5 Questions with Limor Fried

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She is known to her fans as “Ladyada.” She is the first female engineer to grace the cover of WIRED. She is a not-so-traditional-looking MIT engineer, who grew up in a hacker scene in Boston and founded an open-source electronics company. She is Limor Fried, the CEO of Adafruit, a maker of DIY open source engineering and electronics kits, accessible for consumers of any age or skillset. Fried believes that everyone has an engineer or a maker inside them and that introducing electronics early on will lead to more young people choosing STEM careers down the road.

Q1. You founded Adafruit to create electronics kits for DIYers shortly before getting your master’s in electrical engineering from MIT’s Media Lab. What was the inspiration behind establishing your own company?

L.F: Back when I was still in school, around 2005, I was having a lot of fun building electronics. I had been learning about microcontrollers as part of my undergraduate internship and it was tons of fun. Once I built some projects, I would publish them on my website. People loved the projects like my Mini MP3 player and emailed asking if I would sell them a kit of parts. Eventually I got so annoyed by all these emails, I started kitting up some simpler projects for sale. They were so popular, it became my life.

Q2. What’s your advice for engineers wanting to be entrepreneurs?

L.F: It has never been easier for makers and engineers to start companies. And America is one of the easiest countries in the world to do it. You can start tomorrow as a sole proprietor, or get an LLC together in a week. Start by making a few units of your new invention, create lots of mockups and prototype designs. Try selling a few to people in your community. If you’re inventing something, it probably solves a problem you know about and if you are having that problem, so are thousands of others.

Q3. Do you think there is a need for more engineers in the country?

L.F: Engineers build life-saving medical equipment, upgrades to renewable energy, even space stations. What other profession can take you around the world and universe, helping people everywhere to be safer, healthier, and happier? Having familiarity with making and engineering also helps inventors solve problems in their local communities, where larger corporations may not have inroads.

Q4. How do Adafruit’s products help get young kids involved in STEM?

L.F: We’re focused on designing cool projects and creative kits so they’re less expensive to get into kids’ hands. For example, even a few years ago, if you wanted to teach electronics it would be expensive—more than $100 per learning kit—which meant all the kids had to share. We realized we needed something better, so that you don’t have 15 kids sharing one kit. We came up with a kit that’s a $20 all-in-one board, with free software and tutorials. It’s low-cost enough that every kid can have one.

Q5. What do you enjoy the most about the work you do?

L.F: I love seeing what the people in our community make. From electronic paper crafting to cosplay, their creativity is inspiring. We have a weekly Show and Tell hangout on YouTube, where anyone with a project and a webcam can talk about their project, what they are building, what they’ve learned, and get feedback from the community. It’s super fun.

Reprinted from Mechanical Engineering magazine.
Chitra Sethi is managing editor at Mechanical Engineering magazine.