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40 Stories: Damola and Wole Idowu of TOYZ Electronics

Damola and Wole Idowu are quite a dynamic duo! This father and son pair are highly educated engineers, creatives, and entrepreneurs. They’re also the cofounders of Toyz Electronics – a company that gamifies STEAM education in ways to promote equity and diversity in the tech workforce.

The Tech Council’s Sheena Carroll recently spoke with Damola and Wole about Toyz’s origins and their thoughts on Pittsburgh’s future:

SC: Can you give us some background on Toyz?

Damola and Wole IdowuD. IDOWU: We’re multigenerational black engineers that both got started at elite universities —me at Syracuse, and [Wole] at Carnegie Mellon, at 15. I was studying mechanical engineering and economics; he studied electrical and computer engineering.  

We investigated why it is that blacks and Hispanics are 43% of K-12 students, but only 15% of the tech workforce? What's wrong in the pipeline, what's wrong in the ecosystem? Out of my interviewing across eight segments, I looked at what Carnegie Mellon was doing with the University of Singapore. I thought, “Why don't we replace University of Singapore with Howard or other HBCUs? We talk about global emerging markets exchange — cities are like emerging markets as far as how blacks and Hispanics live. Then, why don't we make interactive entertainment so that the K-12 kids and younger people can be inspired by our  story?”

Out of that, we applied to MIT's Solve global challenge. And they voted us as one of the best antiracist technology solutions on the planet! They loved what we were doing so much that we were invited to be in their incubator for unbundling policing. We also got a letter of intent for the Education Justice Institute, from both the police chief of Cambridge and the district attorney of Middlesex County, that this idea could not only be a great youth diversion program, but it could be a great way to bridge the gap between police and the communities they serve.

So, at Toyz, everybody benefits from something as simple as toys. We use the hip-hop storytelling aspect to have people tell their own personal story so they can get better opportunities. The toys also have stories. You sell the toys, and you’re also telling the stories of the superhero version of yourself.

SC: There's so much talk about building equity in tech but not a lot of talk about practical solutions. But you have come up with some practical solutions! I also like that you’ve included a creative aspect — with SuperHero Rap, you have students creating their own characters, superheroes with powers related to their potential interests within the tech world. Can you tell me more about that?

D. IDOWU: SuperHero Rap is based on Idealism. That's your super ego. You're talking about your highest ideal state…so, not so self-absorbed, but what is it that you want to do beyond yourself? Your villains are the obstacles in the way of your highest state of mind and your higher vision of what you want the world to be. So, you use science, technology, engineering, art and math as your superpowers to overcome your obstacles. And in that process, you're now able to tell your story.

Hip-hop is the greatest storytelling art form there is. Now you can use rap as a framework to tell a story of your own STEAM adventure, about how you're going to use STEAM to make the world around you better. And obviously, at the core of STEAM is TTechnology.

SC: What would you like to see in the future of tech and tech education in Pittsburgh?

D. IDOWU: When I studied engineering, there were payphones. You couldn't grab your device and say, “Hey, Siri,” right? You couldn't Google what you needed to know. But now, you have generative AI to correct code. You have VR, AR and real-time 3D.

This is the future. So, you must factor in devices, AI, additive manufacturing, advanced manufacturing, robotics connectivity. What if you could now bring learning engineering and data gathering into our play? And what if you could infuse it into every connected device? Pittsburgh is a connected city — it's IoT, it's robotics, it's world class researchers. How do we democratize and bring equity into that, so that everybody, regardless of skin color, gender, sex, or identity, can now be included in the future of work? That's what we're doing with Toyz, and I know Wole has his own view of that.

W. IDOWU: Oh yeah. I think about what my dad taught me, about what Booker T. Washington and Andrew Carnegie were able to do together – endowing Tuskegee and Hampton. Also, it is my journey with my family, our love, and bringing that spirit here. Now we have these new technologies that will be the driving innovation force for America. Right? That's what we're really building here. We're building the tools. We're giving people opportunities. It's like, “Hey, here's this campfire platform to learn. How would you build something like that?”

SC: Why did you join the Tech Council?

D. IDOWU: You have great members, and we wanted to be in an organization that had such great founders, tech executives, and innovation. I tell people that Pittsburgh punches way above its weight class because it's a city of roughly 300,000, but it's built on next-gen tech. Autonomous driving has really driven out of here! There’s also Astrobotic, another member, sending things to the moon.

Toyz wants to be in that category. We want to create a unicorn, like the other unicorns that are your members, to be able to create economic mobility and impact for our users. We figured that a partner like the Pittsburgh Technology Council would provide us with the relationships and the access to be able to fulfill our vision.

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Powered by DQE CommunicationsFaros Properties|Nova Place and UPMC Health Plan, 40 Stories is a special series celebrating the Pittsburgh Technology Council’s 40th anniversary through the diverse stories of our members, old and new.