Her Own Boss #BossesGiveBack Edition:
Mother and daughter duo, Dr. AnnMaria De Mars and Maria Burns Ortiz are the tech founders of 7 Generation Games. A Santa Monica, California-based company that focuses on making educational video games that combine math, history, and adventure gaming. Dr. AnnMaria De Mars serves as its company president and Mara Burns Ortiz serves as the chief executive officer. The three-year-old startup was founded as a way to improve math education for all students with an ever-growing line of games, including an upcoming series of bilingual (Spanish/English) games. “When people envision tech founders, especially in the gaming industry, a pair of Latinas – not to mention, a grandmother and mother of three young children – isn’t usually the first thing that pops to mind.” -Maria Burns Ortiz
What motivated you to start your business?
Dr. AnnMaria De Mars: I started my first business to make money. My husband was ill and I made a lot more money as a consultant than I had as a professor. In my current business, I started to make a difference and to make money. Much lip service is given to the importance of education and yet when you look at the types of problems many software companies are attempting to solve they aren’t the world – changing issues of hunger, health and education nearly as often as they are the minor inconveniences of the well-off. Being good at math got me a scholarship to college and that changed the trajectory of my whole life. Being able to read, write and communicate well aided my success in business. I can’t think of a better way to spend my life than trying to develop those skills in millions of children.
Maria Burns Ortiz: I had been working in media and had reached a point in my career where I didn’t see opportunity for advancement and, moreover, I didn’t find it fulfilling. I needed to do something else — and something where not only would I be excited about the work I was doing every day, but where I also felt like I was making a difference in improving lives. As a mother of small children, I care about the world they’ll inherit. I also recognize that math skills are going to be incredibly necessary in a future that is becoming more and more technology driven. Presented with the opportunity, I felt like creating games that get kids excited about — and better at — math was the chance to do my small part to try to make the world better.
What is the greatest barrier you faced in launching your business and how did you overcome it?
Dr. AnnMaria De Mars: Money. Despite all of the rhetoric about women needing to gain confidence and “lean in”, the biggest barrier I found was the need for $1 million to create quality video games. When investors were skeptical that a Hispanic women over 50 was a dream team leader for a startup, I made an end run by going through federal grants to small businesses, taking advantage of my years of research experience in academia. We also conducted 2 successful Kickstarter campaigns. After we had shown some traction and staying power, we were able to gain our first investors.
Maria Burns Ortiz: Getting money. Coming up with the cash to start your own tech company isn’t easy for anyone, but the reality is that it is harder for women and minorities. Less than 1 percent of venture capital money went to Hispanic founders – male or female. And the statistics for women from any background aren’t much better, with women accounting for 10 percent of venture capital funding. Realizing that the more traditional startup funding route was not looking likely for us, we looked for other ways to raise money. We applied for Small Business Innovation Research grants from several federal agencies. We didn’t get every SBIR award we applied for, but we fared far better than we would have done had we dedicated that effort solely to going after VC funds – and in the end, we ended up with $1.35 million in funding that didn’t require us to give up equity. We ran two Kickstarter campaigns that ended up being among the most successful projects in educational gaming in the platform’s history. And eventually we did end up attracting investors – none of whom live in the Silicon bubble – who we are really excited to have as partners.
Do you have a mentor? How did you find him/her?
Dr. AnnMaria De Mars: As a graduate student, my dissertation advisor was an important mentor. When I began my career as a consultant, I had two important mentors. One was one of the very few Latina professors at the University I attended, and we had kept in touch. The other was vice president of a college near the University where I was teaching at the time. We met at meetings between our 2 institutions and struck up a friendship. There are people I turn to for advice occasionally now, but I wouldn’t say I have one or 2 mentors.
Maria Burns Ortiz: I don’t have a single mentor, but over the years, I have developed a network of people who I can turn to if we need insight or advice. One way we found mentors was in the Fall of 2015, we were selected to participate in Boom Startup’s EdTech Accelerator. If you’re not familiar with tech accelerators, they are intensive programs focused on helping startups grow. In addition to funding, accelerators provide access to mentors who can assist you with areas of your business where you can benefit from their expertise. However, other relationships have come out meeting people at conferences or events, being connected through others in my network or even occasionally just reaching out to someone without any introduction. The biggest challenge when it comes to mentors isn’t finding someone, but it’s building the relationship over time.
