September 27, 2015

PREPWORKS: from learning center to global ed-tech platform



By Nancy Dahlberg /

In 2007, Tracy LaFlamme Ortega opened her first Learning Center in Key Biscayne. Today the former high school English teacher is running a global education-technology company that provides test preparation and supplemental lessons to students anywhere, anytime, on any device.

Ortega’s company, PREPWORKS, painstakingly developed an online platform for its tutoring methodology and launched it in 2011. Now PREPWORKS’ technology is used by more than 100,000 people in 26 states and 18 countries.

PREPWORKS is an adaptive learning company; its supplemental curricula is for middle and high schools — public, private, and charter — in core subjects like algebra and civics, while its PSAT, SAT and ACT programs ready high school students for college entrance tests.

“We have translated the science and success of our 10 years of 1-to-1 tutoring into a highly scalable and adaptive online platform that delivers the most prescriptive learning experience to students seeking college and career readiness,” Ortega said. She worked briefly at a test prep company, wondered why results were not better, and set out to develop a better way: “We are really looking to make a difference.”

Over the years, the Key Biscayne learning center and a second one in Coconut Grove have served as incubators to develop and test the company’s proprietary adaptive learning processes. Not a one-size-fits-all system of the the past, PREPWORKS “serves as a GPS for each student, delivering to each student instructional content and practice activities specific to the student’s specific level of mastery and deficiency in given lesson areas,” said Ortega, in an interview at the Coconut grove center.

Content includes videos, technology-enhanced practice questions, and a writable sketchpad accessible from any Internet-ready device. The result: 281 trillion personalized learning paths, Ortega said. “For our SAT and ACT programs, we have a track record of improvement of 300 SAT points and 5 ACT points.”

Unlike private tutoring unaffordable to many, the company’s online courses cost about $100 to $300 in the direct-to-consumer market, and the company is testing a monthly subscription model that would bring the cost down to about $25 a month, Ortega said. Schools and districts that PREPWORKS partners with pay about $10 to $75 per student depending on the course. “We see technology as the great equalizer in education,” she said.

Until now, PREPWORKS has quietly developed its products and grown, but is now ready to scale. While Ortega won’t disclose revenue figures, it’s in the multi-millions, Ortega said, with an average year-over-year growth rate of 120 percent since launching its e-learning systems in 2011. Her company, now with 12 employees and 30 contractors, has attracted more than $2 million in angel funding, including an investment from e-learning entrepreneur John Edelson in the spring.

“I always look first for a market that is growing and ripe for innovation, and test preparation is really ripe,” said Edelson, founder of Fort Lauderdale-based, and other e-learning sites. “Tests are increasing and evolving, and tests are getting better ... and somewhat adaptive. The company has a sophisticated adaptive learning technology to address this market. A good adaptive system will see which skill or concept you are missing ... and teach you something you really needed to know.”

To be sure, the market is large and crowded. According to BMO Capital Markets, estimates for the U.S. K-12 tutoring and test preparation range from $5 billion to $7 billion. BMO Capital Markets projects that spending in K-12 testing and assessment will reach roughly $1.8 billion in 2019. With such a big opportunity, there are dozens of ed-tech companies in this sector, from startups to established players like Kaplan.

“PREPWORKS has a winner product in a market that’s growing and in need of better products. The next step is ‘let’s learn to market this thing broadly.’ The company’s Web presence has room for improvement as does some other pieces of its sales and marketing,” said Edelson, who has been an e-learning entrepreneur for 12 years. “But it’s poised for growth, and it’s a relatively easy challenge to overcome.”

One market PREPWORKS is going after hard is helping public schools and districts to significantly increase student performance in core subject areas such as algebra, civics and language arts. In Louisiana, PREPWORKS has already started to make a difference, as 100 percent of eighth-graders enrolled in PREPWORKS algebra achieved a passing score on their official state assessment, in a district where the historical pass rate was 44 percent, Ortega said.

“Our experiences with PREPWORKS were very favorable. We started with 15 students and entered a partnership with the parents, the students and the school, and we all signed off that we would have a part in supporting the child but this course is really set up to be an independent,” said Cherie Haydel Goins, assistant principal of Martin Behrman Charter School Academy of Creative Arts and Sciences in New Orleans, who has signed up to again offer PREPWORKS.

PREPWORKS is also partnering with Teach for America, a nonprofit that helps low-performing schools. The courseware will be offered free to all 300 students who attend the organization’s ROOTS Miami leadership summit on Nov. 21 with teachers and families. “PREPWORKS is really invested in the potential of students in Miami-Dade County Public Schools ... and that they have the tools that they need to succeed,” said Kiesha Moodie, managing director of alumni and community impact at Teach for America. “Hopefully this can be a model about how education and tech can partner and collaborate at a grassroots level.”

