Iris Lapinski: The New Generation Of Entrepreneurs

Iris runs CDI Apps for Good, an award-winning technology education movement where young people in schools learn to create apps that solve problems they care about and change their world.

She discusses the challenges of bringing lean and agile thinking into an education system that operates in very linear ways. From a modest start in 2 UK schools, 2 teachers and 50 students in 2010, Apps for Good has scaled to 1,000 schools and 50,000+ 11-18 year olds in the UK, USA, Spain and Portugal. Apps for Good is supported by hundreds of leading-edge technology entrepreneurs, UX designers and developers as expert volunteers as well as tech industry partners.

Iris shows how their approach slowly gained the backing and trust of entrepreneurs, teachers, parents and children and share some of the lessons learned in building a programme that irrelevant to any organisation that is scaling internationally.


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Iris Lapinski: [clapping] Well thank you very much Mark for having me because I was actually supposed to already present at Business of Software in 2013 and I couldn’t come and I cancelled short notice. So, thank you for giving me a second chance to think about what I’m doing.

My name is Iris Lapinski, I am the founder and co-CEO of apps for good, a non-profit registered in the UK. You can ask me later why it’s not co-founder and CEO if you want to ask that. But what I wanted to talk about today to end this conference is to talk about education, how it connects to the real world, to technology and why this is important and what we’ve been doing with apps for good. What we’ve learned about internationalising, and working with very different audiences in education.

Let me first start with you now! So, if you could all stand up, you might already be tired, but I wanted you to think back about your own personal education and school experience cause I hope that everyone has gone through school more or less. So, think about a few things, think about whether you enjoyed school, engaged in school and passed your exams and when you left school, how much of that actually helped you in life?

So, first for those people who either dropped out of school or the ones who didn’t pass school, could you please sit down? Good! Not that many! [laughter]. So, next the people who passed exams at school but actually you could have been in a different place and you didn’t really engage with school and felt it was a waste of time but you managed through the system. Could you please sit down?

Ok, so for those people now who are still standing, those are the ones who did pass exams and engaged in school, but maybe some of you realised after you finished you didn’t have a clue what to do next. Could those of you please sit down? So, we still have a few standing which is good news so apparently, you did well and engaged in school and knew what to do afterwards. It’s more than I thought cause the vast majority fall into the first 3 categories so congratulations to you because school seems to have worked for you! You can all sit down as well! So, it’s an interesting audience because I would have expected a few people to keep standing.

So, the type of people we often work with fall into 3 different types of unhappiness. So, there are people who drop out of schools, who are dyslexic and struggle a lot with theoretical learning or other learning disabilities and they leave school and feel they have no talents. The next group of people I like to call the hibernators so people who go through school and the system but they actually don’t really move out of who they are and never expose themselves to experiences. And then there are quite a lot of people who pass school and the test, but it takes them a lot of time to figure out what to do in life and what to do next. So, the question we ask ourselves is why a lot of people don’t really know what to do and don’t really enjoy the school experience?

And the way I wanted to address that is also to have another piece of interaction and then I will stop. It’s to play a game with you. And that is to ask you – if you’ve questions it’s a bit like school. I will shout out the question and you need to shout the answer. So, the first question is what is 6×7? Very good! Next question. How do pronounce this word? Good! Who is this man? Very good! So, you can calculate, you can pronounce words and know a bit about history. That’s great progress! The next question is how would you solve the following problem? Any ideas how you would solve this? Call someone? Go back to bed? Yeah so there are quite a few interesting things, some people want to call someone, I’ve had other people in the past suggested you need a de-icer. The question is what is the problem and is there someone inside the car who is starving to death or is the owner on holiday for the next 6 months and couldn’t care less about what happens to his car? And the thing about problems in real life is they are hardly ever as easy as the first three questions it’s much harder to know what a problem is and to contextualise them.

