Sofie's journey began long before her studies at Stanford University, where she studies civil engineering and architecture. It all started with “Sparkly and Smart,” an art enterprise that remarkably raised $300,000 to support girls' education. Today, through her revolutionary BloomBoxes ingeniously crafted from repurposed shipping containers, she's reshaping education in Malawi by crafting vibrant STEAM learning environments.
Unravel the revolution of the BloomBox, an educational space breaking barriers by merging innovative technology with architecture, designed to host an array of teaching resources for optimum learning. From its humble beginnings, built and shipped from North America, to transitioning operations to South Africa for economic and environmental sustainability, Bloombox has become a beacon of hope. This initiative has not only curtailed costs but has boosted local economies, creating new job opportunities, and reinforced its mission to bring quality education worldwide.
What's Sofie's favorite mistake related to this project? How did she react? And what did she learn in the process? Listen or watch to find out!
Questions and Topics:
- Tell us about the functionality of the BloomBox?
- Starting with the why
- What was your spark for this passion for helping girls in Africa?
- Tell us more about the tech of the BloomBox and how it’s used?
- Was the retractable solar panels part of v 1.0? Design spec or lesson learned?
- With the Bloombox – there are apparent iterations and learning — is that continuous improvement or learning from mistakes, or both?
- Tell us how you raised the money? “Sparkly and Smart” — website and Etsy
- The website shows the overall design and installation process. Talk to me about how the end-to-end process design matters, not just the hardware design…
- Tell us about Design Thinking and how that influences your work and the BloomBox?
- At Stanford, what are the opportunities to learn about Design Thinking and entrepreneurship, formal or informal?
- Social benefit corporation vs. not-for-profit?
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- Video version of the episode
- How to subscribe
- Full transcript
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Bloombox Design Labs: Revolutionizing Education Through Innovative Solutions
Sofie Roux, a Gen Z visionary and CEO of BloomBox Design Labs, seeks to transform the educational landscape with innovation at the helm. Her journey, which commenced even before her tenure at Stanford University studying civil engineering and architecture, is evidently embellished with radical innovations and projects.
One such project entails the creation of Bloomboxes from repurposed shipping containers. These blocks have become instrumental in reshaping education in Malawi. Positioned within the learning environment, Bloomboxes are transforming the way students learn and interact with educational materials.
After months of sweat, effort, collaboration, $80,000 on technology and meticulous planning, Sofie and her team encountered a debilitating setback when shipping their first BloomBox. But every dark cloud has a silver lining. This setback unlocked a pivotal lesson for Sofie – accounting for important aspects that one might overlook during the planning process, and rallying the community for support during the implementation phase.
Building an Innovative Learning Environment with the BloomBox
At its core, the BloomBox strives to provide access to quality education for every child, especially girls, worldwide. Crafted from upcycled shipping containers and fitted with a retractable solar roof system, the Bloombox is more than just a classroom – it represents a merging of innovation and education.
Designed to host about twenty laptop computers connected to an off-grid server, the BloomBox is equipped with premier technology, lights, fans, projectors, mobile furniture, and a teacher's desk. It also boasts an extensive library of educational resources, transforming it into a full-fledged maker space.
Strategic Innovations and Iterations: Fostering Local Economies
Since its inception, the BloomBox project has seen considerable growth and progression. Initially, the boxes were built and shipped from North America. However, the need to cut costs shifted this operation to the South African development community, including Malawi. This strategic move not only curtailed expenditures, but also boosted local economies, employing locals whilst galvanizing the project.
The transition further aided in building a team in Africa that assists in the ongoing BloomBox installations. Sofie relies heavily on her team's expertise and knowledge – from essential observations to rigorous technicalities – to keep improving the BloomBox design and making it more effective, useful, and sustainable.
Sofie's vision proves that architecture is more than designing spaces; it's about creating environments that positively impact people's lives while fostering technology, innovation, and community empowerment. Her journey continues as she plans to scale the project, potentially connecting to Starlink for satellite internet access and reaching more schools, thus proving that the BloomBox design will never be truly done but constantly evolve with each implementation.
