This episode of the Extreme Tech Innovators podcast series features a conversation with Juan Manuel Lopera Aristizabal, CEO and Founder of TOMi Digital of Medellín, Colombia, winner of the Education Technology category of Extreme Tech Challenge 2020.
TOMi is the 3rd in a series of startups Juan founded to support the profession of primary education teachers. While today Medellín is a lively, safe, tech-forward metropolis, back in the 1990s it was the hub of inter-American narco-trafficking. Juan Manuel grew up poor in, as he notes, “the most dangerous neighborhood in the most dangerous city in the world, at the time”. Drifting into crime and revenge, Juan feels his life was saved by a strong Math teacher who inspired and stoked passion in students to get deep into coding and hardware projects needing long hours in the lab that kept them off the streets.
Seeing both the value and struggle of teachers, Juan vowed to dedicate his tech career to expanding resources for teachers serving neglected students. His first venture was microfinance, his second curriculum. TOMi closes the loop with a portable hardware bundle that can serve as a hotspot, scan exams and store weeks of curriculum and assessment tools crowdsourced from other teachers in their region or nation. In some cases, teachers carry the TOMi down to the regional internet hook-up via donkey and download only once or twice per semester.
Juan Manuel notes that a key problem with previous edtech initiatives was an almost explicit side-stepping of teachers and a top-down flow of solutions. TOMi’s approach is conspicuously teacher-centric and bottom-up, allowing regional groups of teachers to share best practices and curricula among each other. TOMi is well-known for how teachers will pay for the device and service out of their own pockets (often entire semesters of salary) to bypass delays and restrictions of central ministries of education.
While gaining traction through such networks in Latin America – including a recent $10M deal featuring solar panel installations for rural classrooms far removed from any electricity – the architecture of platform-for-local-initiative is now driving recent uptake of TOMi very different cultures in India and South Africa.
Juan Manuel is a great exemplar of purpose-driven entrepreneurship, reinforced by a near-death encounter with COVID-19 last year, and through empowering teachers in neglected portions of the world to provide their best possible teaching, he is exponentially paying forward the gift of life and progress which a dedicated math teacher in Medellín gave him many years ago.
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