Civic Champs CEO Geng Wang interviews Lisa Wang the founder of groundbreaking Ed Tech platform Almost Fun which strives to empower students with culturally responsive learning resources to make SAT prep and math more accessible.
This interview is the first episode of The Future of Good, a series that explores the intersection of social impact, technology, and entrepreneurship.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Geng: Today, I'm speaking with Lisa Wang, the founder and CEO of Almost Fun, which is altering the way that students look at standardized testing prep by putting it within the context of topics they enjoy like sports and movies.
So how are you today?
Lisa Wang: I'm doing well. Thank you for having me. I'm excited to chat with you.
Geng: Awesome. We're super excited to have you today as well. One of the things I've really enjoyed is following the journey that Almost Fun has been on, but, for our audience, tell us a little bit about how you came up with the name and what inspired you to found the company?
Lisa Wang: So I had been working with students for a couple of years on SAT prep, and I was volunteering through different organizations in New York city that specifically worked with low-income students and students of color. And I think one thing that myself and my co-instructor saw really quickly was that the students obviously had motivation. They were coming to class every single week, but we weren't really seeing any changes in their scores. And a big part of that was lack of engagement in class. And it wasn't that they didn't want to be there. It was more that they just felt so much anxiety and so much frustration with the content. And so many of the questions just don't lend themselves well to students in that high anxiety environment.
So for example, we once had a linear equations question that was asking students to calculate the cost of renting a luxury golf cart. And that's not something that most students, especially in New York City, are familiar with. And immediately that's quite alienating. So I started to write my own questions from my students and I would base them off of things that the students actually were interested in or familiar with. So I'd pull from articles or books or shows that they loved. We would write math questions that were based on things they were actually experiencing and all of a sudden students were just much more comfortable and much more empowered to learn.
And the name comes from a student actually saying in class like, oh, this is actually almost fun now. And that just kind of stuck with me as we started to grow this out and to actually build this into an organization. And now, since we've proven our concept with standardized tests and shown that we can really shift test scores, we're expanding outside of test prep, into supplementary resources for students every day.
Geng: Got it. That's awesome. Love the name and so kudos to your, a student who came up with that. it's an easy one to remember for sure. So you mentioned the standardized test scores and how they weren't going up and afterwards now there's an impact, so how do you measure that?
Lisa Wang: Yeah. When we first started, when we were focusing on just test prep and SAT prep, we would pilot with schools. And then we would measure before and after scores.
So a lot of the students would have taken the PSAT or they would have done some kind of a practice test. And then they would take it again after a couple months of studying with us. And we would measure the before and after change. And we would correlate that actually with how much time they had spent learning on our platform.
So it wasn't really like a binary: studied or not studied. It was really a correlation study with how much they practiced with us. And we were able to see really statistically significant change in their scores, especially in comparison with the students who were studying less with us, or who were using other resources.
So that was the primary way we measured impact in the beginning. And that was when we were very hands-on with our partner schools. I think now we're serving about 150,000 students every month. And most of those students we don't ever see directly or talk to directly. And so we try to triangulate a few different signals when they're on our platform to try and understand what the learning experiences are like.
So we look at engaging. Time spent on the page, how many questions they answer, how many attempts they make, and basically try to make a best guess at whether or not we're impacting their learning.
Geng: Got it. It's interesting, so much of that sounds very technical. In terms of all the tracking and the technology. Looking at your past experiences, it's super clear that you're very comfortable with technology, which I think is actually pretty rare for a nonprofit founders.
How do you think about, how much did that play a role in terms of developing Almost Fun, did you need a CTO up front or did you not need a CTO up front because of that? How does that impact the growth?
Lisa Wang: I mean, I think that being able to code definitely helped me get something out there faster in terms of an MVP.
So I built the very first version of our product and the very first version of the code base is mostly written by me, much to the chagrin of our CTO now. But I think that being a technical founder did just help us get things out faster. I would say that bringing in a CTO is really important and just making sure that as we scale their infrastructure was ready for the massive scale that we were going to have.
And that because we have student users, our security and privacy was all set up correctly. Um, our CTO actually worked on Google classroom with me. And so he has experience and extensive knowledge with what it means to build something for edTech.
Geng: Got it. For our aspiring entrepreneurs who are looking at the social impact space who aren't as technically sophisticated or don't know how to code, what tips or guidance would you give?
Lisa Wang: I would say that it's kind of a fallacy that you need to build something out that's very feature rich and extensive in order to really validate the need that you're trying to build for. I mean, I've seen founders who, you know, put together a Typeform or hooked up a Google sheet to a very big interface and just use that to collect information on whether or not this need is something that they can solve for.
