Episode 6- Innovator and Advocate for Education- Making Change Happen!

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In this episode, I talk with Dr. Brandon Tatum who is not only an incredible thought leader in the edupreneur space but is making change happen locally and nationally in education! Dr. Brandon Tatum has spent his career working in both higher education and K-12. He is the founder of ConnectEdu and XR Box. Both companies focus on innovation by creating relevant and vibrant educational opportunities for all people. Additionally, he serves as Chief Strategy Officer for Oklahoma Christian University and part-time Executive Director of the National Christian School Association. Most recently, Dr. Tatum has been recognized for his work in educational innovation and strategy. He served on Governor Stitt’s education committee focused on personalized learning and innovation, and currently serves as the Oklahoma Governor’s appointee on the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Learning Commission. He also serves as a member of the Council of American Private Education Commission, the Texas Private School Accreditation Commission, Oklahoma Private School Accreditation Commission and several other boards related to educational quality. He is the author of two children’s books The Adventures of Grit and the Diary of a Lousy Book. His third book on Generation Z will be published in the Fall of 2021 by Wheaton Press. Brandon and his wife Megan have a seven-year-old son named Sawyer, and four-year-old twin daughters Blakely and Gentry. You can reach Dr. Tatum on Linkedin Instagram and Twitter @bctbooks.

Transcript

Erin Starkey:
Welcome to re-imagining schools, a podcast from the edupreneur academy. Today, I’m talking with Dr. Brandon Tatum, an innovator in Oklahoma education who has some great suggestions and ideas for how we can solve our nation’s workforce issues across multiple industries and using VR technology to better facilitate learning in the online school environment. Hey Brandon, thanks for joining us this afternoon. How are you doing?
Brandon Tatum:
I’m good. How are you?
Erin Starkey:
I’m doing great. I appreciate you being on the podcast and you’ve got so much to talk about. I think you and I have known each other at least a couple of years now. So I know quite a bit about your background, but I would love for you to start and just tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into education. And then how did that lead you to educational entrepreneurship?
Brandon Tatum:
Yeah, absolutely. I actually did not love education as a kid. I actually did not like school, didn’t feel like I was equipped to be a good student in the traditional sense of what was expected to be a good student. It just, it didn’t never came easy to me. Later on I find out I have a dyslexia and I didn’t find that out until halfway through my doctorate work. And so that’s kind of an interesting that that probably didn’t help me love school very much, but because I didn’t love school, I didn’t want to go to college.
Brandon Tatum:
My grandpa was a police officer. My uncle was a police officer. And so I decided I was going to go to the police academy, but I couldn’t do that until I was 21 and my friends were going to college. And so I thought, well, I’ll just tag along with them and do the college thing. And then when I turned 21, I’ll go to the academy and started actually figuring some things out in college and started enjoying my courses and what I was doing. I started coaching basketball. So my entrance into education as a profession was through coaching.
Brandon Tatum:
It kind of got into the private school space and graduated college, started teaching and coaching. And I’ve been in the education space ever since college and kind of worked my way all the way up through my doctorate of education. And now I’m not only a lover of education, I’m an advocate for education and trying to figure out how we can make it better on multiple fronts. But I kind of got shoved into education. I don’t knew that was going to be my trajectory.
Erin Starkey:
Well, that’s interesting. We have a similar story there and some of that, I didn’t know. So I also was coaching and that’s how I got into education and didn’t love school growing up and certainly didn’t think I’d come back to be a teacher or a principal. So I can definitely relate with that story, but you definitely are a great advocate for education now. And how do you see your background in education? How did that eventually lead to you being an entrepreneur? How did you get involved with education entrepreneurship?
Brandon Tatum:
I think I started assessing myself and trying to figure out what is it that I love doing within education, but right before I started my own company, I was a superintendent of a private school and really loved that time for almost a decade. And I realized I love sales. I love selling things, I also love solving problems.
