Kay Yang’s daughter is leafing through a Tinker the Robot lab notebook. Courtesy of Tinker the Robot
The city of Riverside is celebrating National Women in Small Business Month, and Kay Yang is a shining example of a local entrepreneur and engineer who defies gender boundaries. As a little girl growing up in Chino Hills, Yang remembers building a mini pulley system for her Barbie dream house. She and her father would spend hours tinkering and solving problems in their garage.
“I became an engineer because my dad and I did it on the weekends,” said Yang, founder and CEO of Tinker the Robot. “He taught me aerodynamics by watching birds and physics by launching catapults. He made these subjects relatable and compelling.”
Yang went on to work in a variety of industries including biotechnology, defense, cleantech, and consumer goods, making Disney Princess toys at Mattel. Inspired by her upbringing, Yang left Mattel seven years ago because she wanted to create a toy with more educational value. She set out to rethink the way engineering is taught and bring STEM to a population who may not think these subjects are for them—particularly girls. After learning that families want an experience, Yang evolved the Tinker idea from a toy to science and technology workshops and homeschool kits.
“My husband likes to say we hook them up and then teach them something,” Yang said of their atypical approach of having students learn to build before the battery of mathematics and theory lessons.
A student proudly displays her bright LED light in her lab exercise book. Courtesy of Tinker the Robot
Upper elementary to middle school kids engaged in Tinker are given a graphic novel-like lab notebook that contains a hybrid curriculum with instructions to build anything from a robot to a light sensor. Yang and her small but mighty team launched a summer series this year for 4,000 students at 140 Los Angeles Unified School District locations and 30 parks and recreation areas.
“It’s not a stereotypical class that we lecture in,” Yang said. “We set up a structure and encourage the children to experiment. We are there to guide them. We want them to make mistakes, raise their hands and ask questions.”
One of Yang’s favorite pastimes is watching students have aha moments when a literal or figurative lightbulb goes out during a build. Yang hires teachers whose main occupations are technicians and engineers to make the experience more accessible to children. That way, Yang said, students see that the skills they learn can forever be explored as solid career choices.
“We stimulate the students’ innovation and then let it ignite on its own,” Yang said.
Yang is a member of the ExCITE Riverside Incubator, and she credits the mentoring resources for driving the company forward. Tinker the Robot placed second in the 2022 Riverside Fast Pitch competition and advanced to the regional finals.
Kay Yang celebrates winning the 2022 Riverside Fast Pitch competition with Mayor Patricia Lock Dawson. Courtesy of Tinker the Robot
“A lot of what you’re trying to achieve as an entrepreneur, you do on your own,” Yang said. “But when you work in a community, you are so much stronger. This is exactly what ExCITE offers.”
One of Yang’s goals is to pilot a program within the Riverside Unified School District to further embed himself in the city’s robust entrepreneurial culture and conscience.
“Leaders in Riverside are always thinking about the future and how they can create a competitive advantage for the community,” she said.
Next up for Tinker is a tech version of The Magic School Bus series for kindergarten through second graders and programming for Riverside’s nonprofit C3 initiative to bring coding to 1 million minority youth.
“We are proud to support Kay Yang, whose entrepreneurial spirit not only fuels our economy but also inspires the next generation of STEM professionals,” said Riverside Mayor Patricia Lock Dawson. “Tinker the Robot shows that it’s never too early to lay the foundations that students, especially girls, need to strive for and excel in science and technology.”
For more information on Tinker the Robot, see www.tinkertherobot.com.
A Tinker the Robot workshop. Courtesy of Tinker the Robot