Episode 4- Ready Player…. Adam Mangana’s VR School Concept!

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In this episode, I talk with Adam Mangana, an educational entrepreneur who is starting a classical academy virtual reality school in Florida! Information about Optima Domi and enrollment in the Classical Academy VR school can be found here: https://www.optimadomi.com/ 

Transcript

Erin Starkey:
Welcome to Reimagining Schools, a podcast from the Edupreneur Academy. Today, I’m going to be talking with Adam Mangana. Who’s going to tell us a little bit about his background and how he got started in the educational entrepreneurship world. Hi Adam, thank you for joining us today. How are you doing?
Adam Mangana:
Erin, I’m honored to be here.
Erin Starkey:
I appreciate you coming on and we’re excited to hear a little bit more about what you’re doing in the edupreneur space, and it sounds like you’ve got some really creative things going and some interesting concepts. And so I would love to start with just hearing a little bit more about your background and what led you to education and edupreneurship.
Adam Mangana:
Absolutely. So yeah, in undergrad I was a classics major and have always loved the great books. And when I was in undergrad, I did a few internships on Wall Street and realized I did not want to ruin old people’s retirement for a living. And so I decided that I would pivot and my first job out of undergrad, like LeBron, I took my talents to South Beach and I was a Teach for America alum teaching special education. I thought was going to be teaching government and history and ended up teaching special education. But because I had taken some engineering courses while I was at Brown, computer science engineering courses, every school community that I was a part of, they always made me the coding coach. I was in these interesting worlds where I’m a lover of the great books and history and economics, but as a matter of pragmatism and human capital, as the coding craze kind of moved through the early 2000s, I was positioned to be the coding coach at most of the, the schools I was working at.
Adam Mangana:
So, what happened about seven years ago, I ended up in Mississippi. My wife is a professor of radiation oncology at Ole Miss. And I ended up in Mississippi and I was looking for ways to broaden who would jump on the coding teams at the different schools that I had worked at. And the way that VR has developed, virtual reality is developed, we just felt like we would be able to access people who were interested in three dimensional art, sound effects, lighting, other pieces that would broaden the scope of who would join the coding team. And so we got really excited about trying to teach kids how to develop VR applications. So this all kind of coincided with Palmer Luckey and Facebook acquiring Oculus. And then in 2016, the Oculus Rift coming out. And at around the same time, I decided to go back to graduate school and I did a master’s in Independent School Leadership at Vanderbilt, but my capstone project was focused on virtual reality and education.
Adam Mangana:
And I built one of the largest VR labs in the country at that time time at Jackson Preparatory School in Jackson, Mississippi, and used kind of what I was excited about to kind of preach the gospel of VR and education. At that time, each unit was about $3,000. And so it was out of the reach of most schools, but I could see the power of the technology and see what it would mean. And then eventually I became a head of school and during the pandemic, during my headship, while the world pivoted to Zoom school, we piloted a Ready Player One style VR, mobile VR school, because the Oculus Quest 2 was out of that moment and we could get Oculus Quests to students. Actually, Oculus Quest 1 was out in the spring when we piloted, the 2 came out that fall, but we could get Quests to the kids.
Adam Mangana:
And so we began doing that. And one of the things that thought about was, how do we capture the attention of famous folks in the community that might come on and come and talk to the kids because everyone was stuck at home. And so we invited the chancellor of Ole Miss, president of number of colleges around the country, and finally stumbled on Brett Favre, who came to class. And that made local news and then was picked up by [inaudible 00:04:47] and we were kind of off to the races with a lot of folks trying to figure out what’s the cookbook to do Ready Player One schools. So that led to me meeting Erica Donalds, who’s the CEO of the Optima Foundation, and together we founded Optima Domi, which is an online classical school delivery model. We’re a virtual instruction provider, but we’re excited about delivering classical education in virtual reality.
