Kelowna Women in Business: Mathtoons creator forging new ground

When the founder of one of Canada’s most notable tech companies was in Kelowna last year, he said there’s one thing even the most successful venture struggles with: Finding women to fill its tech positions.

Nine out of 10 people interviewed for a tech position in his office are men, said HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes.

At that time, the company had 58 engineers and developers on their team, and only 17 were women.

It’s a problem that extends throughout the industry.

According to a 2012 Dow Jones study, only 1.3 per cent of founders at privately held, venture-backed companies were women.

Furthermore, women account for just six per cent of the chief executives of the top 100 tech companies, according to the National Centre for Women and Information Technology.

The key to filling the gap, say the experts, is education. If they’re right, the answer to bringing a new generation into an industry laden with men may be in Kelowna.

Math-loving entrepreneur, tech company CEO and former teacher Kristin Garn is doing her part to boost the number of women in power positions, all the while sparking a love of math and science among teenagers, one app at a time.


Kristin Garn was the type of teacher who got worked up about course material.

“When the graphing calculator came out, I read the whole 300 page manual,” she said.

“I was so excited about it. But my students were like, ‘What are you excited about? This is the worst.’”

What they were enthused about, however, was tablet technology.

“When the iPad came out, I thought: What’s the big deal, it’s a big mobile phone?” she said.

Her math students saw it in a much more favourable light.

It was an easier-to-lug-around, interactive source of information, and they kept asking why she wasn’t basing lesson plans around them.

It was a suggestion that ultimately sparked a career revolution for Garn.

She left a teaching position in Winnipeg, and in 2006 created Mathtoons, a Kelowna tech company that’s currently turning heads for getting teenagers to use their time online for educational betterment.

“We know that we have to move away from the textbook educational model that says, ‘hey, open me up,’” she said.

So, she said, why not move to a medium that students are already engaged in, such as their phones, computers and tablet devices?

“The bookmark in text, flip back-and-forth to get the answer method—holds back too many students from practicing,” she said.

“We naturally need instant feedback. Even a small amount is motivating.”

With that in mind, Mathtoons focused on creating apps that balance play and learning.

The company is a registered developer for both the Apple iTunes and Google Play app stores, has developed and deployed dozens of academic mobile apps since incorporation in 2011 and has been featured at Apple as one of the top educational app developers.

Go to iTunes, and you will see that the company can boast 100,000 downloads already.

And, Garn stressed, the apps aren’t for the super academically minded student, either.

Just the word “math” can cause angst, Garn said, but it’s those people that Mathtoons could really help.

“We have pretty solid research that parents in the west pass on their anxieties about math to their children,” she said. “So our focus group is kids (ages 14 and up) who don’t express a big love of math. Our goal is to turn around math aversion.”

Garn and all the app developers at Mathtoons know what it’s like to master something that’s challenging, she said, and they’ve worked that understanding into their app.

“I was a harpsichordist, and as a young classical musician you learn the notion of flow from practicing a lot. The practice of something difficult becomes enjoyable.”

It also builds the characteristics that lead to more success.

“Grit, tenacity and buoyancy” are traits that can help anyone become good at practicing, which is important because, like the old adage says, practice makes perfect.

Teachers are onboard with the idea, too.

Garn regularly taps into the educational community to get feedback, and the response she gets is positive about the work she and her team are doing.

Over the next 12 months, the Mathtoons team will work with key educational consultants and advisers to develop web-accessed content authoring software, which will enable educators to easily and rapidly design and deploy engaging skills practise applications for students’ personal mobile device

“I’m overwhelmed by how much we are welcomed by education stakeholders,” she said. “They are recognizing that the same digital tools that are in students’ lives— tablets and home computers, Xbox and Playstation—all of these things are engaging students’ cognitive abilities.”

Funding to ensure that Mathtoons ideas take root is starting to flow, as well.

This week Mathtoons Media signed its second contribution agreement with the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP) to develop teacher-created mobile practise for upper level academics.

NRC-IRAP is providing advisory services and funding of up to $221,000 to support Mathtoons’ development of collaborative authoring tools for teachers as well as personalized mobile practice applications for students.

The funding will help Mathtoons to develop authoring tools and mobile practice with a broader scope toward achieving Western Canadian educational goals such as personalized and flexible learning.

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