Lisa Wang is the founder and CEO of Almost Fun, an innovative nonprofit organization whose mission it is to ensure low income and BIPOC students have a culturally responsive, accessible, and engaging resources that empower their learning. Almost Fun is also a graduate of FastForward’s nonprofit accelerator program, which we have featured in our startup edition on the podcast. Lisa joins Cause & Purpose for a tactical and enlightening discussion of what needs to change in how educational content is being made, what she learned from her time at Google about educational effectiveness and progress, and the lessons she has already learned in scaling a non-profit startup.
Lisa got into educational equity because of a lifelong passion for the mission. She started Almost Fun as a side project and it turned into something that she wanted to follow through with because she believed in the impact it could have for students.
Growing up with a math teacher for a dad, and being raised by immigrant parents, Lisa was inspired by the power of learning for someone like her father. He was the kind of student who would find the mistakes in the textbooks and point them out to the teacher. Growing up, her father saw the way Lisa was learning math and saw the issues with the system. He gave her puzzles and logic problems to develop her math skills beyond memorizing formulas.
“I never really even liked math that was taught before algebra. . .You see so many products out there that try to make math fun and engaging for younger audiences . . . but then once we get to algebra or once we get to higher level math, it’s kind of like, ok, the fun’s over.”
Lisa started her career at a venture capital internship, but didn’t enjoy the experience. She realized she wanted to build products, so she went to Google for her first job out of college to work in education at Google Classroom. Once there, she was exposed to a massive audience to test products on.
Standardized testing showed up as a problem early on for her since it reflects the prior cultural experiences or knowledge that privileged students have. That means that marginalized students who are using that content to learn or test on feel alienated and have a hard time building a foundation for their understanding from them.
At Almost Fun, the goal is to create content that builds upon the prior knowledge and experiences of marginalized students and students today in general.
“I had this fear of falling, of not being able to turn this into an impactful organization, of not being a leader that could lead this organization, but at some point the fear of not trying became bigger than the fear of failure.”
While Lisa was at Google, she volunteered at various organizations so that she could interact with more students and understand their learning needs. She ended up creating the first set of Almost Fun content out of the motivation to teach her students. She could see that they were motivated but that they didn’t feel safe or comfortable with what they were learning. Once she saw how effective her new content was, she began to think about building out a product.
A couple of months after leaving Google to build Almost Fun, Lisa discovered FastForward, and cold applied. It made a massive difference for her as a new startup founder to connect with a community of social justice-minded non profit professionals. The program took her from concept phase to connecting her to funding opportunities and giving her strategy for content, partnerships, and more.
With several of its products, Almost Fun is in the ready-to-scale stage. They are considering different models to scale in the future, including sponsored content, but core to their mission is to never charge a student for the content they provide. Lisa’s dream is to fund students’ education through corporate partnerships.
“I’ve always felt that corporations and organizations should be larger funders for the education system at large. I mean, I think that it benefits them in the end to have a better educated group of students, group of people, entering into the workforce. There is a little bit of that obligation to invest in the future for any society that you have a big part in creating or sustaining.”
When it comes to supporting students who are graduating right now, in the midst of a pandemic and all the disruption it has brought, Lisa suggests that it’s essential to focus on the quality of content being taught so that it feels relevant and meaningful to the students.
“Our secret sauce is that we try to really meet students where they are and that feels like a very simple thing but it’s actually quite a nuance because you need to think about what are students learning right now, what prior knowledge do they already have, what can we build upon to help them understand these concepts.”
The importance of focusing on students’ prior knowledge and experience when creating educational resources
Why joining FastForward is such an enhancement for startup non-profits in the social justice sector
What Google-created OKRs are (objective and key results) and how to use them effectively in your organization
How to support students in experiencing meaningful learning during a pandemic to set them up for what they will need to be able to navigate in the workforce
Explore Almost Fun's educational products and follow their progress from start up to scalingExplore Almost Fun
There needs to be a number that's associated with it. And it needs to really tie back to the objective in a big way. It can't be, you know, just like launch something like that's not enough. You don't know that like that launch is actually gonna impact your objective. That might be the activity associated with the key result, but like the key result needs to be something bigger that really ties back to your objective in a core way.
Welcome to Cause and Purpose Startup Edition. The show about entrepreneurs, launching new organizations, innovating, disrupting, and pioneering new paradigms for change on the front lines of some of the world's greatest social challenges. I'm Mike Spear and today's guest is Lisa Wang. Lisa is the founder and CEO of Almost Fun, an innovative nonprofit organization whose mission it is to ensure low income and BIPOC students have culturally responsive, accessible and engaging educational resources that empower their learning. Almost fun is also a graduate of fast, forwards non-profit accelerator program, which has supported some of our past guests. Personally, I'm most excited about almost fun because of how closely their team listens to the needs of their target population and takes a uniquely human centered approach to designing and building out their platform. Lisa, thank you so much for joining us. I'm excited to talk to you about almost fun and, and your, your journey there
Such a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me, Mike.
Awesome. Well, I always like to start, you know, kind of at the beginning, what inspired you to go into the social sector to begin with rather than keep pursuing a career in the private sector? Yeah,
It's a great question. And I think, you know, my parents are both, uh, immigrants, and so for them, the idea of leaving a comfortable job, also, it was quite surprising and shocking and, and the topic of many, a conversation that we had. But I think for me, just throughout my life, educational equity has been something important for me. And I had a very specific vision for what content could look like for marginalized students that I didn't see an opportunity to build for at other organizations. And on my side, I, I, it just started almost as a side project and it turned into something that I wanted to follow through with, and really build out because I believed it could have great impact for students.
