While many ed-tech entrepreneurs develop their companies to create solutions to problems they faced as students, Mandela Schumacher-Hodge, 26, was inspired to start Tioki (formerly DemoLesson) because of experiences she’d had in the education system as a teacher.
Schumacher-Hodge started her teaching career in 2007 as a Teach for America corps member in South Central Los Angeles. After her first year of teaching, she, along with all of the other first-year teachers in her school, were laid off due to budget cuts spurred by the beginning of the recession.
“That was my personal experience dealing with what I call ‘the system,’ which is basically a system that hires and fires teachers based off of seniority rather than their ability to effectively educate children,” said Schumacher-Hodge.
From there she went on to teach for two years at a charter school in Pacoima, Calif., while getting her master’s degree in administration and policy. Schumacher-Hodge was voted Lead Teacher during her second year at the charter school, introducing her to a new aspect of the education system: the hiring process.
“During this one hiring process, which took place because my co-teacher quit suddenly midyear, I had the opportunity to sit on the other side of the hiring table for the first time, where I actually was bringing in teacher candidates,” recalls Schumacher-Hodge.
Part of the hiring process for teachers is to go through a demo lesson, during which a teacher candidate goes into the classroom and teaches a lesson to students. Unable to find anyone to meet the school’s needs after a month of the process, Schumacher-Hodge came up with an idea to create a platform that would allow schools to see teachers in action before bringing them in to be interviewed.
“I did not have the technical expertise or the business background to really pursue this idea by myself, but, fortunately, one of my best friends, who is in Teach for America, had a friend who she knew was an entrepreneur and really into ed-tech,” said Schumacher-Hodge.
That friend was Brian Martinez, 25. His interest in education developed from his experiences as a student at Jordan High School, a school the Los Angeles Times referred to earlier this year as an “abysmal failure.”
After learning how a subpar education can affect an entire community, Martinez served on the board of South Central Scholars, a nonprofit organization that provides scholarships, jobs and mentorship to students from at-risk communities.
Schumacher-Hodge and Martinez teamed up to create what became known as DemoLesson. Martinez took the duo’s idea to Startup Weekend San Francisco in June 2011. After 54 hours of pitching and building the product, DemoLesson ended up winning first prize.
After earning top honor, Schumacher-Hodge and Martinez had to make tough life decisions in order to pursue their startup full time. Schumacher-Hodge dropped out of her Ph.D. program at UCLA, and Martinez quit his job in public accounting to work full time on DemoLesson.
The company launched in beta in November 2011 and became profitable in April 2012. DemoLesson received its first seed funding from Mitch Kapor of Kapor Capital and 500 Startups.
DemoLesson relaunched as Tioki in September 2012. “The rational for the shift from DemoLesson to Tioki was really because teachers wanted to do more on our site than what we currently provided,” explains Schumacher-Hodge.
“We gave them a place to build this online professional profile and use it for job purposes, but they really were seeking out connectivity options, so we ended up turning our site into a LinkedIn for educators.”
“A job site’s a lot like a dating site,” adds Martinez. “You go there when you need a date. We want to provide a value for them outside job hunting.”
In addition to serving as a “LinkedIn for educators,” Tioki also offers resources and tools, such as lesson plans, worksheets and education apps.
Schumacher-Hodge advises aspiring ed-tech entrepreneurs to be resourceful and to understand that the decision to be an entrepreneur is a risky one.
“I definitely maxed-out my credit cards, I cashed out my retirement, and I know my co-founder got his car repossessed. I am just being very blunt and honest,” said Schumacher-Hodge.
“I think one of the biggest challenges was understanding that if I am making the choice to be an entrepreneur and build a business from the ground up, then I need to understand the risks that I am taking, and also accept this is the path I am choosing, and I am willing to do what needs to be done.”
Tioki was accepted into education-focused startup accelerator Imagine K12’s latest cohort of startups in October.