Embracing Social Enterprise: A Creative Approach to Address Global Educational Problems
Sofie Roux, through her BloomBox project, highlights that businesses can champion an aim beyond monetary gain. Her venture is not merely about designing a product to secure returns; instead, it's built around a social cause – to provide quality education access using creative methodologies.
She acknowledges her education at Stanford University, a transformative time spent partaking in the Technology Ventures program and working in maker spaces. These experiences undoubtedly embellished her innovative approach to identifying and solving societal issues.
Delineating the BloomBox: A Sustainable Social Benefit Corporation
As the founder and CEO of a blooming social benefit corporation, Sofie has had to invade some uncharted territories. Often, sustainable development projects need to conjure creative funding methods to continue on their journey, given that government funding might not always be possible.
Sofie's BloomBox, for example, is left with the goal of reaching 67 more schools, and this objective requires secure financing. One creative method Sofie proposes is the commercial sale of BloomBox revolutionary roof design, separating it from its educational purpose and marketing it to any sector requiring off-grid power supply.
The plan also involves running BloomBox as an enterprise, balancing between an arm that installs BloomBoxes for free at educational institutions and another that seeks commercial gain to sustain the project.
Creating Microeconomies Using the BloomBox Design
Sofie's vision doesn't stop at providing access to quality education. She has a novel idea of creating a microeconomy around each BloomBox.
Connecting with Starlink to access satellite internet is a significant part of this plan. The idea is simple: while providing free internet access to the students attending the school where the BloomBox is installed, the neighboring community members can get online access for a small monthly fee.
As the surrounding community continues to pay these modest fees over time, they would eventually cover the cost of the BloomBox, creating a sustainable, mutually beneficial system. The prospect of limitless possibilities that can arise from someone having a connection to the internet is exciting, and Sofie wants to facilitate those possibilities through the BloomBox initiative.
Nurturing Courage and Trust in a Social Enterprise
Social enterprises, such as BloomBox, often have to navigate a landscape filled with uncertainties. It takes courage to call out potential issues that might arise, requiring team members to speak up despite fears of offending or erring. It involves trusting others once you've done all within your capacity.
Sofie shares her experience of trusting others when lifting a BloomBox with a rusty chain did not go as planned. Despite the mishap, she chooses to focus on the positive takeaways and lessons learned from the incident, offering valuable insights for entrepreneurs at every stage of their entrepreneurial journey.
Encouraging Support for Entrepreneurs and Continued Growth
As Sofie's story unfolds, it becomes clear that supporting other entrepreneurs is vital in inspiring novel solutions and innovations. Entities like the Stanford Technology Ventures program, and other community supporters, by providing access to resources and encouraging innovative action, actively contribute to the success of ventures like BloomBox.
Sofie's journey, along with her fellow entrepreneurs, is still in progress, with new lessons learned, challenges negotiated, and opportunities created every day. The continuous growth and evolution of BloomBox and similar ventures promise an inspirational future for aspiring entrepreneurs. Discover more about her journey and BloomBox Design Labs here.
Automated Transcript (May Contain Mistakes)
Mark Graban: Well, hi. Welcome back to my favorite mistake. I'm Mark graven. Our guest today is Sofie Rou. She's a visionary.
Mark Graban: Gen Z, founder and CEO of BloomBox Design Labs, which is transforming education through innovation. We'll get to talk about that here today. Sofie's journey began long before her studies at Stanford University, where she studied civil engineering and architecture. She's taking some time to work and really focus on the Bloom box project, crafted from repurposed shipping containers. She's helping and reshaping education in Malawi by crafting these Bloom boxes in the learning environment.
Mark Graban: So we'll hear more about that directly here from Sofie. Welcome to the podcast. Thank you for joining us. How are you?
Sofie Roux: I'm great. Thank you so much for having me on your podcast. It's an honor to be here.
Mark Graban: Well, I'm excited to talk to you. It's a really fascinating story to see some videos of what you've been working on, and it's really powerful, really inspiring. But I'm going to start off with the question that I ask everybody here. I know this isn't catching you off guard. The things that you've done in your work with BloomBox or otherwise.
