Social Impact Heroes: “You really need a good team to make things happen”, with Cynthia Bertucci Kaye

Surround yourself with smart, passionate people. You really need a good team to make things happen. You can’t do it alone. If the employee at my previous company hadn’t introduced me to augmented reality to solve the problem I was having with my boys, I may never have found out about it, and Alive Studios would […]

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Surround yourself with smart, passionate people. You really need a good team to make things happen. You can’t do it alone. If the employee at my previous company hadn’t introduced me to augmented reality to solve the problem I was having with my boys, I may never have found out about it, and Alive Studios would not have been born.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Cynthia Kaye. Cynthia is the CEO and Chief Zoo Keeper of Alive Studios, an award-winning software developer that creates magical, zoo-themed learning experiences for early education. Her passion is to develop innovative products with her team and fellow educators to help teachers engage their students and get them excited about learning.

After years of development, Alive Studios was able to secure their first patent on using a multi-flashcard method to present and interact with 3D, augmented reality animations of animals for learning. Cynthia’s goal is to help make a positive difference in children’s lives by helping shift the nation’s report card from only 36% of our 4th graders reading proficiently to more than 70%!

Cynthia has a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education from Florida State University.

She is married to the company’s CTO, Ron Kaye. They have four children, one granddaughter, and an office dog named Rocko. The Kayes currently reside just outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

Thank you so much for doing this with us, Cynthia! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to start on your career path?

I was inspired by the gut-wrenching struggle my husband and I had while trying to teach our two adopted Latvian sons how to read English. We adopted them at ages 5 and 6 from an orphanage near Russia after they’d endured a traumatic upbringing.

Teaching them to speak English was relatively painless, but teaching them to read became a monumental task. We exhausted all the tools and resources that were available at their schools and on the market. Nothing worked. At the time, I was leading another company called Logical Choice Technologies and employed great talent in the education space. I challenged them to find a way to engage kids through technology, but no one really had any ideas initially.

Then one day, one of our young employees said he had “something really cool” to show me. It was a flashcard that used augmented reality to make the Eiffel Tower pop off the page in 3D. I was blown away, and my mind was boggling at the potential this new technology had for early learners! My mind’s eye immediately saw a giraffe popping up and interacting with children.

Soon after, we started a skunk-works project and hired educators, programmers, and illustrators to create our first learning kit that harnesses the fun of 26 augmented reality zoo animals to help kids learn their letters and sounds that go with them. Five years later, we have a new company, Alive Studios, waving a banner for the power of student engagement to help children learn how to read!

Did you set out to start a movement? If so, what was your vision? If not, what did you imagine would be the impact of your work?

Ha, no! I was just trying to help my boys. But we soon realized that our crazy idea could actually make an impact on the national reading crisis affecting the majority of our children in America. Only 36% of America’s children read proficiently when we test them in 4th grade, and it doesn’t get better as they go through school.

During our five years of working directly with thousands of early educators and seeing how important it is to get students engaged and excited about learning, we have embraced the challenge to shift the nation’s report card from 36% of our children reading proficiently to over 70%. We invite others to join our movement to #HelpShiftHappen.

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?

When we first started out, we created Sergio Seal for the letter S, but what we printed on the card was a sea lion and not actually a seal. We didn’t know that for a while until a marine mammal trainer pointed it out to us. Of course, we had our artist and our programmers make the necessary changes right away. Lesson: Do your homework and get multiple opinions. You can’t always trust one source : ).

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Hearing success stories from teachers and students makes me smile from ear to ear. It amazed me when a teacher came up and told me the story of an autistic child who had never spoken before, but when he saw Larry Lion pop out, he said his first word: “Wow!” So many teachers tell me how their students were struggling to learn, but now they know their letters and sounds and are able to read. Classroom stories of children coming out of their shells with pride and confidence are proof to us that we’re on the right path.

Wow! Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who has impacted this cause?

I met a kindergarten teacher, Greg Smedley-Warren, four years ago at an education conference. He heard our Edie Elephant trumpeting across the conference hall and had to come over to see what was going on. When he saw our animals coming alive in 3D, in his words, “It was a WOW moment. I knew if it was a wow moment for me, it would be mind-blowing for my students. I can vividly recall the day I first introduced Brody Bear to my class during our ABC Bootcamp curriculum.” When Brody appeared on screen and roared, the kids screamed, squealed, clapped, and one boy even scooted away from the screen with excitement. They were hooked. Their engagement and exhilaration helped them retain the content from that lesson.

