Sparking Social Entrepreneurship from a Passion for Robotics

Alvarez Spark Innovation Award recipient William Bai started the nonprofit organization RoboRecovery to create low-cost and adaptable robotics programs for New Orleans students. William is an undergraduate sophomore, Class of 2024, majoring in Cell & Molecular Biology with minors in Philosophy and Strategy, Leadership, and Analytics (SLAM).


What if there was a class that doubled or tripled student interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) as well as attending college? What if this class especially benefitted students who are economically disadvantaged, from underrepresented racial groups, or from other minorities in STEM fields? What if this class also simultaneously developed students’ leadership, creative problem solving, and 21st century life skills? Surely almost all schools across the nation would be enrolling their students.

This isn’t actually a course, nor is it that new or futuristic. It’s after school educational robotics, which has been around for nearly thirty years. Yet educational robotics hasn’t reached many students across the country, especially in New Orleans. In 2019, only around five of the over sixty public middle schools in the Crescent City hosted active robotics teams. In a city where public schools are comprised of 91% students of color and 82% economically disadvantaged students, robotics is crucial to give students a lens into careers in STEM and soft skills that will serve them for a lifetime.

Then what prevents robotics from fully reaching New Orleans students? Financial, logistical, and technical barriers. Educational robotics products mainly target children from high-income families. LEGO Mindstorms, a leading educational robotics platform known for its flexible builds and intuitive programming interface, retails for at least $350 per robot. Even when schools can afford LEGO robots for their students, they often lack teachers knowledgeable in robotics, and due to the steep learning curve, those that try to learn struggle with sifting through resources to create lesson plans. Starting a robotics program is also a significant investment of time, one that doesn’t fit the busy schedules of many educators.

A LEGO Mindstorms NXT robot. The reusable nature and flexible builds of LEGO toys allows students to arrange motors, sensors, wheels, etc. in an infinite number of ways, offering them an introduction to design, mechatronics, and computer science.


RoboRecovery is a nonprofit startup venture that I founded in February 2021 to address these barriers. We seek to catalyze pathways into STEM careers for underserved students by increasing access to STEM enrichment opportunities, and we envision an equitable future for STEM education where all youth can become future leaders in STEM. With the help of Todd Wackerman (a past Alvarez Spark Innovation Award recipient) and his organization the STEM Library Lab, I designed a model that offers a low-cost, easy-to-implement robotics program to schools and after school organizations, specifically, those currently without programs or the resources to start one. RoboRecovery provides free loans of LEGO Mindstorms robotics kits, a lesson plan that introduces students to robotics over the course of ten weeks, and student mentorship from outreach interns through the Tulane Center for Public Service (CPS) Internship Program. At little cost, schools and afterschool programs get all equipment, supplies, and assistance with club leadership in one streamlined package. This saves them thousands of dollars in equipment costs and teachers the headaches of initiating and coordinating a new program, while giving students equitable access to robotics.

RoboRecovery Logo
RoboRecovery Logo

The development of this venture has been no walk in the park—more so a steep hike. I have had more than my fair share of learning experience in entrepreneurship along the way, a few of which I’ll share here.

  1. When initially marketing the venture, I simply advertised what my venture does and how we do it, rather than emphasizing the “why,” i.e., the purpose of my program and what we mission and values we strive towards. This rookie mistake became apparent after I contacted the communications manager of the North Carolina nonprofit El Futuro and learned about Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle Theory. Robotics isn’t well known in many New Orleans schools; therefore, I needed to start at the basics, citing the impact of robotics on students’ future interest in STEM and educational outcomes. I spent nearly a month with Katy Perrault, RoboRecovery’s social media and communications manager, developing a clear and concise “about” statement for RoboRecovery that concentrates on the “whys”, such as our core philosophy and the ways we apply it. This exposition has since served as the basis for all other marketing material we’ve designed.
RoboRecovery Flyer to Teachers
Flyer to market RoboRecovery to teachers and community partners
  1. I discovered newfound difficulties in sourcing donations. First, acquiring used robotics kits entails getting individuals to itemize their equipment, transport donations to a shipping store, and pay a shipping fee at the counter. These steps take additional time and money above what I initially expected, and their inconvenience to donors have likely reduced my potential donations. Second, there are various bureaucratic restrictions when seeking donations from public organizations and schools. When soliciting donations of laptops from the Louisiana State University system, I learned the Louisiana state constitution bars the donation of any thing-of-value belonging to the State—whether the recipient is public, private, charitable, or otherwise. Meanwhile at schools, teachers must propose a donation to the school administration, even if the robotics equipment has been phased out or unused in years. Third, when the donations arrive, they require reorganization into robotics kits, a tedious process where we often find that donations don’t have sufficient parts to assemble complete sets. Despite these roadblocks, as of August 2021, RoboRecovery has been able to put together 26 robotics kits, which is sufficient to run 4-5 robotics programs.
RoboRecovery Supply Side Flyer
Flyer to robotics equipment donors
Part of RoboRecovery’s inventory at the STEM Library Lab. Todd Wackerman, Director of the STEM Library Lab, pictured left.
  1. Email is a double-edged sword. As I have grown my venture, email has been the go-to medium to contact potential partners and reach a larger audience both on the state and national level. However, the ease of email communication also makes it one of the least successful ways of connecting. I have been frequently ignored over email I have found it difficult to use email to start lasting connections. While the alternative, in-person contact, is the most effective route, it is also the hardest to pull off and logistically inconvenient. I have yet to find a communication medium that strikes a good balance between ease and effectiveness, but I imagine that as RoboRecovery builds a reputation in the New Orleans area over time, this will be less of an issue.


While still tackling these issues, I’m also excited for the future of RoboRecovery past this summer. I hope to expand and diversify our operations throughout the fall, finding new avenues of community outreach and ways to get robots to kids. This includes partnering with more schools beyond our pilots, amassing a larger library of robotics sets, teaming up with local public libraries and children’s museums to reach students beyond the school and after school setting, and generating small revenue streams to keep RoboRecovery’s business model financially sustainable over the long run.

Dr Oertling donations
Collecting donations of LEGO robots and laptops from Dr. Annette Oertling, retired Tulane professor and president of FIRST Louisiana-Mississippi

Starting a nonprofit venture has taught me that entrepreneurship and startup culture are lot more arduous than I initially imagined, but nonetheless this has been one of the most rewarding experiences that I have had at Tulane. I’ve picked up the basics of market research and effective marketing, building a program that addresses a tangible shortcoming in New Orleans and advocating for the importance of after school robotics enrichment. While marketing, I’ve nonetheless grown as an active listener, speaking with several teachers and school administrators to gain a thorough grasp on their needs, striving to make our program culturally responsive, and adapting to the schedules of local teachers and students. I’ve become a better public speaker, negotiator, teacher, people manager, and thinker in the few months that RoboRecovery has existed, which couldn’t have been possible without the generous support of the Taylor Center. I can only begin to imagine the spectrum of capabilities I will master through this journey. Regardless of whether RoboRecovery succeeds eventually, it has altered my perspective on my role in the New Orleans community and what I can do for others.