Download PDF Microbiomes of the Built Environment September 15, 2022 Volume 52 Issue 3 The covid-19 pandemic suddenly directed awareness to potential health impacts of the built environment of everyday living – schools, dwellings, offices, public buildings, and other spaces. This issue explores the “microbiome” of the built environment in the postpandemic reality in terms of ventilation performance, filtration, understanding and quantification of transmission risk, protection of “benign” microbes, and the important role of equity, among others. An Interview with . . . Helen Wang, Founder and CEO, 6crickets.com Monday, September 12, 2022 Author: Helen Wang RON LATANISION (RML): Welcome, Helen. We’re delighted to talk with you. I understand you’re a trained computer scientist and had a substantial career at Microsoft Research. HELEN WANG: Yes, I spent 14 years there. When I first arrived, I was one of two women researchers at the Systems and Networking research group. Later, I founded and led the security and privacy research group. RML: Then you decided to change directions. The first question I must ask is how you came up with the name 6crickets for your enterprise. DR. WANG: Do you like the name? RML: Yes. Even my grandchildren like it. CAMERON FLETCHER (CHF): It’s delightful. DR. WANG: We are really passionate about education, particularly for K-12 children, and we don’t want to limit ourselves. For example, Amazon.com was not books.com. There is a grand vision behind it, and essentially they achieved that grand vision of being the everything store. With 6crickets similarly, our grand vision is equitable education for every student in every community. We want to find a place to contribute in huge ways. Of course there are many ways to contribute, and we’re evolving. We’re 7 years in business and almost every year we’ve had a substantial pivot to keep evolving our business, to keep reinventing what we’re doing and keep learning about this area and evolving our solutions to better fit the problem. We wanted to come up with a name that we get to define and that doesn’t constrain us in our grand scheme. And of course the domain name had to be available. So we created our own word. CHF: Is the number 6 just random—it could have been 4Crickets, or 9Crickets? DR. WANG: It rhymes a little bit with crickets, so it sounds better. And 6 is quite a lucky number in Chinese culture. And later other folks told me that crickets are very auspicious as well. We didn’t plan for those things, and we’re happy it turned out that way. RML: Making a transition from Microsoft and very sophisticated high-tech engineering to education, you had no degree in precollege education—that’s a pretty big transition. Did you work with educators, or how did you begin? DR. WANG: At Microsoft I founded and managed the Security and Privacy Research Group. It was not easy to leave. But I’m a parent, and that has really driven my interest. I started this company when my sons were turning 5 and 7. That’s a time when their brains and their bodies become capable of doing a lot more cool stuff. As a passionate parent, the same as many other passionate parents, we’re looking for ways to inspire our children to love learning and to experience life in many different ways. One year I had a difficult time planning for my children’s summer camps. We are at a time to Uber a ride, and Airbnb home away from home. But when parents are planning or figuring out how to arrange their children’s out-of-school time, it’s very complex, very frustrating work. It’s from the last century! I realized that this was an area where technology really lagged behind. We’re looking for ways to inspire children to love learning and to experience life in many different ways. Another thing that struck me is that, during the school year, I would work until 5:00 or 6:00, my kids get out of school at 2:30pm, and there’s one day that’s early release day, ending at 12:30pm. I needed to figure out how to plan for what my kids would do for those afterschool hours when I am still working. Of course, there is the whole summer as well. Parents work 2000 hours a year: 40 hours a week, let’s say 50 weeks of work—you take 2 weeks off—that’s 2000 hours. Students are in school for only 1000 hours. So every student has 1000 hours of no school when parents are working. Out-of-school time is half of K-12 education! I was also volunteering at my sons’ school, for afterschool enrichment. Gosh, we had fabulous afterschool enrichment—chess, magic, programming, robots, dance, art—with vendors from our local community coming to the schools to teach these extracurricular enrichment classes. That was a lot of work as well. RML: Do you make an attempt to align the afterschool offerings with the school’s needs? DR. WANG: It’s a free space for innovative teaching and learning. But often they reinforce each other. For example, if you take a cooking class, you learn fractions along the way. And if you love gaming, and an enrichment provider teaches you how to do 3D modeling to create a 3D game, you learn programming. I have really been enlightened in this process. We’ve got a tremendous testbed for innovative education to take place. The innovation comes from rapid iterations. When we create new things we iterate: we say ‘this is a great curriculum’ or ‘no, this is not the right way to teach the kids, let’s try something else.’ I think in education we lack this kind of platform or testbed, to try out new topics or new ways to teach kids, to engage our kids and make it fun for them. Going back to those 2000 hours, kids have 1000 hours in school with systematic learning, traditional learning, and the other 1000 hours of out-of-school time is a tremendous platform for innovative teaching, for engaging students, for a new way of teaching kids. That was really an aha moment. What really struck me is that a few blocks from our sons’ school is a Title 1 school. That school has only extended care programs, but no enrichment whatsoever. It is because their families cannot afford to pay for enrichment programs and they don’t have an active PTA seeking and organizing these programs. It was apparent to me that there is a “Wild Wild West” in out-of-school time. There is a glaring opportunity gap and lack of infrastructure to support the families, the small businesses helping the program, and the schools or districts organizing the programs. RML: Does that translate into interaction -primarily with larger urban school districts or smaller school districts? DR. WANG: The mission of 6crickets is to bring the best enrichment to every child in every community, whether it’s rural, urban, suburban—everywhere. If you have a school you have a community. If you have a community you could have amazing enrichment learning. RML: I just wondered whether the offerings you provide are attracting the attention of larger urban school districts. For example, Boston public schools could really use what you’re doing. CHF: What is your geographic ambit at this point? I know you’re in Seattle and San Diego. What other areas? DR. WANG: Anywhere in the US because we are a management solution. We have built the infrastructure for out-of-school time. When we talk about infrastructure, that means we need to provide support for every stakeholder in this ecosystem. Who are the key stakeholders in this ecosystem? They’re parents, of course, and districts and schools, and enrichment providers. 6crickets provides infrastructure support for all three. For districts and schools, we provide a management solution so they can harness community partners to provide the best, vibrant enrichment. For the enrichment providers, we provide the tools, the software, and the solution to manage their classes and registrations and so on. And for the families it’s a one-stop shop (figure 1). For kids at a participating school, the parent selects it on our website and can see what programs might be available this summer—for example, here’s a school where there’s chess, science, algebra games, public speaking, speech writing, Roblox 3D game design, junior robotics, introduction to debate, animation, exploring atoms, electromagnetism, art, Scratch programming language from MIT being taught to young students, introduction to theater, math puzzles, and so on for different grade levels. 6crickets organizes this content. Here’s a chess program offered by Strategic Kids, which is a provider. You can see that families have rated it 4½ out of 5 stars. And here’s a program, offered by an organization called STEAM for Teens, teaching 3D game design. We manage these small businesses and organizations to work together. We do the coordination management work to enable vibrant enrichment programs at schools. If you have a school you have a community. If you have a community you could have amazing enrichment learning. CHF: How do you vet the providers? What’s the basis for making your platform available to these providers, to ensure some kind of quality? DR. WANG: For some schools we do the sourcing, and some schools have their own existing providers. When we source, we evaluate their quality based on parents’ reviews, references, their curriculums, and their methodology in hiring and training instructors. Our service also helps with the vetting process. Whether it’s insurance or a background check or covid-19 protocols, there’s a whole host of requirements and paperwork that needs to be done. We digitize the entire workflow in out-of-school enrichment. We recognize that teachers are overworked, so they shouldn’t be tasked with extra work in the afterschool hours or over the summer. They can do it if they want, but they should have a choice not to. We have some amazing organizations and small businesses in our communities. We have Broadway stars teaching musical theater, and world champion athletes teaching jump rope and martial arts—and my PhD classmate from UC Berkeley who became a serial entrepreneur in Silicon Valley now has an organization to demystify AI so that not only Googlers’ and Microsofties’ children can understand it, but every child can. I’ve met authors, scientists, mathematicians—and chess grandmasters teaching not only the strategy of the game but also strategy in life. We’ve found magicians who performed at America’s Got Talent multiple times; they teach kids how to give a confident and attractive presentation. RML: I certainly see the potential and the need. I’m trying to understand the mechanics. Suppose I were the superintendent of schools in Boston and I came to you and said, ‘We need your services, we need the enrichment opportunities that you provide.’ Would you find providers in the Boston area? DR. WANG: Yes. RML: And how would you go about doing that? DR. WANG: The district would put out a call for enrichment providers in the local community. We invite enrichment providers to apply, then we evaluate them based on their experience, how they hire people, what’s their curriculum, which grades they teach, and so on. We vet every one of them; we do background checks, and look at the host of requirements the district has. So instead of the school district doing a lot of this, we shoulder the work. Core to our solution is a platform that seamlessly interconnects all the parties. It’s almost like establishing a network platform. RML: Given the educational environment in the Boston area, there are a lot of people, universities, and other places pretty actively engaged in precollege education. I’m trying to understand, would they become employees of 6crickets? DR. WANG: No, they are the providers, with their own businesses. We do the coordination, the management, of all the different businesses, or sometimes it’s individual teachers at the school or from another school. We organize all these organizations and people to serve the schools and