Along with schools and the direct-to-consumer market in the U.S., the company sees significant opportunity internationally. Last year, the company began selling in China, where the SAT/ACT test prep market is estimated to be $225 million. All lessons are in English because the curricula aims to prepare the student for college and career readiness in the United States, Ortega said.

Ortega understands the complicated world of test prep, and she brings the right attitude to her course design, said Penny Townsend, head of school for Miami’s Ransom Everglades, which has recently begun using the SAT and ACT PREPWORKS programs. “We see this as a low-stress way for students to assess their own test-taking skills and preparedness — and that the process will hopefully build confidence. The program is focused on identifying strengths and finding solutions for weaknesses.”

At Ransom Everglades, the program is a voluntary endeavor, Townsend said. “We hope that this kind of engagement will ultimately lead to more intrinsically motivated learners capable of self-directed study — skills needed in our technologically infused world.”

Nancy Dahlberg: 305-376-3595, @ndahlberg

September 14, 2015

VIDEO: Jessica Kizorek's series TechVersify to debut Thursday on WPBT2


As billions of people interact with digital technologies every single day, many struggle to balance real life obligations with the increasing demands of constant connectivity. TechVersify, a new online original series from WPBT2/PBS and Two Parrot Productions, premiering on WPBT2’s uVu Network on September 17th, aims to educate viewers in the art of using technology for maximum personal and professional benefit.

Following the debut of the first episode on Sept. 17, a new episode will be released each week on WPBT2’s uVu Network for Community Filmmakers ( Each episode will also be available across WPBT2’s various digital channels and apps, including Apple TV, Roku and Fire TV.

“Miami makes the perfect epicenter for the TechVersify plot because it’s the melting pot of so many diverse perspectives. However, it was equally important to travel outside Miami to cities like Austin, Texas; Tokyo, Japan; and Kathmandu, Nepal,” says Creator/Producer Jessica Kizorek. “Tech is impacting lives everywhere, so we had to put the conversation in a global context.”

TechVersify explores this new landscape by telling stories about the psychological impact of the digital age through diverse human characters. Women, minorities and members of the LGBT community are the stars of the series. The show is hosted by Kizorek with expert analysis from psychiatrist Eva Ritvo, M.D. “TechVersify” illuminates what’s going on inside our brains and how technology can have both good and bad effects on our lives. Rather than being a slave to our gadgets, “TechVersify” postulates, we should aim to leverage technology to make ourselves happier and healthier.

South Florida is home to a celebrated intersection of diversity, technology, entrepreneurship and the arts. The expression of diverse perspectives is part of our community identity,” said Max Duke, VP of Content & Community Partnerships for WPBT2. “We are excited to be working with Jessica Kizorek and Two Parrot Productions to provide a vehicle for that expression, and to explore technology from a completely new perspective.”

Funding for the series, TechVersify, was provided by Gulliver Schools and the Center for Social Change.

- submitted by WPBT 

August 06, 2015

Women, minorities tweet #ILookLikeAnEngineer -- South Florida, represent!

South Florida, join in!

In Tech Gender Stereotypes And More

By Associated Press

Thousands of female engineers, coders, self-described science nerds and other tech superstars joined a Twitter campaign this week to break down stereotypes about what engineers should look like.

As of Thursday afternoon, more than 75,000 people used the hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer to post photos of themselves and promote gender diversity in technology, according to analytics firm Topsy. The campaign started when Isis Anchalee, an engineer at tech startup OneLogin, got an avalanche of attention after her photo appeared in a recruitment ad for her company.

The ad features Anchalee, with long, wavy hair and glasses, smiling in a black T-shirt bearing her company logo. Many people could not believe that an attractive woman could also be an engineer at a tech company and assumed that the company had hired a model for its recruiting efforts.

"I didn't want or ask for any of this attention, but if I can use this to put a spotlight on gender issues in tech I consider that to be at least one win," she wrote in an essay on Medium. As such, she suggested people use #ILookLikeAnEngineer to post photos of themselves and redefine perceptions of what engineers should look like.

From the look of the photos, it's working. And it's not only women. Other traditionally underrepresented groups in tech, such as African-American men, have joined in too, as the campaign grows bigger each minute.

