“5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO of TeachAids,” With Piya Sorcar

Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Piya Sorcar, the Founder and CEO of TeachAids, a Lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, and an Adjunct Affiliate at Stanford’s School of Medicine. She leads a team of world experts in medicine, public health, and education to develop software that solves numerous persistent problems in […]

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Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Piya Sorcar, the Founder and CEO of TeachAids, a Lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, and an Adjunct Affiliate at Stanford’s School of Medicine. She leads a team of world experts in medicine, public health, and education to develop software that solves numerous persistent problems in global health education. She sits on the Executive Board of The Tech Awards in Silicon Valley and has spoken at leading universities including Columbia, MIT, and Yale. She holds a Ph.D. in Learning Sciences and Technology Design from Stanford University. In 2011, MIT Technology Review named her to its TR35 list of the top 35 innovators in the world under 35. In 2016, she became the youngest recipient of Stanford’s Alumni Excellence in Education Award.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I went into economic consulting when I graduated from college. I loved the work, but more in the head than the heart. During that time, I took a trip to India for five weeks with my sister to perform as part of my parents’ productions. We were in 21 shows over the course of those five weeks. While I was there, I remember noticing all the different people. Their kindness and generosity reminded me just how huge the world is — much bigger me. When I returned, I quit my job in in consulting and decided to go into education-related non-profit work.

I became interested in HIV education while in graduate school at Stanford. In 2005, I started reading reports about India being identified as the next hot zone for people living with HIV. I was perplexed as to why HIV knowledge levels were so low, despite hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on the problem. With further investigation, we found that there were many problems in providing HIV education not just in India, but around the world.

When I finished my Ph.D. in 2009, we spun TeachAIDS out of Stanford, focused intently on delivering quality HIV education that would effectively reach the audiences who need it most. This required a multi-faceted approach. We knew we needed to have the right experts and partnerships to help develop materials that resonated AND worked. We ran large-scale studies in these countries that compared our materials to those that were being used to ensure we were optimizing the learning and retention for our audience. The main learning from our HIV work is in the methodology of how to create effective health education interventions. By identifying the problems around why people aren’t learning important health messages, we can create effective materials that solve these key factors, including how to best research and evaluate them.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

After five years of HIV/AIDS work and having expanded to 82 countries, we were looking for what topic to tackle next. We had hundreds of volunteers who wanted to do something back home in the US, so we had our analysts and researchers investigate a variety of different topics that could have a solution related to education. The top three issues we found were cybersecurity, sexual harassment and concussions.

We found interesting comparisons between HIV and concussions, and how they are surprisingly similar issues. In addressing any issue we’re considering, we have four major questions we ask to see how similar they are when getting started. The similarities we found were that HIV and concussions are 1) both invisible 2) have high levels of stigma and people don’t want to report 3) they are high profile topics with major politics involved 4) we’d need to take science and communicate it in the simplest way to inform people and change attitudes about the condition.

It would have been easy to move into another topic on infectious diseases, but we wanted to be able to show the breadth of what our organization could do. There are similarities between concussions and HIV, but also very different approaches to play to the audience when considering human centric design.

It was very interesting to us how similar and yet different HIV and concussions are as a health epidemic, but also how important they both are to address.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

We can look back now and laugh but it wasn’t funny then when it happened. Our main takeaway from this mistake/story was to NEVER take anything for granted because anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. During the pilot filming of CrashCourse, our concussion education program, we ran into many roadblocks and challenges. The three main challenges were:

  1. Facility/Lights: Finding a field that would allow lights at night during off season was difficult due to city restrictions on the use of bright field lights

2. Equipment: Helmets; shoulder pads for most schools had been sent away for annual cleaning and sterilization. We had to rent uniforms/equipment for one of the teams in the film

3. High school sports restrictions (CIF rules): Myriad of restrictions on out-of-season practice, including:

  1. No contact (limits filming any tackle scenes)
  2. No more than 5 players from any one HS could participate
  3. They all had to be VOLUNTEERS
  4. Own coaches couldn’t be present at the same time as athletes
  5. Each of 5 HS principals had to sign an agreement of support

We had such a simple plan that turned into chaos but we continued to work through it.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

It is extremely hard to do what we do, and our Team at TeachAids has continuously shown dedication and resilience.

We knew the concussion work was something we wanted to go into and that solving these difficult issues takes a village. We thought it would be difficult to engage busy people, like student-athletes and doctors, because of their demanding schedules. What we quickly realized was that these were the people who ended up being over-invested in the mission.

