By Nancy Dahlberg
It’s been about a year since education-technology startup Genius Plaza began its relocation to Miami. Arriving during Hurricane Irma wasn’t the finest welcome, but since then the company has been settling into -- and outgrowing -- its Biscayne Blvd. office.
Genius Plaza, founded in 2013, is a social enterprise delivering culturally relevant, personalized learning content in underserved communities around the world. It's an engagement platform where teachers and students have access to 15 peer-to-peer learning tools to help them enhance critical thinking and technology skills, the company said. It counts Kapor Capital among its investors. Genius Plaza joins a small but growing ed-tech startup community in South Florida.
Ana Roca Castro, who grew up in the Dominican Republic and Washington Heights, is CEO of Genius Plaza. Her career started at Columbia University, managing education projects for the School of Public Health. Then she moved onto the United Nations, where she led major tech implementations and coordinated the Language Skills Program among other roles. In 2008, she began her entrepreneurial life, eventually combining her inner Geek with her passion for helping lift up underserved multicultural communities through education.
What would Roca Castro like Miami’s tech community to know? “We’re hiring!”
“We need to hire crazy activists, passionate people with the drive and desire to learn new things. We are looking obviously for lots of developers, but we are also looking for product owners, community managers and educators as well.”
Genius Plaza relocated from upstate New York to Miami, with support from the Beacon Council. From day one, Genius Plaza had global ambitions. Today its platform is available in 32 countries mainly in North America, Latin America and Africa.
The company now employs about 120 people in Miami out of a global workforce of more than 200 and it has been growing fast, Roca Castro said. It’s added more than 40 employees in the past three months.
At present, Genius Plaza’s website lists about 20 job openings, most of them based in Miami, for positions such as full stack developers, mobile developers, an HLT Interface engineer, an AWS devops engineer, a product owner and a community manager. Genius Plaza plans to hire about 50 or so people in coming months. I talked with Roca Castro in recent weeks about the company and its hiring plans.
Q. When you decided to relocate, why Miami?
We were very attracted by the diversity in the city. I thought we could find staff members that will reflect the children we serve. Then there’s the connection to international cities, to have access to hundreds of direct flights -- that was huge. In my last year in upstate NY, I slept 62 nights in the airport. Every other day there was a snowstorm, a hailstorm. When we land now, this is home.
Q. Love your company’s social mission. What sparked you to take the startup leap?
I was working for the United Nations. I felt like wanted to move faster than what an international organization could move. I sold my first company almost by accident, I was on sabbatical from the UN when that happened.
My first startup was a highly secure social network for diplomats and ambassadors. It was very related to the world I was coming from. We ended up selling it to the Department of State, only eight months after I started the company. I enjoyed that and after that I resigned from the UN [and launched an entrepreneurial career].
Q. Can you start by telling me a little about what makes Genius Plaza different in the ed-tech space?
No. 1, our global focus. We are very intentional about serving the most underserved communities of children. We started in the U.S. only with Title 1 schools and we still mainly serve Title 1 schools. We went straight to Latin America, same thing, we are mainly working with public schools in poor communities. Then we moved to Africa, same scope – we go to the poorest of the poor and make sure that we bring the best quality education to those communities.
We know that education is the best tool for sustainable development. We really want to spark education in these communities. From day 1, we knew we wanted to go global.
No. 2, the one thing no one is doing is our obsession to bring out the native languages. For instance we have 17 Mayan languages, all the indigenous languages [in Latin America] … and tribal languages in Africa. That’s fascinating to celebrate their history, their story telling, their music and their culture for the first time and to bring them all onto the innovation train. It’s a huge celebration and a big deal for them. These communities have been isolated and forgotten. We want to make sure we connect them first, bring internet to those communities, bring technology, but also help them connect to the world by showcasing their richness, which is really amazing. We are looking at new didactic methods these communities have created, and now we have these collaborations between teachers, classes and schools. It’s fascinating.
UNESCO has declared 2019 as the year of native languages and they are using our platform for that celebration.
Q. How many languages are your products in?
About 89 languages the last time I looked. We are adding about 10 a month.
Q. Moving now to your hiring plans, what do you foresee as far as when you will be adding more jobs?
In the next quarter, we will be hiring about 50 more.
Q. What type of skill sets are you looking for in Miami candidates for those jobs?
We need developers, lots of developers. product owners, community managers, video production managers, educators too, but mostly developers.
Q. How have you found the talent base in South Florida?
We have been able to find pretty good junior developers from universities and bootcamps. We are still struggling with mid- and senior-level developers from here and are bringing them in from California and New York.
Q. Have you met with any challenges?
We arrived the week of Hurricane Irma so that was interesting. But the biggest challenge we are seeing is the staff we brought from New York has a little bit of a hard time integrating into the community, so it would be great to find better ways to integrate into the community and find friends. It takes a while. In the meantime, we’re family. We are spending holidays together. Some of the Miami natives invited the New Yorkers to their homes for Thanksgiving so that was very nice.
Q. What’s next for Genius Plaza?
We just launched Genius Baby at the American Academy of Pediatrics. That will be serving babies from 0-3.
We now have Genius Plaza, for kindergarten through 12th grade. Two years ago we launched Genius PreK that goes from age 3 to 5 mainly because we saw that our communities were not coming ready for kindergarten. It was our fastest growing product.
Then this year we were seeing the babies were not coming ready for pre-k so we decided to go younger. We launched Genius Baby at the American Academy of Pediatrics because the trust agent in that age group is the pediatrician. 1,200 pediatrician sign ups was our goal. We had 3,000 pediatricians sign up to connect these two worlds of health and education.
From time to time, this blog will bring you views from startup founders, corporate hiring managers, recruiters and job hunters themselves about the needs, realities and outlook for tech hiring in South Florida. Have a suggestion for this series? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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