— Barbara Ortutay, AP Technology Writer

August 05, 2015

Kairos, FIU among those who pledged support for inclusive entrepreneurship at White House Demo Day

Found in the White House's fact sheet, in which President Obama announced new commitments from investors, companies, universities, and cities to advance inclusive entrepreneurship at the first-ever White House Demo Day.

Among private company pledges of support:

Kairos will support entrepreneurship through 1,000 volunteer hours. Kairos, a Miami-based facial recognition software company, will support entrepreneurship in Miami and nationally by committing to spending over 1,000 hours in affected communities to help entrepreneurs to build and scale their businesses.

And FIU is a signer here: Engineering deans from over 100 universities are committing to building a more-representative student-talent pipeline. Today, engineering deans from around the country signed a letter pledging four actions that promise to increase diversity among engineering students. First, they will develop a concrete diversity plan for their engineering programs, with input from national organizations such as the National Society of Black Engineers, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and the Society of Women Engineers. Second, they will undertake an annual equity and inclusion climate survey of faculty, students, and staff, with the goal of assessing and increasing the effectiveness of the Diversity Plan developed. Third, they commit to at least one K-12 Pipeline Activity with targeted goals and measures of accountability aimed at increasing the diversity of the student body in their institutions. And fourth, they commit to developing strong partnerships between research-intensive engineering schools and non-PhD-granting engineering schools serving populations underrepresented in engineering. For more details on signatories as well as applications of these principles, click here.

August 04, 2015

45 venture capital firms commit to diversity actions

With various estimates out there putting the numbers of female venture capitalists and female founders receiving venture capital at about or under 5 percent, this is a solid start. The announcement:

Forty-five venture capital firms representing over $100 billion in assets under management invested in nearly 7,000 startups across 45 states today announced their commitment to advancing opportunity for women and underrepresented minorities in venture capital and the entrepreneurial ecosystem.  Led by the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) Diversity Task Force, the commitments were announced in a letter to President Obama as part of the first-ever White House Demo Day, which is bringing together diverse entrepreneurs and other key stakeholders from across the ecosystem to convene and showcase the innovation economy.

NVCA Diversity Task Force member firms Scale Venture Partners, Greenspring Associates, Polaris Partners, True Ventures, .406 Ventures, Menlo Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, JumpStart, Inc., Pappas Ventures, New Enterprise Associates and GE Ventures were joined by Intel Capital, Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, New Atlantic Ventures, 500 Startups, IBM Venture Capital Group, SoftTechVC, North Bridge Venture Partners, Insight Venture Partners, and many others in signing the letter. 

Together, these 45 firms commit to taking the following actions:

* Distribute and participate in the National Venture Capital Association's 2015 Venture Census survey led by NVCA, Dow Jones VentureSource and CrunchBase to measure the diversity of the U.S. startup ecosystem. The results will be made public in the fall of 2015.
* Adopt HR policies within their firms to create work environments that foster respect and dignity for all.  In addition, they will immediately explore and develop a forthcoming set of NVCA model HR policies.
* Contribute regularly and actively to programs and initiatives that encourage women and underrepresented minorities to consider, pursue and thrive in venture capital and entrepreneurship careers.
* Commit to visible leadership by sharing regularly within their community and throughout their portfolio the best practices that demonstrate a long term commitment to change.

Several firms also provided specific actions their partnerships will take to advance diversity. Greenspring Associates and Scale Venture Partners are committing to adopt the “Rooney/Murray Rule” for the interview processes to ensure a diverse slate of candidates is considered.  True Ventures created the Priya Haji Fellowship in 2015, a nine month fellowship program for new college graduates.  NCT Ventures will announce the results of its research on minority entrepreneurs to give measurable quantitative and qualitative insight into barriers to accessing capital among minority business enterprises.

Download the commitment letter and fact sheet.

The NVCA Diversity Task Force launched in 2014 to develop meaningful solutions to support diverse groups of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs in order to build a stronger innovation ecosystem for the 21st Century.  The first solution set will be announced in the fall.

Separately, other firms also made announcements at the White House Demo Day. Impact investors Mitch Kapor & Freada Kapor Klein announced that the Kapor family of organizations -- Kapor Capital, the Kapor Center for Social Impact & Level Playing Field Institute - will invest $40 million dollars over three years in initiatives to accelerate their life's work of making tech entrepreneurship more inclusive.

To address both the pipeline problem and the leaky pipeline problem for African Americans, Latina/os and all women in tech, the investment will take a comprehensive approach, supporting three interrelated pillars: access to tech education, including scaling its SMASH (Summer Math and Science Honors) Academy, access to capital and strong community institutions.
“Had industry leaders committed to diversity and inclusion a decade ago, imagine how tech would look today,” stated Freada Kapor Klein, Founder of the Level Playing Field Institute and Partner at Kapor Capital. 