Iris Lapinski Business of Software

We bring the real world in to schools

So basically, our key insight is good and what we’re trying to do is education is actually pretty good when it comes to recognising standard problems because what you get when you go to school is you get the equivalent of a Swiss army knife so you know how to find a problem and apply solutions to it. However, if you want to prepare people for the future, it’s not just about figuring out what the problems of the past were, but to enable them to solve problems of the future. And then to create the most appropriate solution to it, so it’s a different way of thinking so the tool could then look like this, which is a tool to clean tubes. So, we’ve been basically trying to enable a different way of problem solving in schools. Today’s world and I think we heard a lot of that in different situation it’s becoming more and more complex and the question is how can you bridge that with a system that in many aspects actually has been operating the same way for decades. And that’s basically the main thing what we’ve been thinking about how you can bring and bridge those two worlds.

The next slide was quite interesting to listening to the last talk yesterday evening, it was about how do you bridge a linear system with an iterative way of how to create software? And we’ve been facing the same thing, how do we enable teachers to operate in a system focused on exams and curriculum to bring in software development that is agile and based on MVPs or not, we’ve learned a lot of that as well, or it could be inspired by lean start-up.

Business of Software Eric Ries Startup Way

We teach problem solving via product development

The approach we now have is actually this, so a linear project young people go through where they pick problems they’re passionate about and then they screen those ideas, they look at what’s happening outside but also inside after what it’s like after you look at those problems. They look at technical and data feasibility and think about marketing models. They build the product themselves and then they learn how to present and pitch that to the public. Underneath that runs a technical track from basic tools like Android to basic web tools to JavaScript to advanced APIs and it really depends on the teachers and students how they implement those frameworks and when the students know how to program, we encourage them to shift the modules and build things faster rather than just creating wireframes and prototypes.

We have seen fast growth

So, we’ve grown a fair amount over the past few years, those were the first 5 years where we started with 50 students in two school and a high price per student to last year having nearly 25000 students in 600 schools. Where we are today is, we have reached more than 75000 students and we are in 1200 education partners/schools. We’ve also started to internationalise and we have schools not only in the UK but also in Poland, Portugal, Spain, in some states in the US, in Arkansas and Minnesota for example. And we’re testing a few countries where teachers have shown an interest and to get feedback whether it fits with what they’re doing.

Who are our students?

To give you a few data points on that, more than 50% of them come from lower social economic backgrounds, nearly 40% come from ethnic minority backgrounds and 50% of them are girls. Age range, the core audience we have are 13 year olds but we’re seeing a growth with the 9-10-11 year old and we’re starting to see 16-18 year olds as well primarily in non-English speaking countries because out content only exists in English at the moment.

Skills they learn and improve on is a whole range of skills from working in teams to programming to designing a product. So, we try to get feedback both from the students and teachers on how they improve and we also try to collect data from them about what makes them more interested in different domains, if that’s in a technical job itself or starting their own business and ambitions not to grow tech entrepreneurs but we would like them to understand what they do and how they do it.

Enabling Young People to Solve Problems

And last but not least, to give you a sense of what problems young people come up with, they range from anything you can think of that they are worried about the world, the environment and big things in their communities and their families. To point out some examples that have come through, for example we connect an app focused on young carers, if you look after a member of your family and care for them, it can be a lonely experience so we’ve created an app where you can connect with other carers. The one next to it is called chore attacks and it’s about chores being done at home and both children and parents feeling there’s not an equal distribution of who does the work so you can track that. My world of atoms is a game where you can learn about the period table by doing small experiments. Another app is cattle management where you can manage your heard of cattle over your phone, looking at injections because that was something students in rural Scotland were interested about.

So, there is no limit but I think one of the things and it came up in some of the talks, we tried to take them through a process where they focus on a very specific user group and niche and they can always go for mass market appeal and everyone might be interested on your product in the future but we hone in on think who your competitors are and you can articulate why and how you’re different.

Our Impact Relies on Complex Set of Communities

So, I’ve talked about those things we do, but I want to talk as well about how the people we work with and get to interact to schools and different communities. It might not be as relevant for you on all those aspects but some of the talks, even though we’re a non-profit and work in education, a fair amount has come up in the past days as well. So, the first audience that applies to us as much as any other organisation, without a team in place we couldn’t be doing our job. What I’ve learned is that 3 things that most people will join a company are interested in first thing is they want to have an interesting mission or something they can work for as an entity. Second thing is they want compensation and third thing is they want a work environment in terms of flexibility and what responsibility they get, they enjoy working in. first thing we’re good, second thing around compensation we try not to be that bad, even though we’re non-profit we try to pay fair wages but no one gets shares so they won’t get rich and the thing with flexibility we’ve learned is somewhere we have a direct control over, flexibility of working hours, location and giving people responsibility early on. So, there are 2 types of people that work out for us. One group I call Momentum Hires and the other Value Hires. So, it’s lent from investment theory. I worked in the past in the financial sector as well. Momentum hires are young people we hire straight out of university or in their first or second job. They are keen to learn, are passionate about our mission and want to get responsibility. Not all of them stay with us, but some of them do.

