Elizabeth Adams: Ello, Chief Experience Officer – From Child Psychologist to AI-Edtech Entrepreneur

Our mission is to teach the world to read, to eradicate illiteracy, and to give kids access to high-quality reading education through a delightful joyful experience.

– Elizabeth Adams
Considering herself as a Silicon Valley outsider, our guest this week unexpectedly became a central figure in the tech hub. Elizabeth Adams is a seasoned clinical psychologist and the co-founder of Ello, an EdTech company with a mission that’s nothing short of ambitious – to teach the world to read.

On this episode of the On Work and Revolution Podcast, we dig into the trajectory from idea to launch reflecting on the intricate dynamics of raising funds, emphasizing her role in infusing investor discussions with insights from a parent’s and educator’s perspective. As Ello, a delightful AI-driven reading companion, secures a Series A round, Elizabeth envisions continuing to leverage AI to revolutionize education and fulfill the dream of scalable, equitable learning.

Debbie & Elizabeth dig into:

✓ the importance of combining subject matter expertise, particularly in child development and education, with advanced technology to create a meaningful and impactful product.

✓ the unexpected turn with Ello’s evolution, sparked by the challenges of parenting during the COVID-19 pandemic

✓ the prospect of leveraging AI advancements to make personalized, contextualized, and equitable education a reality, pushing the boundaries of EdTech innovation.

About our guest, Elizabeth Adams:

Elizabeth is a clinical psychologist who specializes in child development, child behavior, and working with children and families in community settings, schools, clinics, and hospitals. She has worked with children and families for over 15 years. She provides training and education to students and professionals, has presented at national and international conferences, has published articles and book chapters on child development, and has been interviewed by magazines and radio programs on a variety of parent topics. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, two children, and a Labrador.

Helpful Links:

Follow Elizabeth on LinkedIn

Open for Full Episode Transcript

Open for Full Episode Transcript

Debbie Goodman  00:00

Welcome to On Work and Revolution, where we talk about what’s shaking up in the world of Edtech. I’m your host, Debbie Goodman, and I am CEO of Jack Hammer Global, which is a global group of executive search and leadership coaching companies. I’m also an adviser to venture backed startups in the Edtech ecosystem and really my main mission with all of the work that I do is to help companies and leaders to create amazing workplaces where people and ideas can flourish. And today, I am super excited to be joined by my guest, Elizabeth Adams, who is co founder and chief experience officer of an incredible Edtech company, which is making waves. It’s called Ello. Elizabeth is actually Dr. Adams, if you please. She’s a clinical psychologist specializing in child development and child behavior, working with children and families, training students and professionals. She presents on a national and international stage, publishes books and articles on child development and of late, she’s also become an entrepreneur. I’m going to leave this fascinating story for Elizabeth to tell as well as hear more about Ello and what shaking up in her Edtech world. So welcome, Elizabeth.

 

Elizabeth Adams  01:24

Thank you so much. It’s so great to be here, Debbie. I really appreciate that. 

 

Debbie Goodman  01:29

Okay, so firstly, how does a seasoned clinical psychologist who is immersed in a world very, very far away from Silicon Valley, tech startups, AI, even find yourself meeting with your co founders to start this company? Tell us the origin story?

 