Erin Starkey:
Yeah, that’s so interesting. I mean, you gave so much information there. Thank you for that background. First of all, it was cool to hear the Teach for America piece because I’ve had this theory for a while that Teach for America is like my optimal target market for being an edupreneur because a lot of people from Teach for America come from a business background or not an education background, but yet obviously they have a pretty strong interest in education and moving that forward. And so I’ve really been working with our local Teach for America group to kind of see if I can chat with alumni and see who’s interested. So thank you for proving that theory. That’s true for sure.
Adam Mangana:
I was a Miami court member in 2005. Good. It was good year. Good vintage.
Erin Starkey:
Yeah. That’s awesome. Yeah. And that definitely fits exactly what I was thinking. And you’re obviously interested in the education space and innovating there. Super cool. And I love the VR concept. I think it has such a potential to really transform online education for students and that missing link that we have in engaging and building relationships. And I’d love to hear a little bit more about the classical piece, because that was a little unexpected. So tell me more about why you were moving towards the classical education piece with the VR.
Adam Mangana:
So there are a lot of people who define classical education in different ways, but really at the core of classical education is a love for the great books. And so Socrates was skeptical of books. The grammar book was one of the first technologies in ancient Greece. And Socrates thought that if people read books, they would lose their memories and they wouldn’t be great orators. And he was right about a lot of things, but he was wrong about books. Yes, there was some trade offs in terms of how the brain formed, but if it weren’t for Plato and his love for writing, we wouldn’t know who Socrates is. So I think that VR will face the same scrutiny. I think that people will be hesitant to embrace the tool, but VR is just the tool, right?
Adam Mangana:
Classical education, which is really not only about the great books, but it’s about forming great hearts and teaching civic virtue. At worst, if all we do is help children be their best selves and have an appreciation for this rich American heritage that we have, I think that we will be successful. And it kind of stands in opposition to this idea that education is about maximizing utility. And so when I talk to teachers and interview teachers, I usually ask what’s the difference between teaching for excellence and teaching for genius. And that’s just an interesting concept for any entrepreneur or edupreneur to think about. What’s the difference with a strategy or a school model that optimizes utility versus one that optimizes [inaudible 00:08:43]
Adam Mangana:
And so up until this point in our history, the very best empathy machine in the world was a great book. That’s how we could transport ourselves into the shoes of someone else. And the discussions that kind of came around, someone who really had deep domain expertise around that great book and could facilitate rich discussions. With virtual reality, we’ve now sped up that empathy process. And we now have a machine that is an even more compelling empathy machine, because we can literally walk a mile in someone else’s body, perspective take, walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. And so I think the marriage of the two, the very best time tested content with the most innovative and efficient delivery model, I think creates the opportunity for us to transition online education from highly transactional to highly relational, which is the secret sauce.
Erin Starkey:
It really is. Yeah. And I think everyone’s in agreeance with that social emotional learning piece has been huge, a missing factor even in brick and mortar schools, right. It’s a focus, it’s something that we know students need more of. And especially with the trauma from the last couple of years, we know students are lacking those pieces and need that connection with others and that that’s important. I think that’s really highlighted that for a lot of us that we do need other people and that being alone and isolated all the time is not in the best interest of humanity. And so we have to find a way to innovate and continue forward. So I think you’re really onto something with that. Would you tell us a little bit more about, because I know you’re thinking about some things in terms of starting schools and kind of what that’s going to look like. Just kind of tell me about the future, what you’re thinking, what you’re planning for how you’re going to utilize this technology and the curriculum.
Adam Mangana:
Yeah. At the core of what we’re we’re working on is, we want to be able to find a way to scale the power of classical schools. There’s huge demand if you think about what is happening right now. For people who are interested in school choice or excited about student agency and family agency, for the last two years people have been paying close attention to what their children are consuming. They’ve been at home, they’ve been watching. And you can just kind of scour social media for the memes and the responses to homeschool. Right? And the reality is we really didn’t have homeschool, we had crisis school. We didn’t have homeschool. And so there’s created this new opera to redefine what school is, what is the purpose of school?
