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'Have you ever seen a kid pick up a magazine and get annoyed because it doesn't swipe?'

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(Photo by Ludovic Toinel at unsplash)

Margo Georgiadis, CEO of Mattel Inc. and former president of Google Americas, drew appreciative laughter from a Wegmans Hall audience with this observation during her Meliora Weekend fireside chat with Wendi Heinzelman, dean of the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Their topic: “Inspiring the Next Generation of Leaders in a World Transformed by Globalization and Technology.”

Here’s what they had to say:

Heinzelman: I’m interested in your career progression. What led you to make some of those decisions along the way to finally ending up as the head of the biggest toy company in the world?

Georgiadis: One of the things that for me has always been important is to pursue your passions. At Google we had something we called a 20 percent project, which is a way in which we re-inspired ourselves to lead the company by finding something that we were personally passionate about, that we believed could significantly move our company or the industry forward. 

During my decade there, what really inspired me was the importance of women and minorities to fall in love with STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math. In fact, with STEAM education, which includes the arts, because I truly believe that the user experience and the magic we can create with technology is so important for our future. All my side “20 percent” projects were focused on how do we work with parents, how do we do research with educators and others to help kids really understand why these careers hold a future, and what the opportunities are.

When the board at Mattel came to me and said ‘we really want somebody who can help reimagine this company for the future,’ I took a step back and at first hesitated, because I really loved what I did at Google. But then I said ‘Wait, I could make my 20 percent project my 100 percent project.’ I could follow my passion for kids and education, and run a company that is really focused on learning and development through play.

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Heinzelman: At the University or Rochester we’ve worked very hard over the last few years to diversify our student population.  And it’s a work in progress. Part of the problem is the pipeline.  Kids at a very young age start losing interest in STEM, and that’s very interesting because every child is born as a scientist and engineer. That’s how we learn language. That’s how we learn about objects and about relationships.  As kids we test things. ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen when I pull this glass off the table, so let’s try it.’ They’re not afraid to fail, and they’re not afraid to break that glass, much to their parents’ chagrin. That’s the natural state of kids – to play, to explore, to create, to hypothesize, to gather data, to analyze the data, and then basically make their model of the world around this.

But at some point along the way, kids lose that excitement. So I think a company like Mattel has an opportunity to continue that passion in kids. I’m interested in your thoughts about trying to keep kids engaged in learning and in being scientists and engineers.

Georgiadis: The way the brain develops is so much driven by all of these surrounding experiences that kids have. What we’re really focused on as a company, and what I’m passionate about, is this concept of what I call purposeful play. Play is really child’s work. The process of play is imagining something, creating it, seeing if it works, iterating it, experimenting, trying it again. Take the simplest concept of a stack of wooden blocks. What does it take to make the structure stand up? If you make it too thin at the bottom and too wide at the top, it falls down. And all the iteration that goes on is so important. It’s the closest thing to the design-thinking process that we have in engineering.

But I think equally important is some of the fantasy play. Fantasy play is the most connected to what we call divergent thinking. From an academic perspective, it’s directly connected in both kids and adults with the ability to ask what if and why not? If you were to go and interview a bunch of my colleagues at Google who are amazing engineers, they would all talk passionately about how much they loved Star Wars and Star Trek, because that really helped them imagine possibilities of a world that could be completely different, of being able to transport yourself to somewhere in the future.

When I was at Google, that was so much of ethos because we were always inventing things that didn’t exist, or we were seeing unexpected combinations about the way the world works.

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Why do we have Uber and AirB&B? They exist because people saw nonlinear combinations. They said ‘I have a mobile phone, so I have access to consumers anytime, anywhere. I have geo location, so I can know exactly where you are. I can use a network effect to connect all the taxis and empty spaces in the world, and I can provide a magical experience, which is instant access to transportation anywhere. They redefined what transportation means, and what it means to stay somewhere.  And it is those unexpected combinations that I think are emblematic of Silicon Valley -- and of the future that we really need, and of people not just thinking linearly.

One of my biggest concerns is that our education system is being driven in an increasingly linear fashion, where at younger and younger ages we’re teaching to the test. Now even in kindergarten we’re starting to think about norming and standards and a focus on a much more linear educational process, which in my view is not creating that level of lifelong learning, that passion for discovery, versus just kind of hitting standards.

We need to really inspire purposeful play that helps kids unleash their imagination, which they will carry with them into adulthood and create the dreamers, thinkers and tinkerers of tomorrow.

Heinzelman: It is incredibly important to make sure we keep that passion alive. I’ve seen even with my own kids how the curriculum is now a lot more about having to learn specific things as opposed to having space to explore.