July 31, 2015

New research on women entrepreneurs: Quality but not enough quantity

Early-stage venture capital firm First Round recently released findings from its deep dive into 10 years of investment data. Among the Silicon Valley firm’s findings among the 300 startups it has invested in over the decade: Its investments in companies with at least one female founder performed 63 percent better than its investments in all-male teams. And, if you look at First Round's top 10 investments of all time based on value created for investors, three of those teams have at least one female founder — far outpacing the percentage of female tech founders in general.

You can read about First Round's other findings, all very interesting, at

While women-founded companies perform better, there needs to be more of them. The Kauffman Foundation, an authority on all things entrepreneurship, also released some interesting research about women in entrepreneurship recently.

While the number of women entering the workforce has significantly increased over several decades, they are still half as likely as men to start a business, and the findings are fairly consistent across all age groups, according to Kauffman’s most recent Entrepreneurship Policy Digest.

Women are one-third as likely to access equity financing through angels or venture capital, and they begin their companies with about half the capital of men.

Kauffman Foundation found the lack of women entrepreneurs is not just a gender issue, it’s an economic issue. Research shows a lack of female mentors (in one survey, half reported challenges finding mentors), challenges to maintaining work-life balance and an implicit bias against women as entrepreneurs as major obstacles.

The Digest offered suggestions to entrepreneurial programs and organizations to help more women become successful. Among them:

* Develop and report entrepreneurial program metrics by gender to better understand what works best for women entrepreneurs.

* Increase the number of women represented in entrepreneurship programs to expand access to female mentors.

* Partner with women’s professional organizations to increase awareness of Small Business Innovation Research awards. Just 15 percent of SBIR awards went to women-owned businesses in 2012.

* Celebrate successful women entrepreneurs to counter the false narrative that only men are successful entrepreneurs.

Read more from the Policy Digest here.

Follow @ndahlberg on Twitter.

July 17, 2015

Seeing possibility: Entrepreneurs share advice, tools at women's forum


Trish Costello, founder of Portfolio and co-founder of the Kauffman Fellows Program, discussed ways to fund your company at the International Women’s Forum event in Miami, above.

Dawn Dickson, below, CEO of Flat Out of Heels, attended the International Women’s Forum event and asked a question. Photos by Two Parrot Productions. 



By Nancy Dahlberg /

Women-run firms are generating half the revenue of their male counterparts’ firms, and about 30 percent of corporations have no women in senior management.

In the venture capital world, less than 5 percent of VCs are women. Only about 3 percent of venture capital goes to companies with female CEOs, and 85 percent of funded companies have no women on founding teams.

Statistics like these are why organizations such as the International Women’s Forum exist. Supported by the Knight Foundation, the IWF hosted a two-day Executive Development Roundtable in downtown Miami this week to provide leadership training and professional development to women entrepreneurs.

The two-day forum brought in female entrepreneurs who have grown billion-dollar brands and launched venture funds to share advice and secrets of success with about 70 participants, most of whom are running their own businesses in South Florida.

Yet, despite the statistics, the mood in the conference was upbeat and inspiring. The speakers shared war stories, advice, resources, connections — and hope that things are changing. For starters, women now make up more than half of the workforce, and they have also moved higher than men in academic-degree attainment.

On the funding front, trends are moving in women’s favor. For example, angel funding and crowdfunding are exploding (the number of female angels has tripled in three years, for example), and these are platforms that align with the way women operate best, the panelists said. More women are being trained to be VCs in programs such as the Kauffman Fellows program.

“We have power that no women in history have had — that is pretty exciting,” said Trish Costello, investor and founder of Portfolia. “We have to learn from each other.”

Some words of advice from the panelists in Tuesday’s sessions, which included IWF Fellows Costello; Kim Sanchez Rael, founder of Arrah Ventures; Denise Brosseau, co-founder of Springboard; Kay Koplovitz, former chairman of USA Network; Gayle Tauber, co-founder of Kashi; Susan Amat, founder of Miami’s Venture Hive; and Kah Walla, founder of Strategies!:

Assemble an A-team. Investors look at market, technology, business model and team, but every VC will tell you it is really all about the team. Also assemble an advisory board. Everyone needs smart advisors and a really good lawyer, they said, and as you grow, hire slowly, fire fast.

Prioritize. What is the area that is providing the most value for the customer? That is what you focus on scaling.