Mark Graban: What would you say is your favorite mistake?
Sofie Roux: All right, well, it's a bit of a long story, but here it goes. I think my biggest mistake was also one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life, which happened after the summer after grade ten, when we had just brought the first Bloom box to Malawi. And at this point, the Bloom box, we'd spent half a year building it out in my backyard. We'd shipped it across the world. We'd gone through what seemed like every possible obstacle.
Sofie Roux: We shipped it during a global shipping crisis. We had to convince customs officials to let us through. And we were in this moment of celebration when the Bloom box was being driven. It had crossed its final border, and it was just being driven to the school where it was going to be installed and set up. And what happened was New Beginning Secondary School, where we put in the lab was at the top of this hill, and below was a highway.
Sofie Roux: So the truck that was taking the lab up the hill was too large to make the turn. And so there had to be a transfer from this long flatbed truck to a small flatbed truck. And so night was falling, and this kind of rickety crane showed up on the scene to make the transfer from one truck bed to the other. And we were all kind of just waiting with bated breath because the crane chain itself looked a little questionable, and the container was lifted up by this crane. And kind of in that moment, like months of work, my biggest hopes and dreams for this, everyone's collaborative efforts, $80,000 worth of technology was kind of just dangling in midair, and it was kind of wobbling back and forth like this.
Sofie Roux: And in that moment, the crane chain snapped and the lab came smashing down, luckily onto the bed of the other truck. But it smashed the bed, and the cab of the truck went up. And we all were just standing there in what was now a dark night on a busy highway, thinking that maybe we had lost everything. So I guess that was my biggest mistake, but it was also my favorite mistake. I think that's what this podcast is about because I hadn't accounted for something important and I'll get to that in a second.
Sofie Roux: But what we ended up doing was we needed to bring it up to the school still, but it was late, so we got some guards to watch the container overnight and then we, we came back the next morning and I was feeling pretty deflated and worried that everything might be over. But what happened was the whole community, they had come that night and they had watched us kind of fail miserably in that moment, but they had all shown up bright and early first thing the next morning to come and to help us unload the container, to make multiple trips and to make it a reality. So that day actually became a very joyful event and we got it up and running successfully after that. And I think it just taught me a lot about how none of this work would work without the community. So, yeah, that makes it my favorite, even though it was pretty devastating in the moment.
Mark Graban: Oh, my gosh, the ups and downs of the story. I don't mean quite literally the ups and downs with the crane and the Bloom box, but yeah, I mean, that must have been a really heartwarming moment, a beautiful moment then, when people rallied to help that morning.
Sofie Roux: It truly was. I think some of my best memories are on the job site just because of how fun and inspiring and exciting it is every minute.
Mark Graban: Yeah. So for context, first off, can you tell us? There's some elements of the story I want to dig into, but I could have maybe teed this up to tell people. I've seen videos about it, so I know what you're talking about. Tell everyone a little bit more about just the Bloom box, the intent and the functionality that it delivers.
Sofie Roux: Absolutely. I think that it's really cool to think about getting every kid, especially girls, access to education around the world. So, yeah, that keeps me up at night. And I guess the idea for this started with how could I design something here where I live in Vancouver and have it be a beautiful high functioning classroom for a high school in Malawi that I had fallen in love with earlier in my high school career. So the Bloom box itself is a computer lab or maker space built out of an upcycled shipping container with a retractable solar roof system and equipped with like state of the art technology.
Sofie Roux: So we've got 20 laptop computers connected to an off grid server that has a huge library of resources, and then lights, fans, projectors, mobile furniture, a teacher desk, and all the supplies needed to make it into a true maker space. That's the bloom box. Yeah.
Mark Graban: It'S a great project. And again, for context, just to make sure it's clear to people who are listening and I mean this, I'm praising you for this, that Sofie is the youngest guest that I've had on the podcast here, because last year that was your first year at Stanford.
Sofie Roux: Yes, it was, but yes, thanks for having me as the youngest guest. I mean, it's an honor to be here alongside such great such a great celebration of very interesting people. I was listening to your podcast earlier and just loving every minute of it.