Adam Mangana:
And I think that in the past the school decision has been tightly coupled with the real estate decision. And I think with the great resignation and people wanting to move more freely and more and more of the private sector having people working from home, people are re-imagining what the relationship with the school feels and looks like. And so more people are open to a more flexible model that the brick and mortar option just doesn’t really give you. And so people have been looking at online education and so online schools have grown, whereas brick and mortar schools have been flat. And the feedback right now is that people want the flexibility, but they also want the relationships. And as you said, they want that self-actualization and social, emotional development.
Adam Mangana:
What we are building is we’re building an online model that is really focused on synchronous instruction. And that synchronous instruction happens in the mediverse with faculty and students all present together because we’re trying to solve the problem of loneliness in the current delivery model. We want to improve online education. We think that a key way do that is focus on teaching virtue. And our theory basically is that you can’t teach virtue in two dimensions. Zoom was engineered for utility, not for potential. Right. And so we need a VR platform that can kind of capture the common courtesy of connection that you can’t capture in a two dimensional platform.
Erin Starkey:
Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. Yeah. I really can relate with that. And I think that that’s been, having worked in online education for the past 12 years that’s been the biggest hurdle to overcome is figuring out how to connect people in that way. So that that’s great. So thinking from kind of your entrepreneurship shoes now, speaking of thinking in other people’s perspectives, what would you say are kind of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in getting this started as a business and getting this off the ground?
Adam Mangana:
Well, it’s interesting. We’ve been in incredibly blessed. One real challenge for VR curriculum development is clearly cost and expertise. And we’ve been able to assemble just an incredible team and raise some capital that has helped us to begin to build a minimal viable product. And so where most people have run into those issues around costs, we’ve been fortunate. I will say this to that question. I think one opportunity that we’ve had is that folks who have this level of expertise in terms of VR development that our team has, are typically focused in the entertainment or gaming space. And so they’re not focused in the education space because to build relationships with students doesn’t have a short sales cycle, right? It’s not a SAS business model.
Adam Mangana:
It doesn’t fit into what venture capitalist love or what Silicon valley really thinks is sexy or exciting at the time. And so we haven’t had a lot of people who have that VR development expertise be playing in the education space. Likewise, the type of compliance and the type of barriers to entry that the traditional school system kind of has in place deters a lot of people from positioning themselves to even be in that space. On the flip side, those who are educators who would fill out a virtual instruction application or complete an online charter school application in the state, they don’t have access or experience with the VR development side. Right? So it’s the marriage of those two domain expertise that I think make Optima Domi unique. We are completely passionate about giving access to a world class classical education for free to students.
Adam Mangana:
And in order to do that, we need to partner with great education departments around the country who are open to allowing an alternative to the current status quo in online education. And then we also need to have the domain expertise to be able to build the VR environments that are high quality, that are focused on optimizing human experience. Right. For me at the core of what we do, we engineer educational experiences that matter in the lives of children. And you just don’t see a lot of folks thinking or are focusing on that experience.
Erin Starkey:
Yeah. And obviously you’re thinking about it from access as well, in terms of reaching students that otherwise wouldn’t have that opportunity. If I live in rural small town Oklahoma, and I don’t have access to a school that provides something like this, the internet makes that capable. And VR makes that possible.
Adam Mangana:
I happen to live in rural Mississippi, and I work in Naples, Florida, and I interact with my children in the mediverse and so this innovation allows a level of connection that I wouldn’t have on FaceTime or Zoom.
Erin Starkey:
Yeah. Yeah. That’s really neat. A great mission. Is there anything specific that you wish that you would’ve known more information about in the beginning? Like, man, it would’ve been nice if I would’ve known this when I was getting started. Can you think of some things to share?