I, I'm curious about your experience growing up as a child of, of immigrants. Um, as well as in particular, you'd mentioned to me, your dad was a math professor and sort of the, the influence that had had on, I, I guess, your life and attitude about education growing up, as well as, you know, specifically facing challenges related to math. Yeah,
My dad, he he's always been brilliant at math. And I think, you know, I've heard stories about what it was like for him growing up and he never says them to, to guilt me or to make me feel bad about the opportunities I have. I think they're just memory that he shares. And one that's always stuck out to me was that when he was young in El, in elementary school, learning math, he figured out that he was good at math because he knew when his textbooks were wrong, even when his teachers didn't, he would be the kid that would point out, you know, what we're learning is incorrect. And I think his passion for math developed as he would study independently and try to figure out problems on his own, it really was a problem solving journey for him, not one of memorization or anything like that, because the content he was given to memorize was not always correct.
And I think for myself growing up, you know, he saw how many opportunities I had to learn math and how many opportunities I was given in school, but I really didn't like learning math the way that we did in school. I didn't like the memorization. I didn't like the expectation that I should be good at math, which is also a privilege to have, but it wasn't one that I felt comfortable. And my dad saw that and he wanted me to really enjoy math the way he did. So he'd give me puzzles and logic problems. One that I always like to, to give students now is, you know, if you have three red socks, three blue socks, three white socks, what is the minimum number of socks you need in order to make sure you have a matching pair? So stuff like that, that would get me thinking and get us talking. And it would be a way for us to think about math without it being, you know, just memorizing formulas.
Interesting. I remember, um, my parents, you know, were always strong advocates for me, which was awesome, but sometimes, you know, put me in situations where I was maybe a little <laugh> a little over my skis. I, I remember in particular with math. Um, and you know, they, they had lobbied for me to be in like the advanced math classes, which was fine. And then I got to eighth grade and just like algebra was a total mystery to me. Uh, and I, I remember, you know, having a large, you know, essentially crisis of confidence around that. Did you experience the same thing? Is that part of the inspiration for, or, uh, for doing what you do now or, or,
Yeah, I mean, I, I think that I never even really liked math that was taught before algebra and I, I think that what's interesting is that there, you see so many new products out there that try to make math fun and engaging for younger audiences, right. It's like games or it's like puzzles, but then once we get to algebra or once we get to higher level math, it's kind of like, okay, the fund's over now. We're just going to remember these formulas and learn, you know, how we use variables, how we solve equations, but there's still so much opportunity for engagement in a interaction. And for some amount of fun that I think it's a missed opportunity to not explore that form
Was Google your first job. It wasn't, you were sort of in some venture capital stuff. I did
A venture capital internship and I didn't really enjoy the experience. I think I wanted to, to get, I wanted to actually build products. And so I ended up going to Google. That was my first job out of college, full time as a product manager. Uh, and I learned a lot about, you know, what it means to build a product, to do user research, to work with different cross-functional groups. But one thing that you kind of get for free at Google is a massive audience for really anything that you launch and build. So doing, building out almost fun, and this organization was my first experience building something that, you know, no one had any obligation to look at or to engage with.
Did, were you trying to get a job at Google or were you drawn to the education department specifically?
Yeah, so I joined a, um, a rotational program specifically for young people out of college to become product managers. For me, I had always wanted to go to Google to work on education specifically because they just ha there's such massive reach and so many resources that I believe that there would be so much that we could do within education specifically for equity.
Hmm. For those people that don't know what, what is Google classroom?
Google classroom is a learning management system. So it's a essentially, well, it, I think they maybe avoid calling it that, but it's essentially a way for teachers to distribute Google docs, Google sheets, or, or whatever assignments that their students have within drive to their students through, you know, a virtual environment and to assign class work grade, homework, and interact with their students.
Gotcha. Um, really quick, something heard to me this morning, um, as I was kind of, you know, getting my thoughts together. I had always heard, I know one of the things you guys do with almost fun is SAT test prep. Um, I was always, I became aware probably at some point after I took the SATs that the SATs were considered culturally biased. And I never, to be honest with you, you know, I never understood why or what that means. Can you, can you talk a little bit about the bias in, in, in the standardized testing as well as, you know, if you'd like in, in education in general?
Yeah. I think in standardized testing is in a lot of ways, a reflection of the educational content that we use at large. And I think that what we often see is the, at content reflects the prior cultural experiences or knowledge that more privileged students have. And that means that when we have marginalized students using that content to learn or using that content to test, they can often feel like they're, they often feel alienated or like this content has nothing in it. That's familiar for them to latch onto, to build upon, to start to build their understanding from. And so our goal and our intention is to create a space where our content builds upon the prior knowledge and experiences of marginalized students and really of, of, you know, just students today and what they're experiencing in their daily lives that should be reflected and what they're learning.
