Education Q&A

For Ed-Tech CEO, Trump Era Presents Many-Sided Threat

By Benjamin Herold — December 19, 2016 7 min read
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Ayah Bdeir is an immigrant, a Muslim, a woman, and a tech entrepreneur. Her company, littleBits, has an unusually diverse workforce. Part of its mission is to empower girls, who are underrepresented in such fields as robotics and computer science. LittleBits manufactures its modular programmable electronics in China, and the K-12 portion of the company’s business plan is closely tethered to schools’ ongoing implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

So, yes, Bdeir is feeling uneasy since the election of Donald Trump.

“Vilifying whole groups of people is harmful, not only to the individuals who feel it very personally, as I did and many of the people in my company did, but for the economy,” she said in an interview with Education Week.

In July, Bdeir and AltSchool CEO Max Ventilla were the two most prominent leaders from the ed-tech world to sign an open letter from technology leaders denouncing the Republican candidate for president. The letter stated that “Trump would be a disaster for innovation” and that “his vision stands against the open exchange of ideas, free movement of people, and productive engagement with the outside world that is critical to our economy.”

Ventilla declined an interview request from Education Week, but did provide a statement. His focus was on innovation: Ventilla’s belief is that government should invest more in education-related research and development.

Bdeir’s concerns regarding Trump are both more personal and more wide-ranging.

The 34-year old Lebanon native and Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate fears the impact of policies that would “single out my employees, and me, in a very real way.” Among the positions that Trump has advocated at various times: mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, tighter entry restrictions on individuals from Muslim countries, and a registry to track Muslims living in the U.S.

The president-elect has also threatened moves that some economists and analysts say risk a trade war with China, which could lead to rising costs for imported electronics (and thus disrupt littleBits’ supply chain.)

And then there’s the hope that Bdeir had invested in Trump’s opponent. When Hillary Clinton formally accepted the Democratic nomination for president, for example, Bdeir penned a letter, published on Medium, titled “Girls Can (and Will) Run the World!

In the weeks since Trump’s win, Bdeir, like many in the tech sector, has spent considerable time wrestling with how to best move forward. Such tensions were on display last week, when Trump summoned leaders from Apple, Google, IBM, and other tech titans to New York for a summit.

Unlike some prominent critics, Bdeir doesn’t fault the executives for not rebuffing Trump altogether.

But she does wish they had communicated a stronger message.

“To not show up would be cowardly,” Bdeir told Education Week.

“But the better thing is to show up and to express what you believe and to represent what much of the country, particularly immigrants and minorities and people in the public sector, are feeling right now.”

Following is a Q&A with Bdeir, edited for length and clarity.

Why did you sign the letter opposing Trump’s candidacy back in July?

One of our fundamental tenets is our belief in the value of diversity. We’ve built littleBits to be a universal tool, so it could cut across age, language, and countries. We’re gender-neutral for a reason, because we want to get more girls engaged in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math.] We deliberately include these values in the design of what we do, and our messaging, and the curriculum we create.

I’m an immigrant myself. I’m Lebanese, I’m Muslim, I’m a woman. I came to America because I believe America is great and it has the power and the people to effect change on a global level. Everything that I believe and stand for as a person, as an immigrant, and as an entrepreneur, and everything that our product stands for, is about embracing minorities and immigrants and gender and diversity. And so I was really disheartened by the campaign. Vilifying whole groups of people is harmful, not only to the individuals who feel it very personally, as I did and many of the people in company did, but for the economy.

What effect do you think the president-elect’s stance on immigration—both his advocacy for more restrictive policies, and his often-harsh rhetoric—will have on the ed-tech industry?

There are a lot of unknowns. We have close to 18 different languages across a team of 100 people. Forty percent are women. We have many different religions and sexual orientations and a lot of immigrants. So I fear for the impact of policies that would single out my employees, and me, in a very real way.

But I’m also optimistic, because I feel like this conversation is also bringing people who may have been too busy with their own lives and their own companies, including myself, to surface these issues. When Education Week contacted me, the natural reaction was to want to avoid controversy and say, ‘I’m not going to get involved in this.’ But I also felt a responsibility to speak out. So I think it’s getting people who may have been more apathetic or not focused to rally and speak about what’s important. That’s the positive.

Women are under-represented throughout the tech industry, especially in computer science and engineering. You’ve built a career and a company predicated on challenging that. How does Trump’s victory change the way you go about pursuing those goals?

What we can do is continue our resolve to be more inviting for girls and women. Thirty-five percent of our user base among kids is girls. That’s unheard of in electronics and robotics. We’re really starting to see incredible, inspiring inventions from girls.

We’re focusing our energy on telling those stories. We wan to showcase their lives and the problems they’re solving.

Many business leaders are enthusiastic about the incoming administration’s promises to slash regulations and cut corporate taxes. And many in K-12 education are enthusiastic about Trump’s commitment to school choice and his vow to roll back the Common Core. Do you share in that?

The business impact I’m focused on is less about taxes and regulations and more on the school sector. We’ve invested quite a bit in tying littleBits to the Next Generation Science Standards and the common core standards. Repealing common core would have an impact on work we’ve already done and investments we’ve already made.

How might president-elect Trump’s “America First” economic policies impact your supply chain and your manufacturing base in China?

We’re in a wait-and-see mode. We’re a start up, and manufacturing electronics is a volume game. Our goal is to make littleBits affordable and accessible, so we can get them into schools and into the hands of kids and teachers everywhere.

Is there a scenario in which you could envision producing littleBits in the United States?

Assembling consumer electronics is not where the future economy is going. It doesn’t serve us to try to get that back. I believe that the opportunity for America to reinvent manufacturing is more on the innovation and research-and-development side. That’s why I think we have to try to break boundaries and invest in education. It’s an investment in kids’ future, so they’re better with critical thinking, and problem solving, and 21st century skills, and so they’re excited about STEM.

Hundreds of engineers in the tech sector have vowed to not support the use of data for efforts that would target individuals based on race, religion, or national origin. Is littleBits reconsidering at all how it collects, stores, and uses student data?

We’re not in a position to tackle all of these things at once. But we’ll be watching and creating and getting inspired and looking at best practices.

Big picture, how do you balance speaking out on the issues you care about with doing what’s best for your company?

My goal is to not impose my views on my company, investors, or employees. I try to be careful to keep what’s private, private.

The good news, though, is that our company is mission-driven, so some of these discussions are not at odds with what is good for company. More diversity is good for business—for everyone, and for us in particular. More investment in education is good for us. On these issues, our mission and business align, which is why we love coming to work every day.

Photo of Ayah Bdeir courtesy of littleBits.

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.