If it weren't for the quirky appeal of NASA pajamas, Tish Scolnik might not be doing the important work she's doing today — which is designing the mountain bike of wheelchairs.
Scolnik, 27, is the CEO of GRIT, a Boston startup that began life 10 years ago as a Massachusetts Institute of Technology research project. Scolnik and her former MIT classmates, Mario Bollini and Ben Judge, make the Freedom Chair, an all-terrain wheelchair originally designed to navigate the rough ground in East African villages. They now sell the Freedom Chair in the U.S., where it's marketed as a $2,995 sports device that allows people with disabilities to access a hiking trail or sandy beach. Just this past September, they won a contract with the Veterans Administration to supply the chair to vets.
But back in 2006, when Scolnik was thinking about college, engineering school wasn't her first choice. In high school, "I'd always been good at math and science," she says. "Those were the subjects that I excelled in and the subjects that I enjoyed the most." Yet she recalls vividly the day her well-meaning father, impressed that MIT had just hired its first female president (for trivia fans, that's Susan Hockfield), drove her there for a campus visit. "I sort of remember, actually, that I didn't want to get out of the car," she says.
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It's no secret that the so-called STEM fields — the acronym stands for science, engineering, mathematics and technology — are dominated by men. A 2015 report from the National Student Clearinghouse found that 81 percent of engineering degrees go to men, a number that hasn't changed in a decade. Research suggests that society places a subtle but strong pressure on young girls to choose more "feminine" areas like the humanities, instead of the more "masculine" fields like STEM. (Many blame the personal computer industry, which focused its early 1980s advertising efforts on boys.)
Despite supportive parents, Scolnik wasn't immune to the pressure. While she says she was a "tom boy" in high school — she played tennis, soccer, softball and basketball — she was an extrovert who served as class president and even helped plan Senior Prom. She tried to keep it under wraps that she was also a member of the Science Olympiad. The day her team's gold medal — and all team members' names — were announced on the loudspeaker, "I remember being, like, slightly mortified," she recalls.
But driven by an interest in science, she signed up for "Intro to Engineering," a new course her senior year. "I was the only girl in the class," she says. "I convinced my best friend Krista to join with me so that I would have some company."
Fast forward to the campus visit at MIT. "You know, I think I just had that terrible stereotype" — think nerdy guys in broken glasses — "and that I wouldn't fit in," she says. But then she attended an info session, "and I was totally mesmerized by the young woman who was giving it." The student talked about everything, Scolnik says, from extracurricular activities to "her NASA pajamas that she was so excited to proudly put on at night with her sorority sisters." Scolnik was hooked.
Social encouragement is a key part of motivating girls to pursue STEM fields, research has found. Two years ago, Google poured $50 million into "Made With Code," a website that seeks to right the gender imbalance by providing resources for parents, coding projects for girls and video stories from female tech role models. The tech giant, through its own extensive research, has found that girls are more influenced than boys by social pressure, and pervasive stereotyping has steered many young women away from tech careers.
At MIT, Scolnik says she largely found a supportive environment but did need to band together with other women at times. In one mechanical engineering class, she struggled with a soldering iron, which the male students were using to build robots. "I said that I had never done this before, and all I got was chuckles," she says. "Nobody offered to help, nobody offered to show me how it worked, and I was too embarrassed that I basically just stormed out."
Fortunately for Scolnik, a few of her sorority sisters were in the class. "In a somewhat act of defiance," she says, they joined forces for a class competition and built a robot covered "in glitter, so that when we beat the boys they would be beat by glitter bots." They lost. It turned out, "if we'd known how to solder we would've done a little better," she says.
By spring semester Scolnik had stumbled upon an ad for a class called "Wheelchair Design in Developing Countries." While she had originally planned to be pre-med, she found herself racing to get to the class. "My group was partnered with a small wheelchair workshop in Tanzania," she says. "We would Skype with them and email with them to learn about the problems they were facing, and try to provide whatever sort of help we could with our basic engineering skills."
Scolnik visited Tanzania with her MIT classmates the following year, learning more about the difficulties faced by wheelchair users there. "People needed to go really long distances, to get to work or to school," she says, often on rough terrain. "And they needed something that they could repair and maintain in the long term."
Her team came up with a solution: A wheelchair that uses standard bicycle parts, so it could be repaired easily and locally. The team also re-thought how a person could push the chair. "A regular wheelchair is propelled by grabbing onto the wheels and pushing those forward," she says. "The Freedom Chair uses a lever system. It's easier to push."
She spent the rest of her time at MIT developing the chair, and in 2012, two years after graduation, incorporated GRIT with classmates Bollini and Judge and instructor Amos Winter.
To date, the startup has worked with agencies and NGOs to distribute about 2,000 chairs to 20 developing countries. "While that was happening, we started hearing from wheelchair riders here in the United States, who said…we want something that's rugged and easy to repair, too," Scolnik says. The team designed a recreational version of the chair for the U.S. market, and has shipped more than 200 to U.S. customers. GRIT has also secured two $100,000 grants — including one from MIT's D-Lab Scale-Ups Program — and in 2015 raised a seed round from angel investors.
Scolnik says she's glad she attended MIT and pursued a career in engineering. "There are so many big problems that the world is facing," she says. "Many of them can't be solved by engineering — but many of them can."
She no longer has inhibitions about science, and is working with her mother on a book aimed at getting middle school-aged girls excited about STEM fields, she says. "Now I have no problem letting that nerd flag fly freely."