districts. RML: I’m just wondering, if, for example, the city of Boston—I’m using Boston because I live here and have grandchildren here—were interested and came to you, would you negotiate with them on the selection of enrichment activities? DR. WANG: They would say, ‘Here’s our input, these are the topics we want, and these may be the topics that parents have expressed interest in’ through, for example, a survey. Or based on their understanding of their students, maybe they want a math Olympics class. Based on the topics, we recruit providers who teach them—you have so many awesome providers in the Boston area. Also, when you have a demand, the supply will come. RML: So you’re providing the connection between the school and the providers? DR. WANG: You can view it that way. We not only provide the connection, we shoulder most of the management logistics on behalf of schools and districts. CHF: Helen, how do you find the providers in Boston? Let’s say a school district wants to be able to offer magic, theater, and coding, and they come to you and say that’s what they want. How does 6crickets go about identifying and contacting those providers in that school district for those areas? DR. WANG: We have thousands of providers in our network. When we go to a new area, we launch a recruiting effort. How would anyone find any information today? Google. And also there are some national providers that we already have, and they would be hiring people in Boston or already have a branch there. RML: I think Cameron and I both see the tremendous need and value of your service. I’m just wondering how you actually translate the need and the market and so on into your business model. DR. WANG: Our business model is we’re selling a management solution to schools and districts. So the districts would pay for such a solution. CHF: That gets to another question that I had: Are the school districts the ones paying for the afterschool services provided through your platform? DR. WANG: That’s a good question. There are typically two models. It can be either a family-paid program or district-funded program. Someone has to pay for these programs. In a family-paid program, the district can charge a management fee to generate revenue so that it can be a self-sustaining operation. When you’re able to generate revenue you can also support students in need. So for family-paid programs, it can be a no-cost, self-propelling, and equitable enrichment operation. For low socioeconomic school districts and communities with a large percentage of free or reduced-cost-lunch students, it would need to be a district-funded program. But the good news is we have much more funding now, after the pandemic and the ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funding. ESSER III especially highlights afterschool and summer programs and community partnerships—that’s what 6crickets has been doing all these years. We could meet what ESSER is asking for exactly. RML: The pandemic has impacted your business then, has it? DR. WANG: The pandemic has tremendously impacted all out-of-school time. For a lot of schools, enrichment in out-of-school time is not available. Even when a large percentage of schools reopened, out-of-school activities did not resume. RML: That’s what I was wondering. During the period when schools were closed, that must have impacted your opportunity to work. DR. WANG: It did. All the classes in spring 2020 were cancelled, with a full refund. But 6crickets has actually grown stronger, I’m happy to report. It’s in our DNA, from when I was a computer scientist doing research: you keep pivoting, new scenarios mean new problem formulations. So immediately, within 2 weeks, our platform supported virtual enrichment. And I taught a class myself to experience what it takes to teach a virtual enrichment class. Then I gave a webinar to all our provider partners on how to teach virtual enrichment classes. RML: I was about to ask how your training as a computer scientist impacted your business environment. DR. WANG: I used every bit of my training—problem formulation, constant revision of the problem formulation. Because I understand the problem better, I understand this space better. I would say maybe today 6crickets is the only company that understands out-of-school time this intimately, because it’s hard to create a business in this space and it is hard to sell to districts, but we’re making huge strides. The pandemic may have given us a pause, but it has also empowered us to innovate tremendously. We understand the entire workflow in out-of-school time. We have automated almost every single piece in out-of-school time. Imagine the kind of efficiency we can have there. RML: Is there a specific example of a school district that you’ve worked with? DR. WANG: Oh, yes, let me show you. We’re in many school districts now. If you go to “districts and schools” at 6crickets.com, you can see what we do for them to achieve equitable, vibrant enrichment learning hubs. There is all this information. And at the bottom are representative enrichment programs throughout the country—we’re in 29 states. RML: So your role is to provide the tools for parents to register and administer the program? DR. WANG: Not just that. That’s one level of service. Another level of service is that we take care of the entire workflow management. We have two levels of service. One level is turnkey enrichment solution. A school may already have providers, or maybe it doesn’t have many, or its staff is already overburdened. Our solution will be to help source and train the providers, ensuring that they’re high quality and meeting all the district requirements. We also manage the day-to-day workflow, and can help with grant budgeting and provider -pricing negotiation. For family-paid programs, we just let the free market govern the pricing, we don’t play a role there; but for district-funded programs, we make sure the pricing is fair and win/win. I used every bit of my training as a computer scientist—especially in problem formulation and constant revision of the problem formulation. 