For These Girls, Inventing Isn't Just for Grown-Ups

K-K GREGORY began her own business by getting snow up her sleeve. As the inventor of Wristies, she created something that not only helped her, but hundreds of other people as well. Now, with a thriving mail-order and wholesale-retail operation, the 12-year-old in Bedford, Mass., is learning to run a business - with help from mom.

K-K is just one of many girls and young women who are breaking into invention and entrepreneurship - worlds often thought of as "for grown-ups only."

"It's really fun doing research on something and figuring out you're the first," says K-K, who would like to design Muppets someday. "I'm glad that I've been able to get this far, not saying 'I'm too busy' or 'I'll give up now.' "

Wristies are made out of Polartec fleece and are worn under gloves and jacket sleeves, or by themselves. A hole for your thumb keeps them from slipping.

After sewing the first pair of Wristies for herself, K-K made 12 more for her Girl Scout troop. Her friends encouraged her to take the concept further, so with the help of an attorney, K-K applied for a patent and trademarked the Wristies name. She also designed a logo and her own business card.

Then word got out.

Boston-area McDonald's restaurants ordered them by the hundreds for their drive-through window workers. Wristies, Inc., recently signed a license-and-sale agreement with the Turtle Fur Company to sell Wristies to the winter sporting-goods industry. K-K also donated Wristies to workers who are rebuilding Malden Mills in Lawrence, Mass., her Polartec supplier. (The mills burned down in December.) Now K-K and her mother, Susan Gregory, are keeping up with orders from England to Alaska.

"What's ironic is that K-K can't even serve on the company's board of directors because she's not old enough," Mrs. Gregory says. "But she is a stockholder."

K-K's story is inspiring to any entrepreneur wannabe, but it also drives home the value of young leadership, something educators say is sorely unnoticed in society.

Good news about youths

"Kids are doing really good things in America today, and Americans need to give more attention to them," says Frances Karnes, professor of special education at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. In the media, "all we hear about are the negative things that youths do. We don't hear about the positive things. So little press is given to the child who saves someone's life, creates an invention, takes on a leadership project."

Professor Karnes points to the importance of young people having peer role models - especially girls. At a time when studies show discrimination against girls in the classroom as well as a decline in girls' self-esteem as they approach adolescence, young women need to know they have peers who are successful because of their smarts, Karnes says. Many gifted girls, in an attempt to "blend in," end up burying their talents, she says. "They don't want to show they have intellectual talent. They don't want to stand out."

To help counter that, Karnes and Suzanne Bean, an assistant professor of education at the Mississippi University for Women, wrote two books: "Girls and Young Women Leading the Way: 20 True Stories about Leadership," and "Girls and Young Women Inventing: 20 True Stories about Inventors" (Free Spirit Publishing, Minneapolis, 1995).

Many books have been written on adult female inventors and leaders, but "it's hard for a girl to identify with a woman 40, 50 years old. What girls need are excellent peer role models," Karnes reiterates.

Take inventor Kellyan Coors, for example. Like her older sister, she loves math and science. As an inventor, she stresses the importance of risk-taking. "You shouldn't be afraid of taking a risk," says the 12-year-old from Aurora, Colo.

Not surprisingly, Kellyan created a "risk" category in the game she invented, "Boys Scoot Over. Girls Advance to the Top," which won first place in the Invent America! contest sponsored by the US Patent Model Foundation.

The game involves rolling a die and answering math and science questions from different categories: math computation, math problem-solving, science, famous women, and "take a risk." Getting a right answer means climbing a step up on a pyramid. The first girl to the top wins.

Challenging game for girls

What inspired her? "I just noticed in my classrooms that girls weren't attempting challenging math problems," Kellyan says in a phone interview. Most of the games aimed at girls are about dating, shopping, and being beautiful, she adds. With her game, girls gain confidence in science and math and know that they can win with their knowledge.

Other inventions Kellyan has to her credit include a blinking "Tooth-Fairy Light" for children and the "SHHHH Machine" - a mechanism that uses a decibel meter to indicate when a classroom, for example, is getting too noisy. These days Kellyan is tossing around ideas for other inventions, but she won't whisper any clues. They're "sort of secret," Kellyan says.

Kellyan's advice to kids who want to invent: "Find a problem you want to solve; think about ways you can solve it; talk to an adult and see what they think; go to the library and research; then go for it!"

Lows' road to success

"Go for it" is something Jeanie and Elizabeth Low say to themselves often. The two sisters-cum-inventors recently formed their own company, J&E Innovations, in Houston, Texas.

On March 10, 1992, Jeanie, then 11 years old, became the youngest female ever to be granted a United States patent. Her invention is the "Kiddie Stool," a stool that folds down from the cabinet below the bathroom sink so children can reach the basin. The Lows' father broke the family's plastic stool (which always seemed to get caught in the door), so Jeanie came up with a better solution. With help from the Houston Inventors Association, she applied for and received the patent - as well as a lot of media attention. Now a company in Hong Kong is interested in manufacturing the Kiddie Stool.

"My mom uses it because she's quite short," says Jeanie, now 14, who also invented an alarm that sounds when the bathtub is about to overflow - another gizmo inspired by one of her father's mishaps.

Inventing is all about problem-solving, says Jeanie, who would like to be an advertising agent in the future. Creative thinking is "one thing you're going to need in life no matter what," she adds.

Beyond inventing, there are marketing issues. "You should invent something as long as it makes you happy," Jeanie says, but "if you want to sell something, you have to make sure it's safe and helpful." Her next invention is a secret, she says, offering just one clue: "It's about a potato."

"It's so top-secret she won't tell anyone," reports Richard Low, Jeanie and Elizabeth's dad.

While Jeanie often creates inventions for the bathroom, her younger sister, Elizabeth, 11, focuses on the office. She invented a paperweight-toy called the Happy Hand when she was 7, and stole her sister's title as the youngest female in US history with a patent. "It can hold stuff," she says about the shapable hand - a surgical glove filled with sand. These days she is working on modifications of her design, using colors and logos.

"I learned a lot making something that's good for business," Elizabeth says shyly. "My friends? They think it's cool."

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