Big Ideas: “Deliver the best one-on-one, individualized early literacy instruction to children everywhere” with Deb Mallin, CEO of Literacy Matters Foundation

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Deb Mallin. Deb is the founder & CEO of Literacy Matters Foundation, a non-profit organization on a mission to close the literacy gap. Deb is a certified Orton-Gillingham tutor and has experience […]

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As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Deb Mallin. Deb is the founder & CEO of Literacy Matters Foundation, a non-profit organization on a mission to close the literacy gap. Deb is a certified Orton-Gillingham tutor and has experience as a classroom teacher in grades K-6.

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

As an educator and literacy specialist, I had a thriving private practice helping students learn to read and write one at a time. The more success I had helping students and their families, the more concerned I became about all of those children I couldn’t help. I said to myself, “I either need more hours in a day or more of me to go around, and both are impossible.”

With the encouragement and support of my husband and three sons (one of whom struggled with dyslexia), I leveraged the power of Artificial Intelligence to replicate my processes on a scalable device in order to reach entire classrooms of emerging readers. I created Literacy Matters Foundation with a mission of closing the literacy gap, making possible what others thought impossible.

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

Four months into our pilot, our students were making remarkable, consistent academic, social and emotional gains, compared to the control group of non-participants. The most at-risk students in Minnesota scored 4 times better on national standardized tests, compared to the non-participant classroom control group. I remember the day I was presenting our results in a meeting. The individual across the table called me a “disruptor.” Though initially taken aback (I’ve spent 50 years as a rule follower, always trying to color within the lines), for the first time in my life, I remember thinking, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, and this name is going to strengthen me!”

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

The idea is to deliver the best one-on-one, individualized early literacy instruction to children everywhere. Our device is called the Mighty Doodle, and it uses the Orton-Gillingham method, a scientifically proven technique that helps students learn to read and write. It helps emerging readers break the code by connecting sounds to letters and letters to sounds. We are replacing outdated, one-size-fits-all worksheets and using cutting-edge technology to meet each child where they are, in a lesson that is custom built and also fun. Even the highly mobile, homeless, food insecure, struggling emerging reader will continue to demonstrate resilience in learning, and become not only literate, but life a life-long learner.

How do you think this will change the world?

Literacy is an everywhere, everyone problem. Imagine a literate nation… a literate world! Imagine a world where we think of illiteracy as a disease that has an immunization. That immunization is Mighty Doodle.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

The mission of Literacy Matters Foundation is to close, not widen the gap. Schools who have the resources to pay for our initiative are eager to partner. Schools that are underfunded, struggling to cover the most basic operating costs, have no resources. It is my hope that we are able to scale Mighty Doodle everywhere, to everyone.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

I had finished my last tutoring session of the day, it was 8:00pm and my family was understandably “hangry.” As dinner was served, my son pipes up, “Seriously, Mom? Costco Chicken Pot Pie again?”

Overwhelmed from another full day of tutoring students, I turned to my family and said, “How can you complain about what I’m serving you, as I work to serve the most underserved children who suffer because of the zip code they were born into and are unable to learn how to read?”

I had thrown down a gauntlet and the room was silent.

One son suggested I could train teachers to teach the way I teach, and then refer the families who call my cell phone (days, nights and weekends) to those teachers.

I took a breath and worked to regain my composure. I turned to my husband, “You work in technology. Help me start a company.”

“I’ll help you start a company, but you’re going to run it,” he said.

“Fine. I will. And you can make dinner.”

That was the tipping point. And I haven’t cooked more than a dozen dinners in 4+ years. And my children are more than fine. Perhaps they’re even better for not having been served, and rather learning what it means to serve others.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

Evangelists. We need people to have a growth mindset. There is a better way to teach children, and it’s scalable for everyone, everywhere. The number of children, families, schools and communities struggling with the domino effect of illiteracy is costing our nation over $300 billion. But you cannot put a price tag on the cost of a life of a child. You can both afford and provide Mighty Doodle to emerging readers for three years, for less than what a Literacy Specialist charges for three sessions. Technology allows for the scalability of literacy and justice for all.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why.

1. You will learn a new level of resiliency before you are able to reach the first 200 children. (I will go years with too little sleep because mission-driven people have something driving them more powerful than themselves.)

2. Quitting will never be an option. (I will walk into a classroom, kneel at the feet of a classroom of emerging, underserved readers, and come to know I will never abandon them. Ever.)

3. Dr. Seuss was even more brilliant than you may remember and can teach adults, too. (“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”)

4. You will not be slowing down after the age of 50. Rather, you will be in your next chapter of a life yet to be fully lived, so be brave. (I can carry a backpack, Mighty Doodle bag, my purse, coffee and still unlock the office door on my way in at 7:30am. I will do it again on the way out, at 11pm, backwards in heels.)

5. When you think you’ve hit rock bottom, take this time to be grateful for the ground, cry if you must, then take a deep breath and hear the words that are posted on the wall by your desk, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

Work toward something bigger than yourself, that serves others, and you will find yourself working harder than everyone around you. Never expect more from others than you would expect from yourself.

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

1. Children: our most precious resource and the future.

2. Teachers: the keepers of this world’s most precious children.

3. Technology: Mighty Doodle’s literacy initiative for K-3 emerging readers and resources for teachers to support underserved, at-risk, low income students and students with learning


Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

The same principles that became what are still the Core Values of Literacy Matters Foundation:

· Children first

· Indelible integrity

· Practice generosity

· Wisdom is the product of wonder

· Teach all children as you would teach your own

· Collaborating for change

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

· Quitting is not an option.

· If it were easy, someone else would have done it already.

· Failing to plan is planning to fail.

· Prioritize people, process, product.

· The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

· Tighten your ponytail and try again.

· Look small, think big, move quickly.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?

Our mission is to empower K-3 learners with the basic reading and writing skills needed to close the literacy gap, leveraging evidence-based methods, proven & engaging curriculum, and delivered by leading-edge technology and IBM Watson AI. We cannot eradicate society’s greatest challenges and the cycle of poverty until we can give all K-3 children the gift of literacy, so they can contribute as individuals, as family members, within their community and our society. Illiteracy is a disease and Mighty Doodle is the immunization.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Facebook: @LiteracyMattersUS

Twitter: @Literacy_4all

LinkedIn: Literacy Matters Foundation

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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