The second group are value hires, are people who are undervalued by the market, but whose fundamentals are solid. So, people with 10+ working experience who for whatever reason have some limitations people don’t like. Typically, you look after young children, you parents, you have a time-consuming hobby, you want to study again, and what we realised is if we hone on those people, we actually get great people who want to work with us in the long term. So, that’s the key insight I’ve had when we’re not actively pursuing those two groups because we know those are the people we can hire and retain. Second group of people, we have the team in place now, our main audience and those are the teachers in schools.

So, I don’t know how much you know about teachers but the reality in the UK is the average teacher works 60+ per week and younger teachers do tend to work more and it’s not the working hours that are a drain on the teachers, but you work with 13 year olds, some of them are at least are confused about who they are and what they do and it can be quite a stressful environment. We get emails from teachers after midnight and they really want to get this right because the vast amount of teachers have gone into teaching because they want to engage young people in learning. There are some exceptions but that’s why the majority chose their profession and they can get grumpy if we get things wrong and have materials that aren’t easy to us. So, what we’ve learned is we have to make it easy and quick for teachers to actually adapt our materials and to apply them in the classroom.

What we’ve seen is when they do like Chris here he’s from Scotland and he comes from a school in Wick in the highlands in Scotland and what he’s done for his students it’s a rural farming community, they actually – he’s opened them up to opportunities they never would have locally. Teachers then use those methodologies and we have a spill over effect into others classes as well and teachers no longer work as individuals because the core work is so broad, they start working in teams. So, it’s the maths, arts, drama and technology teachers who then work together and that’s a much better model that actually also reflects real world life rather than a single teacher teaching a subject.

The other audience that’s really important for us are people we call experts. We have 1000 people from the tech industry who volunteer for us in a very typical way and that is via Skype doing an expert session where you directly talk to the kids. And it’s not lecturing about materials but about asking hard questions once they’ve presented their products. Experts engage with students at equal eye level as peers and it’s not the message that matters but the messenger. So even great teachers now are good at teaching apps for good but in the eyes of a 13-year-old they still don’t trust them, because it’s their teacher telling them what to do. So, you bring in an expert and say have you thought about x-z-y and that pivots their ideas, which happens quite a lot. So, this is one of our experts and as I said, most of those sessions happen remotely but some of them also face to face and nearly 1/3 of our experts are women and on average they do more sessions with the students than the men so we already have a skewed picture of who is working in the tech industry in the eyes of the students.

The next audience we work with – and you see how complex this is getting – is we’re working with tech companies or companies that are being transformed by tech. So, first ones are obviously Samsung in terms of technology companies but then you think about the others, those companies have big tech teams, we work with them both on engaging their staff and getting funding. About half of our funding is from these companies, the others are from trusts and foundations. And we then charge private schools we have in the network as well because we think they should pay back whereas some schools from low income areas they wouldn’t pay and we think it should be free.

Those audiences I’ve talked about so far are audience we know quite well in the UK. What is happening is we started to internationalise now and work with educational authorities. We also had some exposure to them in the UK, two things were for example Michael Gove included us in a speech when he announced the new computing curriculum, HMI inspectorate in Scotland created a case study about creativity and technology but only once we started internationally we really engaged with ministries of education. And what we learned is there are three ways in which we can work with the government. The first one is around accrediting teacher training, so teachers see it as a direct benefit on themselves. The second thing is around the curriculum itself, if there’s a space in it, they could help us to bring real world initiatives into the classroom. And the third thing is sometimes about reaching out to schools through the ministry of education. However, that only works if in the eyes of the schools, the ministry is credible and we had some instances where that wasn’t the case. So, if the schools think the ministry is terrible, being introduced as governments reported initiative is the last thing you want to do. But those two authorities on that page we worked in Spain and Portugal in the last two years and they helped us a lot in those three things and what we concluded is we should never take money from government if we can avoid it because it’s not the best place to work with them.