And that's what we try to do. I mean, one example that I, I clearly remember back when we were taking the S a T was that I think one of the essay questions was, uh, discuss the positives and negatives of reality television. And I had a friend who was a recent immigrant who didn't know what reality television was. He used his, you know, reasoning skills and was like, okay, reality TV, that's TV based on reality. That must be the news. So he wrote his whole essay about, you know, the positive and negatives of the news industry, which was clearly not what the S a T was looking for. And I think if they had tested that question with a more diverse set of students, they, they would've caught that issue.
When did you really decide that it was time to leave the nest, so to speak and, and start something on your own?
I, I wouldn't say it was one moment. I mean, for me, I had been, I had grown up with my family, you know, encouraging me to find a stable job that would give me the flexible I needed and Google definitely was that place. And so I think it was really a year from the time when I started to think about building out, almost fun into an organization to when I actually left. And it was always, you know, it was something that I worked on the side in. It was something that I talked with students about. And I think that at some point, you know, I, I don't think there was really a trigger. It just, it happened that I felt ready and that I, I no longer really was scared. I think fear is something that holds back a lot of us. And I, I had this fear of failing of not being able to turn this into an impactful organization of not being a, a leader that could lead this organization. But at some point, you know, the fear of not trying became bigger than the fear of failure. And I really just felt more motivated than anything else.
Was there overlap? Like, did you start working on this while you were still at Google? Or did you sort of leave the organization? I don't know, take some time off or something and then start from scratch. What was that transition like for you?
Yeah, so I was, while I was at Google, I volunteered with different organizations in the city in part, because I wanted to just spend more time with students. I mean, I think any time you're working on an education product or any product, you should be spending a lot of your time with the end users or whoever you're trying to benefit. So I was teaching and, and doing volunteer programs. And through those programs, I really was creating the first set of almost fun content without really knowing it. And just out of the intention to engage my students. Like I knew that they had the motivation to learn because they were coming to these after school programs. And so then seeing them, you know, put their head on their desk, go to sleep, try to avoid what we were learning. There was a disconnect there. I knew that they weren't doing it because they weren't motivated, they were doing it because they weren't feeling, you know, safe within what we were learning. They weren't feeling like comfortable or like they were able to learn what we were doing. And so that's when I started trying out new content. And when I saw how effective that was and how it changed, you know, everyone's attitude in the classroom. That's when I started to, to think about, to start building out a product around it.
What was that transition point where you went from sort of discovery mode to the hypothesis that you have sort of an MVP that might, that might work?
Yeah, I was, I just remember one class where the students came, the students had already shown excitement in what we were doing, but I remember one particular class where I had a couple girls walk in and they were, they were so pumped. They were like, I wanna see like what the questions are based on this week. And like, gimme the worksheet. Like I wanna check it out. And I just had never, that, that was such a stark contrast to me from students who would walk in, you know, before I had started changing the content and going into the back of the classroom and fully ignoring me. And so I think that that was a, that was a powerful moment for me in realizing like, this is something that's needed. It's, it's not just something that I think is important. It's something that I can clearly see as important.
Gotcha. So, so once, once you have that realization, what were the next steps
Then? I started to, to really use the, the product skills that I learned at Google to start thinking about what an MVP could look like of really specking out, you know, what features could a product look like that would deliver this content to any student who would need it. I knew that I wanted to start with a mobile app because every student is always on their phone. I mean, even now when we have web content, I think 60% of sessions are, are the, or students phones. And so I knew I wanted to build a mobile app and then it was about how do I structure this experience so that it actually feels almost fun and not like, you know, a, a chore that you have to do.
Gotcha. And were you sort of going in alone at that point, you know, did you have a support system in place?
No, it was just me at that point and it was just me for a while until, uh, you know, fast forward, came into the picture a couple months after I left Google. And, you know, that was just, that was really life changing. I think, for me to find this community of people who cared so much about social impact, um, and, and to meet, you know, so many different founders who cared passionate about the different issues they were working on due to, you know, their prior, their past experiences and, and the knowledge they gained and, and to share our experiences and share strategies was just really amazing. I think I was probably one of the earlier stage founders at that point. So I, I definitely learned a lot from everyone else who was in that program.
Did you apply or do they find you somehow?
I cold applied. I didn't have, I mean, I later heard about, you know, founders who had, uh, really networked a lot prior, and I actually experienced this now with founders reaching out to me to ask for advice about the program. I didn't know how to play the game or, or how to do any of this. And so I just like applied to it and they were so gracious to give me a chance and an opportunity. And I'm, you know, I'll, I'll always be grateful for that.
How would you sort of introduce fast forward and describe what they do
Fast forward is a accelerator and probably more importantly, a community for tech entrepreneurs who are looking to make social impact in the world and specifically within the nonprofit space. And they provide everything from funding to guidance on how to navigate the nonprofit world to technical support on, you know, how what's the right platform to use to build something out, or, you know, what, how do you think about hiring technical talent and how to build out a technical team? I think that, that, that's probably the best way to describe it, but I think the community aspect of it is the one that's most important to
Me. What do you think, or do you know, you know, what it was about what you were working on that really resonated with them and made them think it was a good fit for the program?
I think that it was the, really the emphasis that I put even at that early stage on our end beneficiary. So our students, I think I even included clips of my students talking about why they needed this in my application video. Like, I think I said, you know, you can
Listen to me talk about this, but I think it's much more empower it. It like much more impactful if you listen to my students, talk about it. And I think everywhere in that initial MVP that I bill everything, every aspect of it that I talked about was based on student feedback and input. And what were some of the main things you got from the program?