Brandon Tatum:
So I started kind of looking into the space, into the educators, predominantly higher education space. My doctorate was out of focus of higher education and spent most of my career at the K-12 level, but really, what problems are out there and how can I use my skillset to help solve some of those problems? For me that was, there was a couple problems. One, there was a problem with a lot of small colleges struggling in online learning. They weren’t equipped to handle online learning. They didn’t understand online learning. They didn’t understand how to market online learning. So I thought I could, on an easy level, I could help. I could help try to solve that problem. And then on a significantly higher level, I saw our state’s problems in workforce shortages. And so I really started trying to think through, okay, how could we use education? How could we use technology with education in a way to start solving workforce shortages? So I think I’ve pushed myself into kind of this edupreneur world through the lens of how do we solve some of these issues.
Erin Starkey:
Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. Definitely relate with that as well. When you first thought about some of these problems and how to solve them, what kinds of things did you do to help yourself get started and figuring out how to create a business?
Brandon Tatum:
So I started kind of just talking, I tend to be okay at that. And visiting with people, calling people, calling people in the space, seeing what they were doing to try to solve some of this or what they were doing with online learning a couple of friends who were presidents of small colleges. So I kind of started reaching out to them saying, Hey, here are some ideas that I have, how could this help you? And it really started out as a side hustle in a lot of ways, I had a job and just kind of on the side, what could I do to help? And that evolved fairly quickly for me. I think I was pretty blessed. It evolved within less than a year. I was ready to go do it full time. So I feel like that site has evolved pretty quick, but it really, it came through just meeting with people, talking to people and then trying to put some solutions in place.
Erin Starkey:
That makes a lot of sense. Yeah. And that you were lucky in the sense that you were able to jump to that full-time so fast. I know that’s been a challenge for a lot of entrepreneurs is deciding when it’s a good time to make that decision, to make the leap from side hustle to full-time. Do you remember? Oh, go ahead.
Brandon Tatum:
Sorry. I also positioned myself in a way since I’m a poor person, also tried the position, what I was doing in a way that I didn’t need a lot of upfront capital. I very much kind of this lean startup model to where I needed very little capital to start. And it was that, that made it very easy for me to get moving pretty quickly.
Erin Starkey:
Yeah. And by that, do you mean you were trying to think of business ideas that didn’t involve a lot of, like you didn’t need necessarily a location or is that what you mean?
Brandon Tatum:
So, I mean, I knew at some point I wanted to get into some spaces where I was going to need capital. So like right now we’re in virtual reality and we need capital for virtual reality, but early on, I wanted to try to figure out how could I curse start creating revenue ways that didn’t take a lot of money to create revenue, basic things. Like I worked out at iHub for an entire year and got up [inaudible 00:08:02] ladies really well. And so I saved money on office space and did the virtual thing.
Brandon Tatum:
But also I didn’t need capital in my work. I was doing a lot of marketing and I was able to do a lot of that myself and I was able to build some of the technologies myself for that. And build a lot of the relationships myself for that. And so kind of rethought what marketing looks like in online learning. And how could I go sell a program without spending a hundred thousand dollars on social media buys or Google ads. I flipped the script on how I decided to market those programs. And I was able to do that with a relatively low cost into the market.
Erin Starkey:
Yeah, very smart. Do you remember some of the early challenges that you face? I mean, I’m sure there were a lot, but does anything stand out to you in kind of how you overcame those challenges?
Brandon Tatum:
Yeah. I think resistance to change was my biggest hurdle from an institutional perspective. So I’ve worked with this point about five institutions is kind of my repertoire to date. And in all of those instances, there were leaders that were really excited about change and understood the need to change pre COVID. They understood the need to change post COVID. A few more people understood the need to change, but not everybody, we have that resistance to change in a very institution established like culture. That was my biggest hurdle. And in some ways still is. And it will always will be because majority of people like things the way they are. And so whenever you come into an environment and are changing some of that, you get resistance. And so a lot of change theory, a lot of trying to build relationships with people, a lot of trying to connect the why of the change to the why of the institution has been a big piece of it.
