Interview by Marija Butkovic (@MarijaButkovic)
Bethany Koby is a mum, CEO, designer, art director and artist interested in creating brands, businesses and experiences that help imagine a more positive and collaborative future. She lives in Hackney, London. In 2012 Bethany co-founded Technology Will Save Us, a business that instigates 21st century learning - in the classroom and around the kitchen table - through its beautifully designed DIY Gadget Kits for everyday life. As the CEO, she is responsible for its strategic growth, partnerships and balancing R&D projects with retail relationships and the all-important educational agenda. Bethany’s goal is to grow Technology Will Save Us to create more impact with its products and services, while shaping a collaborative, creative, beautiful and fun business to work in. Technology Will Save Us creates products to imagine a world where technology is more bespoke and more meaningful because people have the skills to be creative with it. Bethany holds a BFA in Graphic Design from Rhode Island School of Design and a MSC in Responsibility and Business practice from Bath University and was a scholarship holder at Fabrica in Italy. She has been creating innovative relationships between brands and communities for well over 10 years both commercially and personally. Previously, she was a design director and social impact specialist at the international branding and innovation company Wolff Olins.
What is the idea behind Technology Will Save Us and how did you come up with it?
We started Technology Will Save Us in response to a few different things. We found a laptop in our bin and thought it was crazy that someone would throw a working piece of technology away. It really highlighted the role that tech has in our everyday lives and our relationship with it. We don’t really understand it, yet it pervades everything.
Both myself and my co-founder Daniel were teaching at the time and were keenly aware of how long it takes for education to catch up with the pace of technology. The maker movement was growing and the world of creative tech tools was on the rise, we felt there was a need for a business that would empower the creator generation and empower parents while inspiring kids to make and be productive with tech in a fun and hands on way.
We also had a baby and he was basically born with an iPad. As a parent I wanted more for my son and ways to inspire him to see what he is capable of with technology.
When did all start and how long did it take you to be where you are now?
Myself and Daniel founded Technology Will Save Us in 2012. Every stage has been a learning curve and a very enriching one at that, it’s incredible to think that our company has come so far in such a short amount of time - it feels like it was only yesterday that I was creating our first set of kits in my kitchen.
What was the biggest obstacle?
Investment is very male-orientated industry with very little diversity. It’s only recently that I’ve seen a shift towards different cultures and people. Most investors talk about these things but have not actually experienced it. I very quickly realised that VCs are mainly male, the tech industry is mainly male. If we can push to achieve more diversity in tech, this will result in more innovation and tech that caters to a wider range of responses and needs.
I also wish that I’d understood more about the manufacturing process and the impact that this has on profit margins. Building the first Tech Will Save Us kits in my kitchen was challenging, however, scaling production up into a global operation, less than two years down the line, was an entirely different ball game.
What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the niche you are in? How about being a female founder / entrepreneur?
For the first time since the 1980s, there appears to be a constructive debate and action taking place in the world of entrepreneurship, politics and education. I do not believe the lack of females and diversity is the problem, it is a symptom of a much bigger systemic mindset that society has been conditioned to accept.
It is our job to rise above discrimination and pave the change we want to see in the world, invent new systems, business models, and ways of working that benefit diversity in business. The reality is that diversity is no longer just a numbers game, not just another politically correct workplace initiative; it’s about bridging the opportunity gaps that will continue to widen if we ignore the messages that the marketplace is clearly telling us.
It’s becoming less about defining the individual and much more about the individual defining the business. As such, enterprises must adopt diversity as a strategy for growth if they are to compete in the 21st century.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
Building and growing Technology Will Save Us with amazing and passionate people. Our East London Mini factory houses a team of 26 content creators, product specialists, sales gurus, production experts, educators, engineers, designers and developers. We’re passionately building the most accessible and entertaining brand for the creator generation.
We have sold over 90,000 award winning kits in more than 97 countries. So far. Our kits are available online & in shops all over the world. Some of our major retail partners include John Lewis in the UK, Barnes & Noble in the US and Myer in Australia.