Really? I think every source of funding that I have received, or almost fun can be traced back to fast forward, uh, whether it was from like an introduction from, you know, the fast forward team or from like another founder that was in the program. That's, you know, fundamental just like to, to keep the lights on and, and keep everything running. But I think also just getting that support and thinking through strategically, you know, what's the right, it move for us as an early stage organization when it comes to content creation or when it comes to scaling to new platforms or to partnerships. Those were all quite new for me because I had gone from being at Google where you're almost always in a position of power in a PO in a partnership to running a startup where you're almost always not in that position. And I think learning how to navigate through those, getting advice on how to handle different situations from the team has always been super valuable.
And it's not just like the big strategic questions. I remember, like we just had like a not great logo at the beginning, and then we turned it into and also a not great logo. And at one point, uh, I think Christina, who, who used to run marketing for, for fast forward, she pulled me aside and she was like, you, you gotta fix the logo situation. <laugh>, it's not good. You need to, you need to tighten this up and make it a lot more polished. And that was great feedback. That was very honest and I needed to hear it. Um, and I think it's stuff like that, where everything from the small things to the big things, they help you out with
The good can be the enemy of great, right. But especially in, in startup culture, like great is the enemy of good, you know, knowing that like, all right, we don't necessarily have the resources to do the full branding we want, or the, the, the most beautiful logo in the world, you know, how's that conversation. Um, how does that conversation go, uh, you know, within your company culture and, and, you know, how, how did that sort of play out, um, as you were, you know, getting this thing off the ground?
Yeah. I think it's still something that we're, we're always trying to find the right balance of, right. Because every lesson, every new lesson that we launched, there's a whole review process and we really have to be pretty strict with ourselves, what we consider blocking the launch and what we consider to be okay to let out there. And it's always a matter of, you know, is it more valuable for the student to have this lesson than to not? And at what point, you know, is it okay that maybe we, we also have to be honest with each other, that there are things that we're gonna say we'll get to that we may never actually get to that that are gonna stay forever on the backlog. And I think like being really critically thoughtful about what we put on that backlog is, is still something we're figuring out. If you go to some of our lessons, you'll still see little bugs here and there, but the intention is always that at the end of the, the day, it's going to be impactful and effective for learning that concept. Even if maybe, you know, the hover state's not perfect
Or something <laugh> oh, those hover states. Yeah. <laugh> so how are you guys funded currently? Um, you know, is it mostly through grants or some of these private funders? How do you, how do you look at the funding cycle? Yeah, it's
Mostly through grants accelerators, uh, into the funders and a couple family foundations. So we're, we're working on, I think being more intentional about our fundraising process, not just applying to, you know, everything that's out there, but really focusing on the opportunities where we think that there's vision and mission alignment in what we wanna do. I think within education, because everyone has had a personal with it, you know, there's a lot of different perspectives on what's needed and, and what needs to be done. And I think we're, we're looking for funders and partners in this that, that understand why, what we're doing is important and why it's, you know, important to fight for inclusion within content.
Yeah. Uh, you mentioned quickly, um, the idea of focusing on revenue streams and, and revenue, new opportunities that are values aligned and mission aligned. Has that always been easy for you guys? I feel like a lot of organizations have this impulse to kind of go after whatever funding's available, even if they have to change what they're doing. Can you talk about how you think about that balance?
Yeah, it's a big challenge, right? Because oftentimes funders will have a very specific request for, or proposals that they'll put out there. You know, um, they might be very focused on a specific grade level. They might be very specific, very specifically focused on a topic area, even within a larger subject like math. So it's definitely somewhere where we have to, I, I think it was different when it was just me where in my head, I was like, I can force myself to just kind of like do a million things and it'll be fine, but I am much more conscious of it now that we have this team where I don't want my team to be jumping from one thing to another back and forth, just at the whims of whatever funding opportunity have I found, I want them to feel focused and, and, and like, everything that we're doing is aligned.
And so we take our OKR process quite seriously. Now we're at the beginning of the year, we do, uh, we do actually OKRs for each half year. And so we focus on, you know, what are the core goals that we wanna accomplish and why, and how do they relate back to our mission and all of the funding that we then look for, needs to be aligned with those OKRs, unless it's something where like a funder has come up with an idea or space that also think is really exciting and innovative and that's worth exploring, but we're not going to now pursue funding that just for the sake of that funding, because at the end of the day, it's, it's not worth the grant amount really to, to completely shift your strategy and unfocus your team.
It's interesting. Hear you mention OKRs. So OKRs, uh, are a process and a framework that I've been working in for the past, you know, five, 10 years and something that I actively coach my clients on doing, and kind of guide them through the creation process, but it occurs to me. I've never actually spoken with a former Google about it, and it came, it came from Google originally. Uh, can you, you know, just briefly describe, you know, what the O what OKRs are like, what, you know, what that means and kind of how, you know, how you go about creating them, given your experience.
Yeah. So for, for anyone who's not familiar and OKR stands for objective and key results. So as an organization, you have, you know, key objectives that you wanna focus on, and these should extend for, you know, more than a quarter, ideally for more than a year, even there, there areas that you really want to progress in and, and have your high level goals. And, and then the key results are the measurable outcomes and, and measurable, uh, numbers that you can then tie back to that objective. So I've been on, I was on three teams at Google, and I won't say which ones did the process well, and which ones didn't, but it was definitely a range. You know, there are some teams where the OKR process was amazing. It was what kept the team focused. It was what kept everyone aligned. And it made sure that, you know, it was an, it, it made the decision making process a little bit easier.
