Audrey Donaldson - Circuit Cubes, Motorcycles and More
What do you do in the industry?
I'm the CEO of Tenka Labs, a learning toy startup based in Northern California.
What are you working on now?
We have so many fun things in development right now! We're expanding our premiere product line, Circuit Cubes, with two all-new kits. And we're coming out with a whole slew of single Cubes that can be purchased as a set or individually, so that people can build on what they already have at home and choose components according to their kids' interests. We're especially excited about our Bluetooth® Battery Cube, which will enable kids to remote-control their builds through a free App.
Why and how did you get into the Toy and Game industry?
I was supposed to be an engineer (my dad's idea), but I studied philosophy instead. I have a lifelong fascination with the process of learning. My first job in California was developing kids' products for The Nature Company. I went on to co-found the Pottery Barn Kids catalog and develop a slew of award-winning learning toys at LeapFrog. I've been fascinated with the Maker movement since its early days, to the point where I stalked Maker Media for a job. I finally got one as a product developer, which eventually led to me running their e-commerce division. Learning and design thinking have been major themes of my career path, so making high-quality learning toys for kids is incredibly satisfying. It's also great fun!
What does your typical day look like?
I'll let you know just as soon as I have one! I've only been the CEO since January 9. Intellectually, I thought I knew what to expect when I took the job, but going through it emotionally is another matter. It's a constant process of trying to understand what's going on at every level of the company, and then incorporate that information in a useful way. I've never been a CEO before, and with Tenka, I had to pivot the company really quickly and figure it out along the way. That brings out my engineering and DIY training—not to mention being a parent! I typically start a problem-solving process by asking a lot of questions, but in this case, there are not a lot of people to ask; I have to find my own way. One person I can talk to about it is my dad, who has been a CEO in tech. When I don't know who to ask and I have to ground myself, I drive up to Drake's Bay on my motorcycle. That usually does it!
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I have always been passionate about learning, and about giving kids the tools they need to teach themselves—which they always seem to do as soon as we engage their natural curiosity and let go of "directing." The biggest rewards of my job come from seeing that principle in action, seeing how kids learn and grow when we honor that spark within them. It's also an amazing feeling to give parents and grandparents a role in learning with their kids in a way that's engaging and fun. I was a philosophy major for a reason: I really believe we are all lifelong students, and lifelong teachers.
What and/or who inspires you?
The people I work with at Tenka are endlessly inspiring. As difficult and exhausting as running a startup can be, it's impossible to get discouraged when I'm surrounded by so much native intelligence, goodwill, and creative energy. Every single day that I come in to work, I have my mind blown in some new way. Kids are also a big inspiration for me—my own of course, and kids in general. My grandmother used to refer to them as "little people," and I really believe that's what they are. They are people in a different phase life than we are, and they have an amazing perspective on things. They process in ways we can barely understand.
What was your life like growing up?
When I was 6 years old, my parents divorced and my mother went back to work, leaving me to fend for myself in many ways. I went looking for the "why"—turning to books, reading, and religion, trying to figure out the tools so I could teach myself what I needed to know. When I challenge myself to learn something, I'm helping the 6-year-old or 10-year-old me to not be afraid of pliers or saws, to not be afraid to learn about electricity and other tools. When something is unknown or new to me, I refuse to just flounder and be bewildered. I immediately start looking for the right tools and the right teachers so I can learn what I need to know—I adopt Beginner's Mind.
When is the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?
One of my brothers gave my siblings and their kids a class in “Improv” where he stood in front of us as an “expert”, as his wife stood behind him with her arms sticking through. We pitched him a topic and started asking questions and she “led” his answers with her gestures. He was really good at interpreting so she got increasingly absurd, resulting in my laughing until I gave myself hiccups.
Are you named after anyone?
I am named after my father’s mother (Audrey) and my mother’s mother (Jean).
Do you have any kiddos?
I have an 11-year-old son, Finn. He seems to be a theater guy and very different from me in many ways, but he is growing up knowing that he can learn things and teach himself things—that's been a driving motivation for me. I volunteer at his school sometimes in art and engineering workshops. I definitely identify as the "unusual" mom because I play video games with him…I'm also a single mom, divorced 10 years ago.
Finding the balance between being CEO and "Mom" is tough, though the jobs have a lot in common. For example, you need to keep everyone in a state of flow, you have to constantly assess and reassess. Parenting is like the ultimate long-term project, and I'm deep in that constant process of "letting go while staying ahead." My son was born on my birthday, and I clearly remember looking at him and thinking, "When the student is ready, the master appears."
Do you have any pets?
Yes, three cats – I guess that officially makes me a "cat person," though that's not how I planned it!
What’s the first thing you usually notice about people?
Whether they are on “transmit” or not.
Favorite movie of all time?
What are your hobbies?
My latest obsession is my motorcycle. I got the motorcycle to deal with my fear and to learn something mechanical, which is WAY outside my comfort zone. The big idea was to learn it—how to ride it, how to fix it, how to problem-solve)—then go to Tierra Del Fuego on it. That plan has changed a bit, since I got Type 1 Diabetes…now I'm thinking of riding it to Alaska. Trying anything new reminds me of how hard it is to finesse something and learn and do it well.
A motorcycle is a moving meditation: You MUST be fully present and fluid. All I need to do is be grounded in the present moment and focus—there's no denying reality. It's a really meaningful metaphor for how I want to be in the world. And, I get to look like a dork in all my armor and my high-visibility white helmet.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Do I have to grow up? I thought that was optional…