From South Central to Silicon Valley

Jessica Alter   |   August 30th, 2012

This FounderDating guest post was written by Mandela Schumacher-Hodge for our FounderTalk series. Mandela is the Co-founder and COO of Tioki, the premiere online professional network for educators (formerly known as DemoLesson). Tioki is backed by Kapor Capital, 500 StartUps, and Imagine K-12. A former 6th grade Teacher and Teach for America alum, Mandela holds a Masters in Education Administration and Policy, and was a Doctoral student at the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Sciences. She can be reached/followed here.

The whole freaking system was broken! And they expect little old me to be able to help fix it? Improbable. No, actually flat out impossible. How did this even happen? How could things have gotten so bad? Who’s to be held responsible? Where can I even begin to help? These questions flooded my mind and so did the harsh reality that maybe I just wasn’t cut out for this. This was by far the most difficult thing I had ever attempted in my life, and I seriously contemplated just walking away. No, ”this” wasn’t entrepreneurship in The Valley, rather it was teaching 6th graders in South Central Los Angeles.

I came into my first year of teaching in South Central ready to take on the broken U.S. education system and do my part to close the achievement gap and provide all children with equal access to a quality education. I drank plenty of the “Kool-Aid” at the Teach for America Summer Institute (aka teaching boot camp to the umpteenth degree of intensity). The liquid courage left me feeling emboldened to apply my leadership, organizational, and creativity skills to the setting of a classroom in one of the poorest, most gang-infested neighborhoods in the country. Not unlike the feeling of starting your first company, I was brimming with “I can make this happen” excitement and eager to take on the challenge.

The Lock Down

Then came my first “Lock Down.” Unfortunately, the community was plagued with heavy gang-activity and violence. Whenever there was a threat to the students (e.g. a police chase, shooting), the school would be locked up with everyone inside of it – students, teachers, staff, and parents – and we would all be required to secure our classroom doors, get on the floor, and remain there until we received the clear notice. This happened at numerous times during my first year teaching, but I’ll never forget my initial reaction. Whereas I felt utterly terrified inside, most of my students (10 and 11 year-olds) appeared calm and unfazed. They had done this before I realized – in elementary school.

The obstacles seemed literally stacked against me:

  • Unprepared – The majority of my 6th grade students came in reading at a 3rd grade level (yes, that means my 10 and 11 year-olds reading at the proficiency level of a 7 year old.)
  • No support – Few of my students had parents or guardians who could assist them with their studies; they were working their second or third job, they didn’t have the content knowledge to assist, or they didn’t speak the language
  • No money – Many of my students’ families did not have enough money to purchase a full-year’s worth of school supplies, nor did they have the money to invest in duplicates of the school uniform, resulting in many of my students wearing the same clothes to school every single day
  • No resources – The violence of the neighborhood also caused the school to close its gates promptly at 3:30pm everyday, refusing entry to anyone into the building, and giving the students no opportunity to participate in after school tutoring or extracurricular activities.
  • No stability – By far the worst reality of all, though, was that several of my students were homeless, living in cars or moving from place to place.

How could I possibly expect my students to do their homework when they didn’t even have a desk or a counter to work at? How can I help my students catch up with their studies if there’s no place for me to tutor them? How can I honestly change these students’ lives when there are so many things that are out of my control? The challenges appeared insurmountable, and had I decided to walk away, any rationale person would have understood, consoling me with the “oh well, at least you tried” line. But just as that overwhelming sense of defeat began to take hold something, or rather someone, came across my desk, renewed my hope, and reinvigorated my spirit.

Three Truths and A Lie

At first glance, Edgar looked like most of my other 6th grade students. About a half a foot shorter than I, his face still carried the baby fat of his former years, and his personality was one reminiscent of most other 10 year-old boys in the school. The first one out the door to play at recess, resistant to tucking in his school uniform t-shirt, a skateboarder and X-Games fan, a Diary of a Wimpy Kid reader, and just another one of the many boys starting to get these weird fuzzy feelings towards girls. Edgar did have his unique qualities, though. He was always on time to class, rarely missed homework assignments, got straight As and Bs, and was always willing to help his classmates out. Overall, Edgar had a kind disposition, great work ethic, and was the type of student that teachers listed under the “a pleasure to have in class” column in their grade books.