And then for some teams, it, it felt like just a, a song and dance routine where it wasn't really, you know, important to the, to what the day to day for the team was like, it felt like we were just doing it to appease leadership sometimes. Um, and so for me, when I was bringing a KRS into the process for us, it was really important to me that they be reasonable and also ambitious, but that they were things that we really were aligned on and were excited about. And that it wasn't a chore and checking in on them, wouldn't feel like, oh, we gotta go back to the OKRs and look at them again. But really felt like, you know, this is, this is an important, and these were goals we set for a reason and, and it's important to stick to them. So when we, when we set OKRs, we always start with our mission and talking about what it is that we want our organization to achieve in the long term for students. And then go from there in terms of just defining what our objectives are, what our key results will then be and what our activities are,
What in your experience are kind of the biggest pitfalls to avoid the biggest mistakes people make when creating OKRs and how do you get past them?
One of the biggest mistakes I see is picking metrics that don't actually accurately represent your objective. Well, I'll use even our own organization that feels safe. So <laugh> on our, on our organization's site. Like we could look at metrics like, you know, session, time, time spent on the page and just think about that. But that's not all, that's not actually gonna tell us how much learning happened, right? Like if a student spent a short amount of time and we can define what short is, maybe they were able to learn the concept quickly, or maybe they jumped away cuz it was too confusing. I think the important thing for any objective is to have a set of metrics that help you triangulate the right answer. So you can't just always rely necessarily on one metric to tell you the whole story of how your users are engaging with you.
You need a couple to really give you point in the right direction and help you understand. So we use for understanding learning outcomes. We use everything from session, time to engagement on the page to how well they do on quick practice questions to, you know, are they going to other pages afterwards? Are they continuing to learn with us? And all of that together helps to tell a cohesive story about our core objectives. I think that, you know, just relying on one metric and treating it as the end all be all can result in. I've seen it result in poor product decisions.
I think the biggest pitfall that I've seen are the most common pitfall that I've seen is people are creating these things. And when they get to the key results stage, instead of key results, what they're creating or activities. Yeah. How, how do you get past that? Like what's a technique, like, you know, your first pass on this thing, usually it takes few iterations sometimes a few months or years to get it right. But like how do you push past that instinct to think too small with the OKRs, especially in the, in the key results department?
Yeah. It's a great question. I mean, I think that with the key results, there's some acronym for, you know, how to think about like measurable results. And I can't remember what it is, but the smart goals. Yeah. The smart goals. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That acronym that every business school preaches. Um, but I think that for us, like core is that there needs to be, there needs to be a number that's associated with it and it needs to really tie back to the objective in a big way. It can't be, you know, it can't be also just like launch something like that's not enough. You don't know that like that launch is actually gonna impact your objective launch, like a thousand users. You also don't know that that's gonna go back to your objective. That might be the activity associated with the key result. But like the key result itself needs to be something bigger that really ties back to your in a core way.
Um, all right. Let's get back to almost fun. Um, how do you guys, how do you guys think of yourselves at this point in your evolution? You know, are you pre-product market fit? Are you kind of there and ready to scale, you know, talk about the organization and, and the stage that you're in.
I would say that for some of the areas of content that we develop, we are in ready to scale phase. We know that it's effective for students. They give us feedback constantly about how effective it is for them to learn and, and how much they appreciate this resource. We had the funniest piece of feedback the other day, where a student said, I think I quote, like y'all are angels. I hope that both sides of your pillow are cold every night. I actually had not ever heard that as like a, a nice thing to say, but apparently it's so I'm, I'm grateful for that piece of feedback, but I just, I love getting student feedback cuz it reaffirms what we're doing and, and I get hearing their, their voice represented within all of the, the strategy that we have is, is really important to me.
So I think that within, you know, core parts of our library, we're ready to scale. We're working on new partnerships, new opportunities to get our content in the hands of more students, in other areas of our content. We're still learning. We're still trying to figure out, you know, what is the best way to teach virtually on our platform for an independent learner? What is the best way to reach our students? And I think outside of content as well, and, and maybe this is tied to it, but there's such a spectrum of learners. And I think that our content right now is very effective for independent learners, looking for opportunities to better understand content and, you know, maybe be there in the classroom, not feeling like they have that space and not feeling like they're really able to understand what the teacher is explaining because it's not in a context that they are familiar with. I think that we're trying to broaden that funnel as much as, and as much as possible learners who are able to come to us so that eventually, you know, there are ways for students who are completely disengaged and unmotivated in school to still find us and to still learn with us and that area. I think for that specific group of students, we don't yet know what product market fit
Looks like. When, when does the, in your own mind, like when does that switch flip for you?
I think that it's a couple of factors for me. I mean, I think that feedback is so big for us. And I think it's looking at just the feedback that comes in on our site, but also observation and watching students use all of our content. So we have school partnerships that, you know, they're not meant for scaling our content. They, you know, it's small groups of students. We reach many more students just by having our content available for free online. But these partnerships allow us to see students using our lessons and when a student is able to go through it, get excited, master the concept. That's when I know it's really effective. And, and when that, when that, when we know that that's the right way to teach that, and it's the best way that we can, we can get our content to students. Um, I think that like at the end of the day, it's, it's that balance between con between feedback that you just get for, from anyone who's user content to viewing feedback directly from your end user to seeing like how well it's actually
Working for them. Gotcha. And you guys are a 501c3 right. We are
A 501c3 nonprofit, yep.
