In this edition of spotlight, we talk to Maggie Grout, founder of the non-profit, Thinking Huts. Starting out at just 15 years old, her perseverance, drive and knack for innovation lead her to build the world’s first 3D printed school in Madagascar this year.
Starting a non-profit at 15 is an incredible achievement. Can you tell us more about your background and your journey in founding Thinking Huts?
I had this idea around 6 years ago when I was still in high school. I thought it would be really amazing if we could use technology and apply it to solve a global problem, and since education is very close to my heart, I wanted to build 3D printed schools. It was a long journey, for sure. As a young female entrepreneur, it definitely had its set of challenges, especially since the technology industry is very male-dominated, and especially so in an emerging industry such as 3D printing.
Can you tell us more about why education means so much to you?
I was adopted from China when I was very young, about 2 years old. Just having that to reflect upon and knowing that my life could have turned out a whole lot differently really shaped me to want to dedicate my life to increasing access to education. This is because I think that opportunity is closely tied to education. A lot of people can lift themselves out of poverty and build a brighter future if they have access to it.
Your journey is really amazing and inspirational. What are some challenges that you have faced in founding Thinking Huts?
I think a lot of it ties into being young and also a female founder. I think only about 2% of women receive venture funding, which is crazy. A lot of people don't spend the time or investment supporting women in business. We need to change that. I think that's really important because the data shows that women-founded companies are just as successful, if not more, and if people understood that, we could really make some progress in the world.
That is so true. I understand that Thinking Huts will be building the world’s first 3D printed school in Madagascar this year! Can you tell us more about the project and how it contributes to sustainability?
Yes, so we are planning to build the school this year, and hopefully the pandemic cooperates with us. As for sustainability, 3D printing is a really promising way for us to advance sustainability within the construction industry. 3D printing decreases waste by up to 50% due to the hollow walls, and I think this can definitely be applied to beyond school buildings.
Interesting! Why did you choose Madagascar as the venue for your first 3D printed school?
I do have a personal connection to it. Antonio is a professor who works on the university campus that we're building the first 3D printed school with. In terms of the location, we had considered several others, but definitely, when it comes to the people, they have such a great need for schools in Madagascar.
In addition, with regards to the renewable energy potential, I believe Madagascar receives about 3,000 sunshine hours per year. This is really great in terms of the rural areas we hope to build these schools in, because in order for them to be sustainable, they need to have a renewable energy source.
I didn't know they had 3,000 sunshine hours. That is really interesting!
Yeah, it's crazy, especially since it is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. It is really cool how we can maybe find a design that works alongside nature, rather than trying to get rid of it.
Yeah, I really like that! I am also aware that you are working with Studio Mortazavi and Hyperion Robotics to build the 3D printed school. How did you find these partners and convince them to get on board with the idea?
I crossed paths with Amir Mortazavi, the founder of Studio Mortazavi, last year. He was my first choice for our architect. I really liked his emphasis on sustainable design. He also wanted to do it pro-bono, which is really incredible. As for the 3D printer company, Hyperion, I had talked with about 5 companies. I felt that Hyperion Robotics was the best option at the time because they were a lot more respectful compared to some of the others I spoke to. I knew that anyone I partnered with would likely be a long-term relationship so it was crucial that we could get along well together.
That’s cool. It is rare to see an entrepreneur tackling so many SDGs with their business. What made you decide to combine increasing accessibility to education with creating sustainable infrastructure?
I believe I was thinking big because I have the mindset that you need to address broader goals if you want to create long-lasting social impact. For us, specifically, I think the biggest ones we address are education and innovation within infrastructure. The cool intersection that we are at allows us to leverage technology to create architectural solutions and we are solving a real need for the schools, while helping the environment too.
What are some difficulties that you have faced in trying to achieve both the social causes of sustainability and accessible education?
I honestly think that the biggest barrier is the funding because you can have such great ambitions and desire to solve these problems but a lot of the funding just isn't there. Many people are more interested in themselves. They want to make money and all of that, so it is really hard to find different ways to attract that funding. They are perhaps not motivated enough to solve problems that impact the masses.