Mark Graban: Oh, well, thank you. And this is Sofie's first podcast as a guest. You're doing a great job so far. So thank you for today. All we can do is try, right?
Mark Graban: But I wanted to ask I wanted to point out one other thing. I asked you about the functionality of the Bloom box and I don't know if you are familiar with Simon Sinek and some of his books.
Sofie Roux: Yes, I am.
Mark Graban: So sort of like the title of his book. You started with the why? I was asking sort of what BloomBox and how does it work? I appreciate that you started with the Why and the mission. So I was going to ask you what sparked your passion at a young age to provide opportunities in Africa, in Malawi, a long way from home, in Vancouver, British Columbia, I should add.
Sofie Roux: This is true. Well, I loved growing up in Vancouver. For me, it's a city that is temperate rainforest, and I feel lucky to have grown up alongside forests and rain and to kind of be in that environment of growth. I was also really lucky to travel to Africa since I was little with my family, and also to go to all girls schools through junior and high school. And I think that that sort of informed my worldview in many ways, and that combination has been really impactful to me.
Sofie Roux: I've always seen girls excelling in every field at school and so I think that absence of limits has informed kind of what I want to do in the future, which is to get every girl access to environments like the ones I've had a chance to learn in. I think going back even further, my working girls education started when I was really little, like when I was five years old, I raised money for the first time for Buffalo Lele Children's Home in Cape Town. And then growing up and realizing that the problem of girls lack of access to education is extremely multifaceted. And so there's sort of like these different levels to it where at the first level you need to address basic needs of girls so that barriers between girls and school are eliminated. And then on the second level, you want to make sure that the education that girls have access to is of the highest possible quality.
Sofie Roux: So my early work was in water and sanitation. So I raised money for a few water wells in Malawi and also for a sanitary pad making machine. And that was through sales of my artwork. Then I guess that trip to Malawi to visit the water wells, I got to spend a bit of time at a high school there, which ended up being the site of the first Bloom box. And that was the first time I realized, like, okay, we've got brilliant girls in school, they have big dreams, but now how can we make sure that they have every resource that they need to fulfill their dreams?
Mark Graban: That's so cool. And we think of the Bloom box, I mean, there's so many basics of life like water, medical supplies that are necessary. And with the Bloom box, if you can sort of try to paint a picture of the container. And there's solar power, computers, is it satellite internet access also? Or give us some of the tech details, I guess, or I'd be curious to hear even from the first Bloom box, has that evolved?
Sofie Roux: Absolutely. I love talking about this, especially because I want to be an architect and I'm studying engineering and design, and so it's been sort of like a little bit meta for me because I'm designing design spaces and I kind of get to think about for me, designing bloom boxes has been the best possible design education. So I think in a fundamental level, the first Bloom box was a 20 foot shipping container and it had a stationary roof with solar power. What's happened now is the lab is half the size, so it's a ten x ten foot shipping container. It's a high cube and it has a 3000 watt system, so it has six solar panels.
Sofie Roux: And those solar panels are constantly soaking up the sunlight during the day, and at night they're kind of sliding back inside and locking securely so that nobody will tamper with the panels at night. And that solar power is coming into the inverter. And we've got kind of a separation wall so that the technical upkeep of those solar panels and batteries happen separately from where the learning supplies are stored. And then on this side, it's sort of designed to be an annex to existing classrooms. So these labs will be deployed in remote settings where there are classrooms.
Sofie Roux: And then it's a kiosk set up so the computers are charged in there, mobile furniture is stored inside and then it's distributed from this kiosk. And the way that that is managed is through local leadership. This way it's truly a complement to existing classrooms. And then on a technical side, so the computers themselves, we have 20 laptop computers and they're charged in a charge container by the solar panels, of course, and they are connected to this server. It's called a Rachel Server, and it's an intranet, so it's off grid and it's full of resources like Khan Academy, YouTube, Ted Talks, it's got resources in Chichewa, it's got textbooks for studying for National Board exams, and that has proven to be a great solution.
