Age of Learning | Sunil Gunderia on Giving Our Future Hope in the Classroom
If you have children, how are they being schooled right now? Are they back in the classroom? Fully remote? A mixture?
Today my guest is Sunil Gunderia. He's the Chief Innovation Officer, and Head of Mastery & Adaptive Product, for Age of Learning. Age of Learning blends education best practices, innovative technology, and insightful creativity to bring learning to life for children across the U.S. and around the world. It is best known for its ABCmouse.com Early Learning Academy, made for children 2–8.
Today Sunil and I talk about why education is important to him, but also the critical juncture the world of education currently finds itself in. After all, a lack of quality education has been shown again and again to have significant downward pressure on opportunities in life (and health and wealth as a result), and this disproportionately affects the socioeconomically disadvantaged as well as minorities.
We talk about what COVID has done to learning, and how Age of Learning is doing its part to step in -- including an important discussion around sacrificing an enticing bottom line in exchange for doing what the brand felt was right. (In my opinion it's the epitome of authenticity -- so stay tuned for that.
Plus, how 2021's vaccine hopes imply a return to traditional educational avenues, and how Age of Learning intends to remain part of the mix.
So sit back and enjoy this episode Authentic Avenue as I get real with Age of Learning and Sunil Gunderia.
By the way, here is some interesting material on the Shared Value subject:
HBR article (paywalled): https://hbr.org/2011/01/the-big-idea-creating-shared-value
More on the Shared Value Initiative: https://www.sharedvalue.org/
Enjoy! Full transcript below.
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FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW: (powered by AI; 100% accuracy not guaranteed; provided by Descript)
Adam Conner: Sunil, thank you so much for joining me.
Sunil Gunderia: [00:02:01] How are you doing today? Doing fantastic, Adam.
Thanks for having me on.
Adam Conner: [00:02:04] It's a pleasure to do so, especially in this world of new learning. Obviously, it's going to be a topic of our conversation. They, how much that landscape has changed just in the last academic year and how continue to proceed through the end of this one in the beginning of next one, we'll get into all those details in just a second.
The first thing I want to know is what about education as an industry, as an opportunity, whether it be Age of Learning or the broader idea of it attracted you to commit your professional life. Two it's because I know that prior to this working in things, uh, at places like Disney, uh, is it a love for children?
I mean, what, was it about it that, that roped you in?
Sunil Gunderia: [00:02:44] Sure. Um, you know, my, my story has been, uh, a little bit different than a few people in terms of, I didn't have one single objective in terms of what I wanted to do from a life perspective. Um, but let me tell you a little bit about how I, I started with Age of Learning.
So. I had, it was about 10 years ago and I had recently left Disney. I had had had this amazing opportunity at Disney, uh, where I'd worked for 11 years to start a business within the context of a truly global brand, right at the nascency, uh, of mobile technology as an interactive platform. And my role at Disney was a global role and I was based in London, gave me some really interesting perspectives.
Uh, in terms of technology, in terms of what could the, the mobile platform do in terms of strengthening existing in our inactions with the Disney brand and most excitingly to create new ways to engage customers through novel products for that platform, uh, further, you know, mobile really just opened up this incredible opportunities.
For, for the brand to increase, reach as the technology was ubiquitous and thus opening up new markets. And I left Disney and I was looking at, uh, children's media. I was really interested in this space. I love the idea that we could use, uh, the mobile medium to, to create, uh, joy and happiness. Uh, and at that time it was really, uh, uh, fortunate to be introduced to Doug Doring.
Who is the CEO? Uh, of Age of Learning. Um, in our first meeting, Doug told me about how he founded Age of Learning with this mission to ensure that all children had the foundational skills, they needed to achieve academic success and to truly develop a lifelong love of learning and how the team has spent four years to develop our flagship brand, ABC mouse before bringing it to market.
Um, and he, and so he presented an opportunity to me to take what I'd learned at Disney about brand and about technology and product. To really use all of that to make an impact and literally change lives for millions of kids. And, and, and frankly, that's how my journey started in educational technology.
Adam Conner: [00:04:57] And so now you're here at Age of Learning, of course, and there are so many ways in which this digital education has proliferated across the country, across the world, really. But right now we are at, uh, at the precipice of, of perhaps its greatest growth, I would guess because especially here in the U S more children are home.
Than ever before they are either in the school, uh, on a sort of hybrid basis or they're completely remote. I'm sure that you have noticed that as well. And that I'm guessing makes things while a good opportunity for Age of Learning. Also an incredible challenge because being in that physical environment is, is not only good.
Uh, for children in the way that their minds grow, but also in some cases, socioeconomically is the only way that they can get access to quality education. I'm curious to hear your thoughts here and how that growth has come alongside that challenge.