Greg’s classroom is made up of a majority of children who don’t speak English. He says using Letters alive in conjunction with his ABC Bootcamp has helped his students master all the letters and their sounds in 26 days. At the end of this past school year, all of his students were reading on grade level. Greg has seen these amazing results for the last four years. He is definitely having a huge impact on his students.

I’m thrilled that we have Greg and many other teachers who are partnering with us to impact our cause!

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I believe that we all have the same goal: to get the majority of our children at or above a proficient reading level all the way through to graduation. That’s no small task. I also believe that if we work together and support that effort, it is possible to accomplish our goal.

Individual Responsibility

Whether you’re a parent, teacher, administrator, business leader, or politician, when you use your time, talent, and finances, you do make a difference in a child’s life. For me as a business owner, I try to think about how I can make a positive difference inside and outside of the four walls of a classroom.

Community Engagement

Community engagement is as important as student engagement when it comes to education. We should look for ways that a community’s resources can be used to support learning that is happening in schools. One example is Gwinnett County Libraries. Through a local business and community foundation grant, they were able to provide our early literacy program Learning alive to all 15 of their branches. We worked with them to set up an early childhood literacy camp. Children now attend camp at their local library branch with a parent or caregiver, where they learn foundational reading skills that they need for kindergarten. I would love to see more businesses and foundations adopt schools or libraries and collaborate to create this sort of program to educate children in their communities.

Winning the Literacy Problem Before It’s Too Late

I’m sure our local, state, and federal politicians want what’s best for our children as much as we all do. We should be encouraging them to continue to fund and support engaging literacy programs for pre-K and kindergarten. We need to win this literacy problem early on when kids are 4, 5, and 6 years old, so we’re not desperately trying to intervene with 3rd-graders and beyond. At that point, it’s very difficult and expensive to get students on the path to reading proficiency: according to the Nation’s Report Card, most of them don’t achieve it. More importantly, when we wait too long, we produce kids who lack confidence, kids who drop out of school and, in many cases, adults who check out of being productive citizens in our communities and society as a whole. Every child is created with gifts and talents. Let’s make sure we give our kids a great early start to empower them to reach their fullest potential.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is seeing the vision and setting the tone. Leaders set the goals and surround themselves with gifted people to help realize the vision. Sometimes it feels like we are out in the jungle and we all have our machetes fiercely cutting the path in front of us to move forward. It’s not always easy, but making a difference together is fun and rewarding.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Here are five things that I learned over the years and why they are so valuable:

  1. Build something that solves a problem. Our company was founded while trying to help my boys learn to read. That was when we discovered that early literacy wasn’t just a personal problem, it was a national problem. There are parents all over the country who have children struggling to read. I wanted to help them too. Now it’s become a mission, not just a career.
  2. Listen to your customers. When I have heart-to-heart conversations with our customers and hear their students’ success stories, it confirms that we’re on the right path and motivates me to push forward to do all we can to help all children learn to read.
  3. Surround yourself with smart, passionate people. You really need a good team to make things happen. You can’t do it alone. If the employee at my previous company hadn’t introduced me to augmented reality to solve the problem I was having with my boys, I may never have found out about it, and Alive Studios would not have been born.
  4. Always look for ways to improve your customers’ experience. A couple of years ago we took the advice of a former educator who thought it would be great if our animals could come to life from a classroom rug. I thought that would be a really fun experience for the kids. Who wouldn’t want to show up to school and have a magic carpet waiting for them? So, we made that happen, and Rugs alive has been a huge hit. A suggestion turned into a learning experience that has helped make kids excited to come to school.
  5. Find angel investors who want to be a part of a company with a cause and let them grow with you. When you’re developing and innovating products, you need capital to grow your business. Verne Harnish, founder of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, was a business mentor to me. When I wasn’t sure if starting Alive Studios was the right thing to do, Verne encouraged me to move ahead. He believed in me and my vision so much that he wrote a check and became our first investor.

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

My father, who was a successful home builder, would always say to me, “Anything worthwhile is hard work.” Whenever I face challenges, disappointment, and pitfalls, I remind myself of what my dad said. I repeat it in my head in his voice. It has made me tenacious.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

They can find us @AliveStudiosZoo across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

Your work is making a massive positive impact on the planet, thank you so much!

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