We talked to Omowale Casselle of Digital Adventures about teaching kids how to build with technology.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Omowale Casselle: We’re doing ok. It’s definitely interesting times to go from having kids in school every day to everyone working/learning from home. Thankfully, my kids are very independent learners. So, they have adjusted well to the new environment.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Digital Adventures.
Omowale Casselle: I started my career as a product development engineer at Ford Motor Company. After ~5 years at Ford, I was looking to expand my skill set. So, I pursued my MBA at Harvard Business School. While at HBS, I became very interested in building new ventures and the process of taking an idea from conception to reality.
So, immediately after school, I started my first company in the recruiting space based on an insight that I had about employers not having an opportunity to really build a relationship with students, which ultimately led to decreased offer acceptances and overall reduced the quality of relationships that could be built. Unfortunately, this idea didn’t really gain traction.
From there, I joined the New Ventures team at Redbox to identify new opportunities in automated retail from a corporate venturing perspective. While interesting, I wanted to get back to the building. So, I took an operating role at one of our portfolio companies that were seeking to automate product sampling from leading brands (P&G, Unilever) by placing kiosks in high traffic locations (beauty aisle) and leading retailers (Walmart).
During this time, I saw that it was really difficult to hire technical staff for my product and engineering teams. Despite these being high paying jobs at a company that was doing well, it was hard to recruit. So, I thought there has to be a way to get people excited about technology from an early age. Around this same time, I noticed that my kids played with technology but weren’t really understanding how to build with it.
From there, Digital Adventures was born. Our goal was to teach kids how to build with technology so they could one day grow up to change the world!
How does Digital Adventures innovate?
Omowale Casselle: Our biggest innovation is how we approach teaching kids how to build with technology. We focus on problem-solving and getting kids to become increasingly independent when building with technology. At Digital Adventures, we have developed a comprehensive software solution that takes students from beginning to advanced by building a series of projects. Through the building process, they start to internalize planning, building and debugging in a real way that will pay dividends throughout their careers.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Omowale Casselle: At the start of the pandemic, we immediately ceased operations at our in-person locations. Even before we receive mandatory shutdown orders from state/local officials, as we started to move into the summer months, we figured out how to create a comprehensive health and safety protocol to keep students. Everything from temperature screenings to contactless check-in, we incorporated to reduce the opportunities for virus transmission.
We also moved aggressively into online programs by digitizing our curriculum. However, simply translating projects online wasn’t going to be sufficient. Instead, we developed a project walkthrough that guides students through the building process. And we also developed a series of policies and procedures to make sure instructors are engaging students since the online environment can be less interactive than in person.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Omowale Casselle: I think the biggest lesson learned for this year is that you must continue to innovate. While none of us could have predicted a global pandemic, you can continue to control what you can control in your sphere of influence. For us, that meant product and service innovation to engage students better online and keep students safe when they attend classes/camps in person.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and Digital Adventures in the future?
Omowale Casselle: For me, I’ve always enjoyed exercising. With my equipment in the basement, there is no excuse. So, I make sure that I take time to invest in my personal health because if there are deficiencies there, it’s going to propagate into the business and make things more challenging than they should be.
We are still early days. There are not nearly enough companies like ours focused on teaching kids how to build with technology. The long term trends still show that we don’t graduate enough students with technical skills. That creates a local/regional/national/global restriction on economic progress and development. So, we are excited to keep pushing for this to become mainstream.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Omowale Casselle: Our biggest competition is the status quo. Many still aren’t sure that their kids need to learn technical skills to be successful going forward. For many, it is more natural to enroll their kids in sports or music programs. So, I think that we have to continue to provide the context that Marc Andressen laid out so eloquently 10+ years ago – “software is eating the world.”
We plan to stay in the game by continuing to take a practitioner’s approach to product development. Our product seeks to have outcomes where our students ultimately build real projects. While it takes time to build a technical foundation, it is a lifelong skill.
Your final thoughts?
Omowale Casselle: Technology is seemingly omnipresent and yet can, in many ways, blend into our environments seamlessly. This contrast is what creates the boundary conditions for future innovation. Kids who are growing up as digital natives can best see around corners. As such, by providing them with the right technical training, they will be able to solve a myriad of global issues that have been out of reach for the current generation. In essence, any investment in technology education for children is an investment in our collective future.
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