Sofie Roux: And so what we do is we're able to monitor both the solar usage and the computer usage from afar. And so every month we check in with the teachers who give surveys to students about what kind of information they're missing and what they need, and we can remotely be updating the computers with that information. And ultimately, like you mentioned, satellite Internet. That is my dream and my next step, which would be to connect to Starlink, which recently got approved in Malawi, but we're not there yet. That'll be the next step.
Mark Graban: Yeah. This idea of the retractable solar panels at night to protect them or keep them safe, was that part of version 1.0? Is that something that was sort of anticipated or discussed as a design requirement? Or was that a lesson learned from version 1.0?
Sofie Roux: That's a really insightful question. So what happened was we'd never considered making a mobile roof for the first lab. We have it set up as just a stationary cantilever roof. But with the successful launch of that, the Ministry of Education of Malawi became interested. And I had a meeting with them where I set up my proposal of how we could scale these labs.
Sofie Roux: And they brought up the interesting point that a lot of schools in Malawi are not in the big cities, they're in rural and remote areas. So the first lab we put in was in Blantyre, which is a bustling, bright city, but 80% of Malawi is off the power grid and it's in remote and austere settings. So the Ministry of Education wanted to scale this project to 70 more schools in the next five years at that time that we had talked, but that meant that I had to think about how we could get these labs to those environments. So that kind of forced us to go back to the drawing board. And so the roof system was born from there because it's low profile enough to just stack onto the truck bed and then just be shipped, driven to these austere environments that kind of a stationary roof would not have been able to do.
Mark Graban: Yeah, hopefully gosh. Have there been any problems or incidents with the Bloom boxes being damaged, vandalized in any way? Or have the communities rallied around the opportunity and we need to keep these Bloom boxes protected and available?
Sofie Roux: Yeah, we have been really lucky to have strong connections and to also have incredible local leadership. So the director of the school where the first Bloom box was installed, he's one of my great friends now. We've been working together he's become our Malawi team lead, Peter Koya. And so he'll go and look for sites that would work and then he'll establish a connection with the director of the school of the next potential site. And from there, the community does rally around.
Sofie Roux: So a local leadership team is assembled. A group of teachers is trained to use the computers and to be able to teach with them in their classrooms. There's a security team that watches the labs all the time, and we have not run into any problems that way. This past summer, we installed a BloomBox at Zaleka refugee camp, which is the biggest refugee camp in Malawi. And it's different.
Sofie Roux: It's different than placing it at a high school in a big city. And just time and time again, I am amazed and humbled by how much people step up to the challenge to protect these labs because they want to protect their kids.
Mark Graban: Yeah, I mean, with this mission of providing steam education for girls, you hope you never run across people who don't agree with that mission.
Sofie Roux: Right.
Mark Graban: So I think it just goes to show there's the tech challenge and the design challenge and the iterations. But one thing that seems fascinating to me about the project and your leadership of it is it's beyond a tech challenge, there's the financial challenge. And you mentioned selling artwork. Tell us a little bit more about that and the idea you mentioned early on in the episode selling art for other projects. Give us a glimpse into tell us about the art.
Mark Graban: I know we're for most people an audio platform here, so I'm going to ask you to just kind of describe.
Sofie Roux: What type of art of course, I love the way you framed that question because I think it is not a problem that you can address in one way directly. And that's why I've always been interested in architecture, because I was never a genius at one thing specifically. I've always loved to do a lot of different things, like I love math and science, but I also do love art. And so I kind of saw that combination in architecture. But I also think what you were mentioning about there being a humanist side too, I think that's at the core of architecture as well, which is that we design things that affect people's lives in a real way.
Sofie Roux: And that is a huge responsibility. So it's important to be thoughtful and to consider the people that we do this work for above all else. My education right now has been mostly prerequisites for these engineering and architecture classes, so it's been very physics and math based. But I've always loved Art. So I launched the social enterprise when I was in 7th or 8th grade called Sparkly and Smart as a dedication to the Sparkly and Smart girls that will hopefully benefit from sales of art.
Sofie Roux: And what it is, is it's a collection of kind of these watercolor art pieces. I think they can only be described as whimsical, but they're usually funny animals with puns or nice messages. I love doing fonts, so there's bright lettering, and my mom and I figured out a way to print them onto greeting cards and tea towels and notebooks, and we sold them at craft fairs. It was pretty incredible. My mom and I spent most weekends leading up to Christmas throughout all of high school standing behind a craft fair booth.
