PRO FILES: DR. ANNMARIA DE MARS

A beautiful mind

“Look at how far you have come.” — Dr. AnnMaria De Mars

Dr. AnnMaria De Mars — the Co-Founder, President and one of two full-time Developers at 7 Generation Games — is also a brilliant statistician, a world-class judoka and overall living legend filled with humor and wisdom. Born AnnMaria Waddell in 1958, Dr. De Mars has since achieved the highest levels of success found in each of her four largest endeavors: academics, judo, business and motherhood.

She became the first American to take Gold at the World Judo Championships in 1984 — winning the Austrian Open, Canada Cup and the U.S. Senior Nationals in the same year.

Since acquiring her PhD in 1990, she has written approved grants in excess of $10 million dollars, co-authored an entire book on self-defense and continuously remained active in her community with selfless charity donations and volunteer actions.

Equally as remarkable as her accomplishments are those of her four daughters:

In May 2012, Dr. De Mars — with husband Dennis and eldest daughter María — co-founded 7 Generation Games: a software-based company intent on improving mathematics for youth via fun and educational adventure games. Beyond the affordable price point is their accessibility: the start-up offers partial and full-license purchasing as well as donation options to provide the games to as many students as possible — from individual kids to entire schools.

In between finishing the final report for a small business innovation research grant and beginning another, Dr. De Mars took the time to speak about technology, honesty and the mindset required to achieve the apex of success.


DR. ANNMARIA DE MARS

  • Born in St. Clair County, Illinois
  • Fifty-seven years old
  • Mother: four daughters
  • 六段: Rokudan (6th Degree Black Belt)
  • Member: USJF Judo Hall of Fame (1993)

SELECTED ACADEMIC ACCOLADES

SELECTED JUDO ACCOLADES

  • Winner — USJA Junior Nationals (1975)
  • Bronze — British Open (1981)
  • Bronze — Tournoi d’Orléans (1981)
  • Winner — U.S. Open (1982)
  • Winner — Pan-American Games (1983)
  • 2x Winner — U.S. Senior Nationals (1983 / 1984)
  • Winner — Austrian Open (1984)
  • Winner — Canada Cup (1984)
  • Winner (first-ever American Gold winner) — World Judo Championships (1984)

SELECTED BUSINESS ACCOLADES


ON ADVANCE OF TECHNOLOGY

It’s kind of like Alice In Wonderland: that part where they have to run as fast as they can to stay in the same place. I’ve spent most of my career working with computers. I started programming when I was in high school, but professionally about a year out of grad school — that was over twenty-five years ago.

A lot of the things I work with now didn’t exist when I was in college. Microcomputers — Macs, Windows — that didn’t exist. A computer was something that filled up the whole room. Floppy discs: they were the first thing that you store things on; now we have hard drives and flash drives. The internet was only used by universities doing research. There’s just so many things now — all the technology that I use every day — that didn’t exist when I was in school. So I’m working to keep up.

If you’re going to be doing anything with software, you have to be continually learning. Because what’s going to be the most useful important thing for you to know probably hasn’t been invented yet.

ON 7 GENERATION CONCEPT

I had the idea for a long time and it took a long time for the software, hardware and graphics capabilities to catch up. Because it’s only been within the last decade or less that it’s been feasible to do something like this on a computer and have it not cost that much money.

María put it very brilliantly — there comes a point when kids have this attitude: “I’m not doing my homework and you can’t make me.” And the truth is: you can’t make them. You can take away their Nintendo, you can tell them they can’t leave their room, whatever — but you can’t make them do it.

There’s a number of reasons that kids just absolutely refuse to study: sometimes it’s they think they can’t do it. You hear people say, “Oh, I don’t have a math brain” or whatever. Which drives me crazy, because it’s just not true. But some people are convinced that they can’t do it.

Or they think there’s never going to be any use for it. Or they think it’s boring and they don’t have the discipline to do things that are boring and difficult because they’ve never learned that.

But none of those reasons are good enough, because not learning those things is going to be a barrier your whole life.

That’s where the 7 Generation name came from. We spun off of a company founded on an American Indian reservation. And a lot of the tribes have this idea that you should think about the consequences of your decision — not just today, but for seven generations hence.

