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The Week that Changed Everything

In this series, MIND Research Institute CEO Brett Woudenberg reflects on what brought him to the organization and how MIND’s mission to mathematically equip all students to solve the world’s most challenging problems holds resonance for him.

Last month, I wrote about MIND Research Institute’s commitment to people above profit. Little did I know that within weeks, we would be called upon to demonstrate that commitment in such dramatic fashion.

In light of the nationwide shift to online learning necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, MIND recently made our flagship instructional learning program, ST Math, available to schools and families for free through the end of June. Since then, our team has received requests from over 1,630 schools and more than 14,640 families to access the program.

This is not business as usual. 

Amid these uncertain days, I wanted to pause and share with you what’s been going on inside MIND, and how proud I am of our purpose-driven team. It’s absolutely inspiring and, to be perfectly honest, a little bit scary. 

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Tipping Point

Each year, I take one of my three daughters on a daddy-daughter trip somewhere in the world, inexpensively using miles and hotel points for some family bonding, and to provide international exposure that I never had as a child. Last year during spring break, I took my middle daughter, Hope, to Shanghai and Beijing (combined population 45 million). It was her first time in China, and it was amazing to see her experience bits and pieces of the culture, history, language, food, and natural beauty of the country. 

A year later, we were both monitoring the frightening news coming out of China, but it wasn’t until this March, when two of my daughters were notified by their universities in Texas and California that they were being sent home and all classes were moving online, that I realized that the crisis was going to have a massive impact on education in the U.S.

MIND’s executive team listened closely to talk of school closures — rumors that quickly became our new reality. Fortunately, the team took the rumors seriously, and began right away to put plans in place for how we could support schools and districts that would be impacted by health-related closures. We started by reaching out to our existing customers, and then put a plan in place for any school in the U.S., regardless of whether they used ST Math already. 

Pi Day, March 14, was a watershed moment for MIND. On that day, we quietly flipped the switch to make ST Math home access free for families — no longer just for schools and districts — but we hadn’t yet notified anyone outside the organization. To our amazement, while our leadership team was on a daily huddle call (we have kept this up during this crisis), in less than an hour more than 200 families signed up online to start using ST Math. We also decided in that same meeting to close our offices on March 16 and go fully remote at home to protect our team mates.

Hearing about the new families who found us on their own, our executive team mobilized and snapped into alignment, recognizing that we were facing a tsunami of need. To uphold our mission, we had to act.

“Our mission is to ensure that all students are mathematically equipped to solve the world's most challenging problems.”

Mobilizing and Adapting to the Need

MIND has a well-established remote work culture, so when members of our team logged on the following Monday, they found themselves facing a whole new set of organizational challenges. 

Everybody’s role has been affected — from our receptionist to our bookkeeper, and especially those who usually spend their days on-site at schools working with teachers and administrators. They all started working toward the goal of meeting the sudden uptick in demand for the program — a 30% increase in schools using ST Math and a 17-fold increase in families signed up for home access — within a single week.

The absolute and complete dedication of our team, rising to our mission at this time of need, has been humbling. As CEO, I expect to work nearly 24/7 through crises like this, but my effort has been matched and surpassed across the organization in ways I could not have imagined, and would never have asked. Watching that happen while the entire team went remote from home was amazing. Our friends from Cisco have supported MIND with tremendous video conferencing hardware and software for years, making that transition seamless.

ST Math home access during COVID-19

During that first week, our team was called upon to help thousands of teachers, administrators and parents transition their students to at-home learning with ST Math. They’ve been amazingly successful. Since Pi Day, more than 1.5 million ST Math puzzles have been solved by students diligently learning from home.

We are moving at warp speed to keep up, but the silver lining is that we’ve been able to help meet the tremendous need and move our mission forward in a giant step.

If we needed additional inspiration, we would look no further than the sacrifices that parents, as well as our education administrators and teachers are making every day. Parents are doing whatever they can to ensure their children are learning at home, including leading that learning themselves. Some of our longtime education partners are driving through their communities to deliver free lunches — not just for their own students, but also other kids in the neighborhood. They are going to extraordinary lengths to take care of their students’ education, emotional, and physical well-being in this difficult time. These educators remind us every day that we must take care of the need, wherever it is, however we can. 

“We must take care of the need wherever it is, however we can.”

Bottom line

Crises never wait for perfect timing. This one came at the worst possible time, at the tail-end of our annual slow season for education technology, a period when we rely heavily on philanthropic support.

Thankfully, our Board of Directors immediately stepped up to help, offering near-term financial support. Our executive team further sacrificed with a voluntary pay cut so we could serve more of the need. Several of our corporate and foundation supporters, seeing that an entire generation’s education is in imminent danger, are accelerating or reallocating their gifts to meet the urgent need as well. We are profoundly grateful for their philanthropic support.

I am well aware of the cynics who will say we are only doing this to end up with more paying customers next year. It’s true that our organization has been primarily supported by program revenue (80%), and has largely relied on schools being able to pay for ST Math. It’s true, also, that we may find ourselves in a whole new world on the other side of this — many aspects of life will change, including potentially our nation’s approach to education. But for now, here’s what we know for certain: we are doing everything we can to help hundreds of thousands of students, families, and educators get through a temporary crisis. 

In the future, they may not need or want ST Math, and that’s OK. The bottom line is that we need to ensure as many students as possible continue their math education right now

Our children are watching. If we want them to confront the world’s greatest challenges with creativity, critical thinking and persistence, then we need to demonstrate that for them as we face this challenge. At MIND Research Institute, our entire team continuously aspires to do the same every day, and particularly in this time of crisis. Alongside parents, teachers, administrators and partners, we will support our students and get through this together.

Thank you for all that you do to help MIND, and for all you are doing to support your communities during this unprecedented time.

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Brett Woudenberg

About the Author

Brett Woudenberg is the Chief Executive Officer of MIND Research Institute. He oversees core operations of the organization, including education partnerships, social impact development, outreach and engagement, program implementation, talent development, and finance.

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