Elizabeth Adams  01:50

Yeah, it’s a great question. Because I certainly consider myself solidly a Silicon Valley outsider. I have lived in the DC area for the last 30 years of my life and really took a very traditional path. In my clinical journey, I worked with children and families, specialized in working with young children. I spent a lot of time working with children that had language disorders, and thinking about the impact of learning on children that have a different developmental trajectory, or might have a disability or cognitive impact, and how that then impacts their functioning either in their families with behavior or also when it comes to learning. So I spent a lot of time working in school settings, hospital settings, community clinics. And if you had told me, you know, I don’t know seven years ago, that I would someday be a co founder of an Edtech company, I’m not sure that I would have believed that. It was, it’s a bit of a surprise to me. But it’s been a wonderful adventure, truly, and there was definitely, you know, some of this was good fortune and things being written in the stars. But as I was doing my very traditional work, and I found myself in a place where I had my daughter, at the time, when Ello got off the ground, she was five years old. And I was sort of in a rhythm of doing my clinical work and started to think about what would this mean to do this work on a larger scale. And I saw, in the first instance, a need for parents to get some support around parenting. I had friends who had started to have children, and they were all calling me saying, you know, I need some advice on how to get my child to sleep through the night or how to eat anything, noodles, or that kind of a thing. And there really wasn’t something out there. And so my first dipping my baby toe into into being an entrepreneur was launching a parent coaching business to try to meet this unmet need, where there wasn’t really a clinical need to see as a child psychologist, but there was a need for parents to have information that was grounded in evidence and that they could trust. So I started doing that. And through that work, my co founder, Tom, who I did not know at the time, was thinking a lot about individualized education for children. Very passionate, learner centered education. He spent some time on various boards trying to accomplish learner centered education initiatives. And he was also working for Google for Education at the time in terms of adoption. And Tom decided that he wanted to have a go at starting his own company that was focused on learner centered education, but thought maybe the way to get parents to think about making this huge shift in education is to start when their are children are very, very young to think about how there is not one path for children that works for all kids.

 

Debbie Goodman  05:15

How innovative an idea. I mean, the thing is that we’re sort of trained to believe that there’s just one way because the traditional format has been that there is primarily one way around schooling, and then expecting all learners or students or kids to fit in with that. And we’ve seen the awful outcomes of that expectation, and how incorrect that actually is.

 

Elizabeth Adams  05:39

Yes, yes. And I think it’s very overwhelming, you know, for parents who think about well, how do I take on a system that is enormous and set up in this way? But I think the idea resonates and that was sort of my call with parenting was that there’s actually, you can buy a book about one particular way to sleep train or one particular way to feed your children, but my belief is still that there are multiple ways that parents can do this that it’s successful. And so being able to give parents an individualized approach is actually the product that we started with. And so Tom actually sent out an email to a bunch of people saying, I’m looking for a child psychologist who might be interested in talking about this and we had a mutual friend that forwarded along his email. And we spent several months talking to each other and then Tom flew out from California and we spent two days thinking about, you know, what could this look like? And what might this be? And how could we provide an offering that’s different for parents? And at the end of those two days, he said, Hey, you know, do you want to try to do this together? And, you know, there was something that told me, not sure I’m gonna get another chance like this. And at the time, we were like, we’re gonna Bootstrap. I kept my job. It was like working in the evenings. And so it seemed really low risk. And so that’s sort of where we started. And then things took a bit of a left turn when we applied to Y Combinator.

 

Debbie Goodman  07:20

Okay, so let’s pause there for a second because Y Combinator at the time, you told me, you didn’t even know what Y Combinator was, and that in fact you could like, get money from other people in order to fund the business. So how did that happen? How did you go about getting slicks? I mean, YC is really considered to be almost like the, one of the pinnacle, the pinnacle organizations for startups to get on the map, because their selection criteria is very rigorous. They know what they’re looking for. They know that the companies that they select to be part of their incubator, their accelerator, are likely to get funding. So what was that like?

 

Elizabeth Adams  08:07

Yeah, it was an incredible process and an incredible experience. And it was really sort of like being thrown in the deep end. You’re right that I had not heard of Y Combinator before, which many people in the ed tech world did and in the world of startups think is quite hilarious. But Tom said, you know, I think this is a great exercise for us to go through, particularly for me as the subject matter expert. I’m trying to sort of flex that muscle and think about how am I going to apply my knowledge of child development and children and families to a product? And how do I start to reframe my thinking about what I know about how children and families operate and bring that into a business? And Tom thought it would be a good opportunity for us to think about it in that way. And so we went through the process of doing the application together, which just doing that, I think, was an incredible learning experience. And when we applied, I was really excited. And I thought, Oh, I can’t wait to get an interview. And Tom said, Elizabeth, it’s extremely competitive. I’m not sure that we will get an interview, but we’ll see. But I was really hopeful. Maybe that was naive, but I was really hopeful about it and sure enough, we did have the opportunity to go interview. And around the same time we got the very sage advice that having a technical co founder would be really beneficial to see and that’s what we set our sights on doing before we went and had our interview and brought on our third incredible co founder Cataline.