Sofie Roux: And I would sell my art and tell people about why girls education is so important. And through that, I was lucky enough to raise enough money to support three wells sanitary Padmaking machine, and now three Bloom boxes.
Mark Graban: And you're still selling art. I know there's a website, Sparklyandsmart.com, people want to help support BloomBox and other whatever other, I shouldn't say other initiatives. BloomBox is a huge initiative, so I'm not trying to push you into more, but if people want to support BloomBox, they can go and buy art even now.
Sofie Roux: That would be incredible. I recently launched an etsy called Sparkly and Smart as well. Thank you.
Mark Graban: And then I think one other kind of humanistic aspect, people side of this whole project is building a team. You're not doing this alone. People who were helping you initially in Canada, people who continue to help you in Malawi. Tell us a little bit more about finding and recruiting a team, getting support there in Africa.
Sofie Roux: Absolutely, yeah. When I started this, when I had the first idea for it, I was in 10th grade. I was not an architect, especially not a sustainable development architect. I didn't have any experience as a carpenter or even an organizer. So what I did do, and what I could do was ask a lot of questions.
Sofie Roux: It's not easy for me, I get super nervous. But I tried to be brave because it was a bigger mission, it was bigger than me to ask people for help. And it's pretty incredible that when people really believe in an idea, they'll bring their best abilities in any way they can to make that happen. So I guess at the beginning, the core team started with me telling my ideas to my mom and drafting floor plans, and she's my biggest cheerleader and supporter. From there, I have a carpenter friend, Jan, who actually helped build our house, who then taught me about construction.
Sofie Roux: We started building up the lab, got involved with a solar team in Vancouver. That was great. And all the while communicating with leaders in Malawi who I had known and built a friendship with through my visit through water wells for Africa the year prior. And then from there, I guess the core team grew in Malawi. The first time we deployed, they became the team that would come out to the next two deployments.
Sofie Roux: And we have such a fun time building on site and then at kind of a separate level from construction. There are the teams that manufacture our roof, modify the container. So what happened? I guess I should say after the first launch, I realized I needed to cut costs. So the way that I did that was no longer did we ship the container from North America to Africa, we built everything within the South African development community, so within South Africa and Malawi.
Sofie Roux: And that way we're employing local people all along the way and creating these micro economies with people working on the box until its final installation. So that means that now my team is actually, I think 85% of my team members are in Africa, and that includes advisors from other projects I've worked on, as well as engineers, mechatronics engineers specifically, and people that have come in to help since the beginning and have really shown up time and time again. Leaders in government policy as well as education, kind of all the places. I guess I should say that at this point. I think that my journey in sustainable global development has been going on for a little while now, and everything I know is because of my team.
Sofie Roux: I'm really lucky that way. I think what it is, I guess going back to your question, these people are all there for the potential of the girls that they know exists. And I'm just a facilitator.
Mark Graban: It's a fascinating detail about some of the evolution. And you said the need to reduce cost building locally in Africa. There's interesting supply chain challenges there. And one thing I thought was great on the Bloom box website is that it's not just about the box or the building of the box or the use of the box, but really like the end to end design and installation process. How did you come to realize, you really seem to be demonstrating that you learned it's not just the box, it's the whole end to end flow.
Mark Graban: How did you learn that? Or did somebody help you look at it that way?
Sofie Roux: Yeah, I love what you're getting at, always, because I've been working on projects in Africa for a while, I've learned that it's so much more than implementation. You must have leadership to ensure longevity and sustainability of projects. That's the number one thing. And I think part of that having that value and knowing that this would be a long term thing is also a reminder that we have to keep learning. So I guess in high school I learned about the design thinking process, which is an iterative process, it's a circle.
Sofie Roux: So as you were saying, it's not just end to end, it repeats. So you empathize with a problem, you have an idea, you start to build prototypes and you test your prototypes and then you install them and you try them out. And I guess that was BloomBox 1.0 and we could have said, that's great, we did it. And also because everyone on the team just fell in love with the process. We wanted to make sure that it was the best it could be.
