You deserve to be here. I remember reading Sheryl Sanberg’s book and the part where she writes about women voluntarily giving up seats at the table for male colleagues. Now, I would willingly give up my seat on the bus for an elderly lady or a pregnant woman, but I have never felt like someone else deserved my earned seat at the table. When people start with us, especially women, we make sure to reiterate they don’t have to “prove themselves.” If we didn’t believe in them, we wouldn’t have hired them. But the messaging starts early. I will never forget the day that my then 8-year-old daughter came home irate and asked me, “Do you know that there are people who say that girls aren’t good at math? Just because they’re girls.” I told her exactly what my mother told me, “Yes, and those people are obviously clueless.”
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Maria Burns Ortiz.
Maria Burns Ortiz is co-founder and CEO of 7 Generation Games, an educational video games studio making immersive games and interactive apps that teach math and history. Previously, Maria was an educator, journalist and international best-selling author. She was the first social media columnist for ESPN.com. Her book “My Fight/Your Fight” with Ronda Rousey hit №5 on The New York Times list, was named U.K. Sport Book of the Year and translated into nine languages.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I want to say it was a somewhat non-traditional path to tech, but at the same time, I’d argue we’re seeing more and more “atypical” paths to the point that it’s becoming the norm. I majored in journalism at NYU, in the very early days of digital media. I really wanted to be a sportswriter, which I got to be for more than a decade. But after 10 years in the field — including being ESPN.com’s first social media columnist — I’d achieved a lot of what I wanted to do there and found myself ready to try something else. What “something else” was, I didn’t know. I was very much at a crossroads and was leaning toward getting an MBA, when my mom — who has an MBA and Ph.D. — said, “Well, you could do that… Or you could forget about that and start an educational video game company with me. You’ll probably end up putting in the same amount of cash anyway, but instead of writing case studies, you could actually be learning all of that stuff by doing it and we could build something really cool.” That was eight years ago, and here we are, 13 games and several million dollars later. She was right on all fronts. Moms usually are.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Since starting 7 Generation Games, I have gotten to go to some incredible places, meet some amazing people and build some games that only existed in our heads and now in the hands of kids in North and South America. It’s hard to say there’s a most interesting story, because I think of it as more of a montage of “Wait, did that really happen?” For example, I was a speaker on a panel at the White House United State of Women in 2016 and will never forget reading through the speaker list and there’s my name right under Warren Buffett. Sure, it was alphabetical, but still.
However, maybe the most defining moment to me was one night three years ago. My daughter was “supposed” to have gone to bed an hour earlier, but when I went into my girls’ room to check on them, I saw her clearly under her covers, awake and on her iPad. In full “I’ve caught you now” mode, I threw back the blanket to find her up playing our game Making Camp, which we had just released. In that moment, I completely abandoned all of my motherly bedtime authority because here was the embodiment of what we seek to do which is create educational games that kids actually want to play.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early on, we would always tell our developers that the gameplay was too difficult for elementary school students. They would kind of roll their eyes and say, “I don’t have any problems getting through that level.” So, one day, we were testing our games at school and a little girl came up to our lead developer.
“Did you make this game?” she asked him. He said he did, looking very proud to be recognized. “You put in the snakes?” she asked. That was him, he told her. And that is when she launched into him, hand on her hip and pointing a finger at him. “Do you know I died 15 times trying to get past those snakes? I tried and I tried, and I died. Then I died again. What makes you think a person would want to play a game this hard? You think this is fun? This is the opposite of fun. This is unfun. You better fix this.” Then turned on her heel and stormed off. I thought it was more amusing than he did as I was not on the receiving end of a fourth grader’s wrath. She was right — and we did go back and add the ability to pick from an “Easy” or a “Hard” level.
That encounter changed two key elements of what we do internally, which is: 1. making sure that we are always focused on what the users really tell us they need (which may be different from what we “think” they need); and 2. there’s no substitute for getting out from behind the keyboard and actually watching your game in action in real word use, which we make every member of our team do now.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are creating solutions for kids that other ed-tech companies are not even thinking about while including voices and perspectives that have been left out of classrooms and curriculum. And we’ve seen the impact that has on kids from reservation communities in rural North Dakota to inner city schools in the heart of Los Angeles.
Two moments really drive this work home for me. The first was when we piloted our second game, some years ago. One of the reservations we work on is right at the U.S.-Canadian border in North Dakota and people from there have a very specific accent. We have a game that depicts that tribe and voiced characters from the community. When we first time tested in a school there, the minute the grandmother character said, “We need to build a wigwam for the winter,” there was this initial shock and disbelief that quickly gave way to a level of excitement and enthusiasm. Here are kids who had never encountered any digital media that reflected them, now they were playing a video game that not only looked like them but sounded like them. And we got to make that happen.