That is definitely true. Speaking of which, would you be open to sharing how you secured funding for this project?
Of course, so right now, it is mainly through individual donations but we are also continuing our fundraising efforts because we are hoping to continue to build more schools. That is the biggest struggle with a non-profit; you need to continue fundraising to do the work. We are thinking of getting corporate sponsors, so that is something we will be working on over the next couple months. We are also thinking about working towards PR-related initiatives like getting a celebrity ambassador. I realised that if you are not online, people think you don't exist, so we will work on PR in terms of attracting new individual donors.
Yes, that is really true. I think social media is the new way of gaining traction. Aside from working with celebrities and companies, I know that you have and are working with the local communities in Madagascar, Dominican Republic and Guatemala as part of your projects in Thinking Huts. Can you tell us more about what was challenging or interesting about your experience working with these local communities?
I think the language barrier is the main thing. I am fluent in English, so trying to communicate in the Malagasy or French language is difficult. In terms of Madagascar, I have not been able to go there yet because of the pandemic, so a lot of that has been remote communication. I have been able to send out lots of surveys. We had over 200 students fill them out in French, so that's the way I am getting feedback right now. It's definitely quite strange working with them through remote communication because I want to hear all of their feedback. But the only way they can give us their feedback is through people who are centrally located in the city and have access to the internet.
Are the students that you are working with living out of the main city?
For our first school, it will be serving the primary and engineering students that are in the city but after we streamline all those operations, we will be moving into more remote areas. A lot of these surveys come from students that live in Fianarantsoa.
That is really interesting. What are your future plans for Thinking Huts?
I would love to scale it up around the world. We already have a lot of interest, which is really exciting. People from Zimbabwe, India, Pakistan, all over. They want to build schools with us. I think it is very exciting at this stage, before we build the first school, that people are already so interested in our project and they want to see it succeed.
That is so exciting! Previously you mentioned about hoping that the pandemic would cooperate with your project, so do you think that the pandemic affected your vision for Thinking Huts?
I honestly think the pandemic has accelerated it and in a good way. In terms of the fundraising, it has definitely been difficult, but otherwise, it's been pretty positive because people are starting to understand that there is such a big education crisis. We might be in a good spot there because people know that there is still going to be a need for schools even after the pandemic, and even more so because of the space needed. Overcrowding is such a big issue. We want to get more students in school and have them receive their education when they probably would not have been able to before.
Have you changed the way you envisioned the school to be since there is a need for social distancing and cleanliness within the school?
In terms of the design, it probably won't change too much, but we can attach multiple parts. That's something that was very exciting for me to see because it was very much inspired by the beehive configuration where you can attach more. Amir Mortazavi implemented that. If there is a need for more space, we can attach more of the Huts together and that would address the social distancing problem.
That's so cool! Can you explain more about the interior and the structure of the school?
It is designed so that the community can change things. Some people may not want indoor bathrooms and want them outside due to the tropical weather, but the inside is very open so it's not separated at all. For the exterior, you can have a vertical garden if some communities want to do that. I think that's exciting since I know that food security is another big issue. The materials for the roof, doors, shutters will be locally sourced. The specific materials can also change based on the community and what materials would be preferred with the local environment. We were also planning to include solar panels on the roof and thinking about having internet access in the Huts. It was incredibly important to me that we designed our Huts to pay homage to Malagasy tradition and culture. Some communities will paint beautiful murals on the outside of their traditional Huts and we hope that we will see these designs painted on our Huts as well.
I know that Tesla is working on Starlink, a satellite internet system capable of delivering 150Mbps internet speeds across the globe. That will be super ground-breaking if they can further develop Starlink and include the African continent within the coverage. I think that 95% of Sub-Saharan Africa is off grid, so if we could use our Huts to connect them to the internet, that would be a huge accomplishment.
If they could get access to the net, that would really open up a world of opportunities. On a side note, how do you think we can adapt 3D printing technologies in buildings and architecture to create sustainable cities?
