10.22.15

The Local Boss: Amy McCooe and Neesha Rahim of Level Up Village

TLV Note: This week is National Business Women’s Week, and we’re celebrating on the blog by profiling a few of our favorite local women in business. From a top blogger, to a fearless boutique owner, and a duo revolutionizing education, these talented, hardworking women are sure to inspire and motivate your inner boss lady. Our final profile this week is on Amy McCooe and Neesha Rahim, founders and owners of Level Up Village.

Amy McCooe and Neesha Rahim never intended to start a company together. But when both were on the PTA of their children’s school, tasked with helping choose extracurricular activities, they had an idea that neither could ignore. What if they could use emerging classroom technologies, like smart boards and video chatting, to connect children in the U.S. to children in developing countries in a way that would allow both classrooms to collaborate on a project together?

The idea would eventually become the basis of their thriving company, Level Up Village, the mission of which is to “deliver pioneering Global STEAM (STEM + Arts) enrichment courses that promote design thinking and one-to-one collaboration on real-world problems between K-9 students in the U.S. and partner students in developing countries.” In just three years, the company has expanded to more than 65 U.S. schools in 12 states, and has more than 30 global partner organizations in 19 countries.

We’re talking to Neesha and Amy about how they got the company off the ground, to what they attribute their success, how they develop their pioneering curriculums, and more.

What gave you the idea for this?
Amy: Neesha and I had children in kindergarten together at the same school. Both of us also helped on the PTA and chose some of the extracurricular classes. We would talk about all of the technology coming into the classroom, like smart boards, and were brainstorming about the cool ways you could use them and just started thinking about how cool it would be to offer a class that connected kids in the U.S. with kids in developing countries.

Neesha actually has a nonprofit background and I actually grew up in an education environment; my father was the headmaster at my school and one of my brothers is a teacher. So it was sort of a nice fit for us to work on this together.

Neesha: It was definitely a personal thing. So, first of all, we were looking for something like this for our kids. But, as Amy mentioned, I also have a nonprofit background, which has put me in contact with people from around the world who are dealing with situations and problems that are much larger than most of us will ever know, yet handling them with such grace. So it was also wanting to expose my children to people like that.

The third big thing that came together was a combination of seeing all of the technology that was coming out for the classroom. Those three things really came together in an amazing way to form the company we have now.

So how long did it take you to turn the idea into a company?
Neesha: It didn’t take very long at all actually. We started talking about it in the spring, but it was not a company, it was just going to be a class that we did for our own kids’ school. But that one class didn’t work out at the school. We were both frustrated by the end of the school year because we’d written out the curriculum and committed to it, but it didn’t work out. And then Amy and I both went away for the summer, and when we got back we both decided we wanted to start a company around the idea. And then it launched really quickly. We made it a company within a month.

Why do you think the LUV approach has been so successful?
Amy: I think it’s doing a few things at the same time. It’s actually connecting kids right at the point of learning, which is allowing what they’re learning about to be better cemented. They’re excited about what they’re doing, and they’re collaborating with students coming from a very different perspective. Instead of just doing it by yourself or the person right next to you, you start to feel as if the kid who is over in Uganda is actually right next to you because you’re working on the same project. In the video game class, for example, they build a video game together using a programming language and trading files.

Neesha: I think it’s the right message at the right time. When we did our first class, it was way over-subscribed, and then we did another one, and that one over-subscribed. And we just realized, oh, well we thought this was going to just be our kids and our friends’ kids, but it ended up being much bigger.

Amy, you mentioned a video game class, but what are some of the other kinds of classes you offer?
Amy: The video game class is where they learn Scratch, which is a programming language started by MIT, as they build a video game. In the 3D printing class, they first learn how to wire a solar powered circuit, and then they actually work together to build a flashlight that the students in the developing countries then use to do their homework or read at night. They work on the file together by trading them back and forth and then they actually print that light. There’s also science class where they learn about all of the properties of water, and then they build an aquifer to learn how to clean out pollution in water, and they do this with a class from a country where they have a much, much different perspective on clean water, and don’t have access to the water we have in the U.S. And that’s just a few of the classes.

How do you come up with the classes you offer?
Neesha: We’re out there, really keeping an eye on what the people on the cutting edge are talking about. I went to Maker Fair in New York a few years ago, for example, and it was all about 3D printing, it was all anyone could talk about. And then this year I went, and it was all about drones. Everybody is talking about drones. So that informs the classes we offer.

How do you think that participating in LUV helps girls to become interested in STEM fields?
Amy: I think STEM is really interesting and exciting, and I don’t think it’s gender based, I really don’t. I feel like the way we’re approaching STEM, which is to make it exciting, and to work on real world projects, and to partner the students with people from other background that they have to learn to communicate with and interact with makes the program compelling to all of our students. There are a lot of studies that show that girls and women are more drawn to subjects that have a real world focus and that’s a cornerstone of what we do, so you could say that’s specific to girls.

What’s the biggest successes you feel like you’ve had?
Amy: For me, it’s really all about the feedback that I get from the students. It’s kids in the class who, at first, aren’t really sure they want to be there, and don’t know why their parents signed them up, and then they’re the ones who come back and sign up again because they didn’t realize they would have this global experience or relationship and it really touched them.

Neesha: I think that we have cracked quite a nut. We have figured out how to do global collaboration really well.

On the other hand, what has been the biggest learning experience for each of you?
Amy: I think it would be that it’s not always the task, but finding the right person for each task. That’s probably been my biggest learning experience, to be able to find the right people.

Neesha: We tell the kids all the time that you learn from failure, and I can’t tell you how many times things didn’t work out the way we’d hoped, and I think those experiences have taught us the most.

Why do you think the two of you work so well together?
Neesha: Because we’re total opposites! In most ways, we are. But we complement each other really, really well because what one of us brings to the table the other one doesn’t have. At the same time, we both have this natural curiosity, and we both really love learning, and this subject matter, which brings us together.

Do you have any advice for other women considering startups?
Amy: I think that, one, it’s a great time and environment to do so right now. And two, get a partner. Having Neesha has been invaluable. It’s very difficult to try to run a business and raise children, so if you can, do it with someone who really balances you out well.

Neesha: It’s not easy, and it can suck up your whole life, so you have to really, really want it. You have to want it more than you want a clean house, and more than you want time at the gym, and more than you want to have the perfect dinner on the table. You have to want it more than all of those things, because it’s very hard to have all of them. It’s especially hard on women because you have kids, and families, and just because we’re working doesn’t mean those other responsibilities went away. I heard someone say this once and it stuck with me, that you can have it all, just not at the same time.

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