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When Ayah Bdeir left for college, she had been dreaming of a creative playground that fell somewhere between the worlds of Inspector Gadget and Bill Nye the Science Guy. Instead, her days were filled with a lot of theory, textbooks, and very few chances to create anything with her own hands. But Ayah quickly learned that recognizing things that don’t feel like a fit can be just as empowering as recognizing the things that do. She combined the skills she learned from both kinds of experiences to make a career out of opening doors – whether technological or political – and enabling others to empower themselves.
Ayah’s love of making things started young. Whether taking apart radios and VCRs to see how they worked or teaching herself to edit videos using the pause and record buttons on the camcorder, she was always getting to the bottom of things with the power of her own hands. Though her traditional French school system spent more time on memorization than experiments, her enthusiasm for the rare hands-on opportunities led her to pursue a degree in engineering.
When her college engineering program had even fewer opportunities to explore her creative curiosity, Ayah considered quitting. Her parents encouraged her to finish the degree as something to fall back on as she figured out what she wanted to do next. She looked to her sisters for inspiration. Ayah ended up spending hours with her sisters as they worked on their projects for graphic design and architecture. Once again, she had tools in her hands for measuring, cutting, and painting scale models.
By the time she finished her degree, she knew she wanted to be some kind of designer. Both industrial and interaction design were getting more popular and moving out of the simple realms of designing cups and chairs and into broader views of human interactions with objects and spaces. Still, she didn’t find anything that spoke to her. Not until she stepped into the Media Lab at MIT.
She had gone to hear a talk, but she fell in love with the lab the moment she walked into the room. Rather than looking like a traditional lab, it had the gutted look of a huge basement. There were giant robots and LEGO structures and huge machines. There were students working on the floor. It was everything she had imagined college would be. “I just fell in love with it. I knew that was it. I needed to know what that place was.”
Even though she had already applied to MIT twice for other graduate programs and been rejected, Ayah applied to the Media Lab. Somehow the things that had made her unattractive to the other programs – her broad and interdisciplinary interests, her urge to explore beyond the boundaries of engineering, her inclination towards activism – made her the ideal candidate for the Media Lab.
Her courses were just as diverse as her own interests. Ayah feels that two in particular helped set her on her path. The first – How to Make Almost Anything – taught her a new way to look at tools. Each week the course challenged her to learn a new tool or technology and make something with it. From coding microcontrollers and using laser cutters to using water jets and building with cardboard, Ayah learned to embrace new tools and make the most of them.
The second class taught her a new way to look at media. It taught her to think critically about the images we see and how the culture that surrounds us is created and the effects it has. Ayah built an understanding of technology’s role in society as opposed to just a tool in a lab. She started to think about what she could produce in the world – whether technology or otherwise – in a more proactive way.
Once her graduate program ended, Ayah once again found herself looking for a good fit. Though she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do, she did know where she wanted to do it. She moved to New York to be close to her sister.
At first she took a job at a financial software company. Though it taught her about how businesses work, it also taught her that the corporate world was not a place she wanted to be.
Ayah took a fellowship at an art and technology lab where she was able to do her own research and development, and started thinking about the ways she wanted to transform the world. Two examples came to mind. The first was LEGO
In Ayah’s mind, LEGO took the hard-to-reach world of engineering and put it in the hands of anyone who had the urge to build something. It took away the mystery and the barriers and inspired a generation to create.
She felt that object-oriented programming did the same thing for computers. The modular design allowed people to take different pre-set blocks and add them together, eventually using a lot of small and simple pieces to create something complex.
But programming itself created a barrier for a lot of young people, and it didn’t have the same hands-on approach that would have appealed to her younger self.
By turning the pre-programed blocks into physical components, Ayah created littleBits. The kits of snap-together components empowered anyone with an interest to build something complex – no degree required.
Those kits have made it onto kitchen tables and living room floors all over the world, a million bits and counting. Ayah still gets excited messages about kids getting inspired by littleBits in her inbox, but she also found a new inspiration of her own.
When revolution broke out back in Lebanon, there was a movement to get greater representation in parliament for young and progressive voices. Though it may seem like a leap to go from electronics to elections, Ayah saw it as part of that same mission of empowerment.
Using social media and technology, she sought to help bring transparency and knock down barriers to involvement in the election process. She is proud of the impact those efforts had on the May election.
Now Ayah is looking for the next step in her journey. Whether back in the world of STEM or further into the world of activism, she knows that it will be about empowering others. And she knows she will be able to recognize a good fit when she finds it.