Pronita Mehrotra has a plan for helping kids stay a step or two ahead of the machines and robots that lurk in the wings, ready to make humans obsolete in so many ways.
She’s going to empower them with creativity.
Mehrotra is founder and CEO of MindAntix, an education startup based in Redmond, just east of Seattle.
“Technology is hurtling us towards a future that is going to be vastly different from what we grew up in, and unfortunately we are not preparing our youth to be successful in the new era,” she said. “The skills that have made people successful so far may not be enough.”
So six years ago Mehrotra launched MindAntix and is developing a curriculum and online activities that help kids practice and learn to be creative.
The lessons target third-fifth grades and middle school students. The MindAntix program is designed for teachers to use and Mehrotra has worked primarily with local private schools to test and refine the exercises. So far, the company has been operating in beta mode, but plans to make their products more widely available in 2019.
“My journey to being an advocate for creative thinking started by accident,” Mehrotra said. She was volunteering for an after-school program called Destination Imagination at her daughter’s school that was supposed to teach hands-on creative problem solving program.
“Over time I started realizing that the ideas my team was coming up with were not really all that original,” she said. The kids “weren’t really exploring enough ideas or trying different approaches in solving problems. While the program gave them an opportunity to be creative, it didn’t actually teach them how to be creative.”
Mehrotra thought that she could do better. She’d worked as a software engineer and manager at Microsoft for six years, and before that as an engineer for Microelectronics Center of North Carolina Research and Development Institute (MCNC-RDI).
Her MindAntix program teaches kids brain science to help them understand that creativity is a cognitive skill they can learn. And it gives them tools for tackling open-ended problems with flexible thinking. The platform is available for $20 a month per classroom.
Mehrotra hasn’t done research to test the efficacy of her program, but anecdotally sees improvement and some of the students have entered and won awards for contests that test creativity.
Her long-term vision, said Mehrotra, is that learning to be creative “will become just as easy and natural as learning any other skill like soccer and piano.” We caught up with her for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: At MindAntix we teach children how to think smarter — creatively and critically — so they can solve bigger problems.
Inspiration hit us when: We realized how important cognitive creativity is to complex problem solving. In fact, most advancements in science, math and technology can be traced back to some form of creative thinking. Unfortunately, a lot of the education and programs don’t expose students to such cognitive thinking. And in some cases they might even stifle student creativity.
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: Bootstrap. When I started, I wanted to take the time to get creativity right since it’s not a very straightforward space. Now that we have grown from the simple games that we started with to bigger project based modules that are being run in different places, we are going to shift our focus towards scaling and start exploring additional funding.
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: Experimenting and trying new things every time we run a program. These iterations have helped us tremendously in understanding what works well and what doesn’t, and how to incorporate creativity effectively and in a fun way to engage students.
The smartest move we’ve made so far: Is to move into project based learning and core curriculum areas. We initially started with fun, short brain teasers, where each category of brainteaser focused on a specific creative thinking technique. While that was useful in teaching the core creative thinking techniques, we found it was more impactful when students could also apply these techniques in projects. We saw students go from being very uncomfortable with open-ended questions to being able to come up with several different ideas and even win awards through our “How to Be An Inventor” program. We are now trying to do the same thing for a science program for middle schoolers where we want to make creativity and reasoning a central aspect, something that often gets lost in the traditional scientific method approach.
We are starting to see interest from teachers around how to incorporate creativity in their classrooms. We recently spoke at an educational conference and the enthusiasm and interest from educators was really heartening to see.
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: Being risk-averse in the beginning. In hindsight, we could have have experimented on some things earlier and accelerated our learning.
Which leading entrepreneur or executive would you most want working in your corner? Melinda Gates. She is a really smart person and she spearheaded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s work early on. But more importantly, she has her head and heart in the right place. She is tackling some really hard problems that are definitely worth solving. These are the kinds of complex challenges that will require multiple different approaches and innovative solutions.
Our favorite team-building activity is: Walking discussions! We are lucky to be close to a nice nature trail and end up taking walks to think aloud things we don’t get that much time to talk about other times.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Focus on the problem you are solving and why you are solving it. That will end up serving as your North Star in many situations.