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Firefox Presents: A YouTube creator blending femininity and engineering

vr, 20/05/2022 - 17:44

Being feminine and having technical skills are not mutually exclusive. This should be obvious, but Xyla Foxlin has had to work hard to prove femininity and engineering can go hand in hand. While in college, she started a YouTube channel called Beauty and the Bolt, where she co-produced tutorials on STEM topics like electronics, math and physics. Schools and other programs used the videos to teach young people, and the project became a nonprofit where she served as executive director. Now, Xyla has her own YouTube channel, where she gets to “play around” with whatever material she can get her hands on in her garage. She made a corset out of a cedar strip. She built a rocket and launched it, wearing a dress. Last year, she bought a small plane – something she’s worked toward since learning to fly an aircraft while working as an airport crew member during high school (“I’d show up to fuel this guy’s plane and he’d be like, ‘No way.’”) We talked to Xyla about getting into engineering, what she loves about the internet and building a Tesla coil for a beauty pageant. 

Tell us about your name.

I have very interesting parents and they let me name myself when I was like 10. They had Foxlin as a combination of both of their names and they both changed their names when they got married. So changing names is sort of a family hobby. 

They named me Kayla because they thought they had made it up. And then it was  on the top 10 girls’ names list that year, and they were really heartbroken about it. They spent my whole childhood talking about how much they regretted naming me Kayla. What’s even better is my middle name is Ray. So they named me Kayla Ray, and I’m like a Jewish Asian from Boston,not a Southern Belle. 

At one point, I was sitting at a diner with my parents and my mom said, “Pick a new name. We’ll just go change it like right now.” My dad really wanted a high Scrabble scoring name and I liked X’s more than Zs because I was 10. I didn’t understand the adult implications of the letter X yet. Xena was on the list, but the warrior princess kind of did it first. By the end of the night, my new name was Xyla.

You were in the robotics team in high school but didn’t build robots until college. What changed?

I was in the back hoping someone would let me do something. But the reality is a lot of times when you join any organization, you have to get in there and be really loud and be like, “I’m going to do this thing. I’m going to try it.” And that is not really socially conditioned into most girls. 

So I was quiet and obedient and I did whatever was told to me. I was told to organize the outreach events, make the engineering notebook or organize the bake sale. I organized a lot of big sales and raised a lot of money. 

When I went to college, I was like, “I’m going to be the best engineer I can possibly be.” My freshman year, I joined  the robotics team. I joined the rocket team. I was going to hackathons on weekends. I was building robots for this NASA robotic mining competition

Xyla Foxlin, sitting in front of a computer, points at a video playing on a monitor.Photo: Dana Lynn Pleasant for Mozilla

Tell us about the YouTube channel you started in college, Beauty and the Bolt. 

It was born out of an issue I saw with the Makerspace that I worked at in school. There was this moment where a girl walked in and she wanted to 3D-print a phone case. She wasn’t an engineer. It was maybe her first time in this space. She was already really uncomfortable. We were really busy that day, and so my boss was like, “Just give her the text tutorial.” So I sat her down on the machine, I opened up the document for her and said, “Just read through this. I’ll get you set up and then come see me if you have any issues.” It was 42 pages long. I saw her scroll through it, and then when I had my back turned, she had closed her laptop.

I thought, “That sucks. We need a better way of doing this.” So I reached out to one of my friends and asked, “How do you feel about making video tutorials for the space?” Because I think that if someone had a video to watch on how to do it, it would lower the barrier to entry for the people who are uncomfortable. 

So we made a handful of videos on how to use machines in the Makerspace. We posted them on YouTube. A ton of schools and other Makerspaces found them and started using them as their training. We started getting requests for more videos and then it snowballed into a nonprofit.

You also competed in pageants for a year during college and won Miss Greater Cleveland as part of the Miss America program. Why did you decide to explore that?

I was sort of angry about how there was this notion that I couldn’t be super feminine and also be an engineer at the same time. People would make fun of me for wearing pink and flowers. And I thought , screw all of you. I’m just going to go compete at Miss Ohio and see what happens. 

One of the other reasons I did it is I wanted an excuse to build a musical Tesla coil. I read through the Miss America talent rules and fire is not allowed. Although fire is a plasma, not all plasma is technically fire. I figured showing up with a lightning machine was not technically outside of the rules of Miss America. So there’s the mischievous part of me that was like, “Now I have to do it.” 

I built a little Tesla coil and I hooked it up to my electric violin and played. It was part of the personal mission I had of trying to get girls who are more feminine to know that they could do stuff like engineering, and that it wouldn’t make them any less of who they are.

Xyla Foxlin speaks into a microphone.Photo: Dana Lynn Pleasant for Mozilla

Now you run your own YouTube channel.

With the nonprofit, I felt a lot of pressure to keep my projects simple and classroom friendly. When I started my own channel,, I want to be able to build whatever wacky, crazy idea that I can come up with. I want to be able to push myself really hard and make projects that I don’t even think I know how to do. I am me, the person Xyla Foxlin and I’m building the things that Xyla Foxlin wants to build.

What would high school freshman Xyla think if she could see you now?

She’d be so jazzed. I don’t think there was ever a moment in my life where I thought I would own an airplane at 25. I have played that moment in my mind a bunch of times: What if I could travel back in time and talk to the 13-year-old version of myself? That it paid off and it was worth it.

What’s your favorite part about the internet?

One of my favorite things about being my age and living in 2022 is that the internet lets you create whatever job that you want. You have to be very entrepreneurial. You have to be willing to put yourself out there. It’s not for everyone, but the tools are at your disposal to forge your own path and create the job that you want.

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