NO. 19: WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO LAUNCH YOUR APP, LITERATOR?
MICHELLE (@Xiaohoamichelle) ANSWERS
LOCATION: LOS ANGELES
DATE: AUGUST 2016
“I was teaching second grade in East Oakland, [California], and I was with kids who were so brilliant…and yet, every single day I had to temper these major meltdowns that they were having because they had low self-esteem. That was coming from…feeling inadequate and feeling like they had no future [and feeling] they couldn’t do anything related to school. And that was coming from a place of not being able to read.
There was one student. His name was Terrance. He was a 7-year-old boy who walked home every single day from school by himself through one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city, and he was so independent. He inspired me all the time because he made sure he was at school. Nobody was making sure he was there.
He dressed himself every single day and he’s this 7-year-old who was capable of so much and was so thoughtful. But he would tell me all the time, ‘I’m so stupid, I hate school.’ And would swear at me every time I tried to get him to read a book. He would run out the classroom. He would start fights and do anything to get out of being in an environment where he felt like he needed to be pushed into doing something he felt like he couldn’t do.
I’m looking at this 7-year old whose future depends on whether or not he can read by the end of the year. If you can’t read by the time you are finished with third grade, your chances of dropping out of high school increase by 60%. What would make the difference was whether or not I could support them.
And I couldn’t. I was a brand new teacher. I was out of my league and I didn’t understand all [that] needed to happen to make sure that they could read and feel confident. So I looked for all the answers everywhere I could and everything required so much more time and energy and more resources that I didn’t have. I was like, this shouldn’t feel so impossible. I’m a teacher. I am tasked with educating these kids and that’s not a role that’s unique to me.
What came out of that was this realization that there needs to be this tool or resource that exists that makes this possible, and easier. I’m living in San Francisco where people are building apps for everything — totally useless things — and solving these problems that don’t have any impact. But I’m struggling in my classroom to just make sure these kids have a future. It seemed like there was this major disconnect. There had to be a way to mitigate this.
Transitioning from teacher to founder…
I found myself venturing into new networks of people who are in tech and trying to find a way to make this happen. So I did Startup Weekend EDU, which is a hack-a-thon where educators, designers, and engineers all come together. My expectations were just to network. I was going to see who’s in this space and see if people are interested. But I didn’t know that you had to pitch an idea.
I ended up bringing Literator as my idea. An idea of having all the analog tools that I needed [as an educator] but let’s make it smarter, make it better and put it into one thing. How would that feel and what would it look like?
I ended up winning. I had no expectation. I was all of a sudden on this team with four engineers and designers, and people in tech. I thought, ‘I’m starting to do work on this and I’m actually going to be able to provide this to other teachers.’
Experiencing the disconnect between herself and tech culture…
I remember one of the first meetings we all had after winning. We were all sitting together and there was this moment where one of the engineers said ‘I know we’re supposed to be thinking about “equity.” And I was like, ‘Did you just put equity in air quotes?”’
I realized that no matter how much I wanted to build this, this was not going to happen with these people. They were not thinking about the same things I was thinking about. They saw an opportunity that had been validated. This was something that was more important to me than just building an app.
This was about making sure that there’s no disconnect between people who can do this work and people who really care about this work. I think there are people who [can do] both.
I have a team now of two amazing co-founders and they are definitely in it for the right reasons. They have the skills and expertise to be building the next Uber or whatever. But instead, they’re working on this literacy problem. They’re working on education because they realize how important it is and that if they’re not going to be the ones to build it, then who will?
The challenges of not being privileged founder…
After that, I really wanted to be focused on the app, but to become a full-time founder, you need money. I interviewed a lot of founders who were in a similar space as I was and asked them how it was possible that they could do this? How could they pursue being a full-time founder? And people had trust funds. People had rich friends and family and access to capital in ways that I didn’t.
It was such an impossible reality that I was chasing, that I started to get really discouraged. I knew that no matter what, I would probably have to still work while trying to pursue this. I was also doing interviews and meeting with people who could potentially fund us, and they were like, ‘You’re not full time. You can’t be that serious about this.’
That’s such a ridiculous statement to make because how on earth can I leave a job and just do this, a passion project or whatever, without having a trust fund or tons of savings. It was totally unrealistic. It made me realize that there’s a reason the founders in San Francisco look the way they do. It’s a very specific community of people who all look the same because of the fact that it’s so hard to have that opportunity.
How she was able to gain support…
I was really fortunate — right when I was thinking about giving up I got this message from Teach For America and they were like, ‘Hey you qualified for the Social Innovation Award.’ They were like, ‘Here are all the steps to move forward,’ and for the next two months, my life was hijacked by this process of trying to compete for the award. And I ended up winning that. I won enough money to be able to work this full-time and since then I’ve been a full-time founder, which has been incredible.
To wake up every single day [and] to be working on my project with two really amazing people who are so supportive, I feel like I’m learning so much and also getting so much done and making so much more progress than I ever thought I could. Even when I won I was told by the judges and the panel that the reason that you got this award was because it was the difference of whether or not you would do this [and] whether or not this would exist.
Owning her seat at the table as a Southeast Asian woman…
As unpredictable as…this whole experience was, I had to own it. Owning it meant occupying my space. I was saying before when you’re invited to a table, you sit there, and you deserve to be there. I’ve been invited to this table, and as someone who is your non-traditional founder — as a woman of color, a Southeast Asian and someone who identifies as a person of color who grew up in poverty — that’s not a common narrative in the space that I’m holding.
It makes me feel more vocal. Also I can see the huge disconnect between those two communities and it makes me want to shout from the rooftops all the things that are problematic about it.
But not in this way where I feel like it’s unsolvable or there are no solutions. I think there are a lot of people doing really great work around increasing diversity and inclusion, and making things more equitable, but why not me also? I’m in this space, I’m witnessing first hand how to go about making sure this is a thing, so I’ve become really vocal about increasing equity in education-tech tools.
That’s where I feel like I have the most expertise right now.