who have trauma backgrounds and hands-on, play-based instructional methods can be really effective for them because they disrupt that stress response.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I think it would be reframing play as a self-care tool — putting it at the same level as exercise, meditation, and sleep. Play is similar to meditation in that it re-regulates the autonomic nervous system, taking our brains and bodies out of stress mode, where our instinct is fight or flight. That means people are less stressed and by extension kinder, more curious, more creative, and more empathetic — mental states that help both professionals and students learn more and do more. Learning resilience in the context of play is also a big part of what we’re doing, and resilience is linked to improved mental health and increased life satisfaction.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

We love this quote from the Playful Learning Lab’s director Annmarie Thomas: “The power of learning through play is that it’s about process, not outcome.” This is true not just for kids, but for anyone. Whenever we feel stuck or stressed out, taking a break to play (literally play with our toys, take a dance break, be silly, or act out our customer personas) loosens us up, changing our perspective and dissolving the roadblock.

How can our readers follow you online?

Anna and Alana both write on Medium occasionally. Those are usually cross-posted to our blog. We also post information, activities, behind-the-scenes, and fun videos on instagram, facebook, and tiktok. We share updates, blog posts, and free activities through our email list, which you can sign up for on our website.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.

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