Although happy to have him in class, for most of the first semester, I did not pay particular attention to Edgar or spend any time with him outside of the structured class periods. I was wrapped up in the storm of surviving my first year of teaching and the “sink or swim” high-pressure atmosphere meant most of my extra time was spent reprimanding those who were misbehaving, and providing remedial instruction for those performing poorly on tests.

That was, until, our first week back to school from winter break. I had an agenda to help the class get to know one another better. To start off, I began with a little game called 3 Truths and a Lie. Each person took a turn announcing three truths and one lie about themselves, and the audience had to guess which one of the four statements was the lie. We got a kick out of learning new things about one another while racking our brains trying to decipher the lies from the truths. When it was Edgar’s turn, he said:

“I am named after my father.

I used to be in a gang.

I want to be a chef when I grow up.

My favorite superhero is Batman.”

Huh? The wheels started turning in my head, but before I could process, several students’ hands shot up. “You lied when you said you used to be in a gang,” the first contestant blurted out. “Nope,” Edgar calmly replied. “That’s true.” Several mouths hit the floor, including my own. I remember calling on the next person to give it a go, but I don’t remember listening for their response. I was already consumed with my own thoughts, trying to grapple with what I had just heard Edgar say. Edgar – well-behaved, high-performing, “normal” 10 year-old boy – Edgar used to be in a gang?!?! I couldn’t believe it. What did that mean? What had he done? How did he get out? My mind was racing with questions. “Uh, sorry Edgar, what did you say? What was the lie?” “Batman, Ms. Schumacher-Hodge. Batman is not my favorite superhero. Spiderman is,” he clarified.

I didn’t sleep much that night, as my thoughts were still on Edgar’s ”truth.”  Ever since I started teaching, I had seen and heard so many things about the gangs of South Central. It terrified me to think of what a 10 year-old could be doing and learning in a gang. My heart and mind were heavy with concern and the next day I asked Edgar if he’d come into class during lunch to talk

“Edgar, What did you mean when you said you were in a gang?” “I used to be different Ms. S-H. When my family and I were living in Texas, my life was different,” he replied matter-of-factly. concern egged me on to delve deeper. “When was this? What happened? Do your parents know about this? Edgar, I want you to know I am asking you these questions as your teacher and someone who cares about you. Telling your classmates and I that you used to be in a gang is a heavy statement and in order for me to make sure you are OK and safe now, I am asking you to share with me what happened.”

“O.K., Ms. S-H.” And then he confided in me…

His father was a notorious gang leader in Texas for years. He recalled his family home being filled with gang members, weapons, and drugs. As he got older and wiser, he was able to start comprehending what was going on. The transactions, the meetings, the plans being made, and by age 7, his dad was sending him on delivery runs. He explained that he followed orders and never opened the packages to look at what was inside them but that he knew that most of the times it was money; a few times it was drugs. At age 8 is when things got really serious. He had to do and see things that he didn’t feel comfortable sharing with me. He just summed it up as “really bad.”  But one thing he did confide in me was seeing his father’s brother shot right in front of him. That day, his father was arrested and sentenced to 25 years minimum in prison. When asked why his dad went to jail, he replied, “He made some poor choices and now he has to pay for them.”

He went on to explain that after he saw what happened to his dad in Texas, he realized that choices have consequences. His dad’s choice to be in a gang resulted in him doing bad things, which further led to his incarceration, which now has left Edgar’s mom without a husband and Edgar and his siblings without a dad. Edgar said that his mom moved the family out to South Central to live with her family and that since coming here last year, he’d grown close to his grandfather. He said his grandfather teaches him to not be ashamed of his past and what he’s been through because it’s made him who he is. More than that, though, his grandfather teaches him that life is all about choices. You can choose to be happy or you can choose not to be. You can choose to be angry or you can choose not to be. Everyday you have the ability to choose what you want to think about, what you want to do, and who you want to be. But whatever you ultimately decide will dictate what happens in your life. And so that is why Edgar says he always tries to smile, even when he’s not having the greatest day. “I’m making the choice to look at the good, think about the good, and just try to be happy.” 

Wow. I was floored. 10 years on this earth, and this young man exuded a maturity and self-awareness that far exceeded his age –maybe even my age. I kept thinking, if this young man can go through such horrific experiences and come out the other end as a better, stronger, happier person all because he’s making the decision to be this way, then so can I, so can anyone.