Georgiadis: How do you think about that at the University of Rochester?  When I was a grad student at Harvard business school, I served on a task force for the president of the university. We were working with Harvard X (a University-wide initiative to enable faculty to create open online learning experiences for residential and online use), and they talked about research showing that when you sit in a lecture your brain actually flat lines. How are you thinking about technology in the classroom, and re-imaging the education process in academic settings to make it more exciting and fun?

Heinzelman: We’re trying to focus a lot more on experiential learning. You still have to learn the basics -- the theory and the underlying mechanisms -- because that’s going to be the foundation of everything that you do. The math, the sciences are always going to be really important. But what we’re seeing more and more is the need for students to get out of the classroom and apply that knowledge. There are many ways you can do that. You can do that in an internship, and some of our students have interned with your company to experience what it is like to apply their knowledge to something in the real world, with real constraints, real deadlines and having to think very creatively.

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Getting back to that fundamental recognition of play as research: That’s essentially what research is. Research is not taking the next logical step, but saying ‘ Where do we go from here?’  We’ve gotten to a certain point with all of the knowledge created before us, but we don’t know where we’re going.  We might hit a dead end, and we might fail, and we might break the glass. But we learn from that and we back up and then move forward in a different direction.

We’ve been encouraging all of our students to get research experiences to hone those skills of going out and not being afraid to try. The best research you can do is high risk, high reward.  If you always succeed, that means you’re not trying hard enough, you’re not pushing the boundaries hard enough. So getting more opportunities for our students to experience that in the lab, in companies, and in other scenarios is really important.

The other thing that we have recently done is create something called the I-zone.  This brings together resources so that students who have ideas, some concept or innovation that they want to turn into reality, can figure out how to do that. This gets back to your STEAM concept of including the arts. An engineering student or a computer science student might have a wonderful idea, but really needs to connect with someone in the arts and someone who does user design, or someone who understands the economic implications of what they’re working on. The I-zone is one of the ways our students can interconnect with each other, so that when students have an idea, they can find other students who have similar interests or passions who can help them bring their idea to reality.

Georgiadis: That’s very similar to the magic of Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley isn’t successful just because you have all that venture capital. You also have all these people who have domain expertise in every one of the leading areas in technology and you’re able to borrow and rematch those people constantly, into new combinations. Every new company that falls off borrows from all of these existing companies and those domain experts and creates the next-generation thinking.

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Heinzelman: So one of the things that I’m really interested in is the use of technology in toys in the future, in training our children. We hear a lot about artificial intelligence, which is being looked at as sort of the new currency, the thing that’s going to create our next revolution, transforming everything from our cars—into self driving cares—to how we listen to music, and how we educate our students.  What impact do you see from all technologies, but particularly AI and data science, on your industry?

Georgiadis:  I think we’re in a moment in time where all companies have to become digital. That’s really how consumers live their lives. Everyone shops online. They don’t go to stores as often. So you have to be digitally present and relevant, and you have to run a business where you’re much faster and more data driven in the way you make decisions.

I think there are five big revolutions happening in technology, and I think we can over focus on just the AI component. Some of the other pieces are equally important and they really go together.

So when I think about the five revolutions, I think about mobile as being at the forefront. We take it for granted now, but my first job at Google in 2009 was to build the first website to launch the first android phone. It’s pretty stunning to think we’re in 2017 and what has happened in those very short years. I think we’re still at the tip of the iceberg of what’s possible, when you think about all the ‘sensorization’ of the phone, the quality of the camera, and all the things that are possible when you have that real time experience opportunity for people to connect and engage in ways that I think we still have yet to imagine.

How many times do you go to a website, and it’s not mobile optimized? Where you’re sitting there, kind of ‘squinching’ it out. Don’t you feel annoyed? You’re probably thinking ‘I’m never going back there. They just don’t respect my time.’ That’s happening way too often, whether its content you’re looking at or retail sites.

The second big revolution is in the use of video to deliver content. I don’t think we all realize how much this is changing everything about the way we live. When was the last time you read instructions, right?  You just went to YouTube and you watched a video. You can find anything. How to fix your toilet if it’s running way too much. It’s allowing people to connect with content information like never before.

Machine learning is the foundation of this next wave. Machine learning gives us the ability to take massive quantities of data and apply it in ways like AlphaGo (the first computer GO program to beat a human professional GO player without handicaps), which was a really big deal at Google when you could beat this most complicated game, with the most combinations ever imaginable – way, way harder than chess.

The fact that a computer can now anticipate, react and understand all those combinations is what’s making the AI revolution possible.

