This Former Googler is Reinventing SAT Prep With The Help of Marvel, ESPN and AOC
By Shannon Farley, originally posted on Forbes.com 7/9/19
There are times when inspiration hits so strongly, you can’t help but take action. That’s exactly what happened to Lisa Wang, who quit her job as a Google Product Manager to build a tech nonprofit, Almost Fun. Her mission? To level the playing field for low-income students by making studying for tests like the SAT fun…almost. Lisa believes that the old ways of test-prep aren’t working for everyone; they’re designed for those who can afford it, not the under-served. Now Lisa’s stepping into the world of social entrepreneurship to build an unconventional alternative to a broken system. Today, Lisa launched her app Almost Fun.
Shannon Farley: Take us back to the beginning. You’ve spoken about the parts of your family history that lit a flame within you to fix inequities in our education systems. Can you share a bit more?
Lisa Wang: My dad grew up in very rural China. And despite the odds, he made it to college. While he doesn’t talk about it much, he was the first one from his village to go to college. He could hardly speak English when he came to the U.S., but managed to raise a family while working two jobs and attending graduate school. Sometimes though, if I catch him in a mood, he’ll drop a devastating fact or two. Like when he was younger, he figured out he was talented at math. He didn’t realize this because a teacher told him, or because he got good grades, but because he knew when his textbooks were wrong, even when his teacher didn’t.
So for me, moments like getting into Harvard, getting a job at Google, and starting Almost Fun have been tinged with frustration that my Dad, the smartest guy I know, couldn’t have had this, too. And this inequity still exists today.
Farley: You were a volunteer SAT prep instructor for a few years before you committed in a big way by quitting your job as a Product Manager at Google to work on your tech nonprofit full time. Tell us more about your time as an SAT instructor.
Wang: The students I worked with were beyond amazing. Despite the fact that they could be doing… literally anything else… they’d walk into class with high energy, ready to learn. One particular class, we were working on calculating the volumes of 3D shapes. I asked a question about calculating the volume of a drill bit, and with each passing second, I could feel the energy getting sucked out of the room. Then one of my students said, “Why do we have to learn geometry, we’re never going to use it.” I almost melted into the floor. Of course geometry is useful! But the way it was being presented clearly didn’t convey that. I knew I had to create something better for them.
Farley: And so Almost Fun was born. The SAT is not a test that is often associated with fun. For me, it brings to mind repetitive question drills, late night studying, and lots of angst. How are you making studying for the SAT an almost fun process?
Wang: Almost Fun is delivering test-prep in a new package. It looks and feels way more like Duolingo than the typical 1,000 page SAT-prep books. We use movie scripts, pop culture events, young adult novels, and other materials that high schoolers actually enjoy to teach the same test-prep skills they could get from expensive tutoring companies.
Possibly my hottest take is that the SAT does test useful skills. I know, I know – not everyone agrees. But teaching the SAT and working at the same time showed me that many of the skills I was teaching were skills I was using as well. And I wasn’t alone! Other young professionals, like my friend Angie, who’d just started a wedding photography business, were using these skills too. A lot of the challenges Angie faced were related to SAT skills; client emails, budgeting, editing photos.
If you look hard enough, you can see applications of SAT skills in almost every job and in the content and media around us. I believe the key to effective test prep is to change the goal from doing well on a test to making progress towards future employment.
Farley: …And then you quit your job to do this full time?
Wang: I did. I was going to bed every night thinking about how to build something for these students, and spending my weekends creating better content for them. At a certain point, it just didn’t make sense for me to be doing this on the side anymore.
“If you look hard enough, you can see applications of SAT skills in almost every job and in the content and media around us.”
There were a few moments I felt almost ready to go do this full time, but I always imposed conditions on myself… “I’ll leave if I can find a co-founder” or “I’ll leave if I can find a part-time gig.” As much as I wanted to believe I was just being practical, creating these conditions came from fear that I wasn’t on the right track. I had to get over my fear. The more I worked with my students, the more I felt like the opportunity to help students in a big way outweighed the risk of leaving my stable, full-time job at Google. That’s when I decided that I was ready.
Farley: What makes the content you’re creating different from traditional test-prep companies?
Wang: It’s built for the students, not for the test! The content I’m creating is, first and foremost, focused on engagement. The thing about test-prep today is that it’s optimized for students who can pay for it. But for students who don’t have either the testing skills or the support structure to force them to practice repetition, this test-prep is not effective. In addition to the test content, we also host short video content featuring young, diverse professionals talking about how they use each test skill in their day-to-day. The videos are interlaced with SAT style questions that showcase real problems those professionals encounter.
Second, it’s mobile focused with offline-support, optimized for students who may only have moments to study between things like commuting and helping out family. And third, it’s personalized, and feels like a coach. Everything about the app is meant to make you feel like there’s someone on your side working with you. For example, instead of the usual explanation block of text you would get, explanations are interactive. With each step, students engage to confirm understanding before moving to the next step.
Farley: What made you decide to be a tech nonprofit?
Wang: As a nonprofit, I have the freedom to focus on under-served students exclusively. Almost Fun’s only stakeholders are its users. If you’re mission focused and your mission doesn’t align with high profitability, a tech nonprofit is the way to go. There’s a reason that a lot of the tech out there is not built for social good.
Farley: What will the world look like when Almost Fun is successful?
Wang: When we’re successful, every student will have access to the resources they need to succeed. Success can mean a lot of things – a good test score, a good college, a good job. As someone who had all those things and still felt like something was missing, I’m defining success as having the knowledge and resources to pursue a career that excites you. That means knowing that you can be a photographer or an investigator or a chef or a videogame designer or a waterslide tester or a tech nonprofit founder or whatever floats your boat, and having the ability to pursue that dream.