Three California Women Makers Who Have Started New Kit Businesses

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Three California Women Makers Who Have Started New Kit Businesses

CARRIE SUNDRA is the founder of Alpenglow Industries in San Luis Obispo, California. She grew up on the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, then attended Harvey Mudd College where she proudly scored a 19 on her first electrical engineering exam.

NANCY OTERO is a Mexican-American entrepreneur, dancer, mother, and educator in Oakland, California. She loves to make projects and research the learning that happens with each one. The founder of KitCo, she is also working on creating AI-powered tools for making projects.

EMMA FLETCHER is a software engineer and hardware maker living in Sacramento, California, where she tinkers in both the digital and physical worlds. Learn to Solder Kits blend her love of engineering and entrepreneurship.

#1 Alpenglow Industries, est. 2018

“I Can Make Something Better” By Carrie Sundra

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Why am I even doing this? These words go through my head late at night as I’m staring at yet another bill of materials, trying to figure out how to wrangle another dollar or two of parts cost out of a new kit. I mean, I could be making bank working for pretty much anyone, designing circuit boards or getting a new product ready for manufacturing. I could even do it from home now, thanks to Covid normalizing remote work. Instead, I’m trying to figure out how to sell soldering kits for $10 or $20 and make enough money to employ a few people and live a modest life in California. Yep, livin’ the dream.

But I know why I do this. After 20-plus years of working for others in tech and designing circuit boards, I’m sick and tired of being the only technical woman in the room. The outlier in an overwhelmingly toxic monoculture that tries to normalize rude and disrespectful behavior by claiming that’s just how nerds are, tries to prove worth by one-upping “cleverness” and losing all sight of practicality. They gatekeep their own little castles by purposefully speaking in jargon and then condemning anyone who dares to ask the meaning of a word, and generally put down anyone who just might have different priorities or opinions, or Bob forbid, want to look feminine. 

I look at this terribly awful and broken thing and think, I can make something better. I’m not the first to think this, and I won’t be the last. This better thing might not be big, it might not single-handedly change the world, but maybe if enough of us start making better places and support and encourage newcomers, maybe together we can start making a dent. Maybe we can at least create a small breath of fresh air, a place where it’s OK to be a n00b at something, to experiment without the fear of judgment, to ask the meaning of words, and to make something pretty.

So I started a small business called Alpenglow Industries and we try to do all of those things. Encouraging people to pick up soldering irons and learn through-hole and SMT soldering skills is one thing we do through soldering kits that are a little out of the ordinary. Our weather-themed badge series is cute and approachable, while our SMT kits feature artwork that’s creative and sassy. We’re not afraid to put our values into our products — Foxy Pride is an SMT kit that allows you to pick your own LGBTQ pride colors in LEDs, and we’re working on a Ruth Bader Ginsburg-themed board (RBG RGB!) and another called the FUterus. 

We livestream and feature a variety of guests who are technical and creative, many of whom make great kits themselves. We make videos and write posts about electronics and programming, often sharing something we’ve recently dug into or something new we’ve learned.

It’s all about community and making a welcoming space, even if it’s just a corner of the internet. Ah, maybe if I switch out that 0.1″ header and shunt combo for a switch, I can save 50 cents. Perfect! 

#2 KitCo, est. 2019

A Modular Canvas for Projects By Nancy Otero

KitCo brings project-based learning into homes and classrooms through “challenges” linked to unique ideas that are worth learning. Our starting point is a cardboard kit that invites even technology-skeptical teachers and students to create projects. Once they feel like it, they can add textiles, paint, robotics, augmented reality (AR), or artificial intelligence (AI). 

I love technology; I was a software engineer in my previous life, but my passion has always been learning, so I’ve been dedicated to education in the last decade. I have worked with educators from China, Brazil, Mexico, the United States, and Spain. I created professional development programs that trained hundreds of teachers in New York City, and built Fab Labs and makerspaces in all five boroughs. I co-founded a nonprofit in Mexico that implemented innovation labs with underserved high schoolers while researching their experiences with Stanford University. I was the founding director of learning at Portfolio School, director of learning at Make:, and a fellow at OpenAI. 

When the Covid crisis started, I was worried about children having so much screen time and not enough opportunities to externalize what was happening in their world. So I began KitCo, to support schools in implementing remote project-based learning, a type of learning that could give children agency — something so needed when we were all witnessing the world change without our say.   

