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Mathnasium’s David Ullendorff: “Every generation faces unique challenges — this is our turn and, like those before us, we’ll come out the other side”

Every generation faces unique challenges — this is our turn and, like those before us, we’ll come out the other side. We’ve survived worse: the 1918 flu pandemic and two World Wars. Difficulties can also have restorative powers. We come out of them with a new understanding of ourselves and renewed compassion for our fellow […]

Every generation faces unique challenges — this is our turn and, like those before us, we’ll come out the other side. We’ve survived worse: the 1918 flu pandemic and two World Wars. Difficulties can also have restorative powers. We come out of them with a new understanding of ourselves and renewed compassion for our fellow human beings.


As a part of my series about the things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Ullendorff, the president and co-founder of Mathnasium, a company dedicated to teaching children math in over 1,000 learning centers and online. An award-winning children’s media creator and pioneer in children’s computer literacy, he designed curriculum taught to millions of children in 72 countries. He is also the chief architect behind [email protected], a real-time, online version of Mathnasium’s teaching method that brings customized, face-to-face math instruction to children at home.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I could never have predicted my career path. To quote John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” More than anything it is based on my friendship with my partner Peter Markovitz. We built two businesses together and for reasons I still don’t fully understand we complement one another. When we met, over 40 years ago, his ambition was to build a large franchising company and mine was to entertain and educate children in a meaningful way. At Mathnasium, I think Peter represents the macro, that is, seeing to it that Mathnasium functions as a successful business, and I represent the micro — making sure that every student has a fun and meaningful experience at our Learning Centers or online with [email protected]

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much? A book?

Probably “All Quiet on the Western Front,”by the German writer Erich Maria Remarque. My grandfather fought for Germany in the First World War. He was wounded and spent several years as a Russian POW. He returned home a broken man and was rewarded for his service to his country by being shipped to Sobibor, a Nazi death camp, in 1943 and murdered on my father’s birthday, March 20th, along with my grandmother. “All Quiet on the Western Front” brought alive to me what he must have experienced. The futility of it all.

Thank you for sharing that very personal story. We’re in uncertain times right now, as well. Many people have become anxious and fearful from the jolts of the news cycle during this pandemic. From your perspective, can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons to Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

  • Every generation faces unique challenges — this is our turn and, like those before us, we’ll come out the other side. We’ve survived worse: the 1918 flu pandemic and two World Wars. Difficulties can also have restorative powers. We come out of them with a new understanding of ourselves and renewed compassion for our fellow human beings.
  • This crisis will teach us to take a more slow-moving crisis of even greater magnitude, climate change, seriously and finally listen to what scientists are telling us instead of wishing the problem away.
  • The current crisis has already made us appreciate people we often take for granted. The postal worker, the grocery clerk, the nurse, the delivery man. The focus on workers and not highly paid executives in the PPP is laudable.
  • We will also come out of this with a renewed appreciation for government. After years of certain elected officials denigrating the professionals at the CDC, State department, EPA, and on and on, we will understand that good governance is what makes our lives possible.
  • A bipartisan 9/11-like commission will lay bare what we did wrong in our response to COVID-19 and show us how to be better prepared in the future. Hopefully, as in the Hans Christian Anderson tale, it will expose those who aren’t wearing any clothes.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

  • Communicate with anyone that is isolated. Call your mother and anyone else in your orbit that might be lonely and needs human contact.
  • Deliver food to older people that may not be able to get to market and shop.
  • Help people financially, if you can, with your own 0 interest loan.
  • Listen. Don’t preach.
  • Put aside petty differences. Don’t wait to apologize or ask forgiveness from someone.

What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?

Everyone deals with anxiety differently. A trained therapist either in a group setting or one-on one (if you can afford it or if your health insurance will pay for it) is, from personal experience, a godsend. After that, friends, clergy, anyone with a soul and compassion that is willing to listen. Books make wonderful companions in times like this too. Go back to your favorites. They’re like old friends. Some people might be comforted by nonfiction, especially historical accounts of situations that were much worse. Whatever works.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

My favorite quote is from T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” It’s long and not exactly uplifting, but its truth calms me.

“To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.”

It is always relevant, especially when I begin something new, be it a purely creative endeavor or a new business.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂

Without doubt an environmental movement that drives home the simple truth that the earth is our only home, and it must not be plundered but cared for. The vast and breathtaking animal and plant kingdoms that share the planet with us are the ultimate measure of our wealth. Our solipsistic nature, greedy and petty, must give way to a new understanding of our place in the tree of life. We are of the earth, not above it.

I’d like to see the biologist E. O. Wilson’s remedy outlined in his 2016 book “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life,” in which he proposes that half of the earth’s surface be designated a human-free nature reserve to preserve biodiversity become a reality.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

Mathnasium.com

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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