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Venture for America profiles

A Startup’s Inspiration: “Dad Had Us Build Our Own Dollhouses”

Cristal Glangchai founded VentureLab in San Antonio to help kids, especially girls, learn about entrepreneurship.

Cristal Glangchai founded VentureLab to help girls learn about entrepreneurship. (photo Anh-Viet Dinh, Trinity University)

While teaching at Trinity University in San Antonio, scientist and engineer Cristal Glangchai noticed that she was having trouble convincing her female students to take her entrepreneurship classes. They seemed intimidated and unconfident in their abilities, both in STEM fields and as potential business leaders.

Glangchai decided to tackle this problem with early education: she founded VentureLab in 2013 to teach K-12 students, particularly girls, about technology and innovation. VentureLab started as girls-only summer camps in San Antonio. After requests from parents and school administrators, VentureLab now holds co-ed camps in addition to girls-only programs—though the majority of students are still girls—and it designs entrepreneurship curricula for teachers during the school year. It now operates in Austin as well as San Antonio. Techonomy spoke with Cristal Glangchai about her path to STEM fields and how VentureLab works.

How did you get involved in science and engineering?

When I was a kid, I always liked taking things apart and figuring out how they worked. My dad always showed us how to change the tires, how the engine worked. He had us build our own dollhouses. He really showed us the fun nature of science and math. I went into mechanical engineering partly for that reason—I liked learning how things work, reverse engineering, taking things apart, seeing how they work, and trying to put them back together—or putting them back together in a new and inventive way to create something new. Then I went to work at 3M in product development engineering. I felt like I was kind of missing my passion, like I wasn’t really applying my skills to help people. So I went back to do a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. My naïve goal was to find a cure for cancer, so I went in with that mindset of trying to find new ways to deliver drugs that would reduce side effects in people doing chemotherapy.

What interests you about entrepreneurship?

Technology in itself is great and gives us more knowledge, but until you actually apply technology to create goods and services that benefit society, I really don’t think they are creating a value for mankind. There’s inherent value, but it’s not until you actually apply it that these things help society. We have so many kids who have not yet been exposed to tech or entrepreneurship. So I feel we’re really making STEM relevant and real for them. We need to teach girls these sort of skills before they enter kindergarten, starting at age 5, so they have the confidence to think that they can do technology, they can do engineering, and they can even potentially start a company.

VentureLab provides classes about making robots and video games. How do you decide what classes to offer? What’s a class that you would like to offer that you currently don’t?

With my technical background, I’m always looking to see what the next big thing is. What are companies doing? What sort of technologies are there going to be in the future? I take what I see as the next tech, and I modify it in a way that younger kids can understand it, so that they can be prepared for the future. One of my pet classes that I would love to have is mind-controlled objects. There’s been so much research going on at MIT and Stanford. There are mind-controlled wheelchairs. I want to create a mind controlled objects class for kids where they could actually control little remote-control cars using their minds.

How do you develop school curriculums?

All of the curriculums are based off the university classes I taught at Trinity. I work with STEM teachers K-12 to modify the language and make it understandable for each grade level. So we’re creating a whole scope and sequence of classes starting with kindergarten all the way through 12th grade. The high school curriculum right now starts out with creativity, innovation, and design thinking, then they go onto entrepreneurship. With the K-8, kindergarteners start out with creativity, then they do problem-solving, then innovation design thinking, then they go into their spectrum of entrepreneurship classes. At each grade level, we try to tailor it to the science or math or physics that they’re learning at the time. So one of the classes will be on green tech, one of the classes will be on biosciences. So for me I think it’s kind of teaching kids the relevant thing to their studies and their grade level, but also teaching them to commercialize that technology and apply it to create a product or service.

VentureLab is among the organizations currently hosting fellows from Venture for America, whose annual City as a Startup conference will immediately follow this year’s Techonomy Detroit.

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