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EdTech Startup Q&A with Nikki Navta, founder of Zulama

EdTech Times spoke with Nikki Navta, founder of the edtech startup Zulama Modern Learning, the first platform to combine game design technologies and project-based strategies.

Edtech at a Glance

Nikki Navta, founder of Zulama
Company: Zulama

Company website: zulama.com

Founder: Nikki Navta

Founded: 2009

Facebook: www.facebook.com/ZulamaFB

Company Twitter: @ZulamaLearn

Founder’s Twitter: @NikkiNavta

Market Segment: Grades 6-12 Educational Technology Products

Product Stage: Mature

What does your company do? Who are your core customers?

Faculty at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center helped us develop a blended learning program that brings game design, programming, art, and screenwriting to middle and high schoolers. We combine STEM with the Arts (STEAM) to give students not only the skills but also the creativity they need to thrive in the global digital workplace.

Zulama provides extensive mentor-based professional development so teachers learn to become “Creative Directors” and facilitate our rigorous new curriculum in their own classrooms. We help teachers see how both building and playing games satisfies state and national curriculum standards, develops 21st Century Skills, and promotes higher-order Blooms.

The Zulama Game Design Curriculum is delivered through our online platform into middle and high schools where teachers facilitate the development of portfolios and skills students need to pursue lucrative careers in today’s creative high-tech job market.

We have about 100 paying customers: innovative public districts in Western PA, OH, and sprinkled along the eastern seaboard.

How did you come across the problem you’re addressing? What was your process of arriving at a solution?

My inspiration for starting Zulama came from observing how my two teenage sons responded to Minecraft and other games. I became fascinated with game-based learning and realized that both making and playing games are engaging and fascinating ways to learn. During a visit to the Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), a light bulb went off!

Founded in 1998, the ETC is a revolutionary research center based on interdisciplinary communication and discovery. Students in the Master of Entertainment Technology program engage in design-based research projects that mirror authentic industry experiences. The ETC philosophy and methodologies develop advanced skills such as critical thinking and teamwork. Given fast growing career opportunities in the game design industry and a strong personal interest in games, I saw the ETC as an excellent model to develop 21st Century Skills in teenagers.

What are you doing differently than your competitors? Do you expect to develop other differentiators in the future?

Online cyber schools (Edgenuity and Apex) offer game design courses, the Buck Institute and Project Lead the Way offer project based learning curriculum, and Educurious and 3D GameLab offer professional development, but no other company offers a comprehensive program that includes curriculum, platform, and teacher training in a one-stop shop. We are always improving what we do, so yes, I see new products on the horizon.

Recently, we introduced the Zulama Short Courses. They reflect the same high quality, rigorous, outcome-based educational experiences as our regular courses, but are designed to be completed in much less time. Our Short Courses are the perfect curriculum for summer camps, after school programs, embedding into both middle and high school curriculum, and more.

What are you working on currently? What should we expect to see from your company in the next 12 months? (e.g. product milestones, team size, potential growth/revenue targets)

By the end of 2017, more than 1,000 U.S. schools will be using the Zulama Entertainment Technology Curriculum to prepare over 100,000 middle and high school students for the creative, high-tech careers of the future. That translates into over $10M in revenue to the company, generated by sales into a targeted segment of public school districts by approx 20 carefully-selected, experienced independent account representatives supervised by our Sales Director, John Super, who is a longtime ed-tech industry leader. The Zulama headquarters will be a bustling, colorful design space, filled with smart, motivated, and productive people who are passionate about creating new systems and tools that inspire life-changing educational experiences for students and their mentors.

How are you changing the face of education?

Zulama is leading a movement away from the current industrial-era model educational model towards interest-driven deeper learning that prepares students for success in the 21st Century.

The payoff we are seeing with current schools includes improvement in statewide school rankings, fewer dropouts and behavioral problems, and improved student math and reading proficiency levels.

What other startups or product builds have you been a part of, and what was your role? How has your past career prepared you for your current role?

I graduated from St Lawrence University with a multi-field major in Mathematics and Fine Arts, and have been working on products that combine the best of left- and right-brain thinking ever since.

Zulama is my first start-up. Previously I worked for over 20 years in a family business on the product development side of the educational textbook publishing industry, where I:

  • Was a thought-leader regarding technology in the classroom. Developed products to help teachers relate to a rising generation of computer and web-savvy learners.
  • Led industry forums and discussions regarding how to use games and game design thinking for education.
  • Managed product development on a variety of technology platforms and educational content areas

Who do you look to as a role model or mentor for your company?

So many, since I am constantly looking for guidance and to improve what we are doing. Jane McGonigal is a courageous and creative thinker, the ways she solves problems has guided many of my own decisions. I read everything I can (and listen to podcasts) from smart marketers, investors, game developers, and sales professionals such as Seth Godin, Horace Dediu, Freakanomics Radio, and Jesse Schell.

Where do you think the education technology market is going in the next five years, especially in your market segment?

I hope that ed-tech is going in the direction of concentrating on results and not the technology. The goal of education is to help kids, not to implement technology.

What advice, if any, do you have for someone launching a company in the education technology market?

Build your product alongside your customer so you are SURE that there is a need and a willingness to purchase your product. Sell first, develop second.

Suchita Chadha

Suchita Chadha

Suchita is a student at Emerson College, where she is pursuing a BFA in Writing, Literature, & Publishing for poetry with a Global & Post-Colonial Studies minor. She has been published in Verge Magazine (Canada) and Affairs Today (UK).