Sunil Gunderia: [00:05:51] Sure, sure. And, and, and in terms of that challenge and, and let me speak to that first, uh, Um, as we, uh, and then talk a little bit more about, you know, the pandemic effects and, um, you know, as a educational system, and this is pre Penn pandemic, um, we, we, haven't been doing a great job.
And what I mean by that is that in the us, nearly 60% of our kids, by the time they're in fourth grade are not achieving proficiency in math or literacy. And for our lower income families over 75% are not achieving proficiency. So, um, they're typically in an age span of, of, of fourth graders, let's say eight year olds or nine year olds.
There's 4 million kids and we have two and a half million of them that are not achieving proficiency. And the costs are real clearly in the, in the kids' lives. And here's some examples. So for kids who do not achieve proficiency in reading, there are four times as likely to drop out of high school. And their average earnings over their lifetimes, they're going to be 34% less than those kids that did achieve proficiency.
And if you look at it from a macro perspective, in terms of GDP, the achievement gap between high and low income students costs the us economy, approximately half a billion or not half a billion $500 billion a year, which is about three, three to 5% of the GDP. And then you see this and then you look at it in a global perspective.
Um, over 600 million kids a year are not achieving proficiency and this was all before the pandemic. Um, and so there has been a need to really relook and redefine it, how we, we, um, we, we address, uh, the achievement gap in terms of education and it's, it's an amazing area to focus on in terms of innovation and investment to really, to really help drive that change.
Adam Conner: [00:07:47] So that investment for you in terms of the product, is it, is there also an investment going on in infrastructure? Is there ways that you can, you can help like governments increase access to this? I mean, because of course, you know, that is an incredible, uh, hindrance to those who don't get access to this quality, because while you've mentioned the stats yourself, I mean, there are serious, there are serious consequences for that kind of thing.
Sunil Gunderia: [00:08:15] And th there are serious consequences. And if you look at the numbers and again, this is pre pandemic, uh, there's about 50 million in, um, in, in school, in the U S and in public education of which, uh, 15 million of them do not have access to either bandwidth or device at home. And I would say one of the. Um, the positive developments, uh, out of the pandemic has been, uh, a real recognition and need to, um, to address the, the, the inequity in terms of access.
And what we've seen is that, uh, um, a lot of districts and a lot of states, uh, including, um, in my hometown here in LA, um, invested, uh, quite a bit of effort and money into ensuring that all their students could learn at home. Um, and to, to, to bridge that gap and ensure that there was some equity in terms of access to learning, um, not only in a place, but at home.
Adam Conner: [00:09:13] So that's pre pandemic. Of course now we're here and I mean, you've been here for a while now. It's affected, I guess, two halves of an academic year. It's going to affect the back half of this one and next year. What, what have you seen? What have you learned? Uh, because my guess is that what Age of Learning does is become more important than ever right now.
Sunil Gunderia: [00:09:35] Yeah. And we, and we completely believe that as well. And, and, and we're, we're, we're actually quite optimistic that, uh, um, as you've pointed out that the pandemic will provide a spotlight to some of these systemic problems that we have and, and will be a catalyst for change. And as a company, uh, it's something that we've been aggressively investing in in terms of innovation, creating next generation learning products, like our mastery products, which were really created to directly address.
The learning crisis that we currently have in math and reading, or we've had in math and reading for the last, you know, 10 to 15 years, um, related to the achievement gap. And these products are being built, using technology that adapts to the learning needs of a child so that all children can achieve mastery of a concept or skill, you know, and the way we've come about.
And we've been working on this product for the last six years, we've applied a lot of rigor and science to our efforts. You know, we look at. Um, both the learning and behavioral sciences and, uh, to apply principles, to ensure that we're taking into account that both how we as humans learn best and what motivates us to learn.
Um, and what will re result in improved outcome for kids? W we strongly believe that, you know, investment in continued innovation in educational technology, how you bring in parents and teachers. In terms of driving towards individual success of every child is something that, you know, our brand is our brand and company is a hundred percent.
Adam Conner: [00:11:04] So when we look even beyond this, and then I'll talk about the fact that this whole pandemic may in 2021, come to, you know, at least, uh, not a stop and maybe a great slowing. What does the future state look like for the way that Age of Learning goes and changes lives? I think the reason why I ask this question is because I think about like, All right, this is going to be, this is going to seem really overblown, but the American dream used to be like a car in a car and the car in the garage and like a chicken in every pot, right?
Something like that, where you had access to that opportunity. It seems now that one of the greatest barriers to that big opportunity is education. I mean, is there, is there a grand statement that you all aspire to, which is like a, you know, high quality education in every home sort of thing. I mean, we're where do you hope to be?
You know, five, 10 years from now?
Sunil Gunderia: [00:11:50] Yeah, that's a great question. It goes back to our, our, our, our mission and our vision to ensure that, uh, that every child has access to, to the foundational skills they need, uh, to create academic success and then lifelong success as well. And, and then again, you know, really.