The design had a few constraints: I wanted to create something comfortable that didn’t scare anyone, not a STEM kit, but a modular canvas for projects. It had to be cheap, able to mix with recyclable materials, and able to grow into robotics or AR.  

For a long time, it was me, a laser cutter, and many cutoffs of cardboard boxes. I dived into pieces I designed for old workshops, analyzed other kits, and conducted mini tests with friends and family. The real learning was the first time I implemented it in an elementary school, where I observed teachers and helped more than 300 children play and create with the kit.

Our cardboard kit is compatible with the most common motors and servos used for Arduino, micro:bit, and GoGo Board. The holes in our design are great for wooden sticks or pipe cleaners, and we have wooden pulleys that give projects smooth movement. We have pieces made for structural support, others for storytelling and wearables, and a set for mechanical functions. 

After the first year, we were happy and astounded by all the different projects children created for our challenges. For our Defy Gravity challenge, a team of second-grade girls from Sunnybrae Elementary School created a solar system with robotics. For the same challenge, a kindergarten made a wearable that launched a ball through a lever mechanism. Today our subscription model includes a magazine that showcases some of those ingenious solutions children send us. 

Next month we’ll be launching Hands and Dots, a series of experiences co-designed with extraordinary educators who understand how to operate in underserved and complex contexts. Into the Wonder is our first learning experience in the series, and it’s co-created with educator Carlos Espinosa. Into the Wonder questions the exploration and commercialization of space, and invites learners to design their space mission and create a rover using AR and robotics.

My dream is to amplify and scale the voice of extraordinary teachers who support their students in creating open-ended projects. I want to open-source our design so everyone can cut it and upcycle cardboard into learning materials, because learning through projects doesn’t require fancy, expensive materials and step-by-step instructions. 

#3 Learn to Solder Kits, est. 2015

ShareTheLoveofMaking By Emma Fletcher

In 2015 when I volunteered at an all-day engineering outreach conference, an event for local high school girls, I wanted to share my love of making with them. I led a workshop on soldering, and I was sure I would inspire at least a few girls to become electrical engineers by the end of the day. That wasn’t how it turned out. 

The event organizers had purchased some low-cost soldering kits with many components. It was a challenging task to teach safety, explain soldering techniques, and expect the students to finish it all within an hour. By the end of the workshop, not a single kit was working. Half were finished but had broken during assembly, and the other half were incomplete. Worst of all, I had not been able to share the joy of building electronics with the students. 

There had to be a better way to teach soldering. I decided that if the kit I wanted didn’t exist then I would create it. My requirements were that it would be simple enough to complete in a 30- to 60-minute workshop and that every kit would work at the end. I made a simple design of three pushbuttons and three LEDs. It was interactive and every student could walk away with a feeling of accomplishment.

I ordered my first run of printed circuit boards, a total quantity of 60. Sixty boards seemed like a lot but that was the minimum quantity I could order and still get the bulk discount. How would I find 60 people who wanted to purchase simple soldering kits? I decided not to worry about it and instead focused on sourcing parts. Once everything arrived, I packed up the first five dozen kits and printed some labels designed in MS Paint. The first run of Blink Learn to Solder Kit was ready to go. 

I posted on Facebook, reaching out to other makers and engineering educators. Within the first day, I sold 25. All 60 were gone by the end of the week. I placed another board order and set up a small table for kit assembly. Before I knew it, I had schools asking for bulk discounts, and the Learn to Solder Kits brand was born.

From there, I decided to expand the line of kits we were offering. I partnered with Andy Colborn and created two more kits. The Hue kit features a large RGB LED and three potentiometers. Jitterbug is a fun bug-shaped board with vibration motors and two glowing red eyes. We opened an online store and made all the kits certified open source hardware. 

Our kits are now shipped all over the United States and even internationally. Last year we shipped over 8,000 kits. This year in March I made the decision to leave my job as a software engineer and go full-time on Learn to Solder Kits. It is still early days for me in this transition but so far I am loving it! Not only do I get to focus on something I love each day but the business is growing. We’re on track this year to double the number of units shipped annually. While I may not have created any electrical engineers at my first workshop, that failure ignited a business that has had a far further reach than I could have imagined. 

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