Alecia, tell me a little bit about your background and how you came to get involved in this startup.
Gabriel: I am a trained bio-organic chemist. I studied biochemistry as an undergrad at Xavier University in New Orleans. Then I pursued my Ph.D. in bio-organic chemistry at Louisiana State University. I’m from Detroit, I’m a Cass Tech grad and I’ve always been interested in science and the arts. My roles and responsibilities have stemmed from doing research in various countries around the globe. I’ve done stints in Ghana, Zambia, China, Mexico, Germany, Italy. I’ve also gotten into the automotive and aerospace areas as well doing quality engineering … training and even operations. My interests in all things technical has basically been what drives me and what’s gotten me to really make sure that I do something in the community. The Lab Drawer started originally with our nonprofit, Motor City S.T.E.A.M. Foundation. And we started this conversation about five years ago. One of the things I noticed in the corporate space was that I was the only woman and, of course, the only woman of color and only African American there, and one of the ways in which we thought is how can we change this narrative and how can we really make a difference in our community is by starting this nonprofit, Motor City S.T.E.A.M. Foundation. And then also with that, The Lab Drawer was birthed out of that idea because we said, ‘Well, how can we make sure a product or something gets to the homes of youth all over the country, is something that’s interactive, is something that’s engaging and is something that’s a combination of STEM and the arts.’ So that’s how The Lab Drawer was born. And we’ve been working on that ever since — and we’ll just keep on going.
And Deirdre, tell me a little about your background and how you got involved in this project.
Roberson: Just to give a little more before story, me and Alecia both attend Cass Tech High School — she’s a year above me — and we actually met and became friends in high school. She would give me advice about colleges. She went off to Xavier University in Louisiana, which is actually one of the No. 1 schools in producing Black doctors and scientists in the country. I went to Xavier as well in New Orleans and majored in chemistry, with a minor in biology. I then attended the University of Detroit Mercy for my master’s in chemistry, with an emphasis on biochemistry and medicinal chemistry. During that whole time, we’ve stayed in contact and were looking at how there’s very little representation of Black people, minorities and especially women that intersects at both of those, and we were like ‘What can we do about it?’ We both had a background in STEM and the arts, and we wanted bring those two worlds together because we believe cross-functional learning is the key to how we grow students in STEM and how they develop their skillset — because it was so important to us. I grew up doing metalsmithing, sewing. My company Eumelanin merges fashion, science and style. My work has always centered around S.T.E.M, the arts and activism.
Conceptually, how did The Lab Drawer come together?
Roberson: The whole concept is it looks just like a science lab drawer — we want the student to feel like the scientist. If you’re ever in a lab class, it has that slate black top, you have your name, you have your drawer. It was designed to … have students visualize themselves as scientists. The idea was we needed funding (for Motor City S.T.E.A.M. Foundation). … But The Lab Drawer grew into a company of its own. … And now it’s turned into an ed-tech company that we’re doing a lot of growth with. So we’re going from there.
Alecia, what’s your growth look like? How many of these drawers are you now producing and shipping around the country?
Gabriel: This summer we shipped and impacted probably 1,500 students just in summer virtual STEAM camps — and that’s the largest growth we’ve seen since we started. It’s just been so monumental for us. We’ve gotten recognition from other organizations, such as the Skillman Foundation. We actually won the My Brother’s Keeper Detroit Innovation Challenge last year. That allowed us to get some focus group information with the young people. And they were just brutally honest with what their expectations were for a product like this. That really actually helped us change and modify and iterate on the product that we already had. … In terms of the growth, we see ourselves continuing not just with making sure the box remains interactive … but we want to expand on that. What we learned in the TechTown Start Studio program is that we also want to make sure that the parents are heavily integrated and have their perspectives and their needs met, as they’re really our paying customers.
Deirdre, how have you developed the curriculum for these boxes at TechTown? How have you utilized TechTown to launch this company?
Roberson: TechTown has been very pivotal in how we look at our business now. During this Start Studio, it made us really go into detail and examine our customer, examine their wants, examine their needs. We had ideas of our company that were somewhat on track. But being a part of Start Studio helped us get a full understanding of what our customers want — and that’s both customers. What is the parent looking for if their child is utilizing The Lab Drawer? What things do they want sent? What type of engaging questions do they want prompted to their email so the can actually ask their students? These are things the parents let us know.
Alecia, who are you marketing these kits to? Are you marketing them to schools that buy them and then distribute them to students? Or is directly to the consumer?
Gabriel: It’s actually a mixture of both. Before COVID, we were only concentrating on the B2C customers, making sure the box went to the home. But with COVID, one of the things we found is that because of layoffs and job loss and those kind of things, parents didn’t really have the disposable income they would usually have to purchase The Lab Drawer. Because we had these connections with organizations like Wayne State and other community organizations, one of the things we were able to do because they’re grant-funded institutions, the parents were able to get these Lab Drawers and interact with The Lab Drawer basically for free in these free virtual STEAM camps. That’s actually a new way for us increase our revenue and kind of change or modify in some ways our business model. We really thought it was only going to be to B2C, but now because of COVID and the grant-funded institutions and these programs that have to continue, we’re now in the B2B market.