And B, it’s important enough to the beneficiaries that they'll want to use the service or the product. Then I think once you've proven all of that, and you've been able to secure a little bit of support, then it's much easier to bring on someone technical, to support and to build out the full version of the product that you want to have.
I think it's a lot harder in the very beginning, early stage. If you don't have any funding yet, and you don't have any support yet. And at that stage, there's a lot of really scrappy things you can do to prove out and validate the need you’re trying to build for.
Geng: Got it. So how did you convince your co-founder from Google? And more broadly, how, how did your experience at Google influence your decision to get into the space?
Lisa Wang: I had always wanted to be in education. Both of my parents are educators. And I think that from a young age, I've always seen both the value of education, and also what can happen if you don't have access to it.
I think Google has done such an amazing job. From the accessibility forefront as a platform. They make it very easy for any teacher to connect to any student anywhere and provide support and instruction. And I think when we think about equity and education, there are two prongs to accessibility:
There's the platform side, but there's also the content side where so much of the content is not accessible to students who may feel marginalized in the classroom or have high anxiety when they're learning. And so I think for me personally, I found while I was working at Google, I was more interested in the content side of accessibility and that's where I wanted to pursue future work and my interests.
Our CTO also started to feel similarly and he had been there for a lot longer than me. I think he was also kind of looking for a change around that time. So at that point we had a pretty solid pitch, and I would say a pretty solid initial user base. And so he was very excited to come onboard and grow that.
Geng: Awesome. I think a Forbes article mentioned that you incorporate Marvel and sports into the learning process. How exactly does this work with a team of three people, is your chief academic officer knowledgeable about these areas?
Lisa Wang: Yeah. So our chief academic officer, her role is largely to make sure that the content that we're putting out there is aligned to the standards that students are learning, that conceptually they're rigorous and that we are teaching and explaining concepts in a way that will be familiar for students from the classroom.
We work with interns to help make sure that our content is as relatable and culturally responsive as possible. So we work with interns who help us find the analogies that we use, the context that we use; like the hooks in our introductions, they're super savvy with TikTok and all the memes and trends that are going on.
I constantly feel old when I hang out with them, but that really helps to make sure that our lessons do resonate well.
Geng: We likewise have a small army of interns that keeps us relevant and fresh, so it makes total sense and how do you reach more students? Like what is the vision there and how do you do it today?
Lisa Wang: Yeah, it's actually really interesting because before COVID hit, we were very focused on partnerships. So we were partnering with direct service organizations, with schools, with other nonprofits to reach students. And once the pandemic hit a lot of those organizations didn't have time for partnerships, right? They're very much focused on just keeping their operations running. So all of a sudden we had to find a way to support our students without those in-between partners. And we decided that we were going to just focus on optimizing SEO because we knew a lot of students were searching for help.
And we knew that a lot of them didn't have the support they needed in online school. And that became the biggest driver for us, where we went from supporting 3000 students a month December of 2020 to 150,000 students a month by May of this year. I think this was something that I actually experienced at Google: Googling is a skill.
So if you are very proficient in an area you know the keywords to search for. You know what to search for, to find what you need. If you're trying to solve a linear equations problem, you'll search for linear equation help. And that will point you to a lot of the big resources out there. But if you have a lot of anxiety with math, you're not quite proficient in math.
A lot of times students will copy paste problems into the search bar, and that's going to be a huge tail end of queries, where each one of those specific queries is just a couple of hundred queries a day, but add it up and that's a lot of students that we can help. And so we optimize our pages to really serve those tail queries.
That way we can not only reach the students we most wanted to serve, but we could also reach a lot of them at once. So that strategy has really worked well and what's driven most of our growth over the last six months.
Geng: It's so fascinating to hear about companies that have been impacted by COVID, but actually in many ways have benefited because of the shift in direction including in your case: going more direct to the consumer student.
Lisa Wang: Yea, I think it forced a lot of nonprofit nonprofits to pivot or change their strategy and in some ways, it forced us to think a little bit outside of the box. I think in general, with education, you want to start with partnerships that help you get off more quickly, but, and so for us, we hadn't really thought about doing direct to service, at least in the beginning, but being kind of pushed into doing that, we found that that really was an area that we could Excel in, and really reach students quite rapidly.
Geng: You decided to be a nonprofit, social entrepreneur. We as Civic Champs, we're a public benefit company. Have you ever thought about being a B Corp, how did you weigh the decisions and choices?