Get comfortable with the numbers. Read Finance for Non-Financial Managers. Understand your sources of cash on a monthly and quarterly basis. Realize that a highly profitable business is the engine that keeps it going.

Assemble a mastermind group. Meet regularly, at least monthly, with this group of like-minded entrepreneurs in noncompeting companies to share what you’ve learned and bring business problems to the table in a safe space. Strive to combine both experienced and less experienced entrepreneurs and look for different areas of expertise.

The customer is king. You don’t have a business until you have a repeat customer.

Reframe the word “failure”: It’s not a bad thing; it’s a learning experience. You are failing forward.

Form strategic partnerships to get your business going. But keep the terms short so there is no long-term impact.

“You have to love the roller coaster of being an entrepreneur,” said Koplovitz. “I wake up every day and see possibility.”

Follow @ndahlberg on Twitter.



From left, above, Canadian journalist Ann Medina interviews Kay Koplovitz, former chairman and CEO of USA Networks, and Gayle Tauber, who among other endeavors co-founded Kashi Company.

A table of entrepreneurs discusses issues with one of the International Women’s Forum Fellows during a mentoring session. Photos by Two Parrot Productions.



June 03, 2015

View from the inside: Startup Weekend Diversity Miami

DSC04751 copy (1)

The winning Breakin' Bread team are (left to right) Monica Delgado, Juan Murillo, Miguel Hidalgo, Francisco Tamayo, Adriana Castro, Daniela Hernandez. On the far right is Joshua Gaviria-Bradshaw, expansion lead for WeWork.

By Francisco Tamayo

"What did you do this weekend?" is a question I hear from friends, co-workers and family members every Monday. This week, my answer was different - "I started a company with complete strangers in 54 hours.”

The adventure started Friday night alongside 59 other wide-eyed participants at a sold out Startup Weekend Diversity Miami, a Google for Entrepreneurs global event series, which gives aspiring entrepreneurs a chance to launch their own business in a weekend. It was hosted at Venture Hive.

Many South Floridians feel their gender, age, ethnicity, background or technical ability is a hurdle to entering the startup world, and I can confirm that perception was changed at with over 15 countries represented, multiple ethnicities, 5 different languages spoken, ages ranging from 18 to 60, an even split amongst genders and all types of backgrounds and abilities present.

Startup Weekend's hashtag #SWMiami was trending on Twitter when the event began with 60 second pitches for startup ideas thanks to the amount of social media activity happening inside Venture Hive. Teams were formed and the process kicked off.

My team of six -- Monica Delgado, Juan Murillo, Miguel Hidalgo, Adriana Castro, Daniela Hernandez plus me -- was determined to launch our startup Breakin' Bread, a social platform that allows people to instantly join unique, communal dining experiences. By Friday night's end, we had delegated responsibilities and began the 54-hour journey.

BreakinBread_Mentor One on One with LiveAnswer CEO Adam Boalt (1)

LiveAnswer’s Founder and CEO Adam Boalt (above)  sat down with us Saturday and immediately noticed roadblocks he had previously experienced in his entrepreneurial career. He took the time to carefully guide us through the process to show where Breakin' Bread could be improved and what actions to take in order to band together and impress the Sunday night judges.

By the time we presented Breakin' Bread Sunday night to a capacity crowd at Venture Hive, the judging panel of Nicolai Bezsonoff (COO and CO-Founder .CO INTERNET), Brian Brackeen (Kairos CEO), Johanna Mikkola (Wyncode Academy Co-Founder) and Roberto Interiano (STS Capital Partners) believed in us enough to vote our startup 1st place. As a matter of fact, I spoke with Roberto after winning and was fortunate enough to receive his priceless advice.

After a mentally and emotionally draining 54 hours, the bonding continued at Adam Boalt’s home where he hosted us with Miami Dolphins DJ Supersede, a red carpet, a photo booth, a bounce castle and drone lessons. I met a lot of contacts at the party ranging from venture capitalists and web designers to software engineers and attorneys specializing in startups.

Startup Weekend Diversity could have never been possible without UP Global facilitator Lee Ngo, the Community Leader for Startup Weekend Pittsburgh, and Miami Lead organizer Paula Celestino (COO, Crea7ive Interactive Advertising) along with Pia Celestino, Gaby Castelao, Ryan Amsel and Anas Benadel.

Without a doubt, the event changed me personally. Professionally, the Breakin' Bread team's main focus is to preserve the bonds we made and work hard together to properly develop our MVP for release later this summer.

We are looking forward to Breakin' Bread with you soon, Miami.

Francisco Tamayo is a team member of Breakin' Bread.