View and value learning as something that is fulfilling and, um, helps them not only gain skills that they need to, uh, to achieve what they need to academically, but to apply those skills in a way that, uh, they, they, they find something productive to do, um, that really fulfills them in life and provides, uh, uh, I guess, income and fulfillment to that, to that matter.
And it. The way we see that happening is that, um, technology and educational technology in particular becomes an instrument that extends. Learning from just being something that may happen right. Within the context of four walls, uh, in a classroom, but can happen anywhere. Um, and it should happen anywhere.
And you're able to bring in things that, uh, you come across in life and yeah. And relate them back to what you're learning in classroom. So contextualizing learning in a, in a, in a much better, or way than we perhaps are able to do now.
Adam Conner: [00:13:10] Yeah. I got to ask her this as well, because this is just something that's popped up in the, in the last couple of weeks, from what I have seen.
And granted that means that it comes from my perspective of somebody who's already been through college and is now well into my young adult life. But what I had seen, what I have seen are that, uh, companies are getting taken to task right now over things like price gouging of E educational materials, eat books in particular, Amazon gets hit with an antitrust lawsuit saying it's partnering with publishers to drastically increase the price of these materials, because that's the only way that people can get them. Right now you have as Age of Learning, really pursued this, this way of occasional tools, but also I'm guessing somewhere have, have growth in mind. Does that temptation ever, ever, ever strike to say, like, we've got a real opportunity here to be sticky, but also to, to grow?
How do you, I mean, that's. I would say that's natural that urge to the curve to everybody, especially people in business. But, um, how, when you see that going on around you, do you ensure that you just stick to these values? No matter what?
Sunil Gunderia: [00:14:09] Well, let me give you a really specific example in terms of, uh, Um, in terms of what happened at the beginning of the pandemic, when schools, we started hearing that schools were shutting down across the country.
Um, and this was early in March and this just ahead of all the announcement that went out for, for schools, um, we, we gathered as an executive team and said, you know, what is our response going to be? And what we decided to do is that to ensure that education and learning could continue to. Could could continue.
Um, we, we formed something called our school continuity initiative where we, um, reached out to schools and educators across the country to say, you know, we're going to offer our core product, ABC mouse for free. Um, two and you're alive and you can send codes to home to any of your students that you, you feel like need to access to, to our product.
Um, and we had over 80,000 educators contact us, uh, and had over a million, a million, uh, families take advantage of this offer. Um, and, and we felt like it was really important. You know, we built a lot of trust with families. Uh, and even though that was something that, uh, um, conflicted with necessarily business goals or our profit goals, we, we felt that it was important to be investing in what we believed in and ensuring that all kids did have and continue to have access to our products.
Um, and it's worth noting that, uh, you know, from the, the get-go or the founding from when we launched our product, um, you know, our CEO, Doug, Doug, during wanting to make sure that, uh, the access existed and. Um, we had offered from 2011, um, our products free to teachers in classrooms. So we wanted to ensure when the pandemic has started, that that access through their teachers would still be available to students who couldn't otherwise afford our product.
Adam Conner: [00:16:07] So you stood for that. And I think that's, that's really important. I, let me get on a 32nd pedestal for the listeners listeners. This is what I look for when I look for stories of remaining staying authentic to, to yourself and to values despite. The circumstances. If you are a college student right now, we're just came out of college.
It seems, at least as far as this host is concerned has made an investment against. That hindrance of what'd you say, 34% lower income through the, you know, for the rest of your life. I mean, that, that is much bigger than a business bottom line in 2020 or 2021. I, I think that's great. I think more people should do to do that.
Now. I'm not saying everybody should go out there and make the product free all the time, but I mean like that, when there is a higher calling. You respond and I think that's, I think that's great. So, you know, I'm sure you've had, you know, your, your 80,000 educators, everybody's saying, thanks, but I'll get in line for saying that.
Thanks for doing that for kids. Seriously. It's a good thing.
Sunil Gunderia: [00:17:19] Appreciate that, Adam. It, it's certainly good to be a part of a company that believes that their mission is, you know, these exist all the time. As, as you said, it's, it's not something that we just put on a piece of paper we live in.
Adam Conner: [00:17:34] Completely. So now I want to ask about, about this future that we're hopefully going to get to, maybe even this year, vaccines seems pretty good. I think a lot of people are at least in the, on the east coast where I am in the Mid-Atlantic saying that most people might have access to it by, you know, as early as June, as late as August or September seems pretty good.
As far as kids are concerned, that probably means that the more traditional educational methods are going to reenter their lives. And so they'll be getting back into school if they're not there already, which is great. What do you anticipate for the business now that there's going to be a healthier mix of digital and in-person, um, when those let's call it the traditional educational avenues in, in the new age avenues that you, that you bring.
