January 26, 2016

Dawn Dickson a finalist for SBA’s InnovateHER Business Challenge

DawndicksonDawn Dickson, founder and CEO of Flat out of Heels, is one of 10 finalists of the 2016 InnovateHER: Innovating for Women Business Challenge, a nationwide business competition presented by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Dickson’s Miami Beach-based companies makes and sells rollable ballet flats that can easily fit in a purse -- a convenient way for women to relieve stiletto sore feet on the go.

An executive committee of SBA officials reviewed more than 180 semi-finalist nominations and selected 10 finalists whose products and services best met the competition criteria and presented the greatest potential for success. The semi-finalists were chosen at more than 200 local competitions across the country hosted by universities, accelerators, clusters, scale-up communities, SBA’s resource partners and other local community organizations and involving more than 1,000 entrepreneurs.

These 10 finalists are invited to the National InnovateHER: Innovating for Women Business Challenge during Women’s History Month in Washington, D.C., where they will pitch their businesses to a panel of expert judges for an opportunity to win $70,000 in cash and prizes from Microsoft.

For more details on the competition and the other finalists, visit www.sba.gov/innovateHER.


January 25, 2016

Tech Talk: ClassPass co-founder's journey from the Big Apple to the Magic City


By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

Mary Biggins co-founded ClassPass, a fast-moving New York-based company that lets fitness enthusiasts pay one monthly fee to gain access to multiple specialized boutique fitness studios.

Launched in June 2013, ClassPass now has more than 200 employees and serves 37 markets around the world, including Miami, and most recently, Australia. It offers classes at 10,000 studios from the big names to small boutique neighborhood spots and has booked more than 10 million class reservations.

It’s also a venture capital darling, having raised more than $80 million in financing from Google Ventures and other firms.

So what is she doing in Miami? Not taking a vacation on South Beach, although she probably deserves one. Biggins is starting another company — but this time, it’s based in South Florida.

Along with co-founder Katie Ghelli, she launched MealPass this month in its first market, Brickell, with 50 restaurants, such as American Social, Grazionos, El Taco Loco, Novecento, Sushi Siam and Suviche. For $99, members can select online and then pick up a meal from a curated list of nearby restaurants each weekday, which works out to $5 a day if used daily. They can choose from dozens of choices such as veggie pizza, a tuna wrap, zucchini quiche or chicken teriyaki, among the offerings on one recent day.

MealPass creates efficiencies for restaurants because they will get all their orders by 9 a.m., Biggins said in an interview before the big launch day. Customers pick them up in a special line, so there’s no wait, and they will know exactly what they are getting because the photos on the website were taken by professional photographers and include detailed descriptions.

Now a team of 10, MealPass works out of Building.co, a shared workspace in Brickell. Fellow co-workers were beta testers. “We’ve been eating really well and a lot of it,” Ghelli said. “Somebody’s got to do quality control — we willingly take that on.”

Biggins and Ghelli said they expect to be launching in a lot of markets in a short period of time, including New York and San Francisco, similar to ClassPass.

Why Miami? “There’s a lot of opportunity. We see it as an interesting place to test ideas. Brickell is like a New York but on a smaller scale,” Biggins said. And yes, she also wanted to experience living someplace warm.

She began spending time in Miami last spring and found a good tech scene and less competition for talent than in New York or San Francisco. One of the first people she met here was Melissa Krinzman, co-founder of the Miami-based early-stage fund Krillion Ventures. Krillion is now an investor in MealPass.

At a Citi Fintech Meeting last week about women in technology co-hosted by the monthy meetup organization Refresh Miami and held at WeWork, Biggins shared more about her ClassPass journey — how the team went from 35 paying customers the first month (“I am pretty sure I knew 30 of them,” she said) to more than 1,000 customers and a $100,000 recurring revenue run rate in just six months. That is also about the time they began to get investors on board.

She said her experience at Vistaprint and Betterment helped prepare her for the startup life. Here are a few of the lessons learned with ClassPass that she shared at the Citi event:

* Don’t build too much technology until you have extensively tested the business model. At ClassPass, that meant doing many, many tasks less efficiently by hand, but if the company had spent time and money building out the technology at the beginning, it would have been wasted because of the numerous iterations.

* Spend on marketing, but with every channel, test, test, test. Try out different versions of ads and content to figure out what moves people to buy your product. “Once you find it you’ll know you found it. But until you find it, it could be crickets,” she said.

* Learn to sell, and the secret is it’s 99 percent listening. When ClassPass was pitching studios, it listened to what features they wanted and added them constantly, she said.