March 30, 2015

Q&A with Mary Spio: Down-to-earth advice from a rocket scientist

By Nancy Dahlberg /

SpioWhen Spio was 16, her parents spent everything they had to send her to the United States for a better life.

Her first job was at a McDonald’s, but after a while she found her way into the Air Force. “It was when I was in the Air Force that an engineer pulled me aside and told me I was really great at fixing electronics; and that I should look into becoming an engineer. I did and it was the best thing I’ve ever done.”

After six years with the Air Force, she went to Syracuse and the Georgia Tech for engineering degrees, and she was soon working at satellite communications firms, some while in college, where she designed and launched satellites into deep space on a NASA project, headed up a satellite communications team for Boeing, and pioneered digital cinema technology for LucasFilms that redefined the distribution method for major motion pictures.

With a continued interest in media, Spio turned to entrepreneurship about a decade ago and has never looked back — even though at one point she was voted out of her own company because her investor wanted a white male at the helm.

Now Spio heads her own company once again, Miami Beach-based Next Galaxy, a developer of innovative content and tools for virtual reality. Its flagship application is CEEK, a social VR hub for accessing entertainment, education and branded experiences. One of her newest products, CEEKARS 4-D headphones, is out this month and Spio is currently running an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign for the product. In January, Spio brought the B.I.G. Summit to the New World Center on Miami Beach, and her conference explored ways to use virtual reality across a broad spectrum of industries.

She also has a new book out. In It’s Not Rocket Science: 7 Game-Changing Traits for Achieving Uncommon Success,sheoffers advice and insights by exploring the distinct actions and attributes that successful leaders across many fields share as they challenge old precepts and create worldwide impact.

The Miami Herald met with Spio recently in her Miami Beach office. Here are excerpts of that conversation:

Q. Why did you decide to write the book?

A. After working with the U.S. Department of State visiting and speaking at all these different countries like Pakistan, South Africa, Ukraine and Russia, I kept getting a lot of the same questions. I said I need to put something together that shares what I have learned along the way. To do that, I had to go back to my foundation. I had been studying game-changers for a long time and never realized it.

When I was young and living on my own in New York … I was working in McDonald’s, back then my idea of success was going from fries to cashier. But I started reading. My first book was Sumner Redstone’s A Passion to Win — I read it over and over and over and over, I could connect to something in there — overcoming challenges. I also read about Bill Gates. As I read about these people who I admired, I thought there was more that I could do. It gave me the courage to try new things.

As I traveled later on, I got to meet all these game-changers, more than 100 over time. As a scientist I said, how do I codify this?

A lot of times when I speak, some people say it is easy for you to say because you are a rocket scientist. But I was like those people, thinking technology is for those other people. Even when I went into the Air Force, I really didn’t know technology. The more I learned about it, it’s really not rocket science. For anyone who thinks technology is for those other people, this is the book for them and it has steps you can take to leverage tech for what you want to do. It’s a combination of my observations and discoveries; this is my personal playbook, these are the people I go to over and over again when I am having a hard time and it keeps me going.

Q. Is there one particular trait among all these game-changers?

A. I think it’s courage. Most of these people are almost crazy. When you do anything new, there is opposition and shaming that comes with it, and these people didn’t care about that. It’s not fearlessness; they have the fear but they act in spite of the fear. It’s also the scientific mindset. As an engineer, I know failure is not failure, it is just an experiment. In entrepreneurship too, I realize these founders have the scientific approach to success. It’s OK to fail. It’s not failure, it’s feedback.

Q. How did you fall into technology — and stay?

A. I was the kid that always tore the radio apart, I wanted to know how it worked, how, how, how, how — I drove my parents crazy. In the Air Force testing, I scored very high in electronics.

In the Air Force, I was usually the only woman, but it felt like home. I enjoyed what I was doing.

And when I was working on Gen2Media, my last company, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. There is more to the movie industry than what happens on the big screen, there is so much excitement that happens behind the scenes.

A big part of why women and girls don’t go into technology is they don’t want to be in the lab all day. But there are so many opportunities, there are so many other options.

Q. Is that also why you also created the B.I.G. Summit?

A. Yes, I go to a lot of virtual reality conferences. Ninety-nine percent of everything I was seeing is games, shoot-’em-up games. I think enough is enough — what about healthcare and education and all these other things?

That was the idea of the B.I.G. Summit. We are looking at healthcare, we are looking at education.