And your, your standalone, you're not physically sponsored by anybody or
Gotcha. How do you see growth? I mean, most of your funding, it sounds like is from larger philanthropy, couple of grants probably, you know, are, are you looking at different models like grassroots, would you consider a fee for service model? You know, how are you looking at the future, uh, to help make the organization sustainable and, and actually scale out to the millions of kids that would benefit?
Yeah. I think about this all the time, because most of the feedback that we, that is not, you know, letting us know how students are experiencing our existing lessons is it's requests, you know, build a lesson for this, or can you build a lesson for that? And we're limited by the size of our team, by our, our budget right now, in terms of how quickly we can create new content. And, you know, the philanthropy cycles can be quite long. There's a lot of engagement that you need to have with different funders before they're willing to make that donation. That makes sense because it's tough in the nonprofit world sometimes to really know what impact organizations can have. So I think a lot about earned revenue and ways that we can generate, you know, revenue for the organization that will help us become more sustainable and grow faster.
There are a couple of ideas around sponsored content that we are exploring right now, and looking for partners who work in the consumer industry or work in the media industry, looking for new ways to engage, uh, teens and, and to increase their share of voice within that demographic. So we're hoping that we can find an opportunity to generate earned revenue, but corridor our mission and vision is to never charge a student for any of the content we provide. So it's gotta come from somewhere else. And in my head, I would love to be able to fund their education through partnerships with corporations or with, um, other organizations.
Interesting. I I've heard about that idea discussed, you know, and one of the thoughts that I've heard is to kind of treat it like an investment, like almost sell shares in somebody's education to where, you know, they don't have to pay anything up front, you'd make an investment in, in that student and then be, I don't know, eligible for some sort of dividend or reimbursement or whatever, you know, as they enter the, the workforce. Have you thought about, you know, different models that might work there and what do you see as, as possible or, or a real opportunity? Yeah,
I've always felt that corporations, organizations should be larger funders for the education system at large. I mean, I think that it benefits them in the end to have a better, you know, group of students, group of people entering into the workforce. And there, there is a little bit, I think, of that obligation to invest in the future for any society that you have a big part in, in creating or, or in sustaining. So I think that there, there are small opportunities, like I think, um, different organizing can be more proactive in funding college scholarships. I know that, you know, foundations from Coca-Cola, um, from several other large corporations, they already do this, but I think that that can expand. I mean, I think there's so many stages to a student's education where additional funding can be helpful. I was talking to, uh, a student that we used to work with a couple ago, who she went through a program called SEO scholars, and she credits that as a big player in her being able to receive an excellent college education and getting into college. But she had a lot of peers who applied for that program of mentorship and support in the college application process who didn't get in. And that, you know, was a major factor in them not being able to go to a four your school. And, you know, I think that additional funding for low income students to pursue their educations pursue college and having that come from dedicated corporate entities who, you know, have a real need for an educated workforce later is a model that should be explored more generally,
You know, with the pandemic going on, education models have sort of been thrown into <laugh> crisis and parents are kind of doing whatever they can, you know, at this point, uh, or what do you, what do you think are good solutions in their near term as, as potentially the model flips? Like what do you do for those kids that are matriculating now to help pay for their educations and, you know, have a better shot at, at making a stand in the workforce?
Yeah, I think that when it comes to, so I think first and foremost content is really the first thing that I think about when I, when I think of education reform. Because if you talk to students who don't come complete high school, 50% of them say that they dropped out because their curriculum in schools, wasn't engaging, it didn't feel relevant to their lives or to what they would wanna do in the future. And so I think that from an early stage, we need the content that we're teaching in schools to feel more relevant, to feel more relatable for students, so that they stick with their education and, and that they feel like it is meaningful for them. And it is created for them and not just something that was repurposed or, or, or created without their experiences in mind. Um, I think then when it comes to college education and funding, that I think that, and I, I don't have a ton of research experience in this space, but I do member one stat about the student loans, which was that for a lot of students, the problem is that when they graduate, they're not able to find employment and that significantly impedes their ability to pay back loans.
And so I think that there needs to be, I think it then comes again back to content of how content that we're teaching in school and college needs to be better related to what students are, are experiencing now and what skills they need in the future. So that there's a study, there's a steady and consistent path from graduating high school to getting your college degree, to then finding a job and being able to support yourself. Um, and I think, again, it, to me, I, I maybe it's the lens that I view a lot of this in it, it, it goes back to the content that we use.
What is your guys' secret sauce? Like what really separates you from the other programs that are out there trying to sort of trying to serve a similar market?
Yeah. So almost fun is a 501c3 ed tech nonprofit. And our mission is to create culturally responsive, relevant, and relatable educational content that empowers the learning of marginalized students, specifically the, BIPOC students and our secret sauce is that we really try to meet students where they are. And that feels like a very simple thing, but it's actually quite nuanced because you need to think about, you know, what are students learning right now? What prior knowledge do they already have? What can we build upon to help them understand these concepts? And if we think about math, for example, I think that I often see math taught in kind of one of two ways. One is wrote memorization, just memorize a lot of stuff. The other is let's think about, you know, what are the applications of this math that can then engage and excite you?