And then AI enables us to reimagine so many things we do and leads us to virtual reality and augmented reality. Those are the five technologies that any company, any organization has to leverage in new and different ways.

For us at Mattel, mobile is how kids experience the world. I’m focused on that millennial customer and that generation alpha. I also call them generation glass. They started in 2008. That was the year that the iPad and Instagram were launched.

Now 85 percent of kids between 3 and 5 years old have access to a tablet full time. Have you ever seen a kid pick up a magazine and get annoyed because it doesn’t swipe? They don’t understand any other world. That whole analog world, they skip that. We have to make sure that the way we think about content and engagement with those kids is taking advantage of that.

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Then we can use AI and basic robotics to really bring toys to life. What if American Girl can actually have a conversation with your daughter about American history?  And your daughter is not only able to read those stories and play with that doll, but she’s actually able to immerse herself in that time physically.

Barbie is all about imaging all of your possibilities, and a huge piece of that is your career. We have so many careers where women are underrepresented, and wouldn’t it be awesome if girls could not only have a play set about being a veterinarian or a doctor or an astronaut or whatever it is that is their passion, but they could actually experience that career firsthand, and actually talk to an astronaut and see what they do every day, and how much education it took them to get there, and how it feels.

That makes these experiences so much more viscerally real, enabling us to create magic all over the place. That’s what’s exciting about these technology revolutions. The immediacy, the personalization, the ability to extend in so many different ways is unprecedented.

Heinzelman: So let me ask about the flip side. Kids are on the phone so much that they’ve lost a lot of the ability to have social interactions. Whether they’re in a restaurant or here on campus, they are on their phones constantly. People don’t have that face-to-face interaction where they smile and say ‘good morning’ because you’re not engaging in the same way. How do you create toys that ensure that we don’t lose the ability to have those social interactions, because if you lose that ability as a child its much harder to gain it back later as an adult.

Georgiadis: At Google that was probably the biggest question I was asked by parents. ‘Should I restrict technology time for my kids?’ Technology, like any new development, can be either the biggest asset for all of us to become more productive and informed and creative, or it can go the other way.

We have to integrate technologies in ways that enable exploration and creativity. I don’t necessarily feel good about it when a school simply declares ‘now all the kids in our school have tablets.’  Okay, so the backpack isn’t as heavy and the teacher can grade your tests more quickly. Those are process benefits, but to me that’s not magic.

Magic is when my son took architectural engineering in 7th grade in a Palo Alto school, and not only built a physical model, but then they built a digital version. They were able to do stress tests on that model to understand the seismic implications of how deep the pylons went into the ground -- something you would be not normally explore until you were in college. If you can bring that down to a seventh grader and allow them to learn through the iterative process that sense of discovery and magic about how things work, that’s awesome.

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If you can extend the creative process of play, that is a fabulous way to add technology. How many of you played with Hot Wheels? That’ a pretty awesome experience and we have proven scientifically in partnership with the University of Southern California that you can learn math and physics much more easily and fundamentally by playing with it.

What if you could put a chip in that car and when you build that track you would know whether anyone else had built that same track before?  And how fast their car raced on it, and the dimensions of their car? Was it heavier, lighter, wider, longer?  What if the track could have different properties?  It could behave like dirt or grass; it could have water, and you could actually understand that when something passes through something with different properties, it’s going to affect the speed. It’s going to affect your ability to make the turn.

 And all those things, when a kid is playing, gives them a sense of accomplishment, and iteration, and of course, it keeps score. What do kids like to do in this world? They love learning experiences that are ‘game-ified’ and they want to feel like they got to the next level. We have to accept this as educators and toymakers, because that’s how kids experience the world today. They want toys and games to be immersive, adaptable and increasingly personalized. But we have to do it in a way that drives them to imagine, explore, connect, and create.

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Heinzelman: Five years ago, when MOOCS (massively open online courses) came out, people said, ‘well that’s going to be the end of universities. All of the content is available online. You can watch it on videos. And the videos are in 20 minute clips so people don’t go into those flat lines.’  But I don’t see that happening. And one of the reasons is because MOOCs provide content delivery, but that’s not a full education. There’s so much more that you get in a residential experience, in being surrounded by some of the smartest minds you’ll ever be around, on a campus like the University of Rochester.

Georgiadis: It’s also about the matchups, about kids finding other kids with different abilities. I think about my son (a computer science student at the University of Rochester), who told me it’s the people he met here, who came from all sorts of different places, that make this a great experience. It’s the teachers who opened up his mind, and the different things at the sidebar, not the lecture, which really drives it. And that’s great. You can watch the lecture at home and then show up and actually have a discussion (flipped classroom), because then all the cylinders are firing. So how are you thinking about putting technology into classes here?

