Olivia Pavco-Giaccia is a student at Yale and the founder of LabCandy, a startup that creates funky lab wear for young girls.
What started as a pair of lab goggles she had jazzed-up and posted to her blog while in junior high, is now a full-fledged collection of lab wear (and a story book) for young girls. The goal – to challenge the white-coat, thick-glasses, male scientist stereotype & bring to market a product that young girls can identify with.
Did you know that only 27% of STEM jobs (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) in the US are held by women? Olivia is hoping that LabCandy will change perception & encourage young girls in STEM.
They seem to be responding to her ideas. Her Kickstarter crossed its $20,000 goal in 3 days! And it raised a total of $31,035 with 303 backers, by the end of its 30-day run.
Why did Olivia create LabCandy? How did she get feedback from young girls, her customers? And what’s it like being a student-entrepreneur?
We’re going to find out!
What was the one thing that inspired you to create LabCandy?
The summer after my junior year in high school, I was working in a neurobiology lab at Stanford and I was blogging about my experiences in the lab. The blog was called “LabCandy – A girl’s guide to some seriously sweet science.” It was targeted towards getting young girls interested in science.
One day I did a post about lab safety – things you had to wear in the lab. One of the things I wrote about was lab goggles. I thought the regular lab goggles were kinda boring so I snazzed them up a bit. I painted the inside, stuck some sparkles around the rim and put them in the post. The next day I was flooded with comments from little girls all over the country asking me – Where did you get those goggles? Where can I buy them? That’s when I realized, I had stumbled across something that really resonated with people. Girls wanted these lab goggles. That’s where the idea for LabCandy was born.
At what point did it go from being an idea to becoming something you wanted to pursue for real, as a product & a company?
When I got to Yale as a freshman, on a whim I made an appointment with the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute. I told them about this crazy idea I had about making bedazzled lab goggles. Miraculously, they didn’t laugh at me. They encouraged me to apply to the Institute’s summer fellowship program.
What do you think excited them about your pitch?
I wish I could say they were all gung-ho about engaging young girls in STEM! But I don’t think that’s what did it. The part of my story that most excited them was that we had some form of customer validation. The fact that girls had reached out to me about this product, gave us an edge over other ventures that might have applied to the fellowship.
What kind of support and backing did the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute give you?
They gave us a little bit of money. But they also gave us access to this incredible network of mentors. They encouraged us to go out and talk to people. That was the first thing we did. We went and spoke to over 200 girls, parents, grandparents, teachers & scientists – just trying to understand why young girls wanted these goggles.
We realized that it wasn’t just because they were pink and sparkly, though that was nice. It was because these goggles represented the anti-thesis of a nerdy, male scientist stereotype. For young girls, it represented the hope that science was as unique and colorful as they were.
Where did you go to find your customers – young girls – to ask them for their feedback?
I went back to my old middle school. I spoke with some local New Haven schools. I went to Girls in Science expos and had a table there with the goggles up front. I would just talk to people about them.
You told me you went through several iterations of the design before you landed on your final design. Tell me about the moment when you knew you had a great design going for you?
LabCandy started out as just goggles. But when I spoke with girls I realized, what I really needed to create was a character. So the product evolved from just goggles to goggles, a lab coat and a storybook/workbook.
Once I had that basic idea, I started building iterations. I was making everything myself by hand. I would sew a couple coats & then I’d go out and talk to people.
The moment I realized we really had the final product was when I brought our prototype to my little cousin Ava. She always speaks her mind, so I was a little nervous. She put on the coat and goggles, looked in the mirror and said “WOW. Is this what a scientist looks like?” And I said “Yes!” And that was the moment I knew we were done. This was our product and we were ready to go.
Can you think back to a time that was particularly challenging for you?
After we finalized the design, we had orders pouring in. They were more than we could fulfill. At that point, I was making everything by hand and I knew I needed to start manufacturing our product.
How many orders were there at that point?
I don’t remember, more than I could fulfill myself.
So I went to New York and I started walking around the Garment District. There’s no good way to find a factory to make your product – part of what makes producing physical products so difficult.
So I was just walking around the Garment District talking to people, going from sample shop to sample shop, trying to find a manufacturer who would make our coats with a small enough minimum order that we could afford it.
