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AnnMaria De Mars

President/Co-Founder, 7 Generation Games

En español | In 2014, with three children living on their own and college tuition saved for the fourth, I took the leap of faith and plunged full-time into a startup making educational software to teach math to some of the most disadvantaged children on earth. Today my company, 7 Generation Games, has over 15,000 children using our technology, predominantly in low-income schools throughout the United States and Latin America.

The problem I’m trying to solve

Over 40 million children in the U.S. today will graduate from high school lacking math proficiency. The situation is even worse in Latin America, where 78 million children are at the most basic level of math achievement. Education’s the door to a better future, but it’s one closed to most low-income children. Without crucial math and literacy skills such as computing percentages or understanding a contract, students are barred access to college and better-paying jobs.

7 Generation Games brings educational technology to all these forgotten students.  Our games are fun, teach math, give feedback and provide teachers with data. They’re designed to be accessible to everyone. Our own research, which we were able to conduct thanks to grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, found students who play our games for 30 minutes twice a week increase their math scores by 30 percent compared to a control group.

The moment that sparked my passion

Thirty-five years ago, while I was in graduate school, I was working with emotionally disturbed youth. They were behind academically and angry at the world. I thought if I could make them a computer program, they’d have no one to rebel against and could catch up in school while the psychologists worked on their emotional problems. I made a few text-based games, but when I didn’t get the results that I wanted, I switched to another area of research.

Then, almost three decades later, while volunteering on an American Indian reservation, I realized how behind these children were. Although there was better technology available, it wasn’t targeted to remote communities with low-speed, unreliable internet and ancient devices. I decided I wanted to create educational games based on Native American culture to teach children math. Investors derided me as too old to understand the gaming market and informed me that “No one cares about Native Americans” because they are only 1 percent of the market. Undaunted, I applied for and received federal grants, developed five games with my team and tested them with over 10,000 students.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

It’s never too late! When I founded my company, I was a 55-year-old Latina grandmother. My other bit of advice is not to focus so much on the destination that you forget to enjoy the journey. On my 60th birthday, I was busy opening a new office in Chile, but I still carved out time to climb a mountain and sit watching the condors soar next to me — just because.

Why my approach is unique

Unlike other companies that march in and tell educators about solutions, we start by listening to the school’s problems. We then develop the software in stages, all the while consulting with them. This allows us to answer questions most companies never think to ask. Our goal is to create games that students want to play on whatever devices the school can afford. It’s not easy, which is why so few people even try.

While other nonprofit programs share our desire to better educate students in the lowest-resource areas, they don’t have the knowledge, staff or funds to develop software like us. We save money by writing most of the original code ourselves. We hire developers, artists and animators in the communities we serve, and make use of volunteer game testers and content creators to make educational software at a fraction of the price of a large company.