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Toyz Electronics is gamifying STEM to draw diverse students into tech

Damola Idowu wants to see more Black engineers, and plans to employ his company’s app and the appeal of superheroes to make it happen.

Toyz Electronics cofounder Damola Idowu. (Courtesy photo)
Correction: Toyz Electronics' founding year and details about its seed round have been clarified. (3/31/23, 9:35 a.m.)

Not everyone can walk the path of early genius and start pursuing an engineering degree at 16 the way Damola Idowu did — and like his son, Wole would similarly do at Carnegie Mellon University at 15. But almost anyone could download Dah-Varsity, Toyz Electronics’ video game app based on the father-son duo.

The goal is to expose “diverse and disadvantaged students” to STEAM.

Inspired by Booker T. Washington’s educational outreach, Toyz Electronic is on a mission to get more Black people involved in tech, Idowu told Technical.ly. In a world of abundant AI and robots in almost every industry, the future is in technology, Idowu observed, so now more than ever, Black students need to see what career paths exist for them in fields such as science, engineering, art and mathematics.

“When you come to places like Pitt or Carnegie Mellon, it’s very rare to see a Black engineer,” Idowu said. “I think that in the culture, period, we know about Black doctors, we know about Black lawyers, but Black engineers aren’t cool. So what we’re doing is making that cool.”

According to the Pew Research Center, Black workers comprise an estimated 9% of STEM workers.

Toyz Electronics was cofounded by Idowu and his son in 2014 and later honed it within CMU’s Project Olympus incubator. It’s snagged a handful of big accolades since then: Its product was a finalist in the MIT Solve Finalists for Anti-Racist Technology competition, the company was a runner up in the Richard King Mellon Foundation’s 2022 pitch competition, and it was a finalist in the 2022 UpPrize Social Innovation Challenge.

Additionally, the company raised a $500,000 seed round in 2022, including a $150,000 investment from RK Mellon Foundation through its Social-Impact Investment Program, and raised $100,000 from Innovation Works in a pre-seed round.

Damola Idowu speaking on an Innovation Works panel. (Technical.ly photo)

When you open the Dah-Varsity app, you become a superhero. Inspired by the story of Idowu and his son, users are taken into a world where instead of facing off with comic book rogues, they are given interactive learning experiences centered on math, music, literature, design and prototyping.

Users are also given a crash course in well-established companies run by Black entrepreneurs, in addition to learning about other designers and creators who’ve made a splash in the world of technology. In Dah-Varsity, students use STEAM to imagine and craft their alter-ego’s superpowers, and the only villain are the obstacles the founders the game teaches about faced in their own lives.

Through problem solving, mentorship, and allowing students to connect with peers with similar interests via the virtual learning environment Dah-Varsity offers, the company is offering a place that is both a safe learning environment and something that will reflect underrepresented students’ experiences, Iowu said.

“We gamified STEAM education,” he said. “This is an open-world STEAM learning environment where you can meet friends, get mentors, [and] learn a lot of cool concepts, but you can find representation of your own world [and] identity.”

Because of how early Iowu’s entrance into the tech industry began, he recalled that he’d always seen himself in the field. For others, though, he’d like to help instill the message early on that STEAM is a viable option. More than that, when thinking of his own son, he explained that it was important to leave something tangible behind that could provide some security.

“What do you pass down to your kids? I think a lot of us in our community, we pass down generational traumas, and I always talk to him about [how] we have to break generational curses,” Idowu said. “So what I wanted to infuse with him is the belief that you could be just as good as anybody else.”

Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2024 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
Companies: Richard King Mellon Foundation / Innovation Works (Pittsburgh) / Carnegie Mellon University
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