Over the past week, I had the chance to chat with Alefyia Bhatia about her journey from the classroom to the boardroom. She is the co-founder of Crescerance and the founder and CEO of MAD-learn. Crescerance is a technology company that provides engagement solutions for education, and MAD-learn is a program that teaches students how to develop and launch their own mobile apps.
Bhatia and her team of veteran educators, product innovators, and out-of-the-box thinkers, built MAD-learn in 2014. MAD stands for Mobile App Development, and MAD-learn is a program that teaches students how to develop and launch their own mobile apps.
MAD-learn enables learners to quickly see their finished product and use product development as a means of serving the community, solving problems, displaying learning, building entrepreneurship and sharing ideas with the world.
Today, over 10,000 students use MAD-learn in 31 states, and in six countries across the globe. Her team is made up of 13 members, located in four cities and three countries. They currently have an annual recurring revenue of about $300,000 and growing.
They also teach students vital 21st-century skills and the understanding of the full cycle of product development from ideation, planning, designing, building, testing, launching, and pitching. The team serves K-12 students to help broaden their perspectives, and open their eyes to careers of the future in engaging and interactive ways.
In this interview, which has been edited and condensed, she shares her business journey, discusses the hot topic of teachers as influencers in the edtech space, and provides tips for minority women in edtech.
Robyn Shulman: Alefiya, can you tell me about your background in education?
Alefiya Bhatia: In my young years, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher. I began my formal schooling at Emory University in Atlanta, where I could see the impact that a strong education could have on students. In college, I knew that I wanted to impact education on a macro level in some way.
And I began my journey into the classroom.
After college, I completed Montessori Teacher Training at the International Montessori Training Institute in Atlanta. I taught at a few different Montessori schools for five years before deciding to step out of the classroom. In 2011, I transitioned to the boardroom.
From the Classroom to the Boardroom
Shulman: What problems were you experiencing that led you to leave the classroom and start a business?
Bhatia: While I was teaching, I became frustrated about parental communication. The parents were not aware of things taking place school, and they were not interested in what was going on in our classrooms. Also, they couldn’t keep up with parent-teacher conferences or extra-curricular activities.
I knew that most parents wanted to stay in touch. However, the reality is that as educators, we weren’t communicating with them in a manner that was most conducive to their needs or schedules.
Even back then, our smartphones were the most natural way to connect with the world; although none of the schools that I worked at were leveraging this vital tool.
Shulman: What did you do?
Bhatia: I did my research. I had worked with several product developers in my life. I wanted to see if the idea of having a mobile app specifically created for my school communication problem was a worthy one. I did the only logical thing to do at the time (having no technology experience myself), I started to talking to every school I could and selling an idea and product I didn’t have yet.
Shulman: And that’s how you started your first business?
Bhatia: Yes, I took this problem and figured out how to solve it in the best way possible. That led to Crescerance, a communication company I co-founded to build custom mobile apps for schools and districts across the country.
Shulman: How about MAD-learn?
Bhatia: The second company I started and now run, MAD-learn, was an offshoot of the first business. This startup was a testament to understanding yourself and always keeping your eyes open to new ideas and possibilities.
I’m now the founder and CEO of MAD-learn.
Shulman: What was the motivation behind building MAD-learn?
Bhatia: Through our work at Crescerance, we took notice when students began asking questions about our app. They wanted to know why we built our apps one way or another, or why the app could do this and not that, why it looked the way it did, and so on.
Shulman: Once you went into the classrooms, did you see a business opportunity?
Bhatia: Yes, and luckily almost simultaneously a few schools asked me to speak with the students (especially given my education background) to tell them a little more about how we develop our apps.
Shulman: Was this an A-Ha moment?
Bhatia: Yes, this was an A-Ha moment for me with MAD-learn. Hearing the students’ questions, and seeing they had such a strong interest in mobile app development–that was truly inspirational. The students’ reactions caused me to come back and put our teams’ heads together internally to figure out how we cannot just be the people who create mobile apps-but also somehow teach, empower, and enable kids to do that too.
In 2014, MAD-learn was born.
Shulman: Are Crescerance and MAD-learn separate businesses?
Bhatia: Yes, they are separate. MAD-learn focuses on educational programs to help build 21st-century skills through product creation. Crescerance concentrates on providing communication and engagement solutions for school, associations, and nonprofit organizations.
EdTech Marketing and Classrooms
Shulman: Edtech marketing is one of the most significant challenges edtech companies face. How did you get your products into the school system?