At ClassPass, Biggins transitioned from an operational role to an advisory role this past summer. She knew it was time.

“I love building things and launching things, and I have a lot of ideas,” she told the full house at the Citi event. “ClassPass has a great team in place, it’s on a great path, it knows what it needs to do.”

But she loves the startup challenge. “You don’t do that in the same way when you are a 200-person company,” she said. “You’re either a builder or an optimizer, and you need to know that about yourself.”

Nancy Dahlberg; 305-376-3595; @ndahlberg

January 20, 2016

Meet Keiretsu Forum’s new Miami president

KeiretsuIt’s official: Deborah Johnson is the new president of the Miami Chapter of Keiretsu Forum South-East, the 31st chapter of the international angel organization.

Keiretsu Forum was founded in 2000 in the San Francisco Bay Area, and now has 40 chapters and more than 1,500 accredited investor members across the globe.  Keiretsu Forum members typically provide capital in the $250k – $3 million range in Series A and B funding series.  Members collaborate in the due-diligence, but make their own investment decisions.  Keiretsu Forum members have invested more than $550 million in technology, consumer products, Internet, healthcare, life sciences and real estate companies.

“I’m excited to facilitate a role connecting our local Florida entrepreneurs to funding.  We have a growing entrepreneurial ecosystem in Miami and Keiretsu’s proud to be a part of it,” said Johnson, who has been no stranger to South Florida recently,  attending events regularly.

 Johnson has an extensive history working with entrepreneurs, investors and tech-sector innovators in Southwest Florida.  The founder of Plum Ventures, she has worked in region building awareness of the entrepreneurial community as the special events coordinator for Tamiami Angel Family of Funds.  She also served as the administrator for the Gulf Coast Venture Forum for several years, running chapters in Naples and Sarasota.  That entity has now morphed into Fusion Pointe, a non-profit that she currently consults with, providing mentorship to entrepreneurs and high-impact networking.  

She has hosted VenturePitch South Florida from Naples to Sarasota as well as founder talks and meetups.   She also works with the Southwest Florida Regional Technology Partnership whose mission is to be the leading technology interest group in Southwest Florida.  

Johnson plans to continue to build partnerships with other angel and venture organizations in South Florida.  Keiretsu's Miami chapter welcomes interested investors seeking membership or startups seeking funding; contact her at DJohnson@KeiretsuForum.net. The organization, which launched in Miami in 2014, meets monthly and the next meeting is Feb. 9. It has not made any local investments yet although one is in due diligence.

To find out more about Keiretsu Forum South-East, or to learn about angel investment in general, visit http://www.KeiretsuForum-SouthEast.com.

January 10, 2016

#MadeInMiami: Ginnybakes finds sweet success, becoming national player


Ginnybakes, which makes better-for-you snacks, is run by the family team of Steve Simon, president, left, his wife, Ginny Simon, CEO/founder, and son Michael Simon, vice president. CARL JUSTE cjuste@miamiherald.com

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/business/biz-monday/article53809605.html#storylink=cpy

By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

In this made-in-Miami story, Ginnybakes has created a recipe for success.

The young food-products company offering organic, gluten-free and kosher snacks started out five years ago as one woman’s vision and then a tiny family company with all hands on deck. Today ginnybakes has 35 employees, and its products are in some Publix, Whole Foods, Kroger, Fresh Market and Albertson’s supermarkets as well as many smaller stores nationwide. Ginnybakes cookies are part of first-class snack baskets on American Airlines, and the products are also sold on ginnybakes.com and through Amazon.

Ginnybakes cookies in two sizes (regular-sized cookies in boxes and minis in snack bags), bake mixes, bars and crumbles are created, baked, packaged and shipped right from ginnybakes headquarters, a large office, kitchen and warehouse in northwest Miami. The company’s T-shirts sport the hashtag #MadeInMiami.

“It’s been a real sense of fulfillment that this product launched, hit supermarkets and is a national product. This is my dream, this is my passion project, I taught my boys more lessons from this than anything else I ever taught them. It’s about hard work, ambition, drive,” said Ginny Simon, founder and CEO of ginnybakes and a mother of four sons.

Last year, ginnybakes landed at No. 211 on the prestigious Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing private companies, with $2.15 million in revenue in 2014 and a three-year-growth rate of 2,027 percent. The company was No. 13 in the food and beverage category, “and we were number one in passion, don’t forget to mention that,” quipped Steve Simon, president of the company and Ginny’s husband.