But it’s not just about creating reflective content, it’s also about reshaping that experience for everyone. A few years later, we were at a school in Los Angeles where they were playing our games and one of the students said something offhand about how there aren’t any “Native Americans anymore.” Obviously, we used that as a teachable moment and called a colleague on the reservation who spoke to the kids on the spot. It also led us to create games that interweave the past and present. That we are actually on the ground in the communities that we work with also sets us apart.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
In November, we received $1 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund the Growing Math project, an initiative to improve access to educational resources and teachers training across six states, with a focus on Indigenous youth. The disparity when it comes to the educational gap and digital divide has never been clearer. At the same time, COVID is ravaging rural and tribal communities and disproportionately impacting communities of color. We get to actively be part of working to provide better education — through technology and content — to teach kids math, with a focus on kids who too often are completely disregarded when it comes to the development of educational curriculum. We get to help teachers, who are living candidates for sainthood, better serve their students, especially at a time where education as we know it has been completely upended.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
The answer to the first part of that question is no. Women make up half of the population, and yet only a quarter of the STEM workforce. Not only that, but across the industry, they’re also regularly paid significantly less for doing the same job and see opportunity for advancement than male counterparts.
When it comes to the second part, there is a lot to tackle. I do not pretend to have all of the solutions, but the first thing is simple: Hire women. There is no shortage of qualified women to fill STEM positions, and anyone who says, “I’d love to hire more women, but we just can’t find any” isn’t looking hard enough or doesn’t want to find them. Too many initiatives are aimed at changing the status quo focus on developing “the next generation” — which trust me, as someone working in K12 education, I am passionate about developing the next generation — but directing all of our attention on solving the problem in the future enables people to not have to work to solve it today. Moreover, developing the next generation of women in STEM is not mutually exclusive to hiring women today. You change the status quo by making an actual effort to change the status quo. Hire women. Promote women. Fund women. Start there.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
When we’re talking about programming issues to tackle, my co-founder always says they can all be sorted into two categories: things that we know how to do and problems we need to figure out. The first are usually quick to resolve, while the latter involves more time, energy and attention (often coupled with a fair amount of swearing). When it comes to the biggest challenges faced by women in tech, there’s a lengthy list of challenges that can be similarly divided up. How do we fix systemic and institutional discrimination and microaggressions against women in tech? That’s more than I alone can address. But there is certainly a list of significant yet remediable problems to tackle. The pay gap is chief among them. Women in tech make an average of 15–30% less than men in the same positions.
In a data-driven industry, there’s no excuse for arbitrary discrepancies in pay for employees doing the same job. This wage gap isn’t exclusive to tech, but there is no reason why tech should not be at the forefront when it comes to leading the change to eliminate it.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
I often think of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s quote about “When there are nine.” It should apply not only to the Supreme Court. One myth that I think needs to be immediately dispelled when it comes to women in tech is that there is such a thing as “enough,” which is especially troubling because too often the definition of “enough” seems to be ONE woman. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard people say, “We don’t have an issue when it comes to gender equity. We have a woman on our team.” One is a start, not a finish. One of my proudest recent moments was when we were on a video call for our Growing Math project and looking at the video conference screen, I noticed that our entire project team was women — and not only that but all Latinas or Indigenous women.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. You deserve to be here. I remember reading Sheryl Sanberg’s book and the part where she writes about women voluntarily giving up seats at the table for male colleagues. Now, I would willingly give up my seat on the bus for an elderly lady or a pregnant woman, but I have never felt like someone else deserved my earned seat at the table. When people start with us, especially women, we make sure to reiterate they don’t have to “prove themselves.” If we didn’t believe in them, we wouldn’t have hired them. But the messaging starts early. I will never forget the day that my then 8-year-old daughter came home irate and asked me, “Do you know that there are people who say that girls aren’t good at math? Just because they’re girls.” I told her exactly what my mother told me, “Yes, and those people are obviously clueless.”
2. If you have kids, it’s juggling not a balancing act. I don’t subscribe to the tech mindset of if you’re not working 100 hours a week, you don’t care about your company; however, there are certainly times when you’re launching a new game or rolling out a new platform, where it is all consuming. Moreover, technology has unquestionably changed the way we work, especially when that’s the industry we work in. It’s not like you clock out at the end of the day and go home until tomorrow. There’s always emails coming in or things that can be done on various projects now from anywhere. When you’re running the company, that’s doubly so. I know there’s a lot of talk about work-life balance, especially when you have kids, but I have come to the conclusion — and acceptance — that balance is impossible. Sometimes, work is going to get more attention. Other times, if my kid is in the spelling bee or has a soccer game or I’ve just finished a crazy stretch of weeks at work or on the road, I don’t feel any guilt taking time out of the middle of the day to hang out with them. I think “balance” is an unattainable goal, but when you juggle, the point is just to keep everything from crashing down around you, which I find more doable.
3. No one thing is a make-or-break. Early on, when we were building 7 Generation Games and even before that in my career, it felt like every milestone or setback was this huge deal. We launched a new game, yay! This investor passed, the tragedy! Now, there are awards we got that I forgot we received. There are games we didn’t get funded that seemed like the end of the world at the time, that I forgot we even proposed. Especially in the beginning, everything seems like it’s the end-all, be-all. While that’s not to take away from the celebration or disappointment, there’s a reassurance that comes from the realization that very rarely will a single moment define your success or failure as a company or a person.