It took me weeks of doing this before somebody finally took pity on me and slid me a note under the table and said – you should call these guys. It ended up being a factory in Minnesota which was very helpful & that’s where we’re making our coats now.
So it went from being something you were doing on your own, in your apartment, to where you now had production going?
Well there’s an intermediate step there. Before you start manufacturing a product you have to have enough money to be able to pay for a minimum order. In order to do that we launched a Kickstarter campaign.
Tell us about the moment when you decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign.
I really like Kickstarter. If people like your product enough and want it enough – the customers are going to fund your idea. They are going to decide whether your product is worthy of being out in the world. I really like that aspect of it.
And like I said, we needed money to pay for our initial order of products.
The goal of our campaign was to make $20,000 in 30 days. We crossed our fingers, held our breath and pressed go. And we met our goal in 3 days!
What were steps you took before launching your Kickstarter that got it this success, this fast?
At that point I had been working on LabCandy for a little over a year. I had spent that year talking to potential customers, mentors – anybody who was interested. So I had a mailing list of people. I notified them about the campaign a week before it started. I asked them to share it with their personal networks via email and social media.
I worked with a couple of STEM organizations, one of which was the National Girls Collaborative Project. They have tens of thousands of members and they were really wonderful in supporting us & getting the word out about our campaign.
And beyond that, it was organic growth. We were lucky our product resonated with people.
You mentioned there were a couple of press pieces that had come out as well.
Press might be a little bit of an excessive word! It was just some stories that were written up by a local STEM organization here and the other was written up by the National Girls Collaborative Project. It’s not like we were the front-page of the New Yorker!
That’s still pretty good because you get to tap into their networks!
The Kickstarter video is super fun. Tell us about how you came up with the idea for the video and how you got the right person to shoot it for you?
I was looking for a videographer & I was snooping around on wedding video websites. I came across Blaga Dimitrova’s page LushLifeFilm. She was amazing & she was passionate about the product.
Over and over I’ve seen this trend – the people who really care about the idea behind LabCandy and are passionate about getting girls in STEM, those are the people who end up making a big impact.
She did an excellent job. She really cared about the material. My cousin Ava came up – she’s in the video with the short blonde hair. She’s a fire-cracker. I named Ava from “Ava & the Copper Key” after Ava, my cousin.
What’s been one of the worst days for you with LabCandy?
The month before I launched the Kickstarter, I had a meeting with a venture capitalist. Not to raise money, but because I wanted his advice. I pitched him my idea. He looked at me, patted me on the head and basically said – Oh little girl, sorry, I only like businesses which people are going to pay money for. Don’t you know little girls aren’t going to buy a science toy?
That was a low moment for me. It definitely shook up my confidence a little bit. But then a month later we laucnhed the Kickstarer and it did pretty well. So I guess, we showed him.
What happened at college the day your Kickstarter campaign closed?
The night after my campaign closed, I came back to my dorm room expecting everyone to be asleep. I opened my door and I was greeted by 25 of my closest friends, who had all taken time out of their busy schedules to throw me a surprise congratulations party! They had their LabCandy t-shirts on. It was a really great moment
That’s one of the great parts about starting a business as a college student. You have that support system of people that are going to celebrate your successes and also support you amongst your failures.
Why do you think having a support system around you is important?
In general, it’s good to have people around you who believe in what you’re doing. Entrepreneurship can be a little lonely sometimes. It’s you working on your baby.
And it’s also good to be around other people doing the same thing – Yale Entrepreneurial Institute sponsors tons of start ups & we all get to work together in the same space, so it has a great energy.
What are the challenges working on LabCandy and getting school work done?
Time is an issue. I wish I could clone myself. At the end of the day, you make time for what you’re passionate about. And I’m passionate about LabCandy.
You thanked a bunch of people on your Kickstarter page. One that stood out to me – you thanked someone saying, “Thank you for teaching me to ask for what I want.” Was there a specific moment when you had to ask for what you wanted?
Often times, girls are trained to be polite. And it’s important to be polite and nice. But it’s also important to know what you want and be able to ask for it. To have the confidence in yourself, to look an investor or a potential employee in the eye and say, you know, I’m sorry I don’t think this is exactly what I’m looking for. And then articulate exactly what you need. That was what that dedication was about.
Photo Credits: Erica Boothby, LabCandy.com