Sofie Roux: So that means following up, learning what they need better. For example, we hadn't considered that we would need a wheelchair ramp, so we built one and put that in, or that the foundation was too high off the ground from the basketball court. So I did a little sketch up model for these stairs that come down to the basketball court. And now that's a place where kids hang out and just integrated into the campus, which is beautiful. And then bigger things like as we talked about the roof.
Sofie Roux: So that's the iteration where it goes right back to the drawing board and you have to start again. And I love that process. I think that it means that the BloomBox design will never be truly done, but it'll constantly improve from every direction, from student feedback, from a technical perspective. And I think that's just a symbol of growth, and I think I'm growing with it as well.
Mark Graban: Yeah, I love that. Never truly done. And there's opportunity for continued innovation, continued improvement. And I think you're making me reflect on what a great opportunity to learn about design thinking in high school. I'm old enough.
Mark Graban: Design thinking was not a methodology when I was in high school. I know enough about design thinking to be dangerous, as they say. But it seems like one big part of it is what you learn almost more of like an anthropologist, of observing people and their needs or observing their use of the Bloom box. Do I have that right in my recollection of design?
Sofie Roux: I love what you're saying. Yeah, for sure. And you are not too old. It was just coming into high school as I was leaving. I am also new to the idea, but yeah, it's a lot about observation, and I think about architecture sometimes as such a privilege because we build this scale model and then you get to just manipulate people moving through space and kind of play with it that way.
Sofie Roux: And what an honor that is, because then there will be people in your space and you get to make those decisions so you can't make them lightly. And so I think a lot of that comes from observation and learning from people and how they interact. And that's something that I really want to get better at.
Mark Graban: Yeah. And so right now, you're taking a gap quarter or a gap year from Stanford.
Sofie Roux: Oh, gap quarter. Although every day it gets a little bit more enticing to take a gap year.
Mark Graban: I wasn't trying to push you to that.
Sofie Roux: No, it's fine. I'm taking a gap quarter from Stanford. And it's weird because I feel closer to Stanford than I even did last year at this time. And I think what happened was high school was amazing. And I'd always dreamed of going to Stanford because for me, it was this place of the smartest and most interesting people come together to solve the most impossible problems.
Sofie Roux: And I got there and it was even better than that.
Mark Graban: Not a mistake, right?
Sofie Roux: And it gave me this feeling that this is so cliche, but you can do it. Like, if you have an idea and you work hard enough, there are people that are going to want your idea to succeed, especially in the field of design. I think that's so huge at Stanford, and I love that architecture is incorporated with engineering. So anyways, I'm taking this gap not to get far away from it, but to refine my focus and also to make sure that BloomBox is able to continue to survive. And when I return, I think I have this clarity about what I want to do, what departments I want to be a part of, and I think I'm really lucky to have a direction and a purpose and also a school that can supplement that at a very high level.
Mark Graban: Yeah, once you get past those engineering fundamentals, I mean, there's so many opportunities, it seems, at Stanford to learn not only more about design thinking, but entrepreneurship and startups formal, I imagine. Were you able to tap into even informal ways of learning about this in your first year?
Sofie Roux: Yes, for sure. I was able to be part of a business competition at school. It's called the $100,000 Startup Challenge, and I found myself in the echoey basement of one of the engineering buildings waiting for my chance to go in the room and present my pitch. And at that point now I'm formed as a public benefit company. So that has its own challenges, running a new business, new small business.
Sofie Roux: But at the time, I wasn't that I was a social enterprise, that I was sort of pitching an idea that had no return on investment except for kids doing cool things after they graduate. And that's a bit of a hard sell, especially when the kids I was up against were grad students researching the next big Fortune 500 solution. Actually, I did well in that competition, and that was really cool for me because it was a reminder that I was at a school where business is about more than just money, necessarily, it's about creative approaches to problems. So that was a really cool thing. I'm a peak fellow which is in the Stanford Technology Ventures program.
