An Interview With Alex Kukoff

Willa Fogarty reviews & interviews

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Tell us about yourself. What are some of your interests?
I'm deaf in my left ear, 16, and am attending high school and college in Southern California, working towards my Associates Degree in History. I opted for this simultaneous enrollment to focus on writing; I won Seventeen Magazine's Annual Short Fiction Contest—where I was published and interviewed by, featured in the June/July 2012 issue of Seventeen Magazine, and received $5000.00 as prize—I was honored in the competition to become LA’s Youth Poet Laureate, and I've been honored twice by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, but when a piece I wrote about struggling with my deaf ear was featured in an ebook anthology through the New York Times Learning Network, Edutopia, and the National Writing Project, I knew I had to help people like me. That's why I partnered with GrabCAD, an open forum for engineers, to produce my idea for a set of movie-theater glasses that, when worn, display the closed-captioning of a movie. Working with the engineers at GrabCAD inspired me to learn the Computer Science behind developing my glasses myself, which I learned at the 2014 Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program, where I blogged about my experiences. Once I had the mockup for a prototype, I went on ABC to speak about them, and was featured on UPenn and by Westlake Magazine. I still loved writing and wanted to write about my experiences, which I did for the Hearing Health Foundation and for Johns Hopkins. Separately, I wrote for Amy Poehler's Smart Girls at the Party, and have written a piece for Lean In. I’ve continued my work to help the deaf and hard-of-hearing through ANNTaylor and the Hillary Clinton-founded organization Vital Voices (I’m a 2014 ANNPower Fellow and Grantee). Most recently, I’m the President of my college's Honors Club, and I’m the Fundraising Coordinator of Phi Theta Kappa, the largest academic organization for two-year institutions. 

As young girls, we believe that “We can do anything,” but often we begin to lose this view around high school. What do you think are the some of the forces that cause teens to lose that optimism?
The typical girl my age is overloaded with schoolwork, and feels she often has to prioritize: the party on Friday, or studying for Monday’s test? This seems short-term, but in the future, Friday’s party becomes a date with someone who could be her soulmate, and Monday’s test becomes finishing her presentation / career-related work. This cycle of prioritizing sets girls up to believe, eventually, that they won’t be able to do anything they want, especially when the proof isn’t in the pudding: only 5.2% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Sometimes a girl needs to work a little less so she can fully explore her capacity to do more, to leave her mark on the world. 

At 16, you already have several awards and accomplishments under your belt. What do your parents think of your successes? Were they entrepreneurial?
My mom, in my humble opinion, is the real-life Olivia Pope; she’s been on Access Hollywoodtwice!—and developed a curriculum to solve the social, emotional, and educational problems in families. Her company partners with the Four Seasons California Health and Longevity Institute, and her drive and passion for her work really inspires me to one day match a fraction of her success. My brother, Zak Kukoff, is incredibly accomplished—he’s been in the New York Times, on NBC, and has worked to help those with Autism and truant students—and is super supportive of all my endeavors. Both my mom and my brother inspire me in all areas of my life—I believe having had such a supportive family has definitely contributed to my success. 

Before you started GrabCad you were primarily a writer. Was it hard to convince yourself that you could be an innovator or an engineer as well? 
I was very intimidated when working with the engineers at GrabCAD on my idea—I had little to-no experience in engineering, and didn’t think I was very good at math or science. However,as I eventually learned more about engineering as a whole (based on my experiences at the 2014 Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program), I found many similarities in writing and engineering—both involve creating something out of nothing, and both contain rules that can be manipulated and expanded upon to create wonders. 

How has your hearing impairment influenced your interests in the engineering field? 
For a long time, my hearing loss didn’t lead me to investigate how engineering could help the problem; I’m missing two of the three bones in my left ear, and because my loss is anatomical,not neurological, I am ineligible for a hearing aid. I never needed a hearing aid, but what I was inhibited from what I did need—a social environment to thrive in—because my hearing loss prevented me from making friends. I had the idea for my glasses for a few months, but didn’t know what steps I would take until I stumbled upon GrabCAD — at that point, I grew familiar with and embraced the world of engineering, and I haven’t looked back since.

You graduate in 2016 with a high school diploma and an associates degree in History. What’s next for you? 
After I graduate, I hope to transfer to a four-year institution, and to make a lasting impact in the deaf/hard-of-hearing community—with writing and or engineering.


About the Author

Willa Fogarty

Willa Fogarty is a full-time University of Montana student working towards degrees in both Marketing and Psychology with a certificate in Entertainment Management. She hopes to change the way women are portrayed in the media, and use empowering messages to do so. Her outside interests include music, theater, the outdoors, and ice cream.

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