Alumna’s Innovative Bracelet Helps Girls Become Comfortable With STEM

January 31, 2017
Alumna’s Innovative Bracelet Helps Girls Become Comfortable With STEM

What happens when a Wellesley-educated entrepreneur combines style and computer science? For Makeda Ricketts ’06, the CEO and founder of the startup PinkThink, which develops game-based STEM products for girls, the result was a programmable bracelet called cStyle.

“It’s imperative that girls feel comfortable with STEM subjects [science, technology, engineering, and math], and the more intuitive and fun STEM is for girls, the more engaged and confident they become,” said Ricketts, who played with Legos and built bridges from staples when she was a child. She notes that research shows many girls age 11 and up believe STEM subjects are only for boys, and one in three girls who are interested in STEM subjects have been teased because of that.

Girls can connect the cStyle bracelets, which come in white or silver, to a computer, phone, or tablet with a USB cord or Bluetooth; then, using a simple drag and drop coding language, they can change the bracelet’s color, add blinking lights, and program it to vibrate in response to changes in body temperature, ambient lighting, and to alerts from a mobile device. They can also use the bracelet to participate in an interactive story or to play personalized games that test their programming knowledge.

Ricketts’ career path has been a surprise to her. “I never planned to start a business, in part because my parents—both of whom are educators—own their own businesses, so I know how much work goes into one,” she said. “I saw myself as a humanitarian instead.”

She volunteered as a candy striper and tutored younger children when she was in high school in Harlem, N.Y. At Wellesley, she majored in political science and economics and thought she might become a lawyer.

Shortly before graduation, Ricketts received the Barbara Bush Award for Volunteerism, which gave her the opportunity to spend six months teaching English and art at an orphanage in Ethiopia. “That was a career- and life-defining trip because I realized how much impact one person can have, and how many ways there are for me to get involved,” she said.

When Ricketts returned to Harlem in November, she knew she wanted to help develop communities. She went to work for Citi, in its global community relations division, and volunteered as a math and reading curriculum developer for Greater Zion Hill Community Action Network, Inc., a local nonprofit. Many of the girls she tutored told her they didn’t like math or science because the subjects didn’t seem interesting or related to their experience.

In 2012, Ricketts had another eye-opening experience when she tried to buy an educational gift for her younger sister, who was then in elementary school. There weren’t many good options.

Those two experiences spurred her to create PinkThink in 2013. “At Wellesley the word ‘can’t’ was very rarely spoken; instead, the words ‘Women who will’ were said all the time,” she said. “I started realizing that I had the ability to make anything I wanted happen.”

To learn the necessary business skills, she enrolled in the MBA program at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, which provides an entrepreneurship curriculum that integrates all areas of business. While she took classes, she continued to develop product ideas, which she tested with girls in the Chicago area during the summer of 2014. Their favorite idea was the programmable bracelet.

In early 2015, Ricketts created a prototype. Later that year, PinkThink won the Yale School of Management Education Business Plan Award, and Ricketts was named Maker of the Year by the International Ally Awards.

The bracelet went into full production last year, and Ricketts was called a Woman to Watch by Chicago-woman.com. This January, she earned her MBA, and she continues to develop ideas for new products.

“Wellesley didn't just educate me, it empowered me and taught me the value of sisterhood. I met every one of my best friends there, and I literally wouldn’t be where I am today without them,” Ricketts said. “These women have done everything from proofreading my graduate school applications to investing in PinkThink. Over the years we have helped each other achieve extraordinary things.”