We’ve also been awarded some pretty amazing recognitions, the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired our Gamer Kit for their permanent collection ‘Humble Masterpieces’. We were selected as part of the permanent collection displayed in the newly built London Design Museum. We’ve won Gold Parents’ Choice awards for 2 of our best selling kits, the Gamer and Electro Dough kits. Our newest kit, the Mover Kit, has already won a D&AD impact pencil and a Fast Company innovation by design award. Our company was also recognised as the ‘Best Hardware Startup of the year (2016) at the Europas.
Also, we were honoured to partner with the BBC to design the BBC micro:bit, the most ambitious education product the BBC has created in over 30 years. A tech tool used to teach young people to make and code, the BBC micro:bit was given to 1 million kids for free in 2016.
What are your projects you are currently working on within your company? How can we all contribute when it comes to making STEM more attractive to young children, especially girls?
We have just launched The Mover Kit which has been a huge and exciting project for us. The Mover is the first toy wearable for kids that they can make and code themselves.
It’s an intuitive way for kids aged 8 and over to learn the fundamentals of electronics, programming and how to creatively problem solve with computational thinking. It encourages children to learn by doing what they do best - being active and playing! To accompany the wearable, we have also created an inspiring and educational ‘Make’ platform filled with projects that help kids invent and code with their Mover Kit.
When designing The Mover, we wanted to create a fun, do-it-yourself product that encourages creativity along with active play. The beauty of the Mover Kit is that it helps kids to learn and become comfortable with programming while moving and staying active
As an industry we owe so much to pioneering women such as Radia Perlman, Hedy Lamarr, and the many female software engineers who drove coding in the 1960’s, we need to combat pre-existing cliches and encourage women to apply for technology roles. We also need to create products and apps for women, by women, that enable them to picture themselves in those roles and break the vicious cycle that is still evident across the board.
What will be the key trends in the wearable tech and IoT industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
It’s an incredibly exciting time for wearables and IoT. We exhibited at CES in January to launch The Mover, and were amongst some amazing new products and brands in the wearables section.
From my perspective, there’s a real emphasis on health. We’ve already seen FitBit reach incredible heights but I believe that the underdogs are rising and challenger startups are focussing on new sensors as motion is becoming a commodity. Over the next five years I think we’re going to see a huge increase in this, as well as other measurement tools that monitor things such as hydration and air quality.
IoT is reaching an amazing point and when the tech disappears, it gets interesting. Tech is now embedded in fabric and other materials, it becomes a fundamental part of the experience as opposed to a kettle connected to the internet.
At Tech Will Save Us we really believe that children need the opportunity to get hands-on, and have access to different ways of learning. We believe that understanding and inspiration comes from hands-on experiences where people can unlock the magic of technology for themselves. We want children to experience and enjoy groundbreaking trends in the industry, but more importantly, we want them to understand how these incredible products work.
Is #WomenInTech movement important to you and if yes, why?
The #WomenInTech movement is incredibly important to me. There are so many brilliant women in tech but it’s just not enough. The lack of apps and tech products for women is clearly rooted in the vast gender imbalance, and diversity in general, within the technology sector as whole.
The tech industry is at a really exciting and interesting point right now. If we can push to achieve more diversity in tech, this will result in more innovation and tech that caters to a wider range of responses and needs.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs out there?
Advice can come freely and often but actual mentorship and collaboration is really special and important, the people I’ve been fortunate enough to work with have been fundamental at all stages of Technology Will Save Us - if you are lucky enough to find a mentor then make sure you grab that opportunity and make the most of it.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech?
There are so many inspirational women in wearable tech, it’s difficult to chose just three! I would have to say Urska Srsen, co-founder of BellaBeat; Kate Unsworth, the woman behind Kovert and finally, Anna Sweet, head of developer strategy and Oculus.
Of course, I can’t miss out the co-founders of Women of Wearables, Michelle Hua and Marija Butkovic - supporting and connecting other women in the industry is so important, we need to encourage young girls to pursue careers in STEM and in spreading the word you are doing just that.
Is there anything we can do to support you?
Spread the Technology Will Save Us word and philosophy! I plan on growing Technology Will Save Us into the most accessible technology company in the toy industry. I hope to inspire and empower a generation of young problem-solvers with hands on technology, so that they understand how technology can help them creatively solve all the problems we face. Around 65% of children in school today will have a job that does not currently exist, we want to equip them with all the tools they need to be prepared for these roles.