And then the last group of people we thought through and I don’t know how many of you are thinking about internationalising and how many of those things are relevant to you but one of the things we realised after different tests is that we are actually running tests is a local multi model. So, while a lot of what we do is supported by technology platforms and common content and data, education is seen as a national and local effort and those people who are seen as being credible in that market and those tend not to be foreigners, are the people who can create change and teachers like the local phone number to call. They don’t like to engage that much with an online platform or even with an international phone numbers it’s not possible. So, the approach we’re now taking is we’re going out and looking for national delivery partners because they have the relationships and credibility in place to do that and that way we’re trying to combine those two sets about having common standards and structure, but having a strong local voice.

Weaving a Network of Relationships

So, the main things I’ve actually learned in the past few years when you think about education and some of the change we’re trying to achieve, growing too fast actually weakens relationships and when those relationships between teachers and tech companies and the schools and between experts and the teachers get too weak, the whole system starts to implode. So sometimes finding the right pace and focusing on how you manage relationships and how you actually improve those is the only way that you can grow sustainably and not harming your reputation. So, for us the main thing what we’ve learned and – if you want to diversify the sector you can use software as a very powerful and engaging tool and we’re using software internally in terms of how we manage our system but the main thing we want to achieve obviously is social change and we hope that there are some people in the room which can join us with that as well. That’s it!

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Mark Littlewood: Questions?

Audience Question: How do you handle translations? Presumably in Spain and Portugal the curriculum has been translated?

Iris Lapinski: No, we don’t.  We put that in as a design limitation because our content is updated at least on an annual basis because technology is evolving so if we create it once and never update it then that is a problem. So, we decided the content is in English for the time being. But what has happened is teachers have paired with English as a foreign language teacher so in Spain we have a much higher frequency of teams delivering it because the technology teacher is not as good in English as the English teacher but they don’t know as much about technology.  But they’ve now realised as many students struggle with why they should learn a foreign language in the first place. So, it’s again the use case, why would they want to learn English? Now they are working on a project and many programming materials all of those things you can access to help you do something most of them are in English. So, translation is something that we are starting very very slowly. There are some things that are parent facing or are linked to curriculum mapping, which we are doing in Spanish or Portuguese but we are doing as little as we can.

Audience Question: I like it because young children need to start English from a very early age.  I work in a software company in Portugal and my question is how can I help this cause in Portugal?

Iris Lapinski: Ok, we have 70 schools in Portugal and I can tell you afterwards. We already have an expert community of people who work in tech in Portugal who help students.  It’s a global community so we also have people in Uganda who are coaching kids in the UK on how to build technology so it’s not just a one-way street.  We’d love to tell you how to do it.  You can do it really easily.

Audience Question: What are your ideas on your product for lack of a better word going straight for being part of the curriculum versus coming through the side door as it were as extra-curricular activities that of course depends on the area as well in some places there are official curricular has to be followed in other places there aren’t.  Any thoughts on that?

Iris Lapinski: We’ve actually seen a decline in the after-school model on average.  Our main focus now is in curriculum or hybrid models. So, there are some curricular where they are computer science focused where marketing and business models doesn’t tick any box although we think it is important for product. And then they do a hybrid model where you can do some of it in the curriculum and some of it as an after-school club.  We map our framework against the curriculum but we don’t design it based on any specific curriculum.  And that allows for some interesting things to happen so there is a big programme by the EU where teachers are sent to different locations and we had a Spanish teacher who went to Scotland and suddenly those two teachers had something to talk about. Where a lot of things are very different in terms of standards and exams and all of that because they used a shared framework so we are now – the thing we do now is mapping against dedicated curricular we’ve just done a mapping against the Australian curriculum and say here are the things you can tick, here are the things forget about it you are not going to fulfil with apps for good and you need to figure it out yourself. But as I say the really tricky bit is around assessment because how do you assess team based work in a way that gives justice to different members of the team.  In a way, that is the thing that is still I think in terms of system wide problems is still the biggest problem.  And that is why so many companies complain about people who have possibly great university or school exam results but still can’t effectively operate in a company. And that is exactly that type of disconnect because the assessment system and the real world are not well connected right now. And if that gets cracked and it’s not easy to crack, then I think that would help.

