Necessity may be the mother of invention, but in the case of Dan Yang, it took becoming a mother herself to pioneer a new path to children’s education in technology with her startup VINCI.
A serial entrepreneur in the telecom industry who also happens to hold a PhD in optics and photonics, Yang was busy building an empire on fiber optic equipment. She’d been working as an engineer when the startup bug bit, and successfully parlayed her skills and a second mortgage on her home into a venture that developed optical amplifiers and broadband equipment.
Flash-forward through the next two decades, two more startups, 20 patents, and a number of products in the Trans-Pacific express cable system connecting China and the U.S. Now also a mother, Yang couldn’t help noticing her toddler’s fascination with the iPhone and wondered if it the technology could be developed into a more useful learning tool.
Though telecom technology is her self-professed comfort zone, Yang says across the board, "Everyone is focused on the devices, but tech means nothing if you can’t achieve your goal without using it as a tool." At the same time, she’s quick to point out that she’s not a professional educator, even if she did do a stint as a professor years ago.
Undaunted, Yang took a leap into the crowded preschool market for educational apps and devices with competition from the likes of heritage toy brands Fisher-Price and VTech. Four years and a host of award-winning products including tablets, toys, and curriculum kits later, VINCI is ushering in a change in the way preschoolers and parents approach early learning. But Yang’s not ready to rest on the laurels—or the $7 million in expected revenue this year—just yet.
Yang’s vision, "I see myself as building a bridge between different industries," is putting her on the path to create schools to show how classroom learning can work in concert with technology. Yang believes its not enough to plop devices or computers into a classroom and call it tech education.
The first order of business is to demystify the technology for teachers, especially those who’ve been working with children before the advent of computers in the classroom. "They have concerns," she admits, "And on other side you have the district [administrators] screaming for a data-enabled curriculum. It’s just a huge struggle, and when people are struggling, who is paying attention?"
To address this, the first VINCI school will open its doors in Canada in September. Others are planned for Washington, D.C. and Beijing. "Schools need to teach a new set of skills that go beyond factual learning," she says. "Anyone can Google a fact," Yang contends.
Not to mention some basic skills that are being lost on kids as they spend all that time in front of one device or another. A study by security software company AVG revealed that 47% of kids age 2 to 5 can use a smartphone, compared to only 38% who can write their full name. "Reasoning capabilities, robotics, scientific analysis, and project presentation skills should all be part of the learning agenda for young children, to ensure our kids are well-prepared to live in the digital century," she asserts.
How does Yang continue to stay the course, despite dueling with a bureaucratic educational system and competition from industry heavyweights?
Here’s a short primer of guideposts to success:
Collaborating vs. Creating
When Yang conceived the idea for the VINCI tablet, she spoke to "pretty much everyone" who had made a name in the children’s marketplace. She discovered that the more traditional toy companies weren’t necessarily open to creating curriculum and assessments. Rather than compromise her vision, Yang brought on a coterie of academic researchers and scientists to help build out the products. She’s since moved to talks with major education companies, "who don’t feel strange when we talk about assessments."
Ignoring Shiny Object Syndrome
Yang’s passion around gaps in the educational system is evident when she talks about the VINCI School. "Knowledge is worth nothing," she argues, "you don’t need to remember facts anymore, you just go online. Teachers need to help children cultivate that ability rather than just remember facts."
Rather than put the attention on the latest devices in the classroom, Yang says the school and its digitally enabled curriculum will help teachers encourage analytical and research skills, to do research and cultivate curiosity and ability. "I keep talking about ability, because today even if you get a college degree it doesn’t guarantee a job anymore."
When she got the idea for VINCI tools, Yang was able to see how her children and others might be able to use technology to really learn. Now she isn’t interested in setting up thousands of new schools based on the VINCI template. She sees the few that will be operational as a testing ground. "It’s a place where we can experiment and try to synthesize the approach. Teachers in the system need to visualize what blended solutions mean," she says.
Yang isn’t only acting as a bridge between tech and education, she’s connected two groups who have sometimes been at odds: teachers and parents. Like teams working on different projects in a company, parents and teachers can get siloed in their roles.
Yang sees it as the biggest hurdle to education in the next five years. To encourage collaboration, Yang promotes partnerships through VINCI’s products and its philosophy. For Yang, it’s essential to the success, not only of her company, but to future generations of students. "If there is no partnership the child is not getting the best."