MIT’s Storyteller In Residence, Dom Smith chats to John Robinson Kendall about his start-up, Mindful Testing VR and the process of developing VR technology for the education sector.
Can you tell me about who you are, and what you do?
J] I’m John Kendall, and I’m a First Year MBA here at MIT Sloan, and I am the founder and CEO of Mindful Testing VR, and we are based here at The Martin Trust Center.
Can you tell me about your background?
J] Prior to MIT Sloan, I worked for five years in the software industry at Microsoft and Amazon, and during my time at Microsoft, I worked on Microsoft HoloLens, which is their augmented reality platform, and I was also exposed to virtual reality. Back then, it was still in its incubation, and secret project phase in 2013. That’s where my passion and spark, to enter this VR space started. I see the potential of VR to be as big as the internet.
J] Coming to MIT Sloan, I was transitioning from the world of big technology to now entering the world of entrepreneurship. I had a passion for innovating in the education sector with VR, and this idea for developing this unique experience.
How was the transition from working for a big corporation to entrepreneurship?
J] been a welcome, but challenging transition. Welcome, in the fact that I get to work on something that I believe in, and that I can fully invest in with my time and energy. Of course, coming from big tech firms like Amazon, and Microsoft is a great experience, but very linear and you don’t exactly have a lot of control over high-level decisions. However, it’s very structured and you get your pay-check on a monthly basis. It’s very comfortable! The room for risk, or growth is much smaller.
I’ll never forget my manager at the time described it to me, and said: “It’s hard for the Facebooks, Googles and Amazons to truly innovate because, as an employee the potential for growth is minimal, and the focus on things that really matter is minimum as well“. Something that was a big shift from working in big tech to small, is that a lot of what drives companies internally is the politics. But, now that I’ve entered this entrepreneurial space, those changes away from that are welcome, but in terms of the challenges, it’s like: ‘what’s next‘? The ambiguity is as big as can be. Today is it’s own adventure, and it’s really a rollercoaster for me.
Having developed the prototype. and the technical part through my own background knowledge, the challenge is now acquiring customers. It’s been really helpful to have this community here as I journey to make something out of nothing.
What are some of your goals for the rest of the year?
J] My goals for the rest of this year is to scale the business. I’ve already started working with some local high schools in the area. I’m focused on starting small, and getting this technology to a group of students, and making sure that they have the best testing experience there, and then scale it from that.
Technically, what that looks like is, I am seeking to partner with a school and sell them the software, and equip them with the future of testing which is in virtual reality.
What do you want to see happen with the product when it’s out of your hands?
J] The high-level problem that my product is addressing is test anxiety. One-in-five students experience debilitating test anxiety. I’m focused on the high school students, because mental health is in a crisis at the moment. Generation Z, the generation after millennials [born from ’95 onwards], and hospital admissions of high school students who are suicidal are at an all-time high, and that’s when they enter the Fall [semester] at school. This is just reflective of the state of mental health, and test anxiety is a big part of that. So, to answer your question about what is the ultimate goal? I want to empower the test-makers and the teachers to have better information on the test experience, so they can address it at a local level but also to change how we do testing globally. I want students to have their own personalised test environment, consumed in VR. Teachers are going to have insights into each of the test-takers experiences, so that they can generate the best tests that they can.
Can you talk about the experiences you’ve had, and how they have allowed you to relate?
J] I have experience with test anxiety myself, and often times that comes from the environment that I am in. The problem has always been that I compare myself to others in those environments. Often times, as well being the only African-American in the classroom – these things would definitely distract me from completing the test, which is all that matters at that point in time. The range of experiences that people can have are so vast and complex, but I’m hoping to expose that with my platform, and by seeing how people are experiencing the test, and at the same time, addressing the environmental issues. With the insights that I am going to generate from the test-makers, I will hopefully expose what everyone is experiencing within these test environments inhibiting them from doing their best.
What key tips would you give to a young person with an idea of their own?
J] Everyone’s scenario is different. If I were to give advice to a young person, I would recommend that they study Computer Science, as well as hack and build stuff, get feedback, learn and build from those experiences. See it as an adventure. I look back on my own experiences, and how I’ve overcome difficult times; the rollercoaster I’m experiencing right now. I would look at the people that inspire me in difficult times; I consider my parents to be entrepreneurs, and I come from a family of entrepreneurs in different ways.
One tangible story that keeps me going, is one of my favourite entrepreneurs: it goes back to the 19th century with a guy named Alonzo Herndon – he was born a slave and died a millionaire. He was born to a white slave master, was a slave as a child, eventually became free. He took up a trade as a barber, he became very good at it, and used that capital to go into the real estate industry. From there he founded Atlanta Life Insurance, which ultimately made him a millionaire and he became one of the first African-American millionaires in the United States.
I look at my experiences relative to that, and I think, ‘oh that’s nothing’, but I like to keep things in perspective, and keep myself inspired based on people who I looked up to, as well as moving forward towards what I hope to achieve.