Since then, revenues have grown to $3.1 million in 2015, a 45 percent increase over 2014, said CFO Jason Lewis, who has a background in private equity and financial analysis. Online sales at ginnybakes, which were essentially zero at the beginning of 2015, grew steadily and are currently 2 to 3 percent of revenues, he said.

The company’s biggest customers are health-conscious millennials moms like Serena Berra, of Miami Beach. For a couple of years now, Berra has been buying the ginnyminis at Whole Foods for her family, and has purchased the vegan cookies online. “They are all delicious. It’s hard to find good taste when you are eliminating glutens or dairy. I grew up working at a bakery so I really care about taste.”

Ginnybakes has been riding a trend of healthier living and organic eating. The U.S. organic foods market produced an annual growth rate of about 12 percent in 2013 and 2014, and sales reached nearly $40 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association. The 2013 total cookie market was $8.27 billion and the premium and healthy cookie category was about 20 percent of that total. Growth looks like it will continue: According to the 2015 Global Snacking Survey by Nielsen, 75 percent of respondents want snacks with no artificial colors or flavors and more than half of the respondents seek gluten-free indulgences.

“We are outrageously delicious and we are a better-for-you cookie. But the first thing we want you to know is we are outrageously delicious,” said Ginny Simon. The company released three new cookie flavors, sweet cinnamon love, ginger crisp love and cranberry pistachio bliss, in the fall for a total of 10, and there is also a vegan line of snack foods. “We are just real food; that’s really our pride and joy.”

The story of ginnybakes is rooted in family and the founder’s own passion for healthy living and baking. When her four sons hit high school and college ages, Ginny Simon went back to school to become a certified holistic nutritionist and founded her first company, Mindful Organics, a consultancy on healthy living, in 2009. She was a home baker and wanted to offer her clients a healthy baking mix but she couldn’t find anything on the market she loved. That’s how ginnybakes got started in 2010, and its first products were baking mixes.

By early 2011, she and her small team — basically any family members and friends she could recruit — decided to get the product out into the marketplace. By April, ginnybakes was in Epicure and Apple A Day in Miami Beach, then Fresh Market soon afterward, she said.

Fresh Market’s Aventura store manager, Eddy Neam, was instrumental in helping Ginny Simon get her start. She was experimenting with the gluten-free products at the time and wanted to test the marketability through sampling in the store, he said. With the gluten-free population growing, he thought the products were very viable, “but what really sold me was her. Her passion is what elevated it to the next level.”

By this time she had baking mixes and ready-made boxed cookies, a request by the stores, and with Neam she came up with the idea of smaller cookies in ready-to-go snack bags. He was impressed with how she had sought out the right people to help her with the packaging and she went through two or three phases of packaging to get it just right.

Ginny Simon had set up shop in a friend’s warehouse and had use of his commercial kitchen for a while and by the end of 2011 built out her own 1,200-square-foot kitchen in her friend’s warehouse. Alas, within six months that space was too small, and the Simons bought their current northwest Miami headquarters building in 2012. “Manufacturing is not easy, but I didn’t know better when I started,” she said.

By then, the company was beginning to go national with Fresh Market and had begun entering Whole Foods, and Ginny had finally persuaded her husband, Steve, an attorney, to join the business full time as president. “In the beginning, he wanted it to go away, he didn’t believe it was real,” she said.

After graduating from Northwestern University in chemical engineering, son Michael joined in 2013 as “the ball was rolling and sales were growing and I thought it would be an amazing opportunity to step into,” he said. His mother laughed at his request for a job description. “At the time, I had other offers, and I was teetering on going, and I wanted to make sure this wasn’t just a son job,” said Michael Simon, who is vice president.

After the first day on the job, he was convinced it wasn’t. In the early days he focused on the manufacturing and quality assurance side of the business; now he focuses on sales. But as any small business owner knows, every management job is a little bit of everything. “I like to say ginnybakes is our fifth child. Sometimes she is really really good and sometimes really really bad,” quipped Ginny.

Although ginnybakes began being picked up by Whole Foods in the Midwest in 2012, it wasn’t in the chain’s Florida stores until 2013. “Brett King of Whole Foods Florida said, ‘How come you aren’t with Florida? I’m going to tell you why. You’ve been too polite a nuisance; if you really want something, you go for it,’" space="1"” she recalled. By July, ginnybakes was in Whole Foods Florida stores.

A big milestone was getting into the first Publix in 2014, a store in Miami Beach. “I was beyond thrilled because this was the everyday shopper that we could educate and they could find us. Publix put us at a good price point to sell, and I felt like we could reach the consumer that really needed us,” Ginny Simon said. It’s now in the GreenWise sections of 50 to 60 Publix stores.

