IC’s Director of Entrepreneur Programs, Renata Hron Gomez, recently sat down with #FundedbyIC entrepreneur, Nikki Navta, the founder of Zulama, to learn more about her inspiration, impact, goals, and organizational culture. Zulama is a Pittsburgh-based startup that brings cost-effective yet high-tech computer science education into middle and high school classrooms through video game design. Zulama was a 2016 regional winner in the prestigious Global EdTech Startups Award competition as well as Pitch Competition Runner-up at the 2016 LearnLaunch Conference.
Renata: What led you to create Zulama?
Nikki: I was inspired to create Zulama after spending nearly 30 years in educational publishing where I developed science and math curriculum. Like many industries relying on printed media, the textbook industry was changing; however, at the same time, my two middle-school-aged sons were fast becoming part of the MindcraftTM gaming experience. I had also enrolled in a graduate program in Entertainment Technology at Carnegie Mellon University and realized how excited my sons would be about the program. The only problem was that it was only offered to graduate students! In late 2009, Zulama was born as a strategy to introduce entertainment technology to a high school audience.
Renata: What is Zulama’s mission, and how do you measure impact?
Nikki: Zulama is a tool that empowers students to solve problems across curricular disciplines. Students learn how to think, work in teams, and be flexible and adaptable—critical, transferable skills for both school and life.
As Zulama is a curriculum product that offers modules throughout the school day over a period of time, it doesn’t lend itself to traditional “pre- and post-” evaluative tests. Instead, we aim to gauge attitude change in students who complete our courses. We’ve received hand-written notes from students that they’ve pursued careers that they never knew were possible. Our goal is NOT to create the next generation of game designers – it is to create a generation of thinkers!
Renata: I’d love for you to share a Zulama success story.
Nikki: One Zulama student was failing out and didn’t think “school was relevant to his life.” His school was one of Zulama’s first customers, and he was randomly chosen to take the class. After the first session, he continued with additional modules, describing that his favorite part of the process was storytelling. He went on to win an award, and by the time he graduated high school, he was on the honor roll. A final testament to his potential and to his commitment to Zulama – he now works here!
Renata: You were founded in 2009. How has Zulama evolved since then?
Nikki: Our first evolutionary point with Zulama was moving from a graduate-level audience to middle-schoolers. We had to make video gaming even more cool in order to excite the new target age group. We scaffolded the experience, starting students off at a relatively low rung and moving them through quickly until they reached a point of deep learning.
As the founder, my own skills also evolved during the initial beta years. I moved from curriculum development – where I had a wealth of experience - to sales – which was new. In order to build this skill set, I focused on Zulama’s core value proposition, reminding customers that the product isn’t trying to turn teachers into computer science experts but instead meets teachers where they are, providing expertise and support in HOW schools can teach tech.
Renata: What kind of culture are you building at Zulama?
Nikki: We currently have eight full-time team members and two part-time employees. We’ve worked hard to create a culture internally that mirrors how our products are designed to engage with students externally.
Investing intentionally in company culture was spurred by the hire of a part-time Chief Marketing Officer who felt very alienated from the existing culture, yet the existing staff had a difficult time communicating “the Zulama way.” This led to a two-day workshop where the team jointly developed a set of core values:
• We believe in natural curiosity and creative power of all people
• We believe there is an active, engaged learner in everyone
• We believe in meaningful and respectful relationships
• We believe in “yes and…”
These values are now part of Zulama’s employee handbook and serve as the driving force for how we define Zulama. They allow us to be open to new ideas rather than be set in our own assumptions. Though it can be difficult to justify taking time to focus on internal culture, I’m confident our efforts have already paid off in spades.
Renata: What advice would you give entrepreneurs who are looking to start a mission-driven business?
Nikki: I did not start Zulama thinking I needed to launch a “mission-driven” business per se. I began the business because I was passionate about solving an urgent pain point for students and schools which in my mind equates to “mission-driven business.”