Q. What were some of your biggest challenges along the way?

A. I felt like a kid in the candy store coming into tech because I was pulled in so many ways; it surprised me to see how much my perspective was needed. When everyone is the same, everyone thinks the same way and you miss a lot. But not all of what I have experienced was positive.

At one company, for example, I had a boss who was racist and sexist, the work environment was not ideal. … Fortunately I was recruited by Boeing where my experiences were all wonderful. Culture starts at the top. I worked at Aerospace Corp. under a woman CEO, and my experience there was phenomenal. While at Georgia Tech they let me work remotely from my dorm room. From Boeing on I never felt any type of discrimination [as an employee], I felt right at home.

But as an entrepreneur raising capital, I ran into challenges. When I launched Gen2Media, we were doing a million before beta. We had an investor come in to help us raise capital — and he said he was having a hard time because no one was writing checks to black women and he needed a white male at the helm. Then he got my other partners (they were all equal partners) on his side — I was forced out of my own company.

This was a company I built with every dime I had. … We had 26 employees. That was toughest thing I have gone through, and it happened not because of something I did but because of who I am. I am a black woman and that is not going to change.

I was pregnant at the time. I took some time off [about two years, 2010-2012], moved in with my family for awhile, started writing the book, did some consulting but mostly spent time with my son and family in London.

Q. And then?

A. When I was ready to go back to work, I put my resume out there, and heard from Amazon and NBCUniversal and others, but I decided I really wanted to build my own company again. I participated in a Google for Entrepreneurs program and we visited Facebook and I saw the Oculus [the virtual reality headset maker that Facebook later purchased]. I always loved 3D movies. I tried it on and I said “oh my god this is exactly what I want to do for ever and ever.” Everything was leading up to this point. It was religious for me. I said I would love to watch a movie this way, I would love to deliver education this way, healthcare this way. I said I gotta build something that I can enjoy this thing with.

Then I went to a Samsung conference, saw the Gear VR [headset] and said this is the way to change the market but content is going to drive it. We dove headfirst into developing content, not just as an entertainment means but as a way to do medical training. We partnered with Miami Children’s Hospital to develop these models for CPR and also anti-choking. As a mom I think this is super important. With the Google Cardboard [a very low cost VR headset], you can have a headset and you can experience it affordably. We are also working with the schools.

I want to make a different kind of impact. All these companies are spending billions to to teach kids to kill; no one wants to hear that but it is true. I think we can be more intentional about what we program for kids. Whether we are putting them on the moon, or they are flying through the sky, why can’t it be a learning voyage? It can be a lot more than just killing. That is the impact I am trying to make with Next Galaxy.

Q. Who are your heroes?

A. Oprah definitely. Bill Gates, Larry Page and Elon Musk because of their moonshots; they set out to do something extraordinary for humanity.

Also Mark Cuban, Mark Zuckerberg and Laurie Clark. Laurie was the first female mentor I ever had, she was one of the first SVP at Staples, she was also on the board of Suncoast Motion Pictures, GamePlay, etc. and not only gave me advice but walked me into decision makers there and at Sony. My very first mentor in business was Yoav Cohen; he was instrumental in the growth of JDATE, also co-founder of Genesis Media. He made a huge difference in my career with advice, opportunities and introductions, including to Laurie Clark. Also, Leslie Hielema, the first female president of the Orlando Chamber and a dear friend and mentor.

I believe mentorship is super, super important as it provides not just guidance but access. Once you get in the door, what you do is up to you.

Q. What is the best advice you have ever received?

A. Don’t clip your wings to fit in someone else’s box. It came with a story from my father. … Your value comes from your difference, not your similarity.

Q. When do you think we will see mainstream adaption of virtual reality technology?

A. I think mainstream adaption will come from mobile phones, and I think it will happen very quickly. I think we have about 15 months to go.

Mainstream adaption is going to be based on content outside of gaming. Everybody currently is looking at gaming because that is what they know, but movies, concerts, sports healthcare, medical training, all of that is going to eclipse gaming and it is going to be from smartphones. Last year there were over a billion smartphones that were shipped out, everyone has a smartphone in their hand whether they are in India, Ghana or Miami. They are looking for what to do with their phones, they want a different kind of experience ... Imagine I can deliver Intersteller to you and you can be in the experience and all you have to do is flip your phone, download CEEK and watch it that way. … Our goal is to make VR as simple as turning on the TV. That’s when mainstream adoption will happen.

Thanks to the Samsung Gear VR, I think we will get there much faster than anyone predicted. I am curious about what Apple has, you have Microsoft with Hololens. It is going to happen on the mobile phone, not on the Oculus Rift.