Sunil Gunderia: [00:18:15] I believe one of the, you know, kind of the key takeaways from this time will be that learning can happen anywhere and should happen and should happen everywhere.
And, you know, as we think about new models and products, What we will also have learned is that just taking a traditional classroom type of lecture approach and then putting on zoom is, is not, uh, the solution or not the only solution. And we can do much more. And as a company, you know, we've been at the forefront of digital learning.
Um, we feel that we're incredibly well positioned for this growth. As people look at, you know, how do I learn. Not only in school or in a formal setting, but also informally at home. And, and for parents in particular, the parents that are going to use our product and actually for schools as well. They're going to look at and look, how do I extend learning beyond maybe what I'm, what I'm getting from school.
And, uh, and then I guess I'm just coming back to teachers. It's going to be, look, we're going to come back in. Two this academic year with a high variation in terms of what each student knows. And we've seen this, uh, in the past, uh, you know, post Katrina, um, students were coming back to schools in new Orleans with three years of variation.
So within, within a classroom, you could have somebody that's in a first grade classroom. You could have somebody that's at a. Preschool level. And you could have somebody that's maybe at a second grade level within one classroom and tech educational technology itself can be used to help address that learning variability that'll that'll um, there'll be, that will be present.
Adam Conner: [00:19:55] I, I think, well, I'm glad that your time, even, even hearing that, I mean that there's still so much variations. Hopefully. Hopefully something that will eventually move to a much more sort of targeted, specified way of doing things that have become the standard. Uh, I'm glad for the improvements that you all are making in the space generally.
Um, you know, especially, especially right now. So let me, let me round out with this, this final question that I have, it is atypical question. If people listen to this show a lot, they hear it. You've listened to a couple episodes of this. You've heard it too. I produced this show, mainly for people who are looking to become better brand builders, people who are looking to build brands by themselves, generally people who are looking to stick to values to, to build a story and stick to it.
And whether that be personal or professional, they listened to this show to hear advice from, from the stars as it were not from people who are, who have proven it. And my question when I boil the ocean is how do you suggest that others build their own avenues to authenticity? What I really mean to say is that.
Ho, how does, how do you encourage somebody either by themselves or a brand to craft and then stay true to what they personally believe, regardless of circumstance. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts. Cause it sounds like you had just went through a period where you, you stuck to your guns and some had to come out of that, that people can walk away with.
Sunil Gunderia: [00:21:17] Yeah. I love this question, Adam. And I've really found, uh, a lot of insight from others. You've asked this question, so I've thought about it a lot and yeah. Um, well, let me, let me, my approach is as a parent of two kids and, um, you know, and, and my kids are at the age that one of them just started college and we talk a lot about, you know, what they want to do, and what's important to them.
And I, and I, and I find with that, uh, their generation, they truly want to engage in products and invest in, in, in, and work for companies that deliver more than profits. And, um, and if I, if I may, there's a great art, uh, refer you to a great article by Michael Porter and Michael Kramer on this idea called shared value.
That really resonates with me. And it resonates with my kids as it encourages businesses to create. Products and innovate in areas that really enabled societal progress. And to make that as a core part of their strategy, it's really kind of the transcendence of corporate social responsibility responsibility to, to becoming the idea that a company, as your core strategy it should be or can be to solve the broader societal problem.
And so that's what, you know, I've been, I'm really fortunate to have with Age of Learning. Cause our brand truth is very clear. We measure success, not only in terms of revenues and profits, but equally and more importantly. So in the terms of lives that we can impact. And, you know, I think if as, as your listeners think about their own business and start mid potentially even starting a business, you know, think about what you can deliver in terms of overall better outcomes for society sustainability.
And, uh, I think you'll find a real, uh, true formula for success.
Adam Conner: [00:23:01] I want to give that a closer read. Can you, do you mind repeating the name of the author of that piece?
Sunil Gunderia: [00:23:06] Sure. It's Michael Porter and Michael Kramer. And, uh, it's, it's the, of the article is about Shared Valued Capitalism.
Adam Conner: [00:23:14] Shared Value Capitalism. I'm just writing that down here in my notes and listeners, I will leave a note to that. Uh, I'll leave a link to that in the show notes, because you might find it interesting as well. Some someone else to walk away with here, uh, for now it's been a pleasure to, to capture more of this story into. Um, just get a view on what people are doing to help children right now.
I think in any walk of life, but especially in education, I don't have children, but I would want them to have access to a good education, no matter their socioeconomic circumstances, no matter where they are. Uh, no matter the health. And, um, things like this ensure that they, that they will down the road if something happens to me.
So I appreciate it. And, um, you know, Sunil for everything that you shared here, I can't. Thank you enough. Thanks so much for coming on the show.
Sunil Gunderia: Thanks for having me, Adam.