Erin Starkey:
Yeah. That makes sense. And I just was reflecting on my experience with that as well. And I think that’s so true that it is about relationship building, being able to relate and see other perspectives and sides of things to help kind of find common ground. Definitely I’ve had situations where the public school background that I’ve had has helped to kind of make those connections for people that maybe wouldn’t have otherwise. Is there anything that you can think of that you wish you would’ve known, or if you were looking back at yourself, you’d say Brandon do this differently?
Brandon Tatum:
Yeah. I wish I would have been aware quicker of some of the edupreneur not edupreneur, but entrepreneur markets, working events, small think tanks, other like-minded people that have kind of struggled through some issues that I’ve kind of struggled with already, that would have been really great to know from the get go where those communities are. That’s probably the biggest one that I wish I would have known. I also wish I would have known how lonely it can be the kind of stuff. And you’re kind of, I was so used to working with a team and people every day, I was going into an office and there were people there that we work together and it felt lonely at first, that has changed over time. But that’s something that I wish I would have known how to maybe deal with a little better as well.
Erin Starkey:
Yeah. Great reflections. And that kind of leads into just what advice would you give to other edupreneurs that are considering starting something?
Brandon Tatum:
I think risk is something that we have to be comfortable with and the willingness to try some things in the knowledge to know that we might fail at some of this. I think failure is a key piece. I would say that over the last 10 years, I’ve tried a couple of different things that didn’t really work. And then one did work and it is working, but it took some failure spots for me to kind of get here. So it’s okay to risk a little bit. I say that I risked some, I didn’t risk a lot before I completely took the step out there. It wasn’t like I was leaving no income to, I mean, income to no income. I had already developed kind of a safety place. So I’m not super brave, but it is risky to leave the known for the unknown. That’s kind of a scary place to be.
Brandon Tatum:
I would also say be confident. Yes. There were a lot of things early on that I said yes to that I didn’t necessarily have an expertise in, but I learned pretty quick because I knew I needed to say yes and I knew I needed to keep revenue coming in. So if somebody said, Brandon, do you do this? The answer was, yes. I would figure out how to do it. I have probably three or four different stories of me saying yes, that were probably a little bit outside of my lane. And I know focus is important thing. I hear a lot of entrepreneurs and leaders talk about, you need focus, you need to keep focused. And I agree with that, but also know that you need to pay bills and put food on the table for a family. And so while you need focus, you also need revenue coming in and yes, to a couple of side projects help produce revenue for my focus
Erin Starkey:
Yeah. I seem to have recall you and I kind of working on a storyline course creation project that we may or may not have known a whole lot about what we were doing.
Brandon Tatum:
And we said yes. It was kind of creating flexibility in our space, especially early on what was at least important to me. I’m glad I did that.
Erin Starkey:
Yeah. And you really do have so much going on. You are an innovator in education and kind of pushing the boundaries. I think of what’s possible. So I’d love to hear just more about some of the ventures that you have gotten yourself into these days.
Brandon Tatum:
Yeah. So I’m excited about some VR stuff that we’re working on. It should be live by the end of this quarter where it’s a VR meeting space called Multiversity. We’re excited about that. Also really working on two interesting degrees to solve those workforce shortages that I talked about earlier, in Oklahoma, we have a nursing shortage and we have a teacher shortage. So two critical roles in any state. And we just don’t have enough people. And as I started kind of digging into that, I actually am not convinced we have a workforce shortage. I think we have a pipeline problem.
Erin Starkey:
Interesting. How do you see that being different from a workforce shortage?