 

Debbie Goodman  09:54

Okay, so now you’re all prepped and ready. You’ve got the magic crew, the dream team of three who are now going for your interview, and then you get in just like that?

 

Elizabeth Adams  10:06

Yeah, well, it was, you know, my first taste of being a parent and being an entrepreneur where I had to go to California from DC on Halloween. And, you know, left explicit instructions for my husband how to do our daughter’s Halloween makeup and flew across the country. And we had our interview on Halloween day and found out that day, okay, accepted into the program, which was really exciting. And Tom, Cataline and I went to that interview. And I felt like a bit of a fish out of water there to be honest. I was, you know, 40, I was female. I was also at the time pregnant, but you couldn’t tell just yet, although people realized it as we were going through our process, which I think is not the usual makeup of a startup out there in YC.

 

Debbie Goodman  11:03

Right. Okay. Totally. I mean, and here’s the thing is that those shouldn’t be reasons to not be able to pursue a dream, and you get this incredible good fortune of being in the right place at the right time, being accepted by one of the most prestigious incubators in the world. And to be able then to pursue that. I’m not sure if I should say despite, but considering that there were a number of challenges, personal challenges. A, you didn’t live in the area, so you were living in the DC area, right, and had a five year old, and you’re pregnant. Okay. Yeah. And so I’m just, you know, this wasn’t necessarily intended to be a conversation around the women entrepreneurs, but this is often the, you know, our male counterparts do not have these considerations necessarily, that they’re needing to take into such great consideration when making decisions about their careers. So what was the flick of the switch for you that made this something that you were willing to say yes to? Because I can imagine there must have been a lot of reasons for you to say, this is the wrong time.

 

Elizabeth Adams  12:22

Yeah. Well, I think for me, it was really being passionate about the mission. You know, I had such an incredible career for 20 years, where I was able to make an impact on an individual level with the families and children that I worked with. But there’s only so much impact that you can have when you’re working on an individual level. And so the idea that I would be able to then scale the impact I was having was really exciting for me. And I also thought, to be honest, that it’s not something that I should have been hesitant to do, I think, because so many women are, because, there are so many reasons that society might tell you to say no. And I got my fair share of questions about whether or not it was the right thing to do with a five year old and being pregnant, right. Yeah. But that only to be honest, that only made me want to do it more. And I think it connects to a larger value where there’s not enough women building these products. There’s not enough subject matter experts on founding teams, also in the Edtech space. Yeah, and I believe in my bones that makes for a better product all the way through from start to finish. When you understand what it’s like to be a working parent, when you understand how kids learn, when you’ve been in classrooms, when you’ve worked in school systems. And so often, the individuals that are doing that day to day work and have been doing it for 20 years, aren’t the people then scaling and building the impact. And so I felt like almost like I had a responsibility, because I was lucky enough to have two co-founders that believed that too, that this was my opportunity to be a platform for other subject matter experts, who should be founders.

 

Debbie Goodman  14:19

Well, I’m very glad you took that responsibility seriously and went, okay, I’m doing this. Because yeah, there are so many that either would have made a different decision for themselves or because too many raised eyebrows in their own worlds. So congratulations for actually taking that huge step. I mean, let’s not minimize that. But that in itself a massive decision of courage. And then the actual starting to work Ello because I know it, no startup is ever straightforward. It never works in a straight line. But tell us more about Ello and the pivot, where we are now.

