By Koketso Mamabolo
From a stick-on tattoo parlour and selling beaded jewellery, Mindjoy founder and CEO Gabi Immelman’s entrepreneurial flair has been evident since she was a child. Now an adult who spent time in Palo Alto, the very centre of Silicon Valley, Gabi is responding to the lack of digital skills through her EdTech startup which teaches coding skills that will equip children for the future world of work – which many would say is already with us.
“My mum was in sales and always encouraged me to find out what people value and what they would be willing to pay for.”
Starting in July of 2021, Mindjoy has been offering real-world skills in a child-friendly environment. “Mindjoy aims to create learning environments that kids enjoy and are motivated to participate in by making it a delightful experience while building critical skills,” says Immelman.
Mindjoy recognises that learning is not a one-way, linear process. “The goal is not only to play a part in closing the widening digital skills gap, but also to provide kids with learning experiences that are joyful, inspiring and collaborative.”
Here Gabi tells about her mother’s influence, trends in the EdTech space and her advice to entrepreneurs wanting to get involved.
Please tell us a bit about your background – how did you get to this point?
Working in Silicon Valley gave me the opportunity to see what the future of education might look like: children learning asynchronously as digital natives in blended environments, and actively participating in learning communities. They value learning as something you do, not something done to you. It is this insight that makes Mindjoy’s approach to learning different.
Mindjoy aims to create learning environments that kids enjoy and are motivated to participate in by making it a delightful experience while building critical skills.
We want to create an environment that is not person-dependent, where kids can learn skills in a scalable way. Since we can’t scale developers, Mindjoy is building a scalable system that is focused on peer-to-peer learning. The goal is not only to play a part in closing the widening digital skills gap, but also to provide kids with learning experiences that are joyful, inspiring and collaborative.
How did your experience with business ventures as a child shape you as an entrepreneur?
My mum was in sales and always encouraged me to find out what people value and what they would be willing to pay for.
I was encouraged way before every holiday to start thinking of my holiday business. I tried everything from car washing, making Christmas stockings, to baking cakes, making beaded jewellery, even selling stick-on tattoos – which had excellent margins and everyone wanted, so I stuck with that one for a few summers.
Basically, I had to think about how I sell something people wanted, not just when I liked it or thought it was cool. Those “businesses” were where my entrepreneurial adventures began.
Also, my mum made me manage my own pocket. Every year, I had to present my mum with a presentation, how much money I needed for pocket money, what I would be spending and how I was planning on managing it. I had to manage all of my own expenses, which was an incredibly useful experience. It also taught me responsibility because if I misspent my money, there wasn’t more. When I failed, I failed and I had to learn. When I succeeded, she encouraged me to reflect on how you can do even better.
What difference will more people with coding skills make to economic development?
In the next decade, programming will form part of most jobs in some shape or form. This means that millions more programming jobs will exist faster than traditional universities can train computer scientists. But, you don’t need to go to university to become skilled at it. There are a ton of resources and communities to connect to online and it’s one of the skills one learns best by doing.
At the same time, too many students (especially low-income people) lack equitable access to high-quality computer science education. The economic opportunity is huge, but unless some things change, not everyone will get a fair chance to access their superpowers through coding.
Customer experience must be an important part of your business, especially because you work with children – how do you ensure that they have an enjoyable customer experience?
We constantly ask them what they’re curious about, what and how they want to learn, and what’s important to them, and then build project tracks according to the insights we gain from those conversations. We put the kids at the centre of everything we do at Mindjoy, and our focus is on creating a safe, low-stakes, high-engagement environment that helps them to thrive.
Mindjoy doesn’t believe in “teaching” kids in the sense that we need to fill kids as if they are empty buckets. Our approach is totally different, when we talk to the kids about learning we talk about having “Hard Fun”.
To facilitate hard fun you need a new kind of teaching, not one that stands in front of a class and lectures but one which guides from the sidelines – asking questions, and encouraging peer to peer learning. We empower kids to practice driving their own learning, and projects are a great way to do this (plus this is how real developers keep their skills sharp).