Adam Mangana:
Ooh, that’s a tremendous question. I don’t have any regrets about the way that we’ve structured things, but I do think that it’s helpful to other entrepreneurs to really think in terms of four areas as they’re kind of managing their team and managing their business. I think culture, clarity, capacity, and cash, those four Cs, I think, would be helpful to other entrepreneurs, edupreneurs as they’re building organizations. That’s my dashboard. Like every day, I’m thinking, how do I contribute to the culture of our company and our team? How do I help us optimize? How do I help push the shared vision of being able to teach virtue and online education. And then I’m thinking about capacity, where are the areas… And you have to be really honest, where are the areas that we have growth edges and how can I allocate resources so that we can grow that capacity.
Adam Mangana:
And clarity. How are we communicating? How am I, first, listening? How can I be a better listener? There’s so many edupreneurs and entrepreneurs that are incredibly charismatic and they spend time doing a lot of talking, but I think really one of the most important tools and one of the things that I’m constantly working on is listening. And then lastly, at the core of your role as the organizational leader, you need to be thinking about the allocation of resources and you want to make sure that there’s some cash in the bank, right? In a capitalistic system, you have to have capital to make things go. And so there are people who have all of the other three CS, but they don’t have the blocking and tackling in place in the form of, of just capital to make… A lot of new startups, a lot of new businesses drown because they’re over extended in terms of human capital and underextended in terms of capital.
Erin Starkey:
Yeah, absolutely.
Adam Mangana:
I don’t know if that’s a helpful answer, but-
Erin Starkey:
No, it does. And it kind of leads into the next question. Just what advice would you give to an edupreneau that’s interested in getting started? Were there specific resources that you found, books that you read, mentors that you reached out to? What advice would you give to others who are getting started? Because those are some really valid hurdles that you mentioned, especially the financial piece.
Adam Mangana:
Yeah. I think a lot of educators are well positioned to come up with ideas. I think the execution part of the idea is where a lot of folks get stuck, right? So if you get in a room of educators, they’re well positioned. They’ve had to be the sage on the stage. They’ve been in front of classrooms. They’re good on their feet and they can come up with some great ideas. It’s taking the idea and developing the operational capacity to really deliver. And so they’re are a number of great books and I would have to post in the show notes all of the books that I’ve I’ve read. But I would say that one of the really good places to start would be Tim Ferris’s Four Hour Work Week, because I think what it opens up for folks is the idea of prioritizing what is important and getting on your agenda as opposed to someone else’s agenda.
Adam Mangana:
And so those two things, when you’re an entrepreneur or an edupreneur, you really need to know how to subtract the things that are not as important. The other tool that I would say is really, really important to me and probably my favorite book is called The Time Block Planner.
Erin Starkey:
Oh, that’s cool.
Adam Mangana:
And the Time Block Planner was built by Cal Newport. Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown, he’s around our age. So he’s an eighties baby. But he has some great quotes. And one of his best quotes is “Focus is the new IQ.” And so when I say it’s really important for the edupreneur to subtract, there’s so many amazing things when you’re an edupreneur that people want to get you involved in. Because you’re a talented person, you’ll be measured by the ones you say no to. Right? So you have to get really good at blocking and protecting your time. And as Cal Newport says, “Focus is the new IQ.” So I think the edupreneur, my advice would be that the edupreneur, their real asset is their time and spending as much of their focus on the front end, allocating their time is going to be the most helpful thing and deliver the most returns on their investment.
Erin Starkey:
Yeah. Yeah. And that he’s the author of Deep Work, right?
Adam Mangana:
Yeah.
Erin Starkey:
Which is, yeah, I just started reading that actually. So that’s great [crosstalk 00:23:54] you brought that ups, that’s perfect.
Adam Mangana:
Great minds think alike. You should order his Time Block Planner. This is-
Erin Starkey:
I will definitely check that out. That looks cool.
