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I Relocated From Seattle to DSM USA to Grow My Science Business for Girls

Des Moines Startups StemBox Growth

September 19, 2017

A Start in Seattle

When I moved from my hometown of Las Vegas, Nev., to Seattle, Wash., at 19, I thought I had found the place where I would live for the rest of my life. True, I had only moved to the area for college, but the contrast against my former hometown was so stark I wondered how I had ever lived so long without the water, the culture and not to mention the food. In school, I lived like any other college kid, learning about independence, meeting new people and making my own mistakes. I had made myself a home in Seattle that I was determined to keep for years to come.


Changes Lead to A New Beginning

However, after college a lot of things changed that I hadn’t seen coming. Firstly, large tech companies were booming and taking over bigger and bigger lots of downtown Seattle that made traffic a major event every morning. I noticed that my rent steadily climbed from $750 a month to $1,700 a month if I wanted to keep a commute under 45 minutes but for the same 500-600 square feet. Friends drifted across the country in post graduate pursuits.  I started to regret my lack of wanderlust once I began meeting people who had moved to Seattle from all over the country to work with local tech giants, Amazon and Microsoft. The city I had come to know, was changing right in front of me, every single day.

It was a year after I graduated from college that I also started to change, though I wouldn’t recognize this until years later.  While I was working in a research lab studying gene therapies for HIV, I began working on an idea for a product that would bring more girls into science. If anyone had told me the adventures this subsequent company would take me on, I wouldn’t have believed them. At the time, my projected path was a straight one — working through research, graduate school, post-doctorates and eventually a full life in academia. But, the more I worked in my field, the more I began to understand how daunting the path ahead of me truly was. I had made it a point when I started my career in research to learn about the experiences senior women and men had in research. I learned that each and every woman I had spoken to had at least one story of experiencing sexism, whether overt or implicit. However, none of the men I spoke to had any recollection of negative effects occurring to them or their female coworkers. This baffled me, but ultimately created a vigilance that I was careful to never let stray into paranoia, something most women are seriously careful about for fear of crying “wolf.” 

Empowering Girls Through StemBox

A sum of my personal experiences in science and those of the women around me, I created StemBox with the goal of empowering girls to pursue STEM beginning at a young age. It was designed as a subscription box to elicit the excitement of young girls receiving personal mail, a monthly surprise, and a gift that would never be the same. Ideally these positive experiences, whether the girls knew it or not, would continue to be associated with STEM as they grew, either by proxy or because the experiments themselves had an impact on them. This also gave the company room to explore outside of the standard classroom curriculum to inspire girls to pursue fields they hadn’t even known existed. The most important piece of this product for me was making sure that we honored girls’ intelligence by exploring outside of makeup, glitter and jewelry.

That’s not to say those aren’t valid sources of science and exploration, but it becomes problematic when companies tell girls those are the only sources of science for females by constantly serving these kits in the girls’ aisles. I also wanted to be careful about dictating what I believed to be acceptable for girls to participate in. So, I made a conscious decision to create physical boxes that were largely gender neutral, but marketing rhetoric and copy that spoke directly to girls and used female pronouns. Girls can decide which direction they take their science in — that’s totally up to them as I have no place to tell girls what they should be interested in. In this way, I consider our company inclusive, rather than exclusive. We have boys who subscribe and enjoy our kits and rarely notice the use of female pronouns in protocols. But if they do, it’s a valuable lesson in understanding girls’ experience of reading male pronouns in nearly every aspect of their lives. While I understand the initial desire to attract all kids to STEM, there’s a desperate need to reach out to an underserved population of girls. But just because we speak directly to girls, doesn’t mean boys aren’t invited!

The initial success of StemBox happened in a way that seemed quick to me. As a scientist, I’m used to experimental results that don’t have a tangible effect on the public for years. So when our Kickstarter exceeded its goal, received press from MTV News and Melinda and Bill Gates, and began selling in relatively large numbers, I realized that my path was no longer straight. It was a fork at that moment, one that I decided to explore.  And so, I left my research job and focused full time on StemBox. The ensuing victories and defeats have taught me more than I could have imagined and empowered me in ways I didn’t know a person could feel empowered.

I believe the experience with StemBox is ultimately what gave me the courage to leave my chosen home in Seattle. In the same way that I felt an initial belonging in the city, I had felt an initial belonging in science. But as I grew and the city grew, those feelings changed. I realized that if I truly wanted to change the playing field for girls in STEM I would need to change my own career path. If I wanted to grow the company to involve as many girls as possible, I couldn’t continue to do that in Seattle.

Growing StemBox

This isn’t to say that Seattle is a bad place to grow a company, but it was no longer the right place for StemBox. Our demographic is young girls ages 7-12, and Seattle allegedly has more dogs than children under the age of 10 and a burgeoning population of 20-30 somethings in tech, not yet old enough to be parents of seven-year-olds. Instead I turned my sights on the Midwest. I had heard of a Silicon Prairie emerging in the area and the more research I did, the more excited I felt to explore this part of the country. Greater Des Moines (DSM) is a region with a strong family community, and we could grow aspiring entrepreneurs and resources for them, as well as local STEM initiatives that StemBox could strengthen and contribute to.

It’s been about nine weeks since StemBox relocated from Seattle to DSM, but each day feels like it did when I first moved to Seattle: full of potential. I meet new people who are passionate about their children’s futures, who want to strengthen their local businesses and take great pride in their home. I still have a lot to learn, but I’m positive that learning and growing in DSM is not just the best thing for StemBox, but for all girls who will grow right alongside us into their futures in STEM.

Hear the stories of other small business and startup business owners in the community in The Partnership’s Small Business Resources Hub or sign up for the Small Business Resources newsletter to stay connected for information about upcoming events, other resources and the latest announcements in the small business community in Greater Des Moines (DSM).

Kina McAllister

Kina McAllister received a BS in General Science from Seattle University in 2013. She is the founder and CEO of StemBox. She previously worked at Fred Hutch researching gene therapies for HIV. She has a passion for contributing to current fields of scientific research and empowering young girls to explore STEM.