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Bringing Math to the Masses: A Conversation with Zearn CEO Shalinee Sharma

Shalinee Sharma joins Bain's Manny Maceda to share how a growth mindset can help children excel in math.

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Bringing Math to the Masses: A Conversation with Zearn CEO Shalinee Sharma
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Normalizing the struggle of learning is key to creating a successful educational environment. Manny Maceda, Bain's worldwide managing partner, welcomes Bain alum and Zearn CEO Shalinee Sharma to discuss how the insurgent learning platform is teaching all kids to be "math kids" through a growth mindset. 

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Read a transcript of the conversation below:

SHALINEE SHARMA: We can, as an organization, say, "But we're trying to get every child in America to be proficient in algebra irrespective of their background, their starting point, what they have access to."

MANNY MACEDA: I'm here at our next installment of our Go Boldly series where we talk with great leaders who inspire us to go boldly and change the world. I'm excited today to have Shalinee Sharma with us. Hi, Shalinee. Thanks for joining.

SHARMA: Hi, Manny. Thank you. Thanks so much for including me.

MACEDA: Tell me a little bit about Zearn, what you're up to there, and this growth mindset that you and I have talked about in the past that you've used as one of the foundational ethos for your company.

SHARMA: So Zearn is a learning platform and also a nonprofit. And we focus on math. And we are built on a really simple idea, which is that all kids are math kids. And if we do the work as adults, we can make that true. One of the things that we need to help students and children with as they're learning is that growth mindset. So it's really about normalizing struggle.

The way I would describe it is that a lot of children with regard when they approach math and a lot of adults will preclassify children. So, "Oh, you're struggling in math? That's OK. You're not a math kid. You're a creative type." Right? We don't say that when kids can't read. We're like, "Oh, you can't read? That's OK. Reading is going, you know, you don't need to read. We have Alexa to read out loud to you." You know what we say, though, when kids are struggling math? "You have calculators. You don't need math." And we say, "OK, you're just not a math kid." We don't say, "Oh, struggle is part of learning. Making mistakes is how you learn. When you exercise, if you don't feel sore, you won't get stronger."

So, we don't do that enough in the field of mathematics, and so as a result, math is for the elite. It's a small subset that make it through the gauntlet of math education, who perhaps have parents or other adults who are saying, "Struggle is part of learning." Most kids hear the message, "You're just not a math kid. That struggle? Don't worry about it. You're something else." I say that's the first place that mindset and growth mindset is core to math learning.

I will make zero predictions on the pandemic because I'm not good at predicting things. But at the minimum, we can all say that we are in a very different time for K-12. We have a year and a half of disrupted learning experiences. And we need to catch that up and move students forward. And this year is going to be bumpy. I don't know how far in front is going to be bumpy. And so as parents and as educators, we are in learning. We are just learning how to deliver learning, how to keep kids safe, how to keep communities safe, how to ensure that they're learning and loving learning.

Learning is a social experience. You need to feel like you belong in your classroom. You need to like or love your teacher. You need to feel your teacher likes you. You need to have friends. There needs to be a full social-emotional aspect to learning. And how do we deliver that right now? It's challenging. And so we are in the midst of, and we can take two approaches: We can say, "This is too hard." Or we can say, "OK, let's see; let's get through this and see what we can keep and see what belongs on the other side."

MACEDA: Now let's talk about you as CEO of a social entrepreneur. But you're moving from being an entrepreneur to it's a real company. It's scaling up fast. You're advancings are into the next stage of success. It's a capability and a platform sorely needed. And so as you think about moving to that next level and keeping some of the Bain concepts you learned -- Founder's Mentality, insurgent spirit, making a difference -- how do you think about the next stage of the journey, Zearn CEO Shalinee Sharma?

SHARMA: I think the insurgent mindset is one I think about all the time. How to keep the insurgency and the insurgent mindset going. We'll have leadership team meetings, and we'll be talking about what is the insurgent approach. And I think the question is, how do you stay inspired to be insurgent? What's the focal point in your mind? And for us, it's our students. So we have a lot of different stakeholders that we serve. When we think about, you know, we sell to school districts and to states. Those are adults who are educators, and they're certainly interested in supporting and making America's K-12 great. But they're pretty disintermediated from the day-to-day life of students and teachers.

Sometimes their desires and requests are not actually going to be the best thing for students. They may not harm students, but they're us wasting our time. We can waste a lot of our time meeting the needs of administrators that are, at best, random or bureaucratic. Or we can, as an organization, say, "But we're trying to get every child in America to be proficient in algebra irrespective of their background, their starting point, what they have access to. And so if we spend time on this, that means we're not spending time against those students." So I think for us, like how we can then say let's always keep that insurgent mindset is we think about those students.

MACEDA: We're proud of what you're doing. We're so supportive and inspired and how you're making a difference in the world. Thank you for spending time with us. And go out there, and keep building this great platform to everyone's benefit. Thanks, my friend, and I'll see you soon.

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