That day, for those 20 something odd minutes during lunch, a shift occurred inside of me. Edgar made me realize that our lives are the result of the choices we make and how we choose to view them.  My life is not a movie script and my students are not paid actors. Life in South Central pretty much carried on as usual for another six months until school let out for summer vacation.  A few students still dropped out to join gangs, others never made the academic improvements I had hoped for.  However, there is no doubt in my mind that I became a better teacher to my students, and as a result, several of my students made incredible progress, both academically and personally

Bring On the Obstacles

However, the lessons Edgar taught me lived on far past my year teaching in South Central. When I left the classroom three years later to start building my edtech company, Tioki, with my Co-Founder, Brian Martinez, I soon realized that I would again be tested in many of the same ways I was that first year teaching. We began with a sheer desire to solve a problem and make things better, but were immediately confronted with the reality of being under-resourced, under-prepared, and completely overwhelmed. Most of my friends and family wondered why I was dropping out of my Ph.D. program, cashing out my retirement plan, and maxing out my credit cards, in order to invest my full time attention on Tioki. But one thing I understood, thanks to Edgar, was the impact choices have. If I was going to make it through the rough terrain of building a successful startup, I was going to have to make tough choices. I was going to have to choose to make sacrifice, dedication, and hard work the mantra of my life; I was going to have to choose to believe in my team’s ability to succeed, despite the myriad of obstacles that lined our path.

Even now, having successfully expanded our company there are still constant challenges. When it feels like the odds are stacked against us (and it often does), I think back to my time in the classroom in South Central, when I had to make due with so few resources and tools that progress seemed improbable. As a cofounder, I’m rarely  in complete control of the circumstances in which I am working. The economy, education policy, market trends, etc. are all factors that greatly impact my company’s ability to succeed. However, what I learned from Edgar four years ago is that I get to choose how I am going react to and work with those circumstances. No matter what the “facts” are or how dismal the odds look, choose to believe that it’s possible and then choose to take action.  A 10-year-old taught me that.

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Company Culture – Give and You Shall Receive (x10)

Jessica Alter   |   August 23rd, 2012

This FounderDating Guest Post was written by Ted Rheingold for our series: FounderTalk – The Real Story.  Ted was Co-Founder of Dogster and is now VP Social at Say Media.  He’s also an advisor to several startups and can be reached and/or followed @tedr.

At the very beginning of my business Dogster, before generating revenue, before we even incorporated, I knew the site could be a very special business if we grew it right.  I didn’t know how much work that would be until we hit our lowest points.

Very early on I was invited to meet with Benchmark Capital. I almost didn’t even accept the meeting as I had seen good companies go under in 2001 because they had been overfunded and indifferent about culture. The partner I met with sized my concerns up quickly and said if I should outline the needed company culture right away so it would be precede anything else. And we did that.  We made sure we had the creative, free thinkers that could help us uncover how great and profound a business this could be and we were off and running. But no one told us how difficult it was going to be to keep culture as a top priority.

In 2005 we had 5 employees, and immediately committed to making their professional experience as rewarding we could provide. Advisors and investors strongly suggested we move down to the Valley, but we stuck to our guns about staying in SF and attracting the right people.  We instituted very thorough bi-annual reviews – and we actually did them. We gave people desks with privacy. We included the greater company in our road map and planning processes. We did fun outings. We grew to 12 employees in 2006,18 in 2007.  Unfortunately, I had no idea how much work it took to make a positive work environment, and that’s when things were going great. Now try to pretend you’re having a good time at a post-launch celebration when you’re carrying so much business stress you can’t even sleep at night. Suddenly, it’s really hard trying to care a rat’s posterior about employee parking spaces, or what employees think of the more crowded confines when you’re suffering through one of the worst dips on an already bumpy roller coaster ride. 

Fortunately one of my co-founders,  John Vars, took creating a fun, rewarding harmonious workplace as seriously in practice as I wished I could. And he made sure we did the employees reviews even when we were in the middle of back-against-the-wall fundraising. And he set up a great communication workshop for the staff so we could really understand what was behind the problems that employees we’re having.

