If you’ve ever wondered what a Black woman roboticist looks like, shift your attention to Ayanna Howard, owner and chief technology officer of an Atlanta-based company called Zyrobotics.
Recognized as one of Business Insider’s 23 most powerful women engineers, Howard makes science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fun and accessible for children with disabilities through educational apps, wireless toys and e-books.
Why focus on children with special needs?
“When you make something accessible and inclusive to kids with disabilities, you make it accessible and inclusive for every child,” Howard explains.
Many children with disabilities face motor limitations. This makes touching the screens of devices like a tablet or iPad difficult, impossible even.
Here’s the wow factor: TabAccess, a Bluetooth switch interface, allows anyone with motor limitations to control a tablet or iPad without touching the screen. Zyrobotics’ products also work to strengthen fine motor skills, timing and visual perception.
At first glance, the Zumo Learning System—Zyrobotics’ newest product—looks like any other stuffed animal, but this turtle, a wireless smart toy, communicates with a combined tablet upon touching its shell.
With Black women making up the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the U.S., Howard utilizes online resources to effectively market her startup. She credits Google AdWords for getting Zyrobotics noticed as it approaches 100,000 downloads.
“I assumed that when you have a good product, you just release it and people download it, but that’s not quite how it works,” Howard says. “Everyone knows about Google, everyone looks at YouTube, so with AdWords, we can go straight to our target demographic and let people know we exist.”
With AdWords, Howard can target one ad campaign, for instance, to reach mothers with young children who earn less than $40,000 a year. She can target another ad campaign to reach elementary teachers in Atlanta.
Busy taking the STEM field by storm, Howard also finds time to visit various schools, where she addresses children, middle school girls especially, about the importance of STEM education.
“Every child should have access to technology in the classroom, so they can begin to understand computer science and develop that skillset to find a job in STEM-related fields,” Howard says.
Part of the solution, according to Howard, requires redefining what an engineer looks like, so that a “young girl growing up in an urban environment maybe realizes, ‘Hey, I can work for Google one day, or I can work for the kind of companies I’m using on my laptop or tablet.’ It’s all about exposure.”
Watching television shows, such as Star Trek and Wonder Woman, sparked Howard’s interest in STEM, but Bionic Woman excited her most as a preteen.
“It showed how technology could have a positive impact on society,” Howard says. “I knew then I wanted to pursue a career that would allow me to build the future Bionic Woman and thus, my desire to pursue STEM was fully awakened.”
Her advice for Black women thinking about going into STEM?
“Put people around you that you can get advice from,” Howard says. “If you’re a Black woman in STEM and you’re awesome, you will definitely stand out so keep persevering.”
Three years after launching Zyrobotics and achieving success, Howard attributes the skyrocketing growth of Black women-owned businesses to the not-so-simple fact that Black women have long carried the entire race on their backs. The difference now is that Black women understand there are other ways to empower and uplift their communities, which in turn, gives them a greater sense of freedom and purpose in their lives.
“As Black women, we feel so much more inclined than any other demographic to uplift our community, and I think starting a business is just another way to do that and perhaps a more direct way of doing that,” Howard says. “Owning your own business also gives you more power in terms of changing the world.”
Princess Gabbara is a Michigan-based journalist whose work has been published in several national publications, including Jetmag.com, Essence.com, BET.com, Huffington Post Women, and Sesi Magazine. Visit her site or follow her @PrincessGabbara.