I think this is a huge opportunity because 3D printing can be used in more than just schools. I know housing is a big concern and 3D printing can make it more affordable. As 3D printing catches on with the economies of scale, I've heard that some houses can be built with less than US$10,000 so it can definitely change construction, especially for the goal of sustainable cities. It can emit less CO2 and be more structurally durable because I know some mixtures can go up to a compressive strength of 50 MPa, which is much higher than traditional concrete. I think overall, it is a win-win so I don't know why people would not want to adopt it.
I think the future will be exciting because we will be seeing quite a few changes. As a young female entrepreneur, you have achieved so much that many would only expect to achieve 10 years down the road. What is your proudest moment to date?
I’d say seeing the excitement from people in Madagascar would be my proudest moment. Just knowing I stuck with this idea and vision for so long and seeing people excited about it makes me proud because it was such a struggle. The first four years, especially, was tough because a lot of people thought I was crazy. Now, seeing the local support is really touching for me because I think it was all worth it. I received a message on Instagram, and they were saying thank you for what you are doing for my country. I remember thinking “oh that's so sweet,” people in Madagascar think that this is such a big problem we are trying to solve, and they are supporting the vision and want to see it do well.
As a young female entrepreneur, what advice do you have for young or female entrepreneurs that are looking to start their own non-profit or business?
I would say, reach out to people that you admire. I think that mentorship is crucial because a lot of times, they can help you overcome obstacles and give you a different perspective on things. A lot of it is also believing in yourself. I think there's a continued existence of ingrained social biases. That is something I definitely dealt with growing up - the double standard of being bossy versus confident. That is something I have definitely encountered, and I just hope that young people believe in themselves so they can be confident in their own abilities. Growing up, I remember, I would be told that I was bossy when I was just being myself and being confident in my abilities. You need to not apologise for being ambitious, especially if it is applied in a good way. Also, remember that this is your own life. You shouldn't listen to other people that are telling you that you can't do something because you are going to prove them wrong, so you just got to keep going.
You definitely proved them wrong! Can you tell us about some of the mentors who have inspired and guided you?
I have been lucky to meet a lot of mentors on this journey. I think it is nice because when you are younger, they want to help you. They see a part of themselves in you, and they want to help you achieve your goals. I think the coolest mentor in that capacity would be Brett Hagler. He works as the CEO of New Story and they build 3D printed houses in Latin America. Being able to get his perspectives on things and how I could become a better founder and CEO has been really helpful because a lot of times, I have learnt that the real mentors are the ones who tell you the truth. They are not going to tell you all the nice things. They are going to say, “you need to do this differently” and give you constructive criticism.
I have also met a lot of great women that have started their own businesses and they told me that it's going to be hard at times but in the end, people will be really inspired if you keep going. Just being told not to give up was a huge thing. I would also consider my dad a huge mentor to me because he was the first person to believe in me and my idea.
That's so sweet! I'm sure he feels proud of you too! Can you share more about how you managed to reach out to these mentors? Were there any special programmes or ways that you reached out to them?
Many times, it was just cold emailing, to be completely transparent. Some people may not respond to you, but you never know if you don't try. A lot of it is also LinkedIn. I think that is a resource that people don't tap into. You can send messages on there. I think it also has to do with personalised messages, so take the time to really understand why you are reaching out and if this person can really help you.
Wow, actually I would say you are really very brave because many people would hesitate to reach out to those outside their network. Okay, let's finish off with something fun - what is one thing, be it a quote, a person or a book, that inspires you to continue with your work?
I would say in terms of the book, I really love Mindy Kaling. The book that is my favourite by her is called Why Not Me? It’s very much about how you can do anything you set your mind to, and you just have to keep pushing forward. For a person, I would say Alfred Nobel for his establishment of the Nobel Peace Prize and his work for the greatest benefit to humankind. I wish that more people would incorporate that into business, and I think that if we passionately follow that, we can make so much more progress.