Dr. Carol Davis, who’s one of our head cultural consultants up at the Turtle Mountain Reservation. She’s also a big advocate against fracking — taking oil out of the ground that way. She says because three generations from now, they’re not going to be able to drink oil. And if it’s damaging the water… So that’s one way of looking at it.

With us, with education: if you can change somebody’s life by getting them a better education, it doesn’t just change their life, but it changes their kid’s life and their kids’ life.

Because what happens often is you have somebody who maybe they’re thinking they’re ok in school. Then they run into some concept they have trouble with, whether it’s fractions or decimals or perimeter or whatever it is.

And then they start thinking, “Well, I’m just not very good at this.

And math is cumulative. If you don’t quite get the causes of the Civil War, that doesn’t mean that you can’t understand the Vietnam War. In math, if you didn’t get decimals, you’re never going to understand probability. You’re never going to do that well in statistics.

So often when people say, “I don’t have that math brain” — what it really is: you don’t have the bases that would make it possible for you to understand whatever it is you’re learning today, because you missed it somewhere along the line.

What happens is people start thinking, “I’m not good at math” — there isn’t any level of schooling where you don’t need math. I see people who don’t get into a good college because they did poorly on the math-part of the SAT, or they did poorly in their math courses. Or they drop out of community college because they couldn’t pass their math course.

And that has a negative impact on the trajectory of your whole life. Because then they can’t get as good of a job; then they can’t live in as good of a neighborhood; then their kids can’t live in as good of a neighborhood.

But what if we could change that?

What if we could change it so you kind of figure out: “Maybe math isn’t so bad. Maybe I’ll stay in school and I’ll graduate. My mom really wants me to; my teachers really want me to. And yeah, it would be better for me if I did.” Then you stick it out and you go to college and get a decent job.

So intervening at those points where people are having problems can change their whole life. And like I said, it will change their kids’ lives.

ON 7 GENERATION GAMES

How it works is basically you’re playing an adventure game and you come across something — like you’re supposed to meet another person from your tribe six days’ ride from here. So what would be the fairest place to meet? Like, drag your guy on the number-line to where it would be or on the path to where it would be. Well, the fairest place to meet would be three days’ ride.

If you do that, then it comes up and it says, “Why is that the fairest place?” Because 3/6’s equals a half. And half is fair, because it’s in the middle and it’s equal amounts. So it teaches you math in context as you’re doing things, and you see why people have always needed math. But if you went to the wrong place, you might get eaten by a bear in the game because you went to the wrong place!

It’s kind of fun, too. I’ll go somewhere — say, the public library where they have our games installed. I’ll sit in the corner and watch and see if there’s kids playing the games. What I’ll see is they’ll get to a part in the game where there’s a math problem they can’t figure out.

For example in Fish Lake: the whole story is these people are starting to realize there’s less food in the area so they might have to move. It’s set before Europeans came here, so it’s a Native American tribe and they realize there’s less food.

One of the problems is: “Last year we went fishing and caught 125 fish in this spot and 25 of them were a foot long. This year, we went fishing today and we caught 16 fish and 2 of them were a foot long. So is the fishing getting worse or not?

There’s a little video that plays before that says: “If every day you catch 5 fish, it’s easy to tell: 1 out of 5 were a foot long today, and 2 out of 5 tomorrow…” But you’re not always going to catch the same number. You’re going to have to understand fractions so you can say is the fishing getting worse or not?

The interesting thing is I’m watching these kids, and they get to problems like these and they call their parents over and say, “How do you get this?” Instead of their parents saying, “Sit down there and do your homework. I’m not giving your phone back until you do!” — it’s the kids calling over their parents and saying, “Here. Help me do this math problem.

It’s sort of the ideal of what I would’ve loved when my kids were that age.

ON INNOVATION

It’s interesting, because like Fish Lake: that’s the game that teaches fractions. It also has escaping snakes and stuff in it. It’s not just fractions; it’s also a game.

But I had to write up for somebody all of the math quotients that are in there. Now if you just played the game all the way through, you’d have a good time; you’d review some things on adding fractions and multiplying fractions and mixed numbers. You’d probably be like, “Oh, there’s not that much math in there.” Because you would get everything right, or probably most-everything right.