Sofie Roux: I've gotten to spend a lot of time in the maker spaces, which I just think is just hardcore and cool to just be welding and watching my friends make cool projects. So I've glimpsed it, and I can't wait to be a part of it again soon.
Mark Graban: Yeah, I mean, longer term for BloomBox, I'm curious, setting it up as what was some of the thought process around setting it up as a social benefit corporation versus a not for profit?
Sofie Roux: Yeah, good point. So I guess as we were talking about with. The idea that development projects must be sustainable to thrive. We talked about that from a human perspective, but I think also from a business side, I need to somehow have a way to keep doing this for a long time if I want to meet the Ministry of Education's target of X number of schools. Let's say we have 67 left.
Sofie Roux: To do that, funding needs to come from somewhere, and it's not necessarily going to come from the government. So I've had to think about creative ways to do this. One thing would be to sell roof design not the design, the roof commercially, to potentially like, construction applications, really anywhere that you need off grid power, the boombox roof can bring that to you at a high level with the creative design. So that's one thing. The other thing is to run it as a business so that we can have an arm that is installing Bloom boxes for free and an arm that's making money to sustain that commercially.
Sofie Roux: And then I've also thought a little bit about well, I thought about it a lot, but I don't know if it's possible at this moment. Is this idea of a microeconomy surrounding a BloomBox. So we talked about connecting to Starlink in the future, potentially. But there's this idea that if the BloomBox exists at a school for free and students access the Rachel server data and have access to computers, then potentially the neighborhood and the catchment of the school could pay small monthly fees to access the Internet. And the BloomBox is that hub.
Sofie Roux: And then over, let's say, I think it would take like ten years or whatever, you suddenly pay off your community's Bloom box and all the while people are connected to the Internet. And I think that is just so exciting to me. I think that when people have a phone that connects to the Internet, the possibilities are then limitless. And I want to be part of that future.
Mark Graban: And you're helping create that future, Sofie. I'm so glad that I got exposed to the work that you're doing. I'm glad that PR firm reached out and shared your story and created the opportunity for the interview here. It's going to be exciting to see where you and BloomBox go. One other question, though.
Mark Graban: I want to come back to your story. I want to ask this gently, not to be critical, but I'm just curious if you recall conversations you and your team had after the chain broke because you or others had identified I don't know about that chain. And there's times in workplaces or life where we wonder, should I speak up about this? I don't know if that's going to offend somebody. Maybe I'm wrong.
Mark Graban: And that choice of speaking up or not speaking up was the conversation afterwards about like, oh, I wish we had said something, or I wish we had asked before we let them lift it.
Sofie Roux: That's a really good point. I think it takes a lot of courage to speak up when you think something is going wrong, and I often try to do that in my daily life. But another thing about initiatives like this is sometimes you got to take leaps of faith, especially if you've controlled everything you can, if you've accounted for everything in your power, you've got to hand off the trust sometimes. And I've been pleasantly surprised nine times out of ten, and I think our whole team knew that this had to happen, this transfer from one truck to the other had to happen to get it to the school. And so in this moment, we made a decision to trust.
Sofie Roux: And I think nobody could have prepared for just a technical detail like a rusty chain. But I think what matters was our response. And I think going forward, you're right, it's important to be thoughtful and to speak up. But I think also it's finding that balance of also handing over control sometimes. And, yeah, I found it worked out more often than not.
Mark Graban: Yeah, well, thank you for that, and I'm glad that you found the positive takeaways and lessons learned. You're doing so much and learning so much at a young age. So I really appreciate that, really respect what you're doing and appreciate you for coming on and sharing your story and having a conversation about it.
Sofie Roux: Sofie, thank you. I appreciate being here and thanks for everything that you do to support entrepreneurs at every stage of their journey.
Mark Graban: Thank you for that. I try. And we'll keep at it here on the podcast. So again, we've been joined today. Sofie Roux, founder and CEO of BloomBox Design Labs.
Mark Graban: You can go to BloomBoxdesignlabs.com. I'll put links in the show notes and encourage you to go learn more about Sofie and what she's doing. So thank you, really. Thank you again. This is great.
Sofie Roux: Thank you, Mark.