6crickets created an architecture where every stakeholder has a dashboard—the district, school, providers, and instructors. Why all these dashboards? So you don’t do other people’s jobs. RML: This is where your computer science training really comes in. DR. WANG: It’s even more than computer science. One time I showed a computer scientist colleague the 6crickets architecture, he said, “wow, that’s the kind of operating system work you did before.” We want to enable enrichment activities to be plugged into this platform (figure 2)—just like your phone today, where you have so many applications. The iOS and Android platform has made developing applications so much easier; we’re making delivery of enrichment activities so much easier. RML: You’ve been in business for 7 years, 2 of them in the midst of a pandemic. Where do you see 6crickets in 5 years? DR. WANG: In 5 years we should be in 50 percent of schools in the United States. RML: What is the fraction today? DR. WANG: It is still very low. CHF: Fifty percent, that’s exciting. How are you going to achieve that? DR. WANG: We have built up our work for the past 6 or 7 years now. Today we have achieved this automation—if your school or district does not have enrichment and wants it, we can make it happen. If your school or district already has enrichment, we can make it so much easier and more efficient to manage. RML: I think the demand is there—every school wants enrichment. You’ve got tremendous market potential. CHF: The question is, how do you reach out to all these school districts that could clearly benefit from what you’re offering and let them know that you exist and are available for them? DR. WANG: There’s no magic here. It’s the hard work of a salesman’s job. As a computer scientist at Microsoft, when I created new technology I needed to go to different buildings and let them know and explore adopting our new technology, and that is doing sales to our product counterpart back then at Microsoft Research. Now it’s the hard work of going to schools and districts to let them know about the 6crickets work. RML: I’m curious. How many staff do you have today, and what is your growth plan, given what you’ve just said? You’ve got this market, but you’ve got to reach people, you’ve got to somehow reach out. DR. WANG: We are a very lean startup. The world is more connected than ever. You can assemble a wonderful team. When we hire people we’re very cautious, but everyone we hire is passionate, smart, and creative. We don’t necessarily need a lot of people; largely it’s a software solution, but we do a layer of service on top of it. And we’re becoming more and more efficient as we develop our software. CHF: Well, for example, how did you get your contacts at the school districts in Texas, Connecticut, and Massachusetts? DR. WANG: Two words: hard work. You get a mailing list. What we do here is nothing special. We’re a platform as a service, with many parties, for a school and district to adopt—but selling software as a service is not new, it’s the same method for anybody who sells software as a service. We have broad outreach. We have emails for all the PTAs, and we do marketing and outreach and someone responds. It’s a typical software-as-a-service sales model. You need marketing, you need sales, you need to go to conferences where your target audience might be. RML: You have the advantage, in this current -environment—with the internet, you can operate with a lean staff, because the internet provides your service description. DR. WANG: The pandemic has also made virtual meetings the norm rather than the exception. RML: This conversation reminds me of a meeting I attended at Princeton, probably in the mid-1980s, and I heard Jeff Bezos speak, when Amazon was tiny, just beginning. I left that meeting thinking ‘wow, there’s tremendous potential in what this guy is thinking about.’ The internet, the whole idea of being able to do things online was emerging, but not yet developed, and I get the same sense of potential in terms of what you’re dealing with here. People want the service you’re offering just like people want to get things delivered to their homes. You’ve got an opportunity here that’s enormous. When I asked earlier about interaction with academics and educators, I asked because each school district has to provide a curriculum and teach the state requirements. You have an opportunity to supplement their curriculum if you know what they’re providing. DR. WANG: Actually, I love the opportunities for unconstrained free innovation in this space. To change the curriculum for the in-school hours, there’s a lot of process, and there’s also risk. But in the out-of-school time, wow, the sky is the limit. Your creativity is the limit. And, with the pandemic, now every child has a device, every child is connected. So that also gives the foundation for a lot of things. Let me share with you a personal experience, why I’m so passionate about this. When I started grad school at UC Berkeley, I had never taken a probability class. I wondered, how is it that most of my classmates already know this stuff? Now my young teenaged sons have been well exposed to probability. Our goal is to make sure great enrichment can happen at every school, including Title 1 schools. Then we’ll be changing lives, changing generations to come. RML: Your passion for what you’re doing is obvious. CHF: It’s very exciting. RML: Helen, thank you so much for joining us today. I wish you good luck. I think you’re on a track that’s really interesting, so I applaud what you’re doing. DR. WANG: Thank you very much. This interview took place June 29. It has been edited for length and clarity. About the Author:Helen Wang is founder and CEO of 6crickets.com.