Future Works Alliance PHL: Why did you get involved with Future Works Alliance?
Surinder Sharma: We’re tackling similar, long-term issues. The future of work is about technology and reskilling, and Future Works Alliance PHL knows great Ed Tech matters. Technology is becoming an integral part of every product, service, and workplace affecting all aspects of our lives. The ability to continuously re-skill and learn new job skills also requires a certain level of reading proficiency. This is quite a challenge for Philadelphia.
According to the Center for Literacy, Philadelphia ranks near the bottom of the US in adult reading proficiency. Just over half of Philadelphia adults are functionally illiterate, and nearly two-thirds are low-literate, reading at a middle-school grade level. This means that almost 40 percent of Philadelphia’s potential workforce struggles to fill out a job application; to read doctors’ instructions on their medicines; and to help with their children’s homework.
I decided to get involved when I saw the Future Works Alliance sharing similar mission and vision, tackling similar long term issues, and having education as one of the organization’s four main pillars — innovation, talent, education and environment. And knowing Anne as the passionate fellow woman leader that she is, working towards making a real grassroots change in our community, I was excited to support and join her in this project.
Future Works Alliance PHL: The future of work is driven by constant and rapid change. How has your upbringing and other life experience shaped the ways you manage risk?
Surinder Sharma: I was raised by a single mother who was a primary grade teacher all her life until she retired. Being a single mother raising a child, it was quite reasonable for her to minimize risk. She was fortunate to work in a top school that invested in professional development and offered a stimulating work environment.
The one thing that was constant throughout my upbringing was the highest value placed on education and books. It was never imaginable to even think of achieving anything less than a Master’s degree. I was constantly surrounded by books from an early age and was an avid reader to which I attribute most of my success in life. Once you are an active and proficient reader, acquiring new skills, upgrading your qualifications and certifications becomes easy and swift.
After completing my Masters in Business Administration, I started working in a federal government office as a gazetted officer, a definition of a low risk cushy job. However, I worked there for 3 years after which I joined my husband to start our high-risk entrepreneurial journey together in the US until now. This is something all entrepreneurs will say—never be complacent and never stop improving. And in my mind, the most efficient way to manage risk is to keep learning, adapting, and acquiring new skills. This is probably also true for all other aspects of our lives.
Future Works Alliance PHL: Share something about your work projects and goals for this year. How does the Future Works Alliance PHL complement these efforts?
Surinder Sharma: Our biggest and most exciting work project is our recent partnership with the NFL Alumni Association’s Caring for Kids initiative. We are launching a Read To Lead App with the NFL Alumni Association on July 4, Independence Day. The goal of this Read To Lead campaign will be aiding parents in bolstering their children’s education through the summer of 2021 and continue children’s literacy and reading proficiency as well as addressing any potential learning gaps caused by the Covid-19 pandemic in underprivileged communities.
The NFL Alumni Association will promote this app through all its chapters and provide access to kids and families across the country through corporate partnerships and campaign sponsorships. They hope to reach 500,000 kids by the end of 2022. Future Works Alliance PHL can be our campaign partner in Philadelphia where this kind of initiative is much needed. We hope that Anne, with her experience in leading the city’s special initiatives and her passion for education, would be willing to support this campaign.
Our other initiatives outside of the United States are in Nigeria, where our partner is targeting the implementation of Smart Kidz Club‘s Classroom solution in 12000 schools by the end of 2022. In Namibia, where our Namibia Reads App is entering its second year of nationwide access, we are launching an impact study of our app’s effectiveness among primary school children across several regions. We are also expanding our network of partners in Asia Pacific, though this region is grappling with a third wave of Covid-19 amid shortage of vaccinations.
Future Works Alliance PHL: What famous person, past or present, would like to meet and what would you do?
Surinder Sharma: I have always been inspired by Mother Teresa, who dedicated her life to a mission and transformed and touched the lives of countless people, with sheer grit and determination. I would have loved to meet her.
However, another strong woman who I admire and would really like to meet is Michelle Obama. She has the ability to connect with and inspire all at a human level. I would love to ask her to do some more of her magic in inspiring all young children and their parents to realize the importance of reading, and not just fiction or fantasy books but knowledge based books. Smart Kidz Club is a great tool in the hands of kids, Michelle Obama can be a great inspiration to use it.
The most efficient way to manage risk is to keep learning, adapting, and acquiring new skills. This is probably also true for all other aspects of our lives.
Future Works Alliance PHL: Thriving in the future of work requires proactive career management. Share memorable career management advice you received.
Surinder Sharma: Being an entrepreneur, career management advice might look very different. The kind of advice that entrepreneurs receive is mostly about failing fast and perseverance. However, here is one memorable career management advice that I would like to share and that applies to everyone—Never stop improving. Be it your company, a process in your company, or yourself, continuous improvement is critical is staying relevant and avoiding obsolescence.
Future Works Alliance PHL: What new tools, tech or other innovations are you now adopting and why?
Surinder Sharma: We are an edtech publisher that focuses on mobile reading and learning for young children. We make sure that we adopt the latest early education and research evidence in early reading and literacy.
The first major research we follow is based on a 2018 study by Dr. Hutton, a researcher and pediatrician specializing in “emergent literacy.” The study exposed children in and around the age of four to three forms of story narration: Audio only, Audio with static illustration (picture books), and Dynamic animation (cartoon).
After observing the children’s brain patterns in a functional MRI machine (noninvasive and safe), what emerged was termed the “Goldilocks Effect.” The study clearly demonstrated that audio with static illustration was the “just right” condition where the children’s understanding of the story was maximized as opposed to audio only (too cold), or animations (too hot) that actually proved harmful for young children. We also follow Dr. Hirsh-Pasek and Dr. Golinkoff’s 2015 paper that defines the lessons from the science of learning and development to make digital apps truly educational.
We are also adopting the latest technology in every aspect of our app development, performance, marketing, CRM, user experience, user safety, game based engagement, and data analytics. We incorporate human based narration with word highlighting for our read-along feature where the books read aloud to kids. The most important feature in our apps is that they have the ability to work offline without the need for continuous WiFi or data streaming.
Thanks to Surinder Sharma for being this month’s Featured Founding Member. You can learn more about her work at Smart Kidz Club, or follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn. We also encourage you to become a Founding Member of Future Works Alliance PHL, and to actively help shape our regional future.