Adam Mangana:
This is Deep Work in practice. Cal Newport is fabulous. And like I said, this is the book I touched the most. And then lastly for those who are interested in virtual reality, I think Ready Player One and, and Ready Player Two would be two great books to get started.
Erin Starkey:
That’s such a cool name. I’m glad you incorporated that. I think that obviously connects to a lot of young people and students and such a great way to bring it together and help think about it that way. So you told us a little bit about kind of your future plans for VR and access and reaching students. If people are interested or want to know more about what you’re doing, how can they kind of contact you and reach out to you? What would be the best way for them to get ahold of you?
Adam Mangana:
Absolutely. I am on LinkedIn, Adam Mangana on LinkedIn, which would be a really easy way to connect. I would love for folks to check out our website www.optimadomi.com. And if there are families that are interested in attending Optima Classical Academy, we will be opening enrollment Fall October 1 of this year for a Fall 2022 start. So depending on where your interests may lie, we’re going to start in the state of Florida, but we will be soon expanding hopefully, see you in Oklahoma soon.
Erin Starkey:
I know I was going to say, we’re going to work on that, right? We’re going to expand to other states.
Adam Mangana:
That’s right. You and I, we’re going to get it figured out.
Erin Starkey:
That’s right. Very cool. And we’ll put your information in the show notes as well. So that’ll be there for people to reach out to you. Is there anything else that you kind of want to share with edupreneurs just as kind of a final thoughts or things that you’d want to share for others advice? I know he intention of this podcast is just to share information out and help others that are interested in similar things. So anything else that you can think of?
Adam Mangana:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. The internet is a really young idea and there’s very few folks who are in the world who would say that the impact of the internet is not significant, right. There are very few folks who would not acknowledge the change that the internet has given into the world. At the core of what the internet is, it is the decentralization and the dematerialization of language. Right? So the crazy idea was that Erin, you and I could send our language to each other at the speed of light, for free, right. In the form of an email. And from that technology, we have created multi-trillion dollar businesses, right? An incredible amount of wealth.What is happening in this new industrial revolution is that we’re layering on top of the internet the ability to send our monetary energy at the speed of light.
Adam Mangana:
And I think the intersection of virtual reality, the blockchain and AI, is going to allow for a lot of human flourishing. But we need to raise a generation of students that don’t ask the question can we build it, but ask the question, should we build it? Yeah. And so the best working years of my life are going to be dedicated to trying to scale teaching ethics and making students focused on civic virtue, because I think the tools are going to get so powerful, if we don’t do that then we miss this great opportunity for human flourishing. And we enter into an opportunity for human exploitation. And I think that is the highest and best use of those who are wired to be edupreneurs is to get in this movement with us and get shoulder to shoulder. And let’s figure out how to take these emerging technologies and not ask can we build, but figure out ways to ask should we build? And so that would be my message. Anybody who’s working on that is somebody I’d like to help and please reach out if there’s any way that you see some synergy.
Erin Starkey:
Such a great point. And I’m glad you brought that up because I think that’s been, with social media, one of the things that we’ve been talking about in the last few years is that what kind of Frankenstein have we created here and what are the parameters going to look like and how are we going to use this for good instead of evil in the world? And certainly there are plenty of benefits, but there are also some challenges and some things that can be negative in that space as well. So, yeah, I appreciate you thinking of it through that lens. There definitely needs to be more Adams in the world that are thinking like you are. So I appreciate you being on the podcast and sharing with us. It was great to get to talk with you.
Adam Mangana:
Erin, it was my pleasure and you’re doing incredible work and I love this idea of edupreneurs. We need more social entrepreneurs in the world. And if there’s any way I can ever help you, I’d love to, I’m honored to be on the podcast.
Erin Starkey:
Thank you, Adam. I appreciate that. Yeah. And take care. We’ll definitely talk some more.
Adam Mangana:
All right. Have a great one.
Erin Starkey:
You too.

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