 

Elizabeth Adams  14:58

So yes. We had a pivot, we started out as I mentioned, working with parents of really young children and thinking about, you know, the role of a parent at that time. And, unfortunately, our YC batch ended several weeks prematurely before demo day for everyone, because it was March of 2020 and COVID hit. And the format, I had been flying across the country every week, and YC said, okay, I guess we’re gonna have to do demo day kind of by the seat of our pants, you’re gonna meet with investors over zoom, which was unheard of, you know, it wasn’t how things were done. Even that’s not that long ago. And so there I was, you know, not not going to YC and my daughter was sitting at a table behind me, in kindergarten, trying to learn to read over zoom, also, not in school. And I was in between fundraising breaks and investor meetings, watching her doing her zoom school and really interacting with educational technology in a way that she hadn’t before. I think like so many kids, the schools were just throwing Edtech at the kids. And she was really struggling with learning to read and kindergarten over zoom. And my friends, suddenly, we’re saying, Okay, I actually don’t care if my kid is sleeping in my bed, or they’re just eating noodles. Now, I’m apparently in charge of their education and I really have no idea what I’m doing. And oh, my gosh, if I was overwhelmed before, and they started asking, like, what programs are out there? What should I be looking at? And so I also was spending time looking at the products that my daughter was using, particularly around reading. She’s very shy, she was very hesitant to read on Zoom, and just couldn’t engage in that process. And I wasn’t wholly satisfied with the options out there, either. For her, she either didn’t really like them and didn’t engage with them. And they didn’t bring joy and delight to learning that I think, is part of the magic of learning. It didn’t, they didn’t all follow what I know about what motivates children, or they were really engaging and super fun. But they weren’t pedagogically sound, they didn’t follow what I understood to be the best practices of how children learn to read. And I thought, gosh, there’s got to be an opportunity for something better. And so meanwhile, you would think that COVID would be a moment that a lot of parents would be turning to parent coaches for help, but it wasn’t. They were so overwhelmed. And it just wasn’t the moment. No time, no time to fix these problems that will probably fix themselves, even if they’re painful in this moment. And they were really focused on education. And so we saw an opportunity, both from really thinking about it from where is technology going to advance significantly in the next year or two, and thought about how we could bring education and child development more broadly, to marry up with that technology and we thought reading was a fantastic place to start.

 

Debbie Goodman  18:31

Nothing like the motivation of a dissatisfied parent. Yes. During the pandemic, needing to educate or oversee the education of their own children. I’ve seen, you know, other stories like this, but at least you have a lot of academic foundational background in order to do something meaningful with it, so how exciting. All right, so where, what is Ello today? Tell us about that.

 

Elizabeth Adams  19:04

So Ello, our mission as a company is to maximize the potential of every child and what we’re trying to solve, one of the biggest problems in education, which is scaling one to one support for children. You know, individualized education and one to one educational support was one of the original dreams of AI like it’s been one of the dreams of AI for so long. And we believe that it hasn’t come to fruition because all the pieces weren’t in place, particularly for very young children. And our hypothesis about why is because the way that children learn is through conversation, and it’s through speaking, particularly if children can’t read. When you’re talking about young learners, a lot of educational technology is set up where kids are sorting and they’re touching a screen, but there needs to be a conversational component. So we have our own proprietary speech recognition, that we leverage for kids to read to Ello, who is a friendly, a turquoise elephant that is always patient, always kind and equipped with the tools necessary to help children learn to read. And so our mission is to teach the world to read to eradicate illiteracy, and to give kids access to high quality reading education, through a delightful joyful experience.

 

Debbie Goodman  20:41

Wow. So many new skills that you’ve had to learn including the process of capital raising. So Ello recently closed around series A, which is pretty extraordinary, amazing and to be applauded in the current markets, even though yes, AI at least is the you know, one area where their funding is going, but still, it is incredibly competitive. It’s a very tough market and that’s an incredible accomplishment. What was your involvement in this process? And the question really is from, you have really needed to add a lot of new skills to your particular toolkit. So I’m interested to hear more about that.