So for example, you know, we might say that the application of functions in math is that you can use them to build out video games. And the kind of problem with that is that when you tell a student that they're like, oh, this is so cool. I can use this to build a video game, but like the number of jumps to get from whatever core skill it is to that end application is you usually not small. And just knowing that is also not gonna help the student really fundamentally understand what is a function. So we actually go the opposite route. We say like, what do you already know and have experience with and how does this math concept relate to it? So we look for a non math analogy. So example, for example, with the functions case, almost every student has interacted with a vending machine, which it has a mapping of inputs to outputs with set rules.
That's something that they're familiar with. If they press a button, they know what they're gonna get. There's not gonna be a mapping from one button to do two different sodas or snacks. And that's true in functions as well. And so we use what they already know to then explain this new concept and that opens doors to skill building, because now they're in a more familiar space, they recognize that they can use what they already know, and it's wild students catch onto this. So fast. We've had students say to us, you know, this is the first time I felt like I could use my prior knowledge to learn something new.
So I was planning around on the site as well. I think you guys do a great job of bring breaking down the process step by step. Can you talk about the methodology kind of on, on that level and, and why you're taking the approach that you
Are? Yeah. I think that oftentimes when we talk about math, we think about, you know, the process of getting to the right answer and the different steps involved, but we don't always break it down in an inner actively for students, especially as digital platforms. And so for us, the intention is like at every single step you need to engage, you need to interact, you need to check for understanding. And I think that we show this best with our calculators, which, you know, again, this is where we're meeting students, where they're at, which is that they're searching for calculators. Like it's what they've kind scene can be effective in getting homework done. And there's so many tools out there that will just spit out the answer for you. And for us, I mean, I don't wanna say we're tricking students, but like, we call it a calculator, but we're gonna ask you to step by step, walk through it with us.
And I think what's really great is that students, when they see that they don't run away from it, they actually want it. They want that explanation. They don't want necessarily to just like not know the answer, rely on some black box solution. They appreciate having that step by step broken down. We've actually had students who then gave us feedback that they didn't want the final answer right away. Even they wanted to press a button to say like, I'm ready to see the answer to give them that opportunity to do it themselves, and then check it. We added that as a feature because we saw how many students wanted us even more to break it down and give them more agency.
How are you tracking the impact of what you're doing today? And, you know, I'm sure in your dream, big build smart sort of okay. Our process and everything. You're thinking about how you're you might track the impact a little bit farther down the road as students actually matriculate through college. So can you speak a little bit to, to kind of both of those ideas, how, how you're tracking impact now, uh, and the benefits now versus what you hope to do in the longer term? Yeah,
I think that our, our experience with metrics has definitely evolved when we were first focused on S a T prep and tracking the impact of that. It was about getting students to the minimum score. They needed to really be competitive for a four year college. So that's like around the, you know, there's, there's certain thresholds for S a T and a C T that you want to be at. And for us, it was, if we could get students to that score, that's a meaningful impact for us because a lot of the schools we were partnered with in doing these pilots, they hadn't had an average score above that threshold really ever. And so we knew what kind of impact we could have if we were increasing their scores. I think as we broadened our library. And one thing that was an impetus for that was just realizing how necessary this type of content was across different subjects, not just in test prep.
All, obviously it's been a little bit harder to think about the long term effects. So like, how do we actually track the impact that we're having right now on a student five, 10 years from now? So right now in the short term, at least we're more focused on the individual learning experiences students have in the moment when they're learning with us. So are they able to master this concept, the, that they weren't able to master before? Do they feel more confident as a math learner? And for some of the, the more qualitative questions of how they're feeling as they're approaching math, we're working on adding features throughout the site. They give them that opportunity to express how they are feeling because a big part of math is confidence and a big part of math is feeling like you can do it and that, you know, or racing that that feeling that maybe school has put in you or someone has put in you that you can't do math, that you're not a math person. And that's something that we wanna change for any student that comes to us.
Yeah. For, I mean, you're not gonna pursue a career in stem if you're traumatized by the experience of learning in the first place. Exactly.
Exactly. No one is gonna go into computer science or engineering or math or science, if they feel like they are not a math person, because all of those topics build on math.
So what's next for, for you and the organization for the next phase of your development funding wise and, and what can people do to support that?
Yeah, we're focused right now on just growing our reach with students. So right. Supporting about 80,000 students every month we want to be. And so that's about like, uh, a couple tens of thousands of students every week. We wanna be supporting hundreds of thousands of students every week. We know that, you know, there's even far more than that, that need resources like ours. So that's kind of our, our goal for the next couple of quarter is to reach our growth metrics just in terms of reach,
Sorry. Those are unique students. Yep. Yeah. That's incredible. After just two years. Yeah.
I mean, we actually saw, so in December we saw that we were supporting 3000 students every week, and now we're supporting about 19,000, 20,000 students every week. And so it's been immense growth really quickly. And I think a big part of that is that students, when they experience our content, they're drawn to it. They come back. Um, SEO has been incredibly impactful for us as well of just again, meeting students where they are, where they're searching, what they're looking for. So our big goals are to reach a couple hundred thousand students every week that we're supporting and expanding our content library. So we are still looking to grow our math content even more where we're starting to look into what we could do in other subject areas and, and running tests and experiments with different content that, that we could provide for students to get an idea of what we could really do to be effective in that space, in terms of partnerships, we're all, we're always looking for new education organizations to partner with, to work with their students, provide enrichment while also learning what we can do better as we work.