Also in 2014, Ginny, Steve and Michael Simon were selected as high-impact Endeavor Entrepreneurs, which means they would be mentored and supported by a global network of business experts. Lewis started out volunteering as an Endeavor mentor to the company, but joined ginnybakes’ management team about four months ago.

Endeavor has helped the company build an advisory board, and offered access and connections to experts in the food industry and entrepreneur mentors who have been there, done that, the team said. Ginnybakes also participated in a Northwestern Kellogg School of Management program last year, in which a team of Executive MBA students from Miami integrated with the company and helped guide strategic planning, said Steve Simon.

Building on the company’s growth in 2015, the near-term goal is to expand distribution in large grocery chains, and eventually saturate regions, Steve Simon added.

Ginnybakes, now with 35 employees, is much more structured these days as the company has grown up, but there are still the “all hands on deck” days, such as when the whole team worked on a recent Sunday to get a big order out. “In the early days there were a lot of those, with all four sons helping out,” Ginny Simon said.

She adds, “I don’t know that we would have been so successful in another city or state. The stores in Miami, Miami Beach, in Florida — they really took care of us.”

Nancy Dahlberg; 305-376-3595; @ndahlberg


January 07, 2016

Babson College to launch Women Innovating Now Lab in Miami this year, with Knight support

WIN Lab_2015-2016 Cohort (4)

Babson College's WIN Lab, an accelerator program for women entrepreneurs, will be coming to Miami this year. This is the current WIN Lab cohort in Boston. 


By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

The typical startup accelerator is technology-focused and the company founders it helps are overwhelmingly male. A Babson College program wants to change that.

Babson’s Women Innovating Now Lab, known as the WIN Lab, is designed to help women entrepreneurs launch successful businesses. The accelerator-like program offers training sessions and connects women entrepreneurs to a wide range of experts for guidance. It also provides access to strategic networks and co-working space so participants can build and expand their ventures.

The WIN Lab will receive $800,000 in support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as part of a three-year grant to launch WIN Lab in Miami. The first cohort will begin this fall.

Babson, well known for its acclaimed business and entrepreneurship programs, is no stranger to South Florida. The WIN Lab in Miami is part of the college’s growing presence in the region, which includes one of the university’s most active alumni networks with 1,300 Miami-based alums, an advisory role at The Idea Center at Miami Dade College and its connection to Miami Dade College as the academic architect of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program. This will be the first WIN Lab outside of Boston, and the organization is planning to expand to other cities.

The Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership at Babson launched the WIN Lab in Boston in October 2013. It has been designated as one of the top two “specialty” programs for Excellence in Entrepreneurship Education by the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship; earned BostInno’s designation as one of Boston’s “50 on Fire” innovators and visionaries; and was honored by the prestigious Rosoff Awards for diversity.

Susan Duffy, executive director at the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership, said she and her co-founder, Heatherjean MacNeil, both entrepreneurs, believed  it was time to disrupt the accelerator model. They saw  gender imbalance even in Babson's own entrepreneurship programs.

"Accelerators around the country have less than 13 percent women, and Babson was courageous enough to say we can do more," said Duffy in a phone interview. "It is really important to begin to tap into the entrepreneurial potential of both men and women. When it comes to venture acceleration, one size doesn't fit all."

Duffy said that Miami ranks in the top five metro areas for its high rate of women-owned businesses but also ranks in the bottom five metro areas when it comes to women entrepreneurs' economic clout, a measure that combines the number of women-owned businesses, their revenues and employment numbers. "Women-owned businesses in Miami are not scaling up. Some would look at that as a problem, we look at that as an opportunity."

In addition to being for females, Duffy said the WIN Lab will be different from other accelerators in that it will be sector agnostic rather than focused solely on tech and it will be an eight-month program instead of  compressed into three months. WIN Lab will be focused on building competent confident CEOs with programing full of female role models as well as coaches and experts of both genders, she said.

Since launching WIN Lab in Boston, Babson has seen dramatically increased female participation in its rocket pitch contests, its Beta competitions and its summer venture programs. “We have the numbers to prove that what we are doing is having an impact,” said Duffy. “It changes the understanding of what is possible.”

Babson presidentBabson President Kerry Healey and Matt Haggman, the Knight Foundation's Miami program director, announced the launch of WIN LAB in Miami Thursday at a Babson College event hosted at MBAF in downtown Miami. "This is a first-of-its-kind program designed by women entrepreneurs to support women entrepreneurs," said Healey at the event. "We're honored to be a part of the [Knight] Foundation's mission here ... to make Miami a place where ideas are built."