Q. You moved here last year. How are you finding South Florida?

A. I love it! I came here for the beaches, but the community is why i am staying. The support is here. There are so many people who are very serious about turning South Florida into a tech hub. There is a big opportunity with the third wave of the Internet for us to do exactly that.

Opportunities abound here, and it is fantastic to be a part of building this ecosystem. There are great people here: Manny Medina, Rokk3r Labs, and Felecia Hatcher and Michael Hall of Digital Grass. It is a great time to be here, like the early days of the Internet. The one thing missing is seed capital. That needs to change. Here you have lot of opportunities but the money is not here. We raised our money in New York, and had to fight tooth and nail to be here.

Q. What is the biggest takeaway you’d like readers to take from your book?

A. Their voices are needed today, not tomorrow. We are all techies and you can make an impact leveraging technology and you don’t have to a rocket scientist to do that. The book offers practical advice on ways to get started, testing your model and making your mark on our world.

This is all stuff I have been through and I have used whether it was going from McDonald’s to Boeing, or when I lost everything and had to come back again. A lot of my mistakes are what I draw from — this is my playbook and I am opening it up and sharing it with others.

Q. What advice do you have for students interested in tech?

A. I think it is a great time to be in tech, stay up to date with the industry. It'a not just what you learn in the classroom, read the trades, the daily newspaper, you need to know the industry.

Also, find someone in your industry you admire and try to connect with them — with all the social networks around this is very possible today. You might have go reach out to hundreds, before you find one person, remember they get thousands of emails so don't give up or get discouraged just because you contact one person and don't hear back. Keep searching.


Mary Spio

Current position: CEO of Next Galaxy Media

Career highlights: Patent-holding deep-space scientist at Boeing and other companies. Serial entrepreneur and consultant. She has worked with and/or provided content development, marketing and technical expertise to over 200 leading retailers, corporations and entertainers including Microsoft xBox, Tribune News Company, Coca Cola, Toyota, Mary J. Blige and Lebron James. Spio is on the USA Today panel of CEOs, presidents, founders and chairmen where she advises on leadership trends annually and is a speaker for the U.S. State Department on innovation and entrepreneurship.

New book: “It’s Not Rocket Science: 7 Game-Changing Traits for Uncommon Success.”

Age: 42

Lives in: Miami Beach

Education: Majored in engineering at Syracuse University and earned her graduate degree in electrical engineering and computer science, with an emphasis on deep-space communications, from Georgia Tech.

Favorite movies: “Avatar,” “Unforgiven” and “The Butler.”


Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg.

February 24, 2015

Rokk3r Labs, journalist Lilia Luciano launch Coinspire, a video series with groundbreaking entrepreneurs


Rokk3r Labs and journalist Lilia Luciano officially announce the launch of Coinspire, a thought-leadership video series uncovering insights of groundbreaking entrepreneurs. Coinspire challenges the concepts of failure, self, risk, business, reality, success, and achievement through intimate interviews with some of today’s more innovative minds.

For the premiere of Coinspire, Lilia Luciano has conducted in-depth interviews with leaders from the entrepreneurial community:

 * Alexandra W. Wilson @AWilkisWilson - Founder, Gilt

* Benzion Aboud @benzionaboud - Founder, Saveology

* Chris Dannen @chrisdannen - Editor, Fast Company

* Gary Mahieu - Serial Tech Entrepreneur

* Jeremy Office - Principal, Maclendon

* John Stuart @jstuartFIUMBUS - Director, CARTA FIU

* Juan Carlos Ortiz @juancarlosortiz - CEO, DDB Latina 

* Juan Pablo Cappello @cappelloJp - Founder of private advising group

* Laura Maydon @limaydon - CEO, Endeavor Miami

* Rodolfo Saccoman @RodolfoSaccoman - Founder, AdMobilize

The interviews are presented both in full, demonstrating the continuity of thought and questioning involved, and segmented by topics, empowering viewers to explore their interests. Rokk3r Labs Chief Strategy and Creative Officer German Montoya says, “We are in an era where it is common to see the upstart entrepreneur disrupting the unsuspecting traditional business. We hope that with Coinspire, we can collectively catalyze this global movement to accelerate even faster.”

Visit for free access to the entire video series.

Lilia Luciano, an accomplished journalist, documentary film director, will serve as host and creative director of Coinspire in partnership with Rokk3r Labs. She is currently directing a feature documentary for HBO and has worked as a national correspondent for NBC News. Rokk3r Labs launches companies through its comprehensive cobuilding approach, with its specialized team of engineers, creatives and strategists.

Posted Feb. 24, 2015