Q&A With Toyz Electronics Co-Founders Damola Idowu and Wole Idowu
Meet the team empowering diverse and disadvantaged students to find rewarding careers.
Can you provide a short description of your product?
We are empowering disadvantaged students by gamifying STEAM learning and training using hip-hop culture and entrepreneurship. Our activities expose kids to superhero industry veterans who have achieved high levels of success in their professions so they can better envision themselves in STEAM careers. For example, we ran a hackathon at Carnegie Mellon where the General Manager of EA spent 30 minutes on Skype answering questions from students on game development.
Could you provide background on your experiences and what led you to this idea?
In 1995, Damola infused engineering, science fiction, and idealism with hip-hop. He created Superhero Rap and a multi-media character Da Great Deity Dah, an amalgamation of Damola’s love for comic books, musical talent, and heart for social justice. From there, Damola was inspired to help students take their own ideas out of their minds and turn them into something real just like he had. That’s the idea behind the STEAM Superhero.
“I was inspired to become a Mechanical Engineer by the Autonomous Vehicle and AI, K.I.T.T., from Knight Rider. I am driven to provide every child with the same resources, opportunities, and support that I provide for my own child.” — Co-Founder Damola Idowu.
TOYZ-About Us - LEARN TODAY EARN TOMORROW
About Us I was inspired to become a Mechanical Engineer by an Autonomous Vehicle, Knight Rider, and an A.I. K.I.T.T. I…
How did you get to this point in your product development?
We did hackathons at Carnegie Mellon University’s HUNT library using the IDEATE interdisciplinary approach to invite students of all disciplines. Simultaneously, we were also bringing young students from black communities to the Entertainment Technology Center for playtesting as an informal way to get familiar with CMU. This culminated in an 11-day workshop at the Washington Auto Show in 2018 with a 3000 square-foot display of our game design workstations, music recording studio, and coding station. The Mayor of DC’s brother even brought 2 dozen high school students to experience our booth and learn.
At this point, we had worked with over 2,000 students and saw a lot of public interest. We knew we were onto something, so we expanded into after-school workshops in Maryland. We saw such positive engagement at one of our high school workshops at CMU’s Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship that we decided to apply for UpPrize. Through UpPrize, we worked hard on making our concept scalable and repeatable, eventually becoming semifinalists. From there, we went back to CMU to build an MVP of our product with help from the Entertainment Technology Center. That MVP allowed us to become an MIT Solve finalist for Antiracist Tech and join the MIT Solve incubator for Unbundling Policing. From there, we participated in the Richard King Mellon Social Impact Challenge and won a project-related investment of $150,000 that has allowed us to build on our MVP by hiring as many as 22 people to build the character creator, audio recording functionality, and multiple virtual environments in our gamified world.
Why are you the best team to champion this product?
Damola: I understand the power of access and education, because of my experiences and my son’s experiences. I enrolled full-time at 16 in Syracuse University School of Engineering as a double major studying mechanical engineering and economics. I worked at the Carrier dome as a concessions manager. I started Da-Smooth fashions and sold HBCU merchandise going door-to-door. I also attended Howard University and won an engineering competition at 18. I created Superhero Rap at 19 and launched the first of its kind hip-hop and entrepreneurship publication at 26 going on tour with 50-Cent, Jay-Z, and Beyonce. My products will reach 30 countries across 6 continents and over 20,000 points of sale. Having access to education and doors open for me was a big part of this success, and it’s why I was so passionate about giving my son the same resources, opportunities, and support.
Wole: My dad created the first of its kind Hip-Hop and tech magazine Toyz in 2007, which inspired me to become an engineer. I was a Thiel 20 Under 20 Finalist at 15 after graduating HS. I enrolled at Carnegie Mellon University at 15 and graduated with an Electrical and Computer Engineering degree along with 2 minors in Business by 20. I then worked EA at 18 and had over 4 years of experience as a software engineer in financial technology. We are unicorns and are inspiring a new generation to believe they can also be engineers and do it with a gamified virtual world.
“Everyone should be able to learn and dream and maximize their potential. We embody the successful outcome others try to achieve and inspire others.”
What were some things when developing Toyz Electronics that surprised you?
The way the older students interact with the younger students was astonishing. This made us realize that we were creating a community where students could encourage and help each other and challenged us to keep the graduates engaged! We are now looking into all aspects of continuing education so students of any age can continually learn on our platform.
I can’t say these other examples surprised me, but they showed us that we were on the right track. One of the younger black students we worked with just enrolled at Carnegie Mellon this fall. We saw other college students change to tech-related majors; some worked at companies like Microsoft, Facebook, and Qualcomm. We were changing life possibilities for so many people. Parents in Homewood said they felt that their kids could be safe on our platform, and they didn’t have to worry about what they were doing.
How did you make sure your product was a reflection of your target audience’s needs?
As mentioned above, we are constantly engaging with students for feedback on their experiences. We practice human-centered design and constantly do testing with pre and post surveys.
What has been some of the customer feedback?
“You have a lot of territory covered with all of this. I’m glad to see METALS involved in terms of evaluating whether you are accomplishing your learning objectives. Some of that entertainment you picked up from students in the past, now you’re broadening that. I look forward to seeing where all this work leads.” — Mike Christel, Teaching Professor, Entertainment Technology Center, Carnegie Mellon University
“A lot of the conversations that we’ve had with Damola and Wole and Dr. Victoria Mattingly have to do with their democratization of access to technology and creating. Because in the nonprofit sector, we know that as we’re meeting today’s needs, we also have to be thinking about job creation for tomorrow. So, creating an equitable environment for that is extremely important.” — Emily Francis, Program Manager at Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership
“With these kinds of tools and ideas and innovations, the most important thing is to spread the word. Get people aware of it. Help them see the practicality and the possibilities presented. Draw in those people who are going to be the early adopters the people who really want to get engaged in it and spend the time with it upfront to build the early successes, and then it grows from there.” — Stuart Blacklaw, Former Provost and Executive Vice President at The Community College of Allegheny County.
“I feel like the game was pretty good. I really liked it. It gave me a better understanding of what STEM is, and it gave me a better understanding of what the game is supposed to be about, how STEM is, and its use in games. So, I feel like me in the STEM field, I will really enjoy making games.”5/5, Drake Wanu — Student at Nazareth Prep High School.
“You can see just how much work was put into this, it’s fire” — Nathaniel Warren, Howard University Student
“This is so great for the youth because it incorporates strong themes with cool graphics!” — Andrew Mugera, Howard University Student
“It’s a game where I feel somewhat comfortable sitting her there and letting her play it, and I don’t have to go and check and make sure she’s not interacting with something she shouldn’t be interacting with.” — Parent from Homewood in Pittsburgh.
How does AlphaLab help you reach your goals?
AlphaLab is helping us clarify our message, amplify our story, improve our sales approach, meet investors, and tell a compelling story of traction in order to maximize our fundraising efforts. Additionally, they are supporting us with marketing and product expertise, raising awareness of us in the market and helping to reduce friction for new users.
What is next?
We are on our way to meeting milestones, developing business in different segments to find new areas for growth, and continuing the development of our products with input from potential customers and users.
How can consumers follow you? Our website, LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube
Outside of work, what do you like to do in your free time? Gaming, comic books, meditation, journaling, walks in nature, watching sports, reading, mindfulness, and a focus on mental and holistic health.