Heinzelman: It’s something we’re thinking about all the time. We have not gone into online classes because of the importance of a residential experience.  As I mentioned before, one of the things that is really beneficial for students is experiential learning. That’s not something you can get online. You can’t do research online. You can’t have these projects online. 

That being said, something like a flipped classroom is very beneficial. People learn very differently, and some people actually prefer to get the lecture material ahead of time in short clips. They can digest it, and then use the time in class to really pick the brains of everyone who is there. One of the benefits of being here is meeting people with different backgrounds and perspectives and when they are brought together, you can see problems from a very different perspective.

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 So we look at technology here as an enabler as opposed to a substitute. You mentioned virtual reality. One of our faculty members in chemical engineering is using virtual reality to develop some labs that would be too dangerous to do here otherwise. It’s one thing to tell students what an outcome is (in a lecture). But that’s very different from having the students actually do it virtually, and change chemicals, and the time and the temperature. There’s been a lot of research that shows when you’re actively involved, instead of just sitting back and have someone tell you about it, you remember it much better. We’re looking at how can we use technology like that in the classroom to give our students those kinds of virtual experiences.    

Another example: we have a faculty member who studies structures all around the world and takes students to study them. But in between the students can virtually look at the structures and think about what they want to do when they get there. We have students who started a company using haptics technology, touch-based feedback that allows you to touch structures (in a virtual environment) and feel the materials in addition to the visual and audio input.

We’re very interested in how these technologies can enhance the residential experience, as opposed to replacing it.

I mentioned the importance of diversity. We’ve been very fortunate. We now have a much more international population than we’ve ever had before. We have many more students on our campus who have been traditionally underrepresented. So we have a very vibrant, diverse community here.

One of the things you see though, is that we’re still only at 30 percent female enrollment in engineering, which is much higher than the national average of about 19 percent, but still not at a point that reflects the overall female population of 50 percent.

So why aren’t we there? What you find is that, especially for young girls, they start tuning out technology, math and science, and not seeing themselves as a computer scientist, at a very young age. A company like Mattel has a great  opportunity to change that . A lot of young girls don’t see role models, so the work you’re doing is really important in getting women who are very successful in front of  young girls, and in giving them the tools and technology so that they stay engaged and stay interested. I’m curious about your thoughts on that and your vision for Mattel in this space.

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Georgiadis: As a society we’re at a moment where it’s a human imperative that we solve this problem. We have a world that will be fundamentally re-imagined over the next 10 to 20 years  in terms of the way things work, in our lives as consumers, in our business lives, and our academic lives.  It is unbelievable what will be possible with the five technologies I talked about. 

So it is a real issue that more than half the population is not represented in creating those solutions. That has tremendous implications for all of us in terms of the quality of those solutions and, more broadly, in what that means for our society.

The numbers are staggering. We have only half as many women graduating with degrees in computer science as we did 30 years ago. Did any of watch the movie Hidden Figures? We had more women in computer science then, despite the challenges shown in that film, than we do today. 74 percent of girls in middle school express strong interest in science and computer science, but by the time they leave high school, only 0.04 percent of girls are interested in majoring in computer science. That is not acceptable if we’re going to reimagine our world through code. And the underrepresentation of minorities is a similar issue, if not even more severe.

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There are three things that are really important for all of us to be doing for all of the girls who are coming up.  

The first is to get them to think more about being a creator rather than just a consumer. Girls are all over Snapchat and Instagram and all these technologies we have. But we need to talk with them about how all the things they love are reshaping our lives. And don’t they want to be part of that revolution? And what are their ideas about how they can makes those things better? They can have an impact. And if they’re thinking about themselves as a creator as much as a consumer, it begins to shift how they think about what their role is, and about how they can participate.

The second is access -- at a young enough age -- to opportunities to explore computer science and what code is really capable of doing.  There’s no evidence that the parents need to know anything about computer science. If you’re sitting here saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t know anything about that. I would not know what to do,’ don’t worry.  There’s no correlation. The only correlation is exposure -- as young as possible.

At Mattel for example, we’re creating toys now for kids as young as three and four years old. One of our hottest selling toys last year at Fisher-Price was called the Code-A-Pillar. We have a 4,000R database about how kids develop, so we think deeply about how do we bring the magic of these ideas to kids in really simple, easy ways. The code a pillar has a bunch of sections, each with an arrow that points in a different way to give a basic sense of sequencing, and as kids plug it together the caterpillar moves in different ways.