Never has there been a time when entrepreneurs can solve such big important problems as now, said Haggman. In creating an ecosystem, he said, "this really has be about all of Miami. WIN Lab is the next step in this ... We can't wait to see the impact this will create."

Babson anticipates kicking off its Miami launch with a community event in March and then recruiting 20 WIN Lab Miami participants for the first cohort. Entrepreneurs will mostly be in the beta stage with their companies, but some strong candidates in the ideation stage may be accepted. The WIN Lab, which will be free for participants, is expected to officially launch in the fall. In the coming weeks, Babson will hire a director to head the program in Miami, secure a location for the WIN Lab and establish a regional advisory board comprised of local investors, women entrepreneurs, experts and coaches.

Over the past 3 1/2 years, Knight has committed about $20 million to more than 165 projects in entrepreneurship in South Florida and has been increasing its investments in programs such as Babson’s that aim to accelerate diversity. For more information about WIN Lab, visit babson.edu/WINLab.

Nancy Dahlberg; 305-376-3595; @ndahlberg

December 31, 2015

4 local women-led startups are semi-finalists in national SBA contest


Yoga Factory & Ftiness client Jenene Caramielo from Weston and others use Tone-y-Bands during a hot yoga class Monday in Weston. Photo by Taimy Alvarez / Sun Sentinel)

By Marcia Heroux Pounds / Sun Sentinel

Four local companies are semi-finalists in a national Small Business Administration competition for products and services that affect women and families.

The startups in the InnovateHer competition are:

  • Tone-y-Bands of Boca Raton, which developed adjustable wrist weights to improve a cardio and arm-toning workout.
  • Child Rescue Coalition in Boca Raton, which is developing forensic technology for law enforcement. It already provides software tools to track, arrest and convict child abusers.
  • Natural Birth Works in Coral Springs, a co-operative that provides midwife and other services for women.
  • Flat Out of Heels of Miami Beach, a maker of rollable ballet flat shoes.

Tone-y-Bands and Child Rescue Coalition are members of the latest class of entrepreneurial ventures in Florida Altantic University's Tech Runway program in Boca Raton, which provides $25,000 in funding as well as mentoring and resources to startups.

Tone-y-Bands was born when Janice Haley's husband was working on the house and said, "I wish I could get more [exercise] benefit out of what I'm doing." Not finding what they wanted for wrist weights, the Haleys developed their own, Tone-y-Bands, designed to burn more calories. Haley plans to sell Tone-y-Bands to fitness instructors and studio owners, who can sell them to their clients. She also is developing electronic versions of the bands, which could include exercise monitors or other options.

Child Rescue Coalition has its roots in a family business, TLO in Boca Raton, which was sold in 2013 to TransUnion. After her father, programmer and entrepreneur Hank Asher, died in 2013, Carly Asher Yoost and her sister Desiree Asher stepped in and ran the business. As part of the sale, Carly Asher Yoost was given the technology developed to track child abusers on the Internet. The tools show investigators how to track child abusers via the Internet as they share child pornography. "We have had over 6,000 arrests in the last four years alone directly from our system," she said.

Child Rescue Coalition works with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Internet Crimes against Children Task Force in South Florida, as well as law enforcement agencies in all 50 states and 57 countries. The nonprofit is now developing a forensic tool that it plans to sell to law enforcement that will automate the process of retrieving information that could lead to a conviction, including deleted files.

Natural Birth Works is a 2-year-old business founded by midwives Gelena Hinkley and Sandra Lobaina that offers midwifery care, childbirth classes, postpartum care and other services for women. The company will open a birthing center in March in Margate, Hinkley said.

"Some women don't want to go to hospitals, but they don't want to stay home either," Hinkley said. The new center will give them the option for midwifery care in a setting outside the home for the birth of their baby, she said.

Flat Out of Heels, launched in May 2012 by Dawn Dickson, are flat rollable shoes designed to be emergency shoes to carry and wear when high heels become unbearable. The company's website, FlatOutofHeels.com, claims it has larger sizes and more designs than competitors, as well as harder, more durable soles. The flats are sold online and in stores.

The four South Florida companies are among 12 semi-finalists in Florida. Ten of the semi-finalists nationwide will be chosen by Jan. 15 to compete for a $70,000 prize and connection to resources in the national InnovateHer competition in Washington, D.C.

September 27, 2015

PREPWORKS: from learning center to global ed-tech platform



By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

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 SpellingCity.com, Time4Learning.com 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 (www.youtube.com/uVuNetwork). 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.