Lisa Wang: I think that education is a very interesting space to think about because you know, we've had 20, 30 years of a lot of different ed tech companies, a lot of money poured into ed tech and still, you know, it's 33% of students by eighth grade are proficient in math. It's a similar number for literacy.It’s stayed quite low. And I think that a big part of that is that when you start an education company, there are so many stakeholders involved. There’s teachers, there’s administrators, there's parents, there's districts, there's politicians. And then finally there's the student. And in so many cases, if you are trying to generate revenue early on, you have to build for a lot of those stakeholders that are not the student. And so you may convince a teacher or a school that what you're building is great, but it takes a while before you find out if that's going to actually benefit the student or not. And in a lot of cases there hasn't been enough work done upfront to make sure that it will actually improve student learning outcomes.
So. I had seen a lot of that. And I had seen a lot of startups, really go out hot and then kind of fall off and not really be able to do what they had set out to do. And I think a lot of times with the best of intentions. And so I really wanted to set this up as a non-profit so that we could have the flexibility and the time to make sure that what we were building was going to shift outcomes for the students significantly.
Before we got to the point of thinking about generating revenue, that was really important to me because I didn't want to fall into that trap of not really being able to build for who you really are trying to build for.
Geng: So what’s the next step, you're already serving 150,000 students, which is truly amazing. What’s next for Almost Fun?
Lisa Wang: Well, our goal is really to improve the math proficiency that we see for students, and to really be able to show more students that they can be math learners.
I think we generally want to impact all different areas of education, but math is our primary focus first because.
There’s this false narrative that so many students experience that they're not math people and they can't learn math. And we really believe that culturally responsive content can really change that perception that students have.
And that it's one of the more urgent needs because so many future jobs require foundational and strong math skills. And so our goal by the end of next year is to be supporting 1 million students every month in their math learning and to really shift outcomes, so that 70% of the students who study with us consistently are able to show proficiency in math on end of year tests.
And that's a huge jump from where it's at today, but that's our goal. And our belief is that with our conceptually focused, analogy focused lessons we can really reach that goal because we're helping students understand math in a conceptual way, instead of what's traditionally been done, which is memorize, memorize, memorize.
Geng: Right. And so now I have to ask you as a wrap-up, what was your favorite subject in school? Were you a good test taker?
Lisa Wang: I really struggled early on as a math learner. Equations and formulas felt so abstract to me and it was very hard for me to wrap my head around. And I think what really changed it for me was that my Dad, who is a math professor and I was lucky to have him in my life, he would often give me riddles or like little logic problems or explain a math concept in a way that I could better understand through something that's familiar.
Actually his whole teaching approach is using analogies. And so I think that I've really pulled from that in a lot of what we do. I think that, you know, analogies are just like a raft that gets you from one end to another end more easily, because it helps your brain understand something through something you already know.
And so I think that really helped me love math and helped me see that math is such a creative and interesting subject. School doesn't do it justice often. And I think that's part of that was probably some intrinsic motivation for us to start with math.
Geng: If you had two big pieces of advice for aspiring non-profit leaders or social enterprise founders, you know, what would those be?
Lisa Wang: I would say that the biggest thing, and I think this is something that often nonprofits, especially tech nonprofits stop doing as they scale. But the biggest thing I think is to spend time with your target beneficiaries, as much time as possible, watching them use your product, watching them not use your product and use whatever it is they're using today, hearing from them and talking to them. We take feedback so seriously, and we try to collect feedback in as many ways as possible and make it as easy as possible for anyone who engages with us to give us feedback, because you just learn so much about what you can do, what you can be doing better.
What's working, what's not working. And at the end of the day, Helping your target beneficiaries is what's going to help you grow your organization. It's what's going to open the door to more funding. It's what's going to help you improve your impact. All of that comes from just building. It's actually the same as in the for-profit world.Right? You have to build for your end user or beneficiary as well as you can.
Then I think the second thing is, well I don’t know if this is one of the biggest pieces of advice that I would give, but it's one that I have experienced recently, which is that I think a lot of nonprofits don't take branding very seriously because you're so focused on your on the ground work.
Oftentimes you have a small budget, you can't really spend a lot of time or energy on something that to you may not feel like a huge part of your product and what you're trying to do. But I think last year I found how important branding can be, how is the first impression anyone is going to have with your product?
For a lot of our students, it's that, it's the first impression they have of what we're trying to give them. And we really need our brand to feel that accessible, that easy to understand, that familiar environment that we want them to feel.
So we've invested a little bit more in our branding this year and that's something that I would really encourage any non-profit founder to think about because that first impression is so important with anyone who's engaging with you.
Geng: That's all for us today. Thank you so much for spending time with us here at Civic Champs. Lisa, this has been awesome. I can't wait to follow your endeavors with Almost Fun and all the incredible impact you're creating in the Ed Tech space. Thank you.
Lisa Wang: Thank you. It was a great conversation. Thanks for having me.