As the kids age, we have the ability to do programming, like with the Hot Wheels game, and it’s all done in an age appropriate format. For girls, we have a game designer Barbie, and we really try to help a girl to understand what it means to have these careers. So there’s a lot of different ways we can bring kids in. But we’ve got to expose them as young as possible.

And the third piece is, we’ve got to encourage them to stay with it.  Parent encouragement is the number one driver of whether girls stay in or go out. When the girl is sitting there in eighth grade, and there’s only two girls in a sea of guys, what happens? ’Hmm . . . not any friends here.  So maybe I shouldn’t stick with this.’ But that is exactly when you need to double down and say ‘actually how awesome is that? What a great opportunity when there’s going to be four million jobs created in these areas and we don’t have enough people to fill them.’

So not only is it a social imperative, but we’re not going to have enough people to work in these jobs if we don’t have half the population or more learning these skills. We’re not going to be able to move forward.

I’d love to know what you’re doing, because one of things we found in our research at Google is that in a lot of the entering classes in computer science, many of the kids already had AP computer science. Those kids who came from other backgrounds, or didn’t get exposure, sometimes really struggle and feel overwhelmed. What are you doing to make it easier?

Heinzelman: We’ve found that even in math and sciences. New York is one of the states that does not require high school students to take physics in order to graduate.  So some of our students come in without having ever taken physics, while others come in with AP physics. And that’s a huge range of exposure. The same thing happens in math.

So we have a number of students with different starting points. That says nothing about their abilities; it says what they’ve been exposed to before getting here. So really the important thing is to make sure they get the opportunity, the time and the space to develop, so that by the end of sophomore year, those with less exposure are able to catch up.

In math, we’ve done a much better job of trying to place people in the appropriate sequence. It’s worked wonderfully. Before we used to have people dropping out of engineering because they felt ‘I can’t do this, I’m not smart enough, I’m not good enough’ when in reality they just did not have the background. We’ve been working very hard to get these students to say ‘yes I can do this.’

It’s a different story if they decide they don’t like engineering or computer science and they don’t want to do it. But they should never decide they can’t do it, because students who come into the University of Rochester are smart, capable and able get through any program that we have here.

Georgiadis: That sounds like a big data problem. How do you understand what all the kids’ backgrounds are, and customize a program and support systems for kids based on what they’ve done before, so that you can actually improve those outcomes? Is that something you can actually measure, in terms of who comes in, their different backgrounds and what’s their rate of success?

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Heinzelman: It is exactly a big data problem that we’ve been trying to figure out. It turns out that SAT scores are very ‘untelling’ about anybody’s success, even though they are one of the most cited metrics for how strong a student population is. We have students who come in with very low SAT scores, who might have come from a village in Africa that had no resources, and have worked their way up and struggled through things that people from very rich, wealthy areas, couldn’t even fathom going through. And they made it here. And they have the resilience and the determination and desire.  They are some of our best students -- the ones who go out and start companies that are trying to save the world, and really focus on social justice and taking their education and knowledge and using it to help other people. So there are so many things that go into what makes a person prepared  

There’s no one formula.  But we do want to make sure we have the resources, and make sure there are no obstacles and no bias that get in the way.

I wanted to wrap up with a question for you: Do you have advice for the students here, about careers and what they should be thinking about as they’re starting to plan their career paths over the next several years?

Georgiadis:  One of the most important pieces of advice I got from my father when I was in high school was “pursue people.” When you pursue people who are always pushing the boundaries, they’re going to take you to into broader spaces. That will always open up new apertures for you. 

That led me over time to think about a concept that I have really come to believe in, which is a personal board of directors. At each stage of my life I’ve thought about who are those most important influencers around me. People I work with directly. Or maybe someone adjacent to me, in something I’d really be interested in exploring but maybe haven’t yet tried. 

You have to invest the time to build those relationships and meet with them. What I’ve found magical throughout my career is, they were the people who would then challenge me.  ‘Are you really loving what you’re doing? What about it do you love?’ They’ve gotten to know me personally, and they would encourage me to take that next step, that next risk that might open up a whole new set of opportunities. I think that’s so important.

It’s so easy to get stuck in your lane and you start feeling really, really comfortable with what you’re doing because you’re just good at it.  But it’s at that very moment you actually should be doing something different. I’m on the board at McDonalds. Ray Kroc had a great saying: “When you’re green you grow. When you’re ripe you rot.” The minute you start feeling comfortable, go do something else, because that’s the moment when you’re not really pushing yourself.

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