Students-athletes are juggling their workouts, classes, extracurriculars and more, yet found every waking moment they had to show up and work on the project. They would practice their scripts together in the locker room, rush to our office straight after practice — — any chance they could get amidst their crazy schedules to help work on the project. Sometimes they would just show up and start working without being asked and without notice. These athletes continuously communicated that they were passionate to work on something that would serve the younger version of themselves. They felt invested in doing everything they could to ensure our concussion education materials reached as many young athletes as possible.

We noticed a similar level of investment from the amazing doctors we work with. Neurosurgeons would find time in-between surgeries and clinical visits, or in the car on their way home from the ER to contribute to CrashCourse. They gave us any moment they could squeeze into their days to contribute their expertise to our cause.

Our company is full of resilient, dedicated people that really care about the TeachAids mission.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We’re currently working on a new Brain fly-through project that will contribute to the CrashCourse education materials. We are lucky enough to have been given access to Stanford Medicine’s cutting edge-brain mapping technology. This technology is used by Stanford Neurosurgeons to explore and practice on real renditions of the brain in Virtual Reality before putting their plans into practice. With help from a few of Stanford’s top neurosurgeons and neuropsych expertsDr. Gerry Grant, Jamshid GhajarDan DaneshvarMaya Yutis and Robert SiegalDonavan Yisrael; we are developing an experience that uses this technology to teach students about the brain. This immersive experience will allow young people to explore a real human brain and visualize it’s complexity, so that it feels more real, and thus care more about protecting it.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

.Diversity breeds strength. Different backgrounds provide different perspectives and that will strengthen anything. Everyone can benefit from diverse input.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

With leaders in general, it’s all about understanding people’s strengths and weaknesses and knowing where everyone on your team wants to go in life. My advice would be to focus on investing in the individuals in your project or company and what they want to do in the future. Find out what your teammates are passionate about, reach their hearts and figure out where that can play a role in their part of the assignment. If you manage someone by working with what they’re passionate about doing, it helps the whole team get on a path to a more meaningful life.

It’s also important to find work that energizes you instead of strains you, and aligns with your own sense of purpose. When you can turn what people call work into a hobby then there’s no stopping you.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

We are constantly learning from all people around us. I learn just as much from working with a top neurosurgeon as I do from my students.

I am grateful to everyone around me, and it all began with my parents. My dad always told me if you believe you can do it, you can. My Dad is in production, and I learned so much from him about the industry inside and out. In fact, he did the original storyboards for CrashCourse. My Mom also was involved in our productions, helping with everything from the costumes to the setup.

When I was young, my parents instilled in me the value of education. I come from an artistic family and we had been doing non-profit work for a very, very long time. While my sister and I were growing up in the US, my parents wanted to teach us about Indian culture. My father started creating these culturally relevant animated productions for us to learn from. He would write, compose and sing songs that taught us where we came from and about our family. It helped us appreciate the sacrifices our family had made in order for us to have the opportunities that we had, both at the time and later in life.

As a part of my dad’s work, my sister and I became very engrossed in the productions. Our family’s productions have won awards at top international film festivals around the world and have been shown on television networks, like PBS, for over 25 years. Collectively, we have three Emmy nominations, a gold plaque at Chicago International Film Festival for Best Children’s Program, among others. My life seemed to come full circle when creating these educational programs for HIV and concussions. While growing up, I was acting in these animated productions made by my father. Then the research showed that animations — cartoons and images — are the best ways to teach kids about these taboo topics so we implemented them in our work at TeachAids.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

We’re a nonprofit, our mission is to bring good to the world 🙂

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why.

It takes a village to solve difficult, persistent problems, especially ones with stigma. I’ve learned so much from many different people around the world, but collectively it all comes down to these five lessons:

  1. Trust each other.
  2. Get creative. Constraints bring out the best in us, we must get creative to work within them and accomplish our goals.
  3. Divide and conquer. each person has a unique set of skills to offer, split up tasks to play to everyone’s strengths.
  4. Quality matters.
  5. Unite around a shared mission. The team should have a united/shared mission that everyone is working towards, regardless of their strengths.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Three things that I’ve learned and live by that were inspired by someone of Great influence, the Dalai Lama:

  1. Serve the world, not just our individual groups
  2. Help others for unselfish reasons
  3. When anyone in the world suffers, we all suffer

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There are two quotes that my father always repeated to me that I live by:

“You must be the change you want to see in the world”- Gandhi

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

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