But as time went on, success only meant our competitors and challenges kept getting bigger and bigger. I began internally debating – was all the work we put into doing right by the employees even a net benefit for the company?  Sure, it’s easy to be generous when budgets are growing each month, but when they’re flat or worse I would let myself selfishly think, “now is brass tax time: the team needs to hunker down, not ask questions and just work.”  Some days I was so stressed and frustrated I realized I couldn’t even open my mouth or I’d risk exploding at them for things they had no part in. Just like you will be, I was in way over my head and had limited abilities to manage my position. Thank god I knew that no matter what I had to stick to our original philosophy because the stress and the frustration was my problem, not the problem of our team of top-performers.

 But what I learned was the payback for committing to the employee experience came when the company was at it’s most vulnerable. Twice our financial situation was so precarious we had to do layoffs. Once in October 2008 when the global economy was on the brink, and then in 2010 when intense competition created by the recession came to our doghouse and ate right from our dog bowl.

Both times the founding team painfully sweated prepping layoffs. We had to keep it all a secret and ensure the company was still in a good position to excel with the remaining team. Since we knew the 2008 belt tightening was going to come as a surprise – because the company had been doing great up to the crash – we announced the layoffs at the same time to the whole team. We then gave a presentation to everyone, including those being laid off, so we could explain why this had to be done, why certain positions were being cut and why others were kept. We asked everyone remaining to take a 10% pay cut, while founders took a  15% cut. Within 15 minutes of the presentation’s conclusion all of the remaining staff were back at work. While I feared it would be like a dirge, to an outsider the vibe was like any other day. A lead engineer (a true A player) even voluntarily offered a further reduction if it meant saving the company; we had feared he’d be the first to jump ship. In the ensuing months when we needed output to be even more than before the layoffs, morale was high and strong the whole time. One would be tempted to think the hard work was just a “I hope I’m not next’ attitude, but for the team is wasn’t about the job. It was about the company and team mission. It was about what we had committed to week in and week out. They had worked in enough places to know that collaboration, afternoon soccer games, open-communication were not the norm and that we were really trying to do something better.

I had always thought the reason to build a great company culture and supportive workplace was so a company could excel when things were going well (which is the case).  What I learned though, is that when it really counts is you’re your back is against the wall – you’ll get paid back in spades because no else will be there. Together our smaller team pulled out of the recession with a work harmony and output that was unlike any other period of the business. The company was able to fend off massive top-tier competition and go through our acquisition by Say Media a year later.

The company could have fallen apart in more ways than I care to mention.  If we hadn’t established culture as foundational early on, we may have caved later.

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FounderDating Success Story: Voxgift Winston

Jessica Alter   |   August 13th, 2012

Tom Giesberg and Dave Angelow are FounderDating members who joined forces  to develop VoxGift Winston, a mobile application that empowers patients to communicate their treatment needs accurately and comfortably by touch. They are based in Austin, TX.

WHEN DID YOU GET INTO STARTUPS?

Tom: I have a technical background, mostly focused on enterprise software. After having the experience of a family member having difficulty communicating through a respirator, I had the idea to create an app that could help people with similar speech restrictions communicate with others. That led me into creating the VoxGift app.

Dave: I come from the business side of things, primarily helping companies with operations improvement, supply chain management, and strategic planning. I’ve worked with large corporations like Dell, as well as start-ups and SMBs. And I’ve been teaching Texas State McCoy School of Business for the last several years.

DESCRIBE YOUR “DATING” PROCESS AND HOW YOU DECIDED TO TAKE THE PLUNGE TOGETHER:

Tom:  Through FounderDating, Dave and I were able to find and research each other ahead of time. We met for coffee first and discussed working together and we found we were compatible, prior to the FounderDating networking event we attended. I already knew I liked Dave. He had the business development and marketing skills that I needed to help me start getting the VoxGift app out there to potential users.

WHAT WAS HELPFUL FOR YOU ABOUT FOUNDERDATING?

Tom: FounderDating gave me the ability to seek out a person that had the complimentary skills I was looking for in a co-founder.

Dave: Although Tom and I are both in the same city, the FounderDating network breaks down geographic barriers and makes it easy to connect virtually with other locales and potential partners in other locations.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO ENTREPRENEURS REGARDING COFOUNDERS?

