Stylish Science: How One Yale Startup is Drawing Girls to Stem.
It all began when Olivia Pavco-Giaccia ’16 was a junior in high school. While she was working in a neurobiology lab, Pavco-Giaccia documented her experience in a blog entitled “LabCandy: A Girl’s Guide to Some Seriously Sweet Science.” One day, Pavco-Giaccia posted a picture of her own homemade, bedazzled goggles in order to get people’s attention. The result was unexpected—hundreds of young girls from all around the country commented on the post, asking about the goggles. It was at this moment that Pavco-Giaccia recognized the opportunity to get other girls interested in science. Something as simple as fun, exciting lab gear could make a difference.
“Throughout both elementary and high school, I was very lucky to have a series of female science teachers and mentors who encouraged my interest in STEM,” Pavco-Giaccia says. She knew other girls were not so lucky, and hoped she could do something to change that.
The idea was intriguing, but at the time, Pavco-Giaccia did not have the means to make it a legitimate operation. When her freshman year at Yale rolled around, she found her answer on a flyer that would change everything.
The flyer advertised summer fellowships at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute. Those receiving the fellowships would receive the funding and advising resources necessary to make their ideas a reality. Confident that she was onto something with her fabulous lab gear, Pavco-Giaccia made an appointment with Alena Gribskov, YEI’s Program Director, to pitch her idea for the venture she named LabCandy. Despite the fact that Pavco-Giaccia only had a general idea of LabCandy’s path to launch, Gribskov, along with YEI’s Lead Venture Mentor Wes Bray, were “ wonderful resources” and encouraged Pavco-Giaccia to refine her ideas and apply.
The process turned out to be a lengthy one. Pavco-Giaccia submitted the formal application, which asked for a description of her business model, the scale of potential demand, and other information that would allow the YEI selection committee to assess the strength and maturity of the venture concept. After LabCandy passed the preliminary round of consideration, she then participated in an interview with 10-15 YEI advisors, mentors and business leaders. “This interview was tough, with questions regarding business models and the viability of my venture, but it was also filled with a lot of supportive energy and enthusiasm,” Pavco-Giaccia says. Eventually, Pavco-Giaccia would find out that her venture was one of eight chosen in a competitive pool of 42 applications.
When asked on her thoughts as to why LabCandy was chosen, Pavco-Giaccia says “girl-centric, STEM-related products and activities are now proving to be hot consumer picks in the current market” and beyond that, her venture differentiated itself in that it was one of the few that was not technology-oriented. “I also strongly believe that LabCandy’s mission of stoking young girls’ interest in science resonates with many folks in Yale’s business and academic communities,” she adds.
Pavco-Giaccia partnered with May Li Wall Lynch from the Savannah College of Art and Design to come up with a more cohesive vision for LabCandy. After working with the program’s mentors and fellow entrepreneurs, Pavco-Giaccia and Wall Lynch decided to expand their product line. Their big move during the fellowship was introducing the “Combo Pack,” which consists of a fashionable lab coat, a storybook, and the bedazzled lab goggles that started it all.
Girls buy Combo Packs based on the LabCandy character with that they identify the most. The four “Candy Chicks” range from Alexis, a girly-girl who loves pink and dress-up, to Zoe, a rocker girl. This allows for girls of all different personalities to get excited about science because they can find someone to connect to. The “Candy Chicks” appear in storybooks that recount an adventure where they work together to solve a crucial problem using science. At the end of each story, there are instructions for a DIY science experiment/demonstration that mirrors the science in the story line and that each girl scientist can try at home, all while wearing the same colorful and fun lab gear that the “Candy Chicks” are wearing in the storybook.
Pavco-Giaccia emphasizes the importance of getting girls interested while they are young and gears the storybooks towards kids in kindergarten through third grade.
"By the time they are in middle school or high school, girls have already beginning to lose interest. They already have the stereotypical image of what a scientist is ingrained in their mind. And unfortunately, it’s not a female," she says.
LabCandy’s current operations are funded mainly by founders’ friends and friends-of-friends, but Pavco-Giaccia is working toward launching a crowd funding campaign this summer that will enable the venture to move into fuller scale production phase. Pavco-Giaccia is optimistic that LabCandy has a big future, because she is confident in her business model and these girl-centered STEM products are so hot right now. She hopes LabCandy will eventually be a large, nation-wide company. But for the time being, she wants to make sure that all small problems are worked out before distribution on a grand-scale begins. Regardless, Pavco-Giaccia says that there are far more preorders than can currently be filled.
Pavco-Giaccia is currently working with a Yale School of Art student on improving the graphic design of the storybook characters, along with two organizations who are helping her spread the word: the National Girl’s Collaborative Project (NGCP) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). NGCP reaches out to teachers and community organizations across the U.S. to encourage them to get girls involved with science. NAS also has its own book series for girls in middle school, and they have been strongly supportive of LabCandy’s storybooks. Eventually, Pavco-Giaccia hopes to leverage the synergies between Lab Candy’s storybook series and NAS’s series.
Pavco-Giaccia’s passion for getting girls involved in male-dominated STEM is admirable. She is focused on LabCandy spreading a message and creating a close community. One day she hopes the initiative will be one that spans from the simplest “combo packs” to educational programs in a variety of media. LabCandy hopes to change the statistic that only 24% of STEM jobs, which tend to be higher-paying, are held by women. Even at a place like Yale, 57% of STEM majors are male. LabCandy is not just a company; it’s a movement.