In April last year, Madagascar’s first 3D printed school was opened. It took a mere 18 hours of total print time for the walls—before the roof, door and windows were constructed out of local materials over the course of another 12 days. The company behind it? Humanitarian-driven non-profit, Thinking Huts.
Founded by Maggie Grout when she was just 15, Thinking Huts makes use of architectural-scale 3D printing to construct schools—referred to as Huts—in lower-income countries, with the aim of closing the global education opportunity gap. By connecting several Huts together, the non-profit is moving towards their next project, the Honeycomb Campus.
“It really represents the whole Thinking Huts vision coming together,” shares Grout. Serving three villages on the west coast of Madagascar, the new campus will be the first to incorporate solar power and Wi-Fi access, in addition to its expanded size.
Here, Grout opens up on why she decided to start Thinking Huts at such a young age, what it takes to run a non-profit venture and the best advice she’s learned along the way.
Especially at such a young age, what compelled you to start Thinking Huts?
I was born in a rural village in China, where I was abandoned and discovered by an orphanage worker. I was adopted at 18 months, then grew up in America. I’ve always had an awareness that my life could have taken a very different path, and that having access to education really changed the course of my life. That inspired me to start Thinking Huts. I also had a good support system—my parents were very encouraging. My dad was involved within the Silicon Valley space, so I grew up more exposed to and really interested in technology. I think the grit of the start-up mentality also came with that.
Were there any hesitations on your part to embark on this venture, given how new the technology was and the scale of the project?
Definitely. I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me starting companies, so I didn’t know if I could do it. In terms of the technology, I was also trying to pitch to different companies to get help with the projects, but they didn’t really understand what I was trying to do. Technology is usually thought of as something that is used for profit, so they didn’t understand why I was trying to use it for a more philanthropic purpose.
Where were some of the challenges you faced along the way?
Many of the challenges were invisible. I’m naturally a more shy and private person, so when it came to business, I really had to learn to be more confident and to speak up for myself. There are also stereotypes and double standards that Asians, and especially women, have to face. I’ve had experiences in meetings where an older team member or partner diminished my accomplishments and experiences. For a while, I thought that was normal. But eventually I realised that was not acceptable behaviour.
What helped you grow that confidence over the years?
For me, it was just going through the failures and road bumps. Being told I couldn’t do something and then going on to achieve it helped me develop that belief in myself over time. Perhaps it was just necessary for me to go through the not-so-pleasant things along the way.
“I’ve always had that awareness that my life could have taken a very different path”
I imagine that with the work you do, there are a lot of complex things that happen behind the scenes that go unnoticed. Could you tell us about that?
You have to earn the trust and loyalty of the people on the ground, which is especially important considering this is an international development piece. So a large part of my work involves things like international relations, diplomacy and even government relations, so we can move the equipment and work on the project smoothly. Having local partners is also important, and there’s also a lot that goes into things like the supply chain. With the structural engineering side, years of preparation and development go into making sure the building will stand the test of time and that it’s safe for the students to be in.
With that level of preparation, was there anything you were particularly careful to pay attention to?
What I’ve found is that many people in the Western world try to come up with solutions without listening to what the local people want. For me, community involvement is really important. It’s vital that the local people are included in the conversations, and that we maintain respectful relationships with them. We have local construction teams, and we train them to operate the 3D printer. It’s part of our focus on also creating more jobs to then support their economy. Eventually, we’d like for the local teams to be autonomous, whether that’s in terms of design or construction.
How has the experience been like working with the local community?
It’s been very heartwarming. In the US, my experience has been that there’s quite a divide between people even though there is a sense of equality in what the country hopes to achieve. What I’ve found in the communities we work with is that they don’t really see those differences. They’re really welcoming and warm, and like to have you be part of their community.
Do you think your goal has evolved in any way since you started thinking?
I don’t think it’s changed very much. We’re still hoping to empower children to grow up and achieve their dreams through education. The only thing that has changed is, with charity in general, I’ve realised it’s important to figure out a way to become more mainstream and connect with people, because it’s not typically seen as a cool thing.
In what ways have you figured out how to connect with people?
Through storytelling. For the longest time, I would try to talk about the construction process, but over time, I realised it was the personal story of why I had started this that appealed to people. I would also show them the long term impacts of what happens after we construct a school and the meaning that has in someone’s life for multiple generations. Once we shift it that way, people can empathise more.
“It’s vital that the local people are included in the conversations, and that we maintain respectful relationships with them”
What has been the most fulfilling part of this journey for you?
Finding people who also feel like they can make a difference in the world. There have been many points along the journey that I’ve thought things were impossible or that I couldn’t do it, but when I meet people like that, it just reminds me of how glad I am that I didn’t give up.
What is one piece of advice that you have for anyone thinking about starting a non-profit venture?
It’s important to find a good team. Being a perfectionist, I used to always want to do everything by myself, but then I learned that you have to let other people help you and learn to lean on them in order to grow as an organisation.
What is the ultimate goal for Thinking Huts?
I would say that the ultimate goal would be to not exist, because as a non-profit, that would mean you have essentially addressed the problem you had set out to. Unlike for-profit companies where the goal is to make money, for non-profits, you’re just hoping that you can make a huge difference in someone’s life and that the solution you have to offer is actually a successful one long-term.
Donate to Thinking Huts here.