We’re also making learning social, which means it’s something kids want to do and invite their friends to do with them (so viral, I suppose). Think less school and more social learning platforms.
What are the challenges you’ve faced as a startup and how did you overcome them?
I was really lucky to have FireID as support, but being a solo founder and working alone for a long time was hard. Since we hired our core team, the company has definitely benefited from having diverse opinions and people to share and build a mission.
Another challenge has been positioning – trying to find the right words to describe what we do to the market – and in the process refining our offering. Mindjoy started out as a four-week course but is now finding its groove as a social learning platform where kids get together and learn to code with friends.
How would you characterise startup culture in South Africa and the continent as a whole?
I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time in Silicon Valley and found it incredible how generous people were with their time and knowledge.
This is true in the South African ecosystem, too, although it is much smaller, but growing.
In general, it’s an incredibly generous, curious, thoughtful and warm community, even though running startups is incredibly hard.
What trends have you noticed in the EdTech space and how can business adapt?
The space is pretty interesting and the landscape pretty vast, with all kinds of learning happening. EdTech Investor John Danner has an interesting model for thinking about different types of EdTech companies. He often asks founders he works with, “What are you building – a library, coffee house or a bar?”
Libraries are more formal places of learning. That’s what most EdTech startups set out to do in the traditional sense – make software or platforms where people learn things. That’s great but often not something students love or stick with. While Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) bring the promise of making content and courses available for free online, people seldom complete them (they generally have completion rates as low as 4%). Then you have tutoring companies and 1:1 online learning which usually comes with a massive price tag and requires a lot of human input so it becomes hard to scale even though 1:1 tutoring and coaching is one of the best ways to grow oneself and skills.
Bars are on the other end of the spectrum. They are places where we have fun, get together with friends and learn something as a by-product (like one does learning something interesting from a conversation with a friend or learning to do a TikTok dance that is trending).
While both bars and libraries illustrate that content is abundant online, the desire to learn remains scarce and something we need to cultivate. Few people say, “Yay! I’m going to hang out with my friends at the Library tonight,” but they do say this about bars or Discord chat rooms. For most people, purposeful learning is work in the same way that going to the gym and lifting weights is work.
In a coffeehouse, the community is a much more important factor in retention and engagement than learning per hour or some academic metric. Few companies play in the coffeehouse space and that’s where we want to play. (In the health sector, companies like Peleton or JEFF’s fitness exemplify coffeehouses)
Here’s a look at the space through this lens:
What are some things business and society as a whole can do to address the skills gap?
We can use SA’s smartphone penetration of roughly 62% to innovate in ways that will promote equitable access to quality learning and teaching. We can use mobile tech to enable teacher professional development and support curriculum delivery.
We can build learning communities that inspire a love for learning. Imagine if we decided to invest in creative teachers who are prepared for the Fourth Industrial Revolution? That is to invest in a future of creative thinkers, leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators.
We can stop children falling behind. The further behind children are when entering the digital realm, the more difficult it will be for them to catch up, and the lower the likelihood that they will grow up to be successful young adults. The result is an enormous loss of human potential and a high cost to taxpayers. One way businesses can get involved is to sponsor their employees’ children to attend Mindjoy sessions – or sessions at any other reputable company that helps kids to become creators in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and not just consumers.
What advice would you give to someone looking to get into the EdTech space?
Know that it’s incredibly difficult, because you’re essentially competing with many services that are free, and the market perception is that education should be a free service or that educational resources should be open source.
There’s an abundance of educational content, services and applications that all occupy the “free, online” space, but they don’t have paths to monetisation, which means they don’t have paths to sustain themselves – so make sure your Edtech startup addresses this challenge.
Position yourself as worthy of being paid for your services and your innovation in the consumer’s mind.
And build your audience – many people who seem to have a “breakout success” actually spent years first building audiences, which is an incredible asset when launching a business.
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