Five months of bed rest, flat on her back, was exactly what Mindful Scholar co-founder Rekha Magon needed to launch her company. The former Senior Auditor at KPMG used much of her first pregnancy figuring out how to give children the same mindful tools that she learned as a kid – tools that proved invaluable as she grew up. “I excelled as a child and when I looked back at why, it wasn’t because of my intellect or social setting,” says Magon, “it was because of the mindful tools I was given at a young age.” So when she got pregnant, the most important thing she wanted to offer her son was mindfulness, she says. “And that’s when it hit me. It shouldn’t just be my child who gets access to these tools. Since then, I’ve had this deep sense of duty to bring mindfulness to children worldwide.”
The first version of the platform is currently being used in 12 schools in Montreal and New York. It’s mostly spread by word of mouth from principal to principal. Dena Chronopoulos, the principal of Twin Oaks Elementary School in Laval and a former teacher of Magon, says that since her school started using the app and learning aids, “students are calmer, especially after recess and lunch, and are exhibiting less anxiety.” The school has even set up a mindfulness room, purchased a life-size Mindful Ozzy (the Mindful Scholar company mascot that guides mindfulness exercises on the app) and is planning a school-wide launch in August 2018.
In an interview with Montreal in Tech, Magon talked about the challenges of creating an app, how she learned to run a company and how the future of mindful education could be in augmented reality.
How long did it take for you to start the business?
From conceptualizing the idea, getting formal certification, vetting the existing mindfulness curricula, then testing my own curriculum in local daycares to test the impact on children, the whole process took about two years. Once tested and I saw that bright light in each kids’ eyes as they were learning – and having fun at the same time – that’s when I was ready to bring it to the public school system.
What were the biggest challenges?
Initially, it was making the decision to leave my career. I was a senior auditor at KPMG before I was put on bedrest. As exciting as this idea was to me, giving up everything I’d worked so hard for – all that education, those long hours – was scary. But once I made the decision, I never looked back. There are always daily challenges when you’re bootstrapped and running a startup, but nothing can replace that feeling of fulfillment I get every day from doing something I know I was called to do.
Why did you decide to apply to The Founder Institute?
I was looking for mentorship and guidance. I didn’t know anybody in the startup community and had heard great things about Sergio Escobar, the director of the Founder Institute’s Montreal chapter. When I applied and was awarded a fellowship, I figured I should give it a shot. It was a phenomenal experience. I got invaluable mentorship from many seasoned entrepreneurs and it really opened me up to the startup community.
What are the three most important lessons the Founder Institute taught you?
The first was to hustle, hustle, hustle. The second thing would be the value and importance of surrounding yourself with people who’ve already done it. Listening to their advice really prevents you from making the same mistakes. The third thing would be to remain fluid. Be ready to pivot when you need to.
How many people are on your team?
Officially we are two co-founders, myself and the CTO, Amit Tak. He’s been running his own software development firm for 18 years and is currently the lead solutions architect at BDC. Juss Kaur, a PhD in Education from Oxford, also works with us on a part-time basis for curriculum development. We also use a lot of freelancers.
What were the technical challenges of building the Mindful Scholar apps?
I think the biggest challenge was building on three different platforms at once. We’re building the native iOS, Android apps as well as the webapp. Building three different platforms for different clients’ needs gets expensive.
How difficult is it to sell mindfulness to schools?
Surprisingly, it hasn’t been too much of a challenge. People are very receptive. I think in this day and age, there’s an awareness of the need for more EQ tools [Emotional Intelligence] in schools. Children brought up in today’s digital society are now struggling with stress, anxiety, lack of focus, poor interpersonal skills and bullying. Principals and teachers are actively seeking EQ tools to bring into the classroom to enhance learning environments.
You have different curricula for different ages of kids. Do you focus more on one age group than others?
For now, our focus is elementary schools as the first version of the app services Pre-K to Grade 2. We have two more mindfulness curricula, one for grade three to six and a third for high school. Although the curriculums are developed, they are not available on the app just yet, but some schools are using it.
What kinds of schools do you target?
Right now we’re targeting public schools. We’re not targeting low-income schools specifically but we’ve had a lot of interest from them as they see the impact it has on all children.
How do you measure the value of paying for this kind of mindfulness training versus money spent on extra tutoring?
When a child experiences a deep emotion, the brain’s amygdala gets activated and releases stress hormones. In this state, the child no longer has access to the higher functioning parts of his brain. So giving children the tools to ensure that they have emotional equilibrium, in my opinion, is the most important thing. The minute he/she becomes stressed or anxious, no matter how many tutors you give that child, in that moment the brain is not at an optimal state to learn. I think a lot of principals realize that children need to be emotionally stable in order for their brains to operate at their highest capabilities.
What are some of the activities on the app?
Based on the teacher’s input of which behaviours their students are currently exhibiting in class, the app suggests the top three mindful exercises to solve that particular problem. The suggested exercises could be one of many Mindful Ozzy animations, Mindful Moments flashcards, guided audio meditations, affirmations, or scripted PDF lessons that teachers do with the students using our physical learning aids. We are also soon releasing an AR version of the app where our mascot, Mindful Ozzy will interact with and guide the students through the mindfulness exercises himself.
You sell kits to schools and subscriptions. How do they work?
We charge principals either $97 per teacher or a flat rate of $1200 for the entire school, annually. We also charge $25 a unit as a one-time starter fee for the physical learning aids (Breathe-With-Me Mindful Ozzy, Mind Globe & Mindfulness Mat). Parents also want access to the same tools teachers we are using. So by popular demand, the app will also be available for parents to further cultivate these mindful exercises at home. We charge parents $5.99/month for home use.
How do the principals measure the effectiveness of the subscription?
The principals get access to a dashboard, which shows teacher’s engagement levels and the EQ impact on the school. Teachers can rate their class or students on a scale from one to five on four different social and emotional competencies: concentration, calm and self-control, participation and self-care and level of care for others.
Is this idea being done elsewhere? What sets Mindful Scholar apart?
There are other organizations bringing mindfulness to schools; however, few have found creative ways to integrate technology and AR into their offerings. Not only are we providing schools with a way to measure EQ, we also set ourselves apart by creating an engaging platform where kids are having fun as they practice mindfulness. If you can teach a kid mindfulness and have him love it at the tender age of four or five, you almost don’t have to worry about it later on in life, because you’ve set those tools in his foundation.
Is the company easy to scale?
It’s definitely easy to scale. The main aspect of the business is the mindful assistant app and the teacher training. Typically, I was going in and training the entire school staff on what mindfulness is and how to be a mindful role model by myself. But now the training is now fully available online and we are ready to scale.
Is the online training as effective as having you go in person?
In-person training is definitely more impactful. Schools do fly me down to do training sometimes; however, by putting it online, I believe it’s more operational and the effects are more long-lasting. With the online training, our app is pushing reminders every week on how to be a mindful role-model. So, on a weekly basis, each teacher is getting a mini training session.
What are your goals for the next three to five years?
We’d like to release the AR version of the app in the next 6 months and then bring our platform to as many schools in North America as possible. From there we plan to expand to daycares, camps, sports leagues and offer it as a corporate benefit to large firms.
If you’re curious about how the app teaches mindfulness with animations, there’s a Youtube video intro.