Tom: Be crystal clear about roles and expectations. The unspoken as a rule, is not a good thing. One of the lessons we learned was to be clear upfront about what amount of time we had to invest in the project. Initially, I had the impression Dave had more availability to lend to the project and that’s caused some business challenges as he’s had other consulting that’s taken precedence, which has definitely slowed down the development process.

Dave:  In retrospect, I would advise putting it all down on paper. Just like in dating or a marriage, you need to define the relationship. It can be a Google Doc that everyone has access to it, but make sure it is clear to each person what they will do, what time they can devote, and how long they can stay with it, financially speaking. Be rigorous about how you will define success. It’s also crucial to check in on a regular basis. If you’re working together around the clock, this might be less of an issue, but it’s important to have regular check-ins when you’re not working together.  

WHAT’S VOXGIFT?

Tom: VoxGift Winston is a mobile app that helps people with restricted abilities communicate with others. Originally I envisioned it as a way for patients to convey their needs to healthcare providers, but it’s evolving into more of a communications platform which we’re seeing could be applied in many different settings. For example, with a touch of a button, an elderly parent could easily send a message to family members at a distance, home healthcare provider, etc. when medication has been taken or to let them know how things are going. Other uses include using push notifications to monitor how patients are managing their chronic diseases, like diabetes, and reminding patients of pending appointments and to make follow-up appointments.

DO YOU HAVE SIGNS IT’S WORKING?

Tom: We’ve gotten overwhelmingly positive feedback from users and potential clients. A lot of our work has been meeting with hospitals and healthcare providers to get their input and give us a better sense of the healthcare landscape.

Dave: The hospitals we’ve talked to are usually interested, yet many are still hesitant to use an outside device. I think this is starting to change and trends are showing that more and more companies are letting use their own devices on corporate sites. A big part of our research has been to determine what will entice users to take the leap and buy-in to the product. 

 

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FounderDating Education

Jessica Alter   |   August 1st, 2012

Back in March we started noticing a large percentage of applicants writing in an interest area that we didn’t have on the site – Education.  We had made no attempt to reach out to entrepreneurs interested in education and learning, so the only logical conclusion we could come to was that Education was/is a huge area of interest for entrepreneurs and one where we can add a lot of value. Then we met with Teach for America’s Social Entrepreneurship team and they literally told us that, “How and where to find complimentary cofounders is one of the most frequently asked questions from our alumni entrepreneurs.”   So, today we’re thrilled to announce the launch of FounderDating Education in partnership with Teach for America. 

FounderDating Education will help the growing number of innovative education-focused entrepreneurs by connecting them with one another to find cofounders.  It’s a direct expansion of the FounderDating platform (members will be a part of the same online network) and our first vertical-specific initiative.  We decided to launch this not only because education one of the biggest challenges of our time, but also because:

  • Bottom Up Demand – our applicants/members are demanding it as are the Teach for America alumni entrepreneurs
  • Education/Industry crossover – education/learning is an area where individuals with subject matter experience and those with industry experience don’t naturally cross paths. Bringing them together to form strong teams is a key component to innovation. Working with Teach for America’s Social Entrepreneurship Initiative means we can truly help bridge this gap. 

But don’t be confused by the name, the rest is the same FounderDating Network.  Here’s what you need to know:

  • Anyone can apply – from anywhere
  • High quality and balance – and the same rigorous evaluation process will be used by its education initiative to ensure high quality and balance by skill sets. Teach for America’s Social Entrepreneurship Initiative will be lending their education expertise to the screening process.
  • Interact online – once accepted, members will be part of the larger FounderDating Network, able to search (by interest area, skills, location, etc.) and interact with one another online.
  • Not just tech – we love tech, and believe it’s a key component to improving education from K-12 to lifelong learning. But we know education and learning isn’t just about technology and we welcome entrepreneurs who want to build schools, community initiatives, etc.
  • No idea necessary – as you know, we believe ideas change, people don’t so you don’t need to have THE idea, just be ready to at least work on a serious side-project.
  • FounderDating Education entrepreneurs will also be invited to an offline kickoff on September 20th in San Francisco (not mandatory, but certainly awesome).

There’s an immense amount of interest and excitement around Edtech and education entrepreneurship in general, and we’re excited to help individuals at the earliest stage find the right people to get started.

So, if you’re ready, actually if you’re even thinking about how to change education and learning apply now to join the network or just spread the word and pay it forward to other entrepreneurs.

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