4. Look back as well as forward. It can be really easy to focus on what remains to be done and everything you want to achieve but haven’t yet. That bar always keeps moving. There’s always a new update to get out or game to launch or list of bugs to fix. But one thing that really forces me to put things in perspective is when I have to do our quarterly investor reports. I always put them off until the last minute, but they force me to look back at everything we’ve accomplished from new games we’ve released to staff growth to increases in user numbers and revenue, both over the last quarter and year. It’s easy to lose sight of the much the incremental day-to-day progress adds up over time and taking that time to look back at what we’ve accomplished instead of our unending to-do list shows me how far we’ve come.
5. Take a moment to appreciate the stops along the journey. Pre-COVID, I was traveling at least two times a month, sometimes more. Sometimes, it was very exotic, Instagrammable places (“Hello, Belize and Trinidad and Tobago.”) and other times they were less glamorous locales (“I’m looking at you, rural North Dakota in February.”). When you are on the go like that for work, it can be really easy to get stuck in an endless loop of jet bridge to rental car to chain hotel to meeting rooms/conference centers, which I think is a recipe for burnout. I am not typically a stop-and-smell-the-roses kind of person, but I really try to remind myself how lucky I am to be able to do what I do and the opportunities my career provides on so many levels. A few years ago, for a conference in Hyderabad, India, I took a much-jetlagged afternoon to go see the Chowmahalla Palace, which was incredible. We were in Belize researching the Mayan jungle for a game and made a point to go horseback riding in the jungle. Even last February as I was driving through the Black Hills at sunset, I just took a few minutes to appreciate how absolutely beautiful it is. I try to find ways to enjoy all of the things I get to do while I am doing the things I have to do.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Give people opportunities to grow while accepting that everyone will make mistakes. We have people on our staff who are brilliant and talented and could go to a large corporation and make a lot more money, but they don’t. In part, it’s because they know that on our team, they’re going to get the chance to learn new things, propose ideas and lead up projects with an autonomy they might not get other places. I am frequently in awe of the way members of my team rise to the occasion when given the opportunity or sometimes when it is thrust upon them.
That said, it’s equally important to realize that people don’t always nail something new the first time, so create an environment where people aren’t terrified of failing. If you don’t give people the initial leeway to make mistakes then you’re never going to give them the room to grow.
What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Delegate. That can be really hard. One thing that I have realized is there are many things that I might be able to do — and maybe even do better — but I can’t do all of it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
For me, I would have to say it’s been my husband, Eric. When I said, “Hey, so I think I’m going to change career paths and start an educational video company,” he did not say, “Are you absolutely out of your mind?” Nor “Has it occurred to you that you have zero experience making video games?” Nor “Do you realize we have (at the time) two children and a mortgage?” He just said, “OK.”
Later, when I would say, “I’m out of town every week for the next six weeks” or “I need to transfer money from our savings to 7 Generation Games because we need to make payroll,” he would say, “OK.”
Startup lore is filled with dramatic stories about legendary mentors and investors changing people’s lives in pivotal moments, but to me, success is really due to the non-glamorous, often not-that-exciting day-to-day and the people who support us in those unsung moments.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
It’s a constant work-in-progress. As CEO and creative director, I get up and try to do whatever I can to move 7 Generation Games forward, whether that’s working with teachers on design, creating content or working on the business development side, because I know that the work we do — improving math education for kids in underserved communities — has an impact. It may be in the form of gradual improvements, but largely that’s how transformative change happens over time. Then at the end of the day, I have three children I am trying to raise to be contributing, compassionate human beings.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’d like to think that we’re working toward that right now with the work that we do at 7 Generation Games, which is striving to improve education for students who truly need it most. Education — especially with a focus on equitable education — has the power to transform communities and societies. We know that quality education can open doors to better futures. One way that I think this goal could be better — and faster — achieved is through a more collaborative and inclusive innovation ecosystem when it comes to educational technology than currently exists.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
My grandmother passed away before 7 Generation Games was founded, but she had always been one of my greatest supporters. She was an educator and earned a Ph.D. back when it was rare for women to do “those kinds of things.” She may not have been the originator of the quote, but certainly shared it with me often. When 7 Generation Games was just starting out, we had so many people telling us why it would not succeed or why we were not investment worthy or why our software wasn’t good enough. It could have been really easy to listen to that negativity and question whether we could do it, but we knew that we had something truly needed with a huge amount of potential, so instead letting the naysayers get me down, I would hear her voice in my head.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I’ve long admired Melinda Gates and the work the Gates Foundation does both in the areas of K12 and global education as well as innovation. There is no question that they have long been a leader when it comes to social impact. That said, I have been really impressed by MacKenzie Scott and the philanthropic work that she’s been doing not only to empower and support marginalized communities, but with the speed that she’s moved and the seeming autonomy that she’s giving organizations she supports. You cannot understate the value of recognizing and respecting the expertise of people on the ground.