Brandon Tatum:
So I think we have people in our state that want to do those roles, but we do not have a pipeline, an innovative pipeline to help them get those roles. So for example, with nurses, we have institutions across our state that turned down people every year from their nursing program. I have enough space for them. Thousands of people every year in the state of Oklahoma get turned away from a nursing school because our nursing schools don’t have the capacity. There are people wanting to become nurses, but there’s a pipeline problem. We cannot get them somehow. For some reason, we can’t get them there. In education, we say we have a teacher shortage this year is the largest amount of emergency certified teachers in Oklahoma. We have over 2,600 emergency certified teachers, but we have somewhere around 4,000 paraprofessionals and teachers assistants that are in our classrooms.
Brandon Tatum:
But our pipeline is created for high school graduates to go to a traditional school and live on campus and go spend four years and not work and go to school. And that’s our pipeline. If we’re able to tweak it and create a pipeline to help the paraprofessionals and teachers assistants who were already in the classroom get their degree. They would love to become teachers, but they can’t go do what the 18 year olds are doing, life doesn’t allow them to do that. So if we could figure out a way to help those paras become teachers through online learning and technology and mentorships and those kinds of things, we would solve our nursing shortage overnight. I think we have the people that want to do the jobs, but we have a system not nimble and flexible enough to help them get there, if that makes sense.
Erin Starkey:
Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. And that’s great to think of it in that way. And you may have kind of answered this question about plans for the future, with what you just said, but kind of thinking forward, what else are you, what are you thinking?
Brandon Tatum:
Yeah, so I think we’re pretty close to being statewide with our nursing program. So for that program, I think we’re ready to go kind of national with it. And we have some hospitals from other states already talking in that regard. The teacher program I’m ready to kind of go statewide with that. I think we’re really ready to expand that program. The paraprofessional to teacher program, we’re really ready for.
Brandon Tatum:
I’d like to start working on a new industry. And so we’re still toying with what industries are we going to kind of look at. There’s a lot happening in the finance space right now, a lot happening with computer science and cybersecurity. There’s a lot in that space too. So we’re just kind of analyzing some spaces right now and see what’s our next industry play. That’s kind of exciting to think about. And then how do we really strengthen our online learning programs through the use of virtual reality. There’s a huge play there for higher education. And I think we’re pretty close to make some pretty neat announcements in that space too. So a lot happening in the online learning space. And it’s not just the traditional, Johnny’s going to get a degree eating Cheetos on his couch for very industry embedded degrees where people are engaged in the work that they’re trying to get their degree for. That’s what I’m excited about.
Erin Starkey:
Yeah. That is exciting. That’s great. And so for our listeners, that’s maybe interested in any of those things you mentioned the paraprofessional, the nursing programs, or maybe just picking your brain about edupreneur ideas. What ways could they contact you? And I’ll be sure and add it to the notes as well, but you might say it.
Brandon Tatum:
Yeah, probably just the easiest way would just be hopping on Instagram or Twitter at BCT books. Probably the easiest way.
Erin Starkey:
Okay, great. Perfect. And is there anything else that you’d like to share with our audience before we sign off?
Brandon Tatum:
I appreciate what you’re doing. I appreciate that you’re cultivating these conversations. I think there’s so much happening in the education space. And my hope is that education 10 years from today looks very different than what it looks like today. And very different in the sense that I think we’re moving to a more student centric learning. I think we’re moving toward a very more personalized approach to learning, which is really exciting to me. Technology can really help keep us distant, but I think if we use technology in the right ways, we can really use it to personalize learning and to really strengthen the way we think of community. And so I’m really excited about the direction it’s headed and I think conversations like this and like your podcast will help us get there.
Erin Starkey:
Thank you. Yeah. I’m excited about where education is going to, and it’s a great time, I think, to be an innovator in education. So thank you for everything that you’re doing to help push that forward and to see things change and to help us to grow. So I appreciate you being here today.
Brandon Tatum:
Great, thanks a lot Erin.
Erin Starkey:
Thank you.

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