If you could go back in time to when you were first starting, what would you tell yourself, with the intention of avoiding mistakes and heart ache?
AnnMaria De Mars: The biggest mistake I made when I was younger was feeling like I always had to be the smartest person in the room. If I had to go back, I would listen to other people’s ideas more instead of always competing to show how much I knew. Also, I would tell myself that making games that are educational costs a lot more than making games that are not, which is why you see so few educational games coming from small companies. Given that advance warning, I would definitely go ahead and do it anyway.
Maria Burns Ortiz: As your business grows, you won’t be able to do everything. You will have to delegate. And you will have to realize that while you might be able to do each individual element of a project better, you can’t do all of them. Surround yourself with good people and give them the opportunity to grow. And if someone on your staff isn’t pulling his/her weight – and doesn’t seem interested in changing — realize that quickly and part ways. Likely no one will care as passionately about your business as you will, but look to find people who believe in what you’re doing, not just people who see you as a paycheck.
What resources have been most helpful to you?
AnnMaria De Mars: Small Business Innovation Research grants have been a godsend to our company, providing a seed money to prove that our concepts of engaging video games can work to teach mathematics. The business accelerator, Boom Startup, was extremely helpful in structuring our company to be of interest to investors and in, literally, accelerating our development.
What does success look like for you?
AnnMaria De Mars: When our games are as common in schools and homes as a textbook, then I will feel like a success.
Maria Burns Ortiz: When I was in the school, the generation defining educational game was Oregon Trail. I want to see our games as the 21st century equivalent – the most widely distributed educational games on the market — where you will be hard pressed to find a school that doesn’t have kids playing 7 Generation Games. But that’s not just about the business side. I want to see our games in the hands of kids at every school because I truly believe in the potential of what we’re doing to play a transformative role in not only math education, but in math performance. And when I say kids at every school, that includes the kids who no one expects will be good at math, the kids who have parents who don’t care how they do in school, the kids who come from communities where nothing is expected of them because we believe that the power of technology to have a revolutionary impact is not reserved for just a select few. To me, part of success is proving that you can have a company that does well and does good.
What do you do to recharge?
AnnMaria De Mars: Sleep, mostly. I also like hiking, which I get to do on occasion. Just spending time with my family is a good way to recharge.
Maria Burns Ortiz: I have three small children – ages 8, 4 and 1 – so when I am not working, I am doing all of the various things that having three small children involves from going to soccer games or stopping someone from jumping off the kitchen table or looking for lost shoes. My kids definitely provide some levity from the challenges of running a startup, but not so much a chance to recharge. Mostly, I just drink lots of coffee.
What’s your advice for a young woman that’s considering starting her own business?
AnnMaria De Mars: Go work for somebody else first. Whether it is owning a pet shop or creating video games, there’s a lot to learn, both about the technical skills and running a business. You may as well learn while someone is paying you. Then save up that money because there will be times when you need it as your business gets off the ground. Even if you have a successful business, there will be times when customers are late paying but your suppliers still want money. It really is true that cash is king when it comes to staying business.
Maria Burns Ortiz: Realize that building a business will take far longer than you think. Creating a successful company isn’t an overnight thing. It takes years. You have to be willing to fully put yourself out there when it comes to your idea and invest your time, money and energy to making your business a success. It is hard to see growth if you’re looking for it every day, but stepping back to reflect every few months can give you a real opportunity to see how far you’ve come. Learn as much as you can for your failures. Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone and it certainly isn’t for the faint of heart, but pursuing a business you are passionate about can be an incredible opportunity to change the world.
What do you think is a key to making a family business run successfully?
Maria Burns Ortiz: In the workplace, you need to view each other as business partners as well as family members. I don’t think that it’s possible – or even beneficial – to forget that you’re related when you walk into the office, but your relationship in the workplace should be a different one than your relationship sitting around the kitchen table. It can be difficult for a parent to view a child as someone in an equal role, and it might feel strange for a child to stand up to a parent on matters of company vision or finances, but if you’re entering in a business as partners, you need to view each other as such. Of course, when work is over for the day, you can still go over to your mom’s house unannounced and start rummaging around her fridge, asking what’s for dinner – which isn’t usually something you can do with business partners who aren’t relatives.
Learn more about this mother-duo biz duo and 7 Generation Games by checking out their website at http://www.7generationgames.com/
and connect with them on Twitter at @DrAnnMaria and @BurnsOrtiz.