 

Elizabeth Adams  21:29

Yes, yeah. I mean, I think I’m incredibly fortunate to have two co-founders, where, when there’s three of us, we’re able to complement each other in a number of ways. You know, Tom is an incredible CEO, Cataline is an incredible technologist and engineer and my job has always been to really bring the experience of parents and children into the product, but it sort of sits across all pieces and so there was a lot of transferable skills that I just think had different framing around them. On the go to marketing side, like what’s going to, what messaging is going to resonate with parents? And on the product side, you know, how do we make sure that kids can actually understand this? How do we make sure it’s delightful for children? And so when it came to the fundraise, things investors want to know about is, you know, what’s your go to market strategy. And so my involvement there was using my voice and understanding about parents and children and learners and schools, having worked within schools for for over 15 years, bringing that knowledge to make sure that our plan made sense, because I had been there as a parent, as a mom, as a person in the educational field. And so it was talking about pedagogy, and it was talking about our product, it was talking about the ways that we improved, you know, when you think about what makes parents stick around, you know? How do you impact retention for your product, is meeting the needs of parents. And so I think it was really, you know, my role was becoming and still is being obsessed with our users and running play tests and talking to parents and talking to kids and then it’s bringing that voice into the room when we meet with investors so that they have confidence that we’re building a product that is going to resonate in the market. But in terms of the technology behind that, I feel so confident in my co-founder by telling him that he can answer those questions and in terms of investor relationships, and putting together a financial plan that is responsible and prudent. That is Tom’s specialty and so part of it is is really using our skill sets to support each other in the goals and fundraising was another example of how we did that.

 

Debbie Goodman  23:54

Well, I’m sure that with you in the room, you instilled a lot of confidence in those investors, who were like, yes, she knows what she’s talking about, for sure, she’s lived it, she knows it. What are you most excited about for 2024? 2023 has been grueling and I’m speaking to a number of founders and co-founders as well as investors who are not yet feeling like there’s too much open sea, open flat ocean, that there’s still lots of bumpy waves but I’m keen to hear, what are you excited about for 2024 in relation to Ello and the business?

 

Elizabeth Adams  24:36

Yeah. Gosh, we’re feeling a lot of excitement, nervousness, but a lot of excitement. You know, when I look back at our seed deck, we talked about you know, the AI tutor and we talked about our dreams for Ello. And, you know, we referenced the science fiction book, that now like at the time, so many people hadn’t talked about it at all, but it was like, you know, we’re going to make The Primer, we’re going to make, you know, the Diamond Age, and we’re going to make this accessible to kids. And I had never heard of that book. Cataline had me read it two years ago, but we thought technology’s not quite there. I think we’re there, I think we’re there. And there’s an incredible opportunity to now make one of the original dreams of AI come to life. But I don’t think it’s going to be easy. We’re constantly at the edge of technology changing, and particularly our machine learning team, who we’re so grateful for, is constantly innovating right on the edge, where, and it can be unpredictable and hard to build in that way because things are changing so rapidly. But I think there’s an opportunity here for companies to harness that power and build carefully and responsibly, but really make equitable education and high quality education possible. And so we are excited about leveraging AI to make that more accessible. We are releasing an all digital product for kids. We are excited about leveraging AI to make content that is relevant and contextualized for kids and diverse and meaningful and individualized. So that’s what’s to come for us.

 

Debbie Goodman  26:39

Well, it definitely sounds really super exciting. On the one hand, I wish my kids were young enough to be able to experience this on the other I’m so glad we’re done with those early days. I’ll leave it to all of you out there. But thank you for being here with me today, Elizabeth, sounds exciting. I’ve loved hearing about your journey. I’m excited about what lies ahead and all the very, very best for an amazing 2024. We’ll reconnect another time. Thank you.

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