Penn State and Schreyer Honors College alumna Aniyia Williams is the founder and CEO of Tinsel, a company that manufactures electronic devices that also serve as fashion accessories.
By: Jeff Rice
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Before Aniyia Williams was an entrepreneur who launched her own company and a new way of looking at fashion accessories, she was a fan and consumer of music.
“I use my headphones every day,” the 2007 Penn State Schreyer Honors College graduate said. “I was really annoyed that I had to dig them out from the bottom of my bag all the time. They were always this tangled rat’s nest of wires. I was thinking that if I could wear them on my body, it would solve a lot of those problems. But I spend too much time putting an outfit together to have it downgraded by these rubber wires.”
Spurred by that idea, Williams, who attended Berks campus of Penn State before transferring to University Park, started and became the CEO of Tinsel, a hardware startup now in its third year. Its first product release, called “The Dipper,” is a necklace that doubles as audio headphones. Tinsel recently shipped its first units of the Dipper and presented a pitch at Google Demo Day, two more milestones in a journey Williams probably never thought she would undertake.
After graduating with honors in Italian and musicology from Penn State, Williams worked in nonprofit fundraising for several years before moving to the Bay Area when her husband, Marco Rogers, took a job at Yammer. She started working at Voxer, the maker of a voice and messaging app, as a content marketing manager and eventually as its head of marketing.
It was somewhat of an unconventional path to the tech industry but, looking back, it makes sense to Williams.
“The theme among everything that I’ve done and every role that I’ve had to date has been I’m a creator,” she said. “I love to create things, whether it’s something a little more tactical like building a program or a system. I love making things from scratch.”
Developing the Dipper from concept to product, however, was a whole new challenge. At first, Williams couldn’t believe that no one else already had a similar product on the market. Then, she had to find an industrial designer (Ed Kilduff), a lead investor (Tom Katis, the founder of Voxer) and someone to help her make connections in the manufacturing world (a consulting group).
Along the way, she added Monia Santinello, the wife of one of Marco’s colleagues who speaks five languages and who would become Tinsel’s co-founder, and Jason Giles, a longtime friend and Student Government colleague at the Berks campus who does Tinsel’s graphic design and branding.
The trickiest part was finding the right material for the necklace. Williams was set on using metal chains — “To me, rubber wires are not jewelry,” she said — so they experimented with various hollow metals that would conceal the wires. One problem: The chains kept breaking. Williams had a pillow with a knit surface that was the test dummy, and prototype after prototype snapped when pulled across it. Finally, they found a material that would hold.
Williams and her team initially considered Bluetooth devices for the headphones but wanted to ensure a high quality of sound and didn’t want to have consumers worried about charging their accessories. The arrival of the iPhone 7, which does not include a headphone jack, is one of the reasons the company has a Bluetooth design in development, but Williams doesn’t see wired headphones disappearing anytime soon.
Even though the wires won’t really seem to be there when someone is wearing the Dipper.
“When you think about tinsel and what it is, it’s something that’s supposed to look like something else,” she said of the company’s namesake.
The Dipper was initially called the Gold Dipper because the base of the necklace, in the original design, looked as if it had been dipped in gold (the Tinsel team later switched to a sliver color). Williams plans to use other constellation-inspired names for future products and is excited to develop them in a way that hasn’t often been seen in Silicon Valley.
“Consumer electronics just really aren’t designed with women in mind,” Williams said. “I chalk that up for the most part to the fact that there’s not a lot of diversity when you look at people who start these kinds of companies and become the primary decision-makers in terms of where they were headed.
“Our team is very unique in that we’re led by women. The product is kind of made for us and by us. It positions us to be able come up with more things that really delight women.”