Mark Littlewood: Is there anybody that might have software or tools that would be useful or interesting?  I know for example you’ve used things like Balsamiq in the past and they give you a lot of stuff.

Iris Lapinski: Yeah. Well the two big things that we are now starting to work on one is around Internet of things. So, we are only starting that and we are in touch with Raspberry Pi Foundation and quite a few others. The approach we take is internet of things is based on local data so if you think about a plant and you want to know about weather forecast and API’s and you want to know about local sensors that’ll be a problem driven approach we take.  I think the other thing we already use API ‘s of the top tier of what we do. Based on what I heard around the AI talk I think that is the obvious next extension is to say what other API’s shall we plug in to tap in to those things. If you have any ideas.  We keep evolving because technology keeps evolving and if you have any ideas on how you can make that an interesting for a learning experience we’d love to.

Mark Littlewood:  You should speak to Cisco not because their routers are great but because there is a specific person there, Alison Howard who is the CTO of the UK and Ireland and she runs a programme for schools and they just did a thing with IoT where they said to children as part of the this schools competition imagine if all objects could be connected.  And they came up with the usual stuff like fridges and toothbrushes but they came up with some really cool stuff as well.  One example was a racing helmet that you put on for car racing and it knows where you are and so you drive around the track so you’ve got a heads-up display so like when you’re driving around on an Xbox and it tells you when to speed up and slow down and you’re getting that in real time.  I’m not sure how practical it is in real life. But it’s incredible when you release young people to a domain and a problem. I’ve certainly been to some the apps for good competitions and presentations at the end of stuff and what’s incredibly frustrating for me is how well people pitch and present their ideas at that age and then something happens it can’t just be puberty or going to university or something.  These young start-ups in their early 20s the pitches are terrible generally but when people are that much younger they really come straight to the heart of the problem and explain what they are doing here’s a problem we’re solving we might not be able to solve it but…

Iris Lapinski: Well that’s sort of the other thing that we creating in the UK is to build a community of alumni/fellows so they can keep engaging with what we do. And obviously linking back to what I was saying earlier on about careers, in a way you can use the problem-solving methodologies to consider a career choice as a big problem you can solve yourself.  So, you can use the same things about introspective looking outside what the market is and iterating yourself through in that type of approach. So, that’s the other thing we are starting now.

Mark Littlewood: Do you have a project management solution, maybe team work should be your preferred partner, and they can donate some stuff.

Audience Question: I just wanted to throw in, you mentioned is there any other opportunities or any other things that can help you. Are people aware of Arasmus for young entrepreneurs?  Because this is an exchange scheme where entrepreneurs from Europe can go anywhere else in Europe and can live with a host entrepreneur for 3-4 months and get paid to do that.  I am an assessor for that scheme in fact.  And it seems like an interesting opportunity for some cross fertilisation.  I’m not involved in delivering the scheme but I assess it for the European commission but it relates to what you are doing and what everyone is doing in this room.

Iris Lapinski: No, I’m not aware of it but you learn something new every day.

Mark Littlewood: Does that mean you sign off on the money?

Audience question: Yes.

Iris Lapinski: well for those in the UK, we are running our next award ceremony at the barbican on the 20th June so if you want to see some of the teams pitching and you want to engage and cast your vote on who gets the people’s choice award we can share that out it will be a public Eventbrite link but the fun bit is to meet the kids.

Mark Littlewood: Incredible, absolutely incredible. It’s genuinely humbling experience to see what they do and how brilliant they are at presenting.  There is hope for the future.  Thank you very much indeed Iris.

Iris Lapinski
Iris Lapinski

Iris Lapinski

Iris Lapinski is the CEO of Apps for Good who has been named by Forbes Magazine as one of their 5, “Innovative Rising Stars: Education, Healthcare and Environment“.

Iris and Apps for Good who have, in a very short space of time, had a significant impact on the way that children are taught to think about technology and using it to solve problems that matter.

More from Iris.

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