Give, give us some insight, one, one or two of the BHAGS. What are one or two of those you would love to do? Uh, with almost fun?
I mean, mean my biggest goal is to close is to close the gap in, in math and reading proficiency for students. I mean the gaps right now for black and Latinx students compared to white students for low income students compared to higher income students are so huge. And my goal is to close those gaps. I don't think there's any reason they should exist. Um, I think they're, you know, due to structural racism and inequity within the larger society that we live in, but it's not right, that students are penalized for that. So, I mean, that's my, I guess personal goal is to make progress towards that. I feel that it can come off as naive because it is such a complicated problem that, you know, it's not just education, that's a role that plays a role in that. There's so many other factors that contribute to a student's education, but that is my personal goal is to close
That cat you'd mentioned a little naivete you'd mentioned not totally knowing a hundred percent where you were gonna go. I'm sure there was a little bit of imposter syndrome in there somewhere. What would you tell to, what would you say to another person that, uh, had a big goal, uh, especially around social impact. They weren't seeing options. They liked in the marketplace, you know, what would you tell that person in terms of how they should approach getting started and if they should, or shouldn't, you know, what, what, what advice would you give? I would
Say that there's not enough people working in social impact, whether it's starting something or working at another organization. And so I am always so thrilled when I, I meet someone who wants to have, who wants to create social impact, and I'm always willing to offer advice or support for anyone who reaches out to me with that genuine intention. I would say that there are, you know, so many different organizations trying to do so many different things, especially within spaces that, um, people commonly care about such as education or healthcare, that if you have a new idea, a new solution, the first thing to do is make sure that it's something that your end beneficiaries want and can use because too often, we design and think about solutions for people without including them in the conversation. And if you don't do that, you're doing them a disservice. You're doing yourself a disservice. And if you do find something that people need, people want people can use, then you're doing much better than a lot of founders out there already. So don't feel like you don't belong in this space. Don't feel like you don't have a right to be in this space. That's something that the world needs. And I, for one would be super excited to see whatever that is get built.
How, how do you foresee keeping that cycle of innovation going a as you sort of move out of the startup phase and, and balancing that, that ongoing customer engagement customer feedback cycle, even as you become bigger and more established, we
Have an intention to be a different type of organization than for example, somewhere like Google, because Google's goal really is to build products across different experiences in your life, whether that's in your home, in the classroom, in your car, on the bus, I don't know really wherever you are, right? That, that kind of environment, you want to have 20% projects because you're trying to work in every space. And so you want people to explore every space. It's how Gmail got started. But for us, we're very intentional. Our, our mission is to change the way that educational content is created. And that's not a small goal. It's not one that I foresee us accomplishing in a short, a timeline. And so when I think about innovation, I don't think about it in terms of like, what is a new hot opportunity within education that we can go pursue, that I want someone to explore. I think about it in terms of our content, what is a new way to explain this, to teach this that hasn't been done before? What is a new way to engage students through an interactive module or through an interactive experience that hasn't been done before that we should try and explore versus like, this is a whole new product space that we should go innovate in. And I want my team to always be innovating within what we're creating, but I also want them to stay focused on the end mission. Thank you
So much. This has been awesome. Great to meet you. And I'm excited about what you guys are up to. Awesome. We hope you enjoyed meet Lisa and learning a bit about almost fun as always. You can learn more about Lisa's work and make a donation by visiting the show notes at causeandpurpose.com. If you enjoy the show and want to hear from more amazing leaders, just like Lisa, please hit the subscribe button wherever you listen to podcasts. And maybe forward the episode to a friend who might also be interested, please join us next week when our guest be Mark Eckhart. Mark is one of the most interesting and dynamic leaders I've ever gotten the opportunity to meet he's the CEO at common, a creative accelerator and community that catalyzes and promotes products and ideas that care for the planet and all of its inhabitants. Before joining common mark spent time studying Zen Buddhism and as a former professional drummer and composer, all of which inform his unique view on the world and leadership style, we cover a pretty wide range of topics in this one, and we hope you can join us until then. Cause and purpose is a production of moonshot.co on behalf of myself, Lisa and our entire team. Thank you for listening. And we look forward to catching up with you again soon.
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Nathan Mallipeddi is the Founder and CEO of Myspeech, an international nonprofit, where he leads a team of ~50 members and ~200 volunteers in tackling two of most significant issues in the field of healthcare services in speech therapy—the lack of access to care and unaffordable prices. They are currently building a technology platform to scale therapy and community services to millions of people who stutter around the world. They’ve impacted ~25,000 people in 26 countries, with partnerships in 30 schools. Their partners include Fast Forward, Future Founders, Harvard Innovations Labs, Microsoft, Salesforce, Verizon, the Westly Foundation, Donald A. Strauss Foundation, UCLA SOLE, the World Stuttering Network, and many more.Check out the Episode
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Moonshot.co is home to Cause & Purpose, a podcast about leaders in the social impact sector. Hear their stories, successes, failures, and lessons-learned from lives spent in the trenches, tackling the world’s most important challenges.