Kids are born innovators. Any parent who’s caught their child building pyramids out of restaurant creamer cups knows this. KiwiCo helps them channel their creativity with monthly subscription boxes of STEAM-focused activities — with these hands-on kits, little makers might build an arcade claw, design their own pinball game, or create a paint pendulum. The company was founded by Sandra Oh Lin, a mother of three in California. We asked her how she parents.
Name: Sandra Oh Lin
Location: Mountain View, CA
Job: Founder & CEO, KiwiCo
Family: My husband, our 11-year-old daughter, nine-year-old son and two-year-old son
Tell us a little bit about your family and your career. Did life happen mostly as planned or were there surprises?
After graduating with a degree in chemical engineering, my first job was at Procter & Gamble in product development. When my husband matched for his medical residency in the San Francisco Bay Area, I headed west to join him. I found myself working at a couple of startups in a variety of roles. Going from a huge company to set of teeny ones was quite a change.
My husband then switched gears and decided to pursue a role in finance on the US east coast. So I tagged along and fortunately got into graduate school in the same city. At that point, we had lived in six different places in four years, including a couple of cross country trips. I had not expected to become so efficient at moving.
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After that, it was my turn to figure out where to go next. We decided to move back to the Bay Area where I worked at PayPal for several years and then eBay.
During that time, we had our first two children, who are now nine and 11 years old. When they were younger, I created hands-on projects for them to exercise their creativity.
Part of it was the engineer in me, who wanted to encourage my kids to have fun with hands-on, open-ended projects. Another part was probably nostalgia; I had so many fond memories doing cool projects with my mum, who was a maker herself. (One of my favourites was creating a handbag out of a Styrofoam takeaway container — it was the ‘80s, after all!)
That led to the founding of KiwiCo. A couple of years ago, we had our third child. These days, my husband is a co-founder and CEO of a biotech startup. So we’re a dual-startup family. Between that and three very active kids, life can be a bit hectic, but we’re embracing it.
Take us through your morning routine. What are your best tricks for getting out the door?
Our two-year-old is our alarm. We get up with him. He gets warm milk and a book before slipping out of his sleepsack and hitting the ground running. Then we focus on getting breakfast and lunches together for the oldest two kids. I’d love to say that the lunches are fully prepped the night before. Though we have great intentions, that doesn’t always happen.
The other thing that has helped us get out the door is setting up the expectation that our two-year-old accompanies the two older kids to school. He now knows that he has to get out the door to walk with them. That ensures that my husband and I can get out the door by then, if not earlier.
How much outside help do you get as a parent? Who or what can’t you live without?
I’m very fortunate to have a lot of help. We have a fantastic nanny who focuses her time on the youngest. My parents also live nearby and come nearly every day to help, including taxiing the older kids to their activities.
What are the gadgets, apps, charts or tools you rely on?
Besides calendar, text and the basic apps, I use TeamSnap a lot. It’s an app that includes all of the information about my kids’ sports teams. This sounds so low-tech, but we also have a giant calendar in our home where we note the kids’ activities in a different colour for each kid. For very busy days, we detail the schedule of events on a chalkboard on our pantry door. It keeps us on track and ensures we get out the door on time(ish).
Has becoming a parent changed the way you work?
The work that I do now was completely inspired by my kids. It’s incredibly rewarding to work on not just products, but experiences that encourage kids to become critical problem solvers and provide quality time for families.
Also, I’ve become much more efficient with my time. Given the time that I want to spend with my family, I know that I have finite hours in the day for work, and I try to make the most of them.
What does your evening routine look like?
After dinner, it’s time to play (trains, balls, blocks) with the two-year-old while the older two finish their homework. My two-year-old goes to bed about an hour before his siblings. For him, the bedtime routine is more involved. Lots of books, milk, a couple of songs.
My two oldest kids get ready for bed independently and fairly quickly — thank goodness! When they were younger, bedtime was often a source of tension because it felt like it would take them forever to get ready. Once they’re off to bed, I’m back online to work for a couple of hours.
How do you decompress?
Exercise. Although I’m now more of a soccer mum than a soccer player, I love playing when I can. I’ve played for years, and it always makes me happy to be on the field with a ball. It’s my zen place.
What’s been your proudest moment as a parent?
Seeing my kids become confident, caring, creative individuals.
What moment are you least proud of?
The moments when I take my frustrations — that stem from elsewhere — out on kids by raising my voice or being short, I’m hugely disappointed in myself. I try to make things right by giving hugs and saying, “Sorry, Mummy isn’t perfect.”
What do you want your kids to learn from your example?
Hopefully the partnership that I have with my husband. Also, that women and mummys can be in leadership positions.
What are your favourite funny/weird/special family rituals?
When we hear music — in a burger joint, in a line for a ride at an amusement park, anywhere really — we dance. We start with really small movements, like raising an eyebrow, barely shrugging a shoulder, or tapping a toe. Then, when another family member notices and joins in, after about eight beats, we break it down and dance it out.
It’s like our secret handshake and agreement to have an impromptu dance party. It’s fun and gives us permission to just dance.
Also, on Thanksgiving Day, we have a family tradition of participating in the “Turkey Games”. We make up a bunch of games and have a friendly competition amongst extended family and friends of all ages. Imagine the Cranberries against the Wishbones in an intense game of Turkey Bowling.
Has anyone ever given you a piece of parenting advice that has really stuck with you?
Not really advice, but I went to my graduate school reunion recently. A classmate was giving a talk about understanding the science of a meaningful life. Much of that meaning can be attributed to struggles and challenging situations. Being a parent has certainly been a source of joy — and meaning!
What’s the hardest part about being a parent?
There are times when I wish I could control my kids. I wish that they were less messy, more responsive, consistently positive, et cetera. But I can’t control them. And that’s what makes them fierce, independent, extraordinary individuals, which is absolutely amazing, but sometimes maddening, too!
What’s your favourite part of the day?
Getting home from work and hearing my kids racing to the door to say hi and give me a hug.
Any tips for getting kids excited about STEM?
Encourage kids to be curious about the world around them. There is so much science, engineering and maths in the everyday. As a parent, you don’t need to start with the terminology or definitions. If you start with real world examples and kids’ innate curiosity (and their endless “whys”), the discoveries and learning will come naturally.
Give kids permission to explore — bang on different size pots, take apart an old clock, toast a marshmallow, question and observe.
The one thing I would tell other parents who are juggling a career:
It’s about trade-offs, and you’re doing OK. I recognise that my priorities and finite time allow me to spend time on my immediate family and my job. That’s pretty much it, and even that seems like a lot many days. As much as I’d like a cleaner house or more dinner parties with friends, I’ve come to terms with what it is.