But say you’re not as familiar with fractions. Say you are in the sixth grade and it’s something you just learned — then the game might take you much, much longer. Because at every point that a problem comes up, if you miss it twice then you get some to study. You can pick one of three different ways to study:

  • watch a video
  • do an activity, like where you match up equivalent fractions or drag your guy to where you ought to be on the number line
  • read some web pages, or have the web pages read to you

There’s a lot crammed in there. It is a good way to learn, but I’m a little biased.

Most of the kids that play our games are between eight and fourteen. Because there’s a lot of games for littler kids, but there’s not really near as many educational games for middle-school kids. And that’s often when you start having trouble — when the kids just won’t do their homework.

So instead of you telling them to do their homework — they’re doing it and calling you over to help them. If we can set that up, that’s perfect.

ON WORK ETHIC

Well, I tried that business model of leaving the door open and having people run by and throw in bags of money — and that didn’t work out for me.

So I figured I better just work really hard.

ON HELPING OTHERS

As an individual, you only get one life. There’s a lot of people in this world that are extremely talented, and they spend it making an app so we can share pictures of our cat or something. And maybe they make a bunch of money on that. They fool themselves and say, “Oh, we improved communication!

I met somebody recently that they run a business that does, like, a spa day for your dog. Not kidding. And I just thought: alright, maybe you rake in money with that. Maybe you have a happy life.

I think partly it’s because my late husband. My husband passed away when he was fifty-four, so he was younger than I am now when he died. And he had all these plans — and it didn’t happen, you know?

You only get one life, so you may as well do something worthwhile with it.

It’s funny to me that I see so many people who are brilliant and talented, and they’re using those talents to sell gourmet dog food instead of making games that would maybe excite kids about learning and teach them math.

It’s not that I don’t like dogs — I really like dogs. But your dog can eat Purina; you don’t need to have some Picasso on the outside of the dog food package.

I think if you have talent — which we all do — you have to put them to some use that does more than just bring in money so you can buy stuff you don’t need to impress people you don’t like.

ON BUSINESS BALANCE

Our games aren’t free — they’re $9.99 each. We have to pay bills. Because you can say you should do this for your passion. But at the end of the day when you go into the grocery store and say, “I have a lot of passion” they say, “That’s nice; fork over some dough.

So we try to hit that balance between offering sponsored licenses to really low-income schools. We’ll get people if they want to sponsor a classroom, or discounts for schools. We try to do it so people can afford our games, but this is what we all do for a living.

My feeling is: you’ve got to do something for a living — you may as well do something that counts.

ON HONESTY

I really think honesty is good business. And again, it goes back to that long-term view. You could maybe sell somebody an inferior product, you could overcharge them. You might get their money that time — but they’re not going to come back and do business with you again.

Where if you do right by people, they’ll come back and buy your other games; they’ll tell their friends. So being truthful may not get you as much money up front, but it’s more of a sustainable stretch.

ON MINDSET FOR SUCCESS

Everything involves setting a goal and working towards it.

My friend Dr. Jake Flores — he’s both an M.D., he had two sons who were in the Olympic trials for judo — so he’s very, very talented and successful in many ways. He says: “Too many people confuse wishes with plans.

So if you decide that you want to be champion of the world in judo or you want to start a business, you have to figure out: alright, great. That’s a goal. Now what’s your plan? Because if you don’t have a plan, that’s just a wish.

How are you going to do it? What are the steps to that? Just breaking it down. In everything: you set a goal, you break it down, you work towards it — and you work really, really hard for a really, really, really long time.

I would say the secret to my success is persistence.

We talk about that in our games. I think it’s funny that a math game would teach about a character trait. But I truly believe whether it’s in mathematics or in sports or in business: a really key factor is just not giving up.

Everybody has days when they want to give up. But you just don’t do it. And that’s a lot harder than it sounds.

For me personally: I wanted to be best in the world in my sport. Now I know plenty of people who want to play college football. They’re happy to play at their college and then they’re going to go and be an insurance agent or do whatever they do — and that’s their goal.

But I wanted to be best in the world.

Only one person can be the best in the world at a sport. So that’s a different goal than right now: I want to run a very successful company; I want these games to be as common in the classrooms as the text books.

But lots of people can run a successful company. Lots of people can be a really good software developer.