Bhatia: It’s an ongoing challenge. Nine out of the ten people we talk to about MAD-learn can see our vision and the value for students and teachers. However, the reality remains that something like mobile app development is still not a “core” subject or one that we test traditionally. These factors pose challenges for many schools to figure out how to integrate experiences like this into their school day.
Shulman: Since you face these obstacles, how have you framed your approach to get teachers and gatekeepers to consider a buy-in?
Bhatia: Our biggest successes have come from training teachers on how to integrate our program into their core classes as a project-based learning tool. Why not make an app about the Roman Empire in history class instead of just writing a paper about it? The goal is to keep students engaged and active. And mobile is relevant and engaging to students today.
Shulman: Any further marketing tips for other edupreneurs?
Bhatia: We follow the KISS principle in most everything we do, or Keep It Simple, Stupid. I built our company’s lead generation mechanism to where we consistently have about 5x more leads than our sales team can handle – and I am not even a marketer. We rely heavily on a few things: our voice, social media, speaking at education events, word of mouth from our customers, and our newsletter.
Educators as Influencers
Shulman: Last month, The New York Times ran a story titled: “Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teachers, Raising Ethics Issues.” This article sparked intense debate among educators and education influencers on Twitter.
What are your thoughts on this topic?
Bhatia: I am very biased on this topic but now that the caveat has been stated – I believe that no education product should ever be launched or sold without input and feedback from educators. 25% of our team consists of former educators and/or administrators and this is very much by design. Having educators on board provide us with validity, reality checks, and the perspective we often need to remind ourselves of what needs to change in education.
Startups (and even well established companies for that matter) should have a strong network of organically formed teacher ambassadors who have used their products, provided feedback to make them better, and now sing their praises every chance they get. It’s a critical factor for a thriving ecosystem.
Tips for Women in EdTech
Shulman: As a minority and female CEO, what are some of the business challenges you faced?
Bhatia: Being a young, woman, minority CEO means you don’t often meet typical decision makers in the industry who are like you. You have to work that much harder to gain trust and build relationships to a point where people want to invest in your product. Couple that with the fact that our program was several years ahead of its time (regarding when schools are willing to pay for programs like ours), meant that we had to be patient and persevere – constantly.
Shulman: What are your tips for female, minority edtech entrepreneurs who want to break through the barriers you have faced?
Bhatia: The reality is that being an entrepreneur is tough, for anyone, in any industry. It can be especially tough for women and minorities due to various causes. Most of the time, these reasons are not fully conscious in the minds of your audience, peers, employees, or your customers.
Education also happens to be one of the hardest industries to start and grow a business. The market is fragmented, and the decision making process and hierarchy can be unstructured. Also, funding sources can be quite fluid. All edupreneurs should know they are not alone in the process.
Shulman: What are some books or resources that have helped you thrive?
Bhatia: Here are a few things that have helped me get by and a few books to read to hear more from the experts themselves:
- Read the book, Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. If you want to launch a business, start a company, be a founder, or be a CEO, you have to lean in and make it happen. Don’t let yourself be your own biggest roadblock. I think it’s also critical to add one more piece to this – “lean on.” Don’t hesitate to lean on friends, family, fellow entrepreneurs, and mentors to help you along the journey. They will be a critical support system for you.
- Don’t make the mistake of trying to go at it alone. We’re so much better and stronger together. Be in it for the right reasons. Each of us will have different ones, but know why you’re here, why you’re doing what you’re doing, and how you want to make a difference in the lives of students.
- Start with Why by Simon Sinek is a must read to help you clarify that question for yourself and the business you want to build. Knowing your “why” will keep you while going through all the challenges that you will face.
- I speak at events around the world on the concept of #BeApreneur™; I’m an educator turned entrepreneur, or an edupreneur because I’m passionate about broadening teacher horizons on how education needs to look in today’s world. You can use this theme for anything you’d like to build.
- Pick what gives you energy, what excites you, what makes your heart beat just a little faster, and then figure out how to innovate, disrupt and do it better. Whatever you want to do, laugh a little while you’re at it, but no matter what you do, own it. You’re the only one in the world who can be you.
Shulman: What’s in store for MAD-learn as we approach 2018?
Bhatia: We’re coming to a school near you, and we’re developing a vast network of partners who are interested in bringing the benefits of our program to their customers and are excited about ensuring we are working in all 50 states and ten countries by the end of 2018.
Applications are now open, and we would love to connect schools around the world to meet, brainstorm, create teams, and build #appsthatmatter together across borders.