Rising StarRising Stars: Kelly McCollum and Marcie Colledge Offer Non-Sparkly Science Kits for Girls

Walk down most toy store aisles, and you’ll find that it’s not hard to distinguish between the “boy” and “girl” toys. Contents aside, the packaging color schemes and presence (or absence) of sparkles makes the gender delineation pretty clear.

But can toys appeal to girls that involve neither pink nor sparkles? Will girls go for a pastime that doesn’t require a hairbrush? Yellow Scope, which offers science kits for girls, is banking its business on the answers to both these questions being a resounding “yes.”

Here’s more from founders Kelly McCollum and Marcie Colledge:

Kelly Mccollum and Marcie Colledge, founders of Yellow Scope, offer advice to budding entrepreneurs.
Kelly Mccollum (left) and Marcie Colledge (right), founders of Yellow Scope, offer advice to budding entrepreneurs.

The spark that inspired the birth of your concept: We both had professions in the sciences. Kelly was an epidemiologist and biostatistician running large research studies and analyzing data for peer-reviewed biomedical journals; Marcie has a PhD in neuroscience and ran her own lab. We each left our professions for various reasons, and we met six years ago leading extracurricular STEM programs at our kids’ school.

Through the family science program we were volunteering for, we had an opportunity to present our ideas to 150 families twice a year. It was enjoyable and easy for us to take a complex idea in science and pare it down to hands-on experiments that kids could do with their family. We got lots of feedback from kids and parents that they loved what we were doing.

That’s where the spark came from. We thought we could apply what we were doing to get more girls engaged with science.

The problem it solves: We both have daughters and started reading about the gender gap in science for women. When fourth graders are asked if they like science, 75 percent of both genders say yes. By eighth grade, that percentage drops dramatically for girls, but not for boys. We know that all children are natural scientists, and want to know how world works. But because of a lack of female role models and social stereotypes, girls start to pick up message from society that science isn’t for them.

How you differentiate from your competition: If you Google “science kits for girls,” you see pink sparkly kits about makeup products. We know that girls are truly interested in science—they don’t need to be tricked into it. Most science kits are packaged in a way that’s attractive to boys – lots of black, blue, and exploding volcanoes. We make our kits visually compelling and attractive for girls without being condescending to them.

Beyond the packaging, girls learn best when they have opportunities for open-ended engagement. We offer suggestions and plenty of reagents so can get creative and vary each experiment. We want to send the message that you don’t need to decide whether you’re a “science” person or an “art” person – you can be both. Science requires a lot of creativity.

Labels can sound positive – i.e. “she’s the reader in the family” – but that suggests that she’s not the math person. We offer stories in the lab notebook, and the girls featured have a lot of interests beyond science. We want girls to be able to see themselves as artists, soccer players, and scientists.

Yellow Scope offer science kits for girls
Photo courtesy of Yellow Scope.

How you came up with the name: The short story is that we liked the word “scope” for its multilevel meaning – i.e. microscope, telescope, scope of study. We also liked the playfulness of adding a vibrant, “young” color. One that’s not pink!

How do you make money: Right now we’re selling them online, direct to consumer. We’re also meeting with toy store owners who have shown interest. We’re still working on our distribution model.

The best thing about being an entrepreneur: We’re amazed by how many generous people have come out of the woodwork to offer support and guidance. Also, we’re learning new things every day, like how to put a UPC code on box. We joke that we’re not going to get Alzheimer’s because we’re developing new skills all the time.

The biggest surprise in your entrepreneurial experience to date: There’s lots of schlepping, lots of moving boxes and manual labor. The kit is an academic idea, but at end of day we’re assembling kits and lifting boxes. It’s important for us to know every single step of process so that when we start to hire, we know what we’re hiring for.

What keeps you up at night: Not knowing which direction things are going to go. We’re big planners—we love systems, and we love data. But we can’t tell if things are going to be moderate and move at a steady pace at X number of kits sold per month, or if they’re going to explode. Peter out? We’ve looked at lots of different scenarios and calculated what we need in each, but the uncertainty of not knowing when to take on an additional cost is unnerving.

Your #1 piece of advice for a budding entrepreneur: We can’t imagine doing it alone. With a co-founder, you’re sharing the work but you’re also being held accountable, and you have someone to bounce ideas off every day. Also, share your idea. If you’re an inventor, you want to keep your idea secret but if you’re an entrepreneur you want to leverage people power. Because of people’s willingness to give feedback and force us to think differently about our approach, we’ve been able to come up with a better product.

What wild success looks like: We have ideas for many lines of kits. The first is a foundation chemistry kit; then we would like to develop biology, physics, and computer programming kits. Ultimately, we hope Yellow Scope is instrumental in making a cultural shift, and helping girls think of themselves as scientists.

What you wanted to be as a child when you grew up:

Marcie: I wanted to be a cowgirl first, and then a scientist. I loved science from an early age. I had a microscope and would collect creatures in the creek. I thought I wanted to be a doctor, and in college discovered that I really loved research.

Kelly: I didn’t have a clear vision. I had a wide range of interests. I loved math. I wanted to be a teacher; I was also interested in becoming a pediatrician or a psychologist. It took a lot of unfolding in my 20s before I had a clear path doing public health research. I was able to incorporate my varied interests into one job.

Benefits of starting a business in Oregon: Portlanders value education, good design, and local products, so Portland is a great market for us to start in. We’ve found local support in nearly every area, from our consultants to suppliers to printers to box makers. Whenever we put out the word, “We’re looking for a person who does X,” we get a lot of input and feedback. These connections have really panned out for us in a great way.

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