If you’re in a sport, you’re often trying to beat every single person in that sport you ever encounter. Where, in business, you often aren’t.

There’s other companies that make games. I was just e-mailing to somebody that runs a big gaming company in L.A. And he’s a really nice guy; we’ve had lunch a couple of times. There’s several people from other gaming companies where we hang out.

So it’s kind of interesting: in business — in a lot of areas — there isn’t one. Where in sports, sometimes there is.

ON SACRIFICES FOR SUCCESS

It actually simplifies your life if that’s what you really want to do. Because when you open your eyes in the morning, every decision you make is: will this help me win? If the answer is yes — you do it. If the answer is it will hurt my chances of winning — you don’t do it. And if it doesn’t have any affect at all, then you just kind of do whatever you want to do.

But it simplifies your decision. Where once you’re, say, working as an engineer: well, which job should I take? There’s a whole bunch of factors:

  • “This one’s closer to home and less of a commute.
  • This one would be more interesting work.
  • This one pays more money.

So for the rest of your life, it’s going to be complicated. When you’re training to be best in the world, it’s simpler.

I think the key fact that people often don’t realize is: you have to be honest about it.

I was talking to somebody the other day who’s a coach for baseball. And he said he’s seen so many of these kids that say they want to play in the Major Leagues, because they know that’s what their mom or dad want them to say.

But they really don’t; they really don’t want it that bad. If you want to be best in the world at something, you truly have to want it. Not just say it because it sounds like a good thing to say.

Because nobody who’s won a world championship ever was surprised when they did.

ON SELF-CONFIDENCE

I think self-confidence is a little like bravery. I have a really, really good friend, and I mentioned to her daughter that her mom was one of the bravest people I know. She’s done some really, really great things. Her daughter said, “My mom’s really a scaredy-cat actually if you really knew her. She just goes ahead and does things anyway.” And I said, “Well, that’s why she’s so brave.

If you’re not scared, that doesn’t mean you’re brave — it means you’re stupid. Because sometimes you should be scared.

It’s the same with confidence. People who have self-confidence: it’s not that they always are sure they’re going to succeed. They probably have that same anxiety everybody does.

But they go ahead and do it anyway.

I worked really, really, really hard to make the games as good as I could. And I got really smart people around me to help me out with it. But everybody has those times when they question their skills or thinks, “Who am I?

The answer to that is two things.

As far as winning, I used to tell kids all the time — my friend Tony Mojica says this quote to each of his students: “They’re giving out gold medals at the Olympics. Somebody’s going to get one. It might as well be you.

Any tournament you go to — they’re giving out gold medals. People are going to buy something for their kids for Christmas. They may as well buy something that’s really cool and good that you made.

I think that’s one way to do it: somebody’s going to get the sale; somebody’s going to get the medal.

Why not you?

The second part: I have another good friend Bruce Toups, he was the Director of Development for judo when I was young. And every now and then, I’d get down on myself about something. I did this stupid thing, or I couldn’t believe I did that, whatever. He would say to me:

And look how far you have come.

So when you need a little boost of confidence — I think many of us often do — it’s good to remind yourself: look how far you have come.

Sometimes I look at my company like, “Well, we’re not a multi-billion dollar company yet. Look at Blizzard — they’ve got a billion dollars.” Some of these bigger gaming companies here in L.A. are hundreds of times our size; we’re just getting started and we don’t have enough to hire the very-best engineers, so we have to make other arrangements.

We have really good people, but we have to negotiate: “Oh, you can telecommute. You can do this, or that.” We’re always running to catch up because we’re a start-up. And sometimes I just think: oh my gosh, these other companies have all this money and they’re so far ahead of us. Then I remind myself:

Look at how far you have come.

You started just with you — and we just hired our seventeenth person. So that’s a good thing to remind yourself, whether it’s a sport or in business. Or in school: when you’re trying to figure out how to do proofs in geometry and you think, “I just can’t do this” — look how far you’ve come. At one point you couldn’t do multiplication, now that’s nothing. Adding numbers — that’s nothing. But at some point in your life, that just seemed insurmountable.

So most of us, when we need a little boost of self-confidence, should ask ourselves: how far have you come?

Probably pretty darn far from where we started out.