Sandra Oh Lin knows all about making risky and bold career moves.
About 12 years ago, Lin quit her corporate job leading eBay’s $2 billion-a-year fashion division to launch KiWiCo, a subscription-box company that specializes in STEM and learning activities for kids.
Lin, now 48, said “creating and exploring have always been very close to my heart.” As a child, she grew up making things and conducting experiments, and later in life, she studied engineering.
So, when her two oldest kids were almost 3 and 5 years old, she wanted to inspire their creativity, get them away from screen time and encourage their problem-solving skills. She pulled together a few homemade projects for them to do. But as a busy mom, she found it hard to find the time to put together fun, hands-on projects as often as she would have liked.
“As I pulled together these learning activities, I decided to share them with friends and their kids,” said Lin, who lives in Los Altos, Calif. with her husband and three children. “As their kids had fun during these playdates, my friends encouraged me to think of starting a business. So the idea for KiwiCo was born.”
Today, KiwiCo has over 160 employees. And since its launch in 2011, the company has shipped over 45 million of its signature KiwiCo crates to kids across the globe.
Meet the all-girl team breaking barriers in roboticsJan. 12, 202304:13
Know Your Value recently chatted with Lin about career pivots, leading through the Covid-19 pandemic, how we can get young girls excited about careers in STEM and more.
Below is the conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity:
Know Your Value: Was it a scary decision to quit your corporate job to launch your own company? What’s your best practical advice to other women who are considering making a career change?
Sandra Oh Lin: The decision was a big one, but I was fortunate to be able to talk to other entrepreneurs who made the leap into starting companies to understand what tradeoffs they faced and to have people in my life who were very supportive of the change.
My husband in particular has been incredibly supportive throughout. Starting a company doesn’t just impact me as an individual but it also impacts my partner and my family as a whole.
Know Your Value: KiwiCo saw a big bump in sales during the Covid-19 pandemic when everyone was home and parents were overwhelmed trying to keep their kids engaged and entertained. Was there a struggle to meet the demand? What was the biggest challenge?
Lin: At the beginning of the pandemic, there was so much uncertainty around what was going to happen and how our business might be impacted by it, so we were initially very cautious and conservative in the decisions that we were making in areas like staffing and marketing. We ended up experiencing a significant surge in demand and sales. And while we viewed the pandemic as an opportunity to find new ways to serve our KiwiCo customers in a challenging time, which we were absolutely up for, it certainly came with its challenges.
Like many companies, we saw challenges in sourcing our supplies, but our team was very proactive in terms of managing inventory and adapting as best we could. We were very fortunate that we were able to partner closely with our suppliers to ensure we had enough inventory to meet the demand.
Another significant challenge that was specific to KiwiCo was that going to a remote world meant that we had to shut down our in-office play testing with kids, which is a big part of how we design and create our products. We adapted with at-home testing sessions, which included specific instruction on how to set up cameras so we could observe and iterate on designs. Additionally managing this increased demand meant our high-quality customer care had to scale accordingly. We had to grow our customer service team and also make sure that we were being incredibly responsive and resourceful in a time when parents, teachers and caregivers were really relying on us.
Know Your Value: What do you want your kids to take away from your career and building your own business? Also, are they involved in testing out your products?
Lin: Oh yes! Our kids have been involved in the overall company’s development since the early days (they even helped chose our first logo!), sometimes appear in KiwiCo how-to videos (like this one with my youngest, Hugo, showing kids how to make salt-dough safari tracks).
Our kids have often been involved in our testing process, too. Giving kids a chance to interact with new products is an important part of how we approach our product development - every KiwiCo product that goes to market has been play tested with kids at least a dozen times, and we have kids in our offices testing on a weekly basis. While our goal is to foster a lifelong love for learning, everything we create centers around delivering fun to kids and sparking that moment of discovery. We seek to strike a balance between giving children something that’s engaging, challenging to a degree, but also seriously fun. So if we see that we’re not meeting the bar we make adjustments to help remedy that.
Know Your Value: Women in the U.S. make up only one-third of STEM workforce. How can we get kids – particularly young girls – excited in STEM?
While it’s easy to think of STEM learning as something that’s going on inside a science lab, the truth is that opportunities to learn about and explore STEM are present in every part of our lives and daily routines. Our approach to getting kids excited about STEM is about embracing a variety of interests and leaning into their natural curiosity.
…Kids naturally wonder about the world around them, and science and math help explain what they see and experience. So we focus on those moments of discovery in super accessible and fun ways. STEM doesn’t have to be scary or daunting.
In general, I think a great way to get kids excited about STEM is to just give them permission to explore, tinker and be messy — build a big pillow fort, take apart an old remote control, experiment with cupcake recipes. Kids are innately curious, so if you can encourage that in the day to day, the discoveries, learning and excitement will come naturally.