09/30/16 | Career, Founders, Interview

This Founder Talks About Going From Academia as a PhD to Entrepreneurship

What were some of the factors that led you to become an entrepreneur? How has your past experience gotten you to where you are now?
Getting a PhD is oddly good preparation for entrepreneurship. You have to have a great deal of self discipline and motivation to finish working on a project. You spend most of every day entirely alone with your work. No one but you is going to get it done. You have zero chance of getting rich so you’d better be motivated by something else. You do it because you needed an answer to a question that no one else even thought to ask.
Of course, as an entrepreneur, it doesn’t hurt that I am often convinced of the value of what I’m doing.  But as an anthropologist I can also understand why people see the world differently than I do. That empathy is a real asset when building products.

What problem did you see in the market that triggered you starting your company? What type of customers do you serve? Why is your solution uniquely positioned to address their problem?
I wanted my kids to have an immersive, social play experience that didn’t center around a fashion doll or a first-person-shooter video game.  Kids like to play together, but finding something inclusive and engaging that would appeal to a variety of kids was difficult. When I hit on the idea of the cars, I realized what a great way it was to bring kids together. If you walk onto a playground in NYC with a remote controlled car, you’ll have a crowd of kids gathered in moments. Boys AND girls of all ages. When you look at the evolution of toys over the past several decades, you can see that cars, in one form or another, have endured. RaceYa is helping kids create the cars of the future by giving them a platform for exploration and creativity that just happens to go really fast.

Being an entrepreneur isn’t easy. What’s the biggest challenge your company has faced so far and how did you handle it as a company and as a leader?
To be brutally honest, the search for a more diverse team has been tricky. My network has been a fantastic source of inspiration but, like many people, my network tends to be full of people who look like me, or have similar life experiences to mine. That doesn’t breed the diversity of ideas a company needs to be innovative or successful. So I try to be cognizant of my own limitations and biases and actively work to address them. I try to make a point of going beyond my network when it comes to looking for talent and I don’t let myself hide behind notions of “culture fit” when the real issue might be that someone is challenging my assumptions in a way that makes me uncomfortable.


What resources have been especially helpful to you as you’ve built your company?
Other female entrepreneurs. I’ve been helped by so many people, but the women in the start-up scene in NYC have been amazing. Supportive, honest and willing to admit that we are not all crushing it all the time. They’ve also taught me to celebrate the successes when the come, because it’s easy to focus on the negative (there’s a lot of rejection in this game). By taking a moment to say, “Yes today was a good day. We did good work.” you’ll have an easier time tackling the problems that are coming tomorrow.

Based on your experience, what’s the biggest takeaway you can give to other Founders?
Say yes. I was once at a hardware meet-up and the host announced that we’d only have 4 presenters because the 5th had to cancel. Before the 3rd presenter, the host got up again to announce that, after he’d sat down, 5 people emailed him to offer to present that night. The one that got up did an amazing job, but even if he’d done just an OK job, he saw a chance to spread the word about his company and he took it. So – if someone asks “Are you ready?” Just say, “Yes.”

What’s next for you and your company and what types of things do you need help with or support on?
We’ve made fantastic progress so far with user testing and proving out the concept. Now, as we get ready to move into production we are looking for our manufacturing partner so we need someone here in the states who is very familiar with hardware to help us manage the production process.

RaceYa uses fun, fast customizable RC cars to teach kids about STEM. We are fostering a community of curious kids, starting with a race-able science kit and expanding out into an immersive universe of customization, education and collaboration.
Abigail Edgecliffe-Johnson is the founder of RaceYa. She has a PhD in Anthropology as well as years of experience as a Maker and Tinkerer. She has spent the past several years using her research chops to understand how and why kids play and learn the way they do.
Republic allows everyone to invest in mission-driven private companies, leveling the playing field for startup fundraising. Visit RaceYa on Republic.
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