Empowering children through STEAM: A Conversation with Jenny Young, CEO of Brooklyn Robot Foundry

Welcome to an inspiring conversation with Jenny Young, the visionary founder and CEO of Brooklyn Robot Foundry. A trained mechanical engineer turned entrepreneur, Jenny has dedicated her career to transforming STEAM education through a vibrant and inclusive approach. Since its founding in 2011, the Brooklyn Robot Foundry has grown to four locations, all sharing a mission to make STEAM education accessible and exciting for children from all backgrounds.

In this interview, Jenny delves into her journey from engineering to entrepreneurship and how her diverse experiences shaped the creation of the Brooklyn Robot Foundry. She discusses the importance of hands-on learning and real-world problem-solving in engineering, and how these principles influenced her educational philosophy. Jenny also highlights the company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, sharing innovative initiatives like the Frandowment, which aims to level the playing field for underrepresented communities by offering franchise opportunities.

Join us as we explore the remarkable journey of Jenny Young and the impactful work of the Brooklyn Robot Foundry, a beacon of creativity, diversity, and empowerment in STEAM education.

1. Can you share a bit about your journey from mechanical engineer to entrepreneur, and how your background influenced your decision to launch the Brooklyn Robot Foundry?

Jenny Young, founder and CEO of Brooklyn Robot Foundry
Jenny Young, founder and CEO of Brooklyn Robot Foundry

While I was in college (studying mechanical engineering), I was working in a student machine shop. As I worked amongst these other students, I realized some engineers are more academic, and others are more hands-on. I’m very much in that second category—a hands-on person who likes to take things apart and put them back together in a new way. Later, as I was in the workforce, I saw how those different approaches manifested in the engineers’ designs. Those without hands-on experience were designing things that were more difficult to manufacture and put together. They didn’t have the experience to understand how things worked in the real world.

One of the reasons I started Brooklyn Robot Foundry was to give kids that real-world, hands-on experience. That knowledge is crucial for making things that work well in the physical world.

Another reason behind starting the company was my experience working in education technology on standardized testing. Everything was about a right or wrong answer. However, as an engineer, we’re taught there isn’t one right or one wrong answer—instead, there are multiple ways to do things. I wanted to give kids the space to think that way and get to solutions that were more novel than standardized testing would allow.

2. Diversity and inclusion are core values of the Brooklyn Robot Foundry. Can you elaborate on the unique way you awarded your first franchisee and how it reflects your commitment to these values?

We’re based out of New York City, and we’re lucky enough to be surrounded by a beautiful diversity of humans. When you hire from this diverse group and give your employees a space where they can not just exist but thrive, you learn a lot about the benefits of diversity and inclusion. You learn that diversity in thought and problem-solving always results in way better solutions. We come up with better ideas when we all share our perspectives, listen to each other, and collaborate together.

When we franchised the business, we wanted to ensure that diversity was also represented in our owners. That diversity in thought and experience was necessary to build a stronger system for everyone.

This is one reason we created the Frandowment, a competition in which people from traditionally underrepresented communities competed to own their own Brooklyn Robot Foundry franchise. They went through a series of challenges, and a panel of judges helped us determine who had the most potential as a franchise owner. We then awarded the winner with a franchise, waiving the initial franchise fee and all of the other fees for the first year.

However, perhaps the biggest motivation in doing the Frandowment was it felt like the right thing to do! Huge communities of people have been systematically oppressed, and there are things we all can do to level the playing field. We want to see more kids of every background getting involved in STEM. When kids see leaders who look like them or represent the same background as them, they understand what is possible for them to achieve as well.

3. Failure is often considered a crucial aspect of growth and innovation. Could you share a specific instance where failure played a significant role in shaping your approach to entrepreneurship or the development of the Brooklyn Robot Foundry?

When I started the business, I designed all of the robots myself. I went to hardware stores and dollar stores, and I’d design the robots with whatever I found there. Then I’d build it with the kids and hope it worked. One day it didn’t work at all, and it was very stressful. As the first parent came to pick up their child, I asked if the kid could stay longer because this robot wasn’t working, and I was struggling to figure out how to make it work. The parent said she was so glad to hear it didn’t work. She said it was great for kids to see adults fail because they don’t get to witness that enough. And then she gave me brownies to make me feel better!

While that lesson was great for the kids, and the brownies were delicious, I knew we could not have that happening on a regular basis. I learned that we needed to find reliable parts, QA them regularly, and test all of our robot designs thoroughly before building with the students.

The structure of our production and design process today is because of that failure and the lessons learned. With approximately 950 parts in rotation at all times, we’ve had to build a robust production system. We have primary, secondary, and tertiary suppliers for all of our parts, and we test each batch we receive. We have a lengthy robot-design process that ensures our students have a consistently positive building experience. And now, hopefully, the only failures they face in our classes are the ones we intentionally build into the curriculum!

4. As the Founder and CEO, what is your leadership style, and how do you cultivate a strong company culture within the Brooklyn Robot Foundry?

My leadership style is very collaborative. We have a company with high societals—people that care about community and each other’s well-being. I have prioritized ensuring that our employees feel respected and valued so they will voice their thoughts and opinions. I want them to bring their own solutions to the table and have us work together to problem-solve. This collaboration is crucial to who we are and to our success as a company.

5. With the recent announcement of the franchise opportunity and plans for national expansion, how do you envision maintaining the brand’s commitment to accessibility and inclusivity in STEAM education as you scale?

Maintaining accessibility and inclusivity is extremely important to me for all involved with our company.

Our owners have chosen us because they want to make a difference in their communities. They want to provide access to a wide spectrum of students. And they want to show their students that not only are they a small business owner, but they’re doing so within the STEM field.

We don’t require an education or engineering background for our owners or teachers. We want to open this opportunity to all. We know how to do this, and we can provide them with everything they need to know to succeed. By doing this, we’re able to empower a diverse group that is then able to serve as role models for their students.

We have built our programs to intrinsically work for students with different types of learning styles, neurodiversity, and varying levels of ability. We want to provide the opportunity for all kids to be creators. Our pedagogy is built on this inclusivity. We train our teachers about using different approaches, word choices, etc. And we want to make sure they continue to feel supported in these endeavors, so we provide ongoing coaching on classroom management and best practices.