Lyssa Neel has three daughters. Because she's always been a geek herself, she bought them all the great toys geared toward engineering and tech. But she realized her girls played with them to please her. It wasn't that they weren't technical or not interested in that type of toy -- they were -- but sitting in a basement, building something wasn't how they wanted to spend their time. They liked to play with their friends, in a more social setting.
Image: Lyssa Neel
That was what sparked the idea for Linkitz, an electronic toy Neel designed that allows young kids -- specifically young girls -- to create their own piece of wearable technology. It is a wearable electronic toy for social play, designed to teach kids how to code through a pictorial programming language. A set of links that have different functions snap together, allowing kids to create a wearable that can do anything -- like a bracelet that sparkles when someone comes near, or that chimes along during a hand-clapping game.
After years of working on startups and leading teams of both women and men, and trying her hardest to mentor young women in tech one-on-one, Neel made a decision.
"Finally I said, this is it. I'm going to put my money where my mouth is," she said.
Growing up in West Hartford, Connecticut, Neel was always interested in computer science. Her father owned his own engineering company, and her brother, though he had all the coolest toys, was more interested in the arts than math and science. Neel, on the other hand, loved the subjects.
"I have just loved that from the day my middle school got its first computer," she said. "I was ones of three kids who spent all their time in the lab."
She took AP math and science courses as well as computer science courses at University of Hartford during high school. Though her father wanted her to be a doctor, she applied to MIT and got accepted. She majored in computer science in undergrad, and actually ended up being the tenth woman ever to receive her PhD in computer science from MIT.
Even in undergrad, however, it was clear to Neel that this was a field not many women were in, compared to number of men -- which was overwhelming to her.
"I could never really understand it because to me it was solving puzzles all day long," she said. "It was really, really fun."
After getting her PhD, Neel founded a series of companies and worked for software companies in the industry as well. She was Employee #1 and CTO at HealthGate Data Corp, CEO and CTO of VitalHub in Toronto, co-founder of an incubator, and COO of Crowdmark.
"It's funny because [I read an] article that said [you can] encourage girls to go into engineering if you make it relevant to society, and I think that is the same for me," she said. "I've started things I really care about. I wasn't doing hardware, I was doing software, but always doing medical apps because it helps people."
Some examples she gave of products she worked on were early iPhone apps for people who were hard of hearing, helping doctors and nurses get information over their phones in hospitals so they could help deliver care better, and a data analytics company that collected data for cancer researchers. Then there's Linkitz, to help get other women into technology.
The Kickstarter campaign for Linkitz started on May 5, and will run until June 5. It has a goal of $95,000. She decided to crowdfund it to do market testing and also find a core audience of early adopter parents who can give her feedback on how to improve the toy.
The eight-person Linkitz team, which is spread around the world (Neel and a couple other members are based in Toronto), is launching an app to accompany the toy when it is officially released. The app will be used to play games and program using Blockly language. The wearable comes pre-programmed, but kids can modify it by coding themselves.
"Even with toys we give girls -- we give boys something like an electronic building set, and many not even gendered, and the boy picks up, and dad or mom will say 'Try this.' If a girl picks it up and is not interested they'll say, 'Go play with x,' where x is a more traditional girl toy," Neel said.
That's what she wants young girls to overcome, to gain confidence and experience in computer science long before school starts. And she wants to use Linkitz to do it.
In her own words...
What are your hobbies?
"I really love running, it's when I clear my mind. I don't wear headphones or anything but I love to go outside and clear my head. I run outside in all kinds of weather. Spending time with my friends and family, the time I have I like to concentrate on enjoying the moment. My youngest daughter is really a music geek and she sends me playlists, she's really wonderful. She's really into all these indie bands, she discovers them and they get really big two years later. I get to hear all the music before it gets big."
What advice do you have for others?
"I think I did pretty well, I followed adventure wherever it came. It's hard to balance being a mom and being startup person, I went public my first start up [after I had my first child] but I didn't spend a lot of time at home, but I had a really great nanny. Enjoy it while it's happening."
What's the best advice you ever received?
"Don't be afraid to speak your mind. It's a hard balancing line, a woman who speaks her mind is bossy, obnoxious whatever. I've learned to still speak my mind and make my voice heard and that's very important because you've got something to say and it's worth listening to."