Women In Tech: Jocelyn Leavitt

jocelyn leavitt

Jocelyn Leavitt used to be a teacher at Dalton, and has been working with constructivist, project-based learning since her undergraduate days. She wished she had studied engineering and is making this product to compensate. She grew up in Honolulu and likes surfing, swimming, snorkeling, diving; pretty much anything that involves oceanic immersion. She used to front a rock band and nothing can get between her and Chop’t.

MONDO: How did you get the idea for Hopscotch and how did the company get started?

JOCELYN: Sam and I were both members of the NYC startup community and wanted to start our own company. Although we hacked around on many different side projects, we kept returning to this realization that there weren’t that many girls starting companies or working as engineers. We kept asking ourselves why this occurred and as we spoke to our engineer friends, many of whom were guys, some patterns emerged. A lot of these guys started programming when they were 10 or 11; they fell in love with playing video games and started making their own. Sam and I got interested in technology much later on in life, but we both wished we had had an experience like these guys when we were growing up. It seemed like that early contact with video games laid the groundwork for their success, so Sam and I envisioned a product that could appeal to a broader demographic.

MONDO: Does having grown up in Hawaii have an influence on your company? What about how you, as a business person, operate?

JOCELYN: Hawaii is a very strong part of my identity. People have told me that it’s reflected in my personality, but it’s hard to parse out correlation and causation. I’ve been told that I’m pretty low-key and mellow, especially for someone from New York. I try not to take things too seriously and I try to be humble; a large part of Hawaiian culture centers around your humility and Aloha spirit, which translates into kindness and love for people.

I think Hawaii also impacted how I think about education. Growing up, I was particularly interested in Hawaiian culture and indigenous modes of education. In the Western tradition, you go to school, sit at a desk, and listen to a teacher, but much of what you “learn” might not be retained. Indigenous education is very hands-on and project-based.

This concept is reflected by educational philosophers like Piaget and Dewey, and these ideas inform the ethos of what we’re trying to do with Hopscotch. In our model, kids acquire knowledge by actually building things—”learning by really doing”.

MONDO: Your website says you want to change the world. How does Hopscotch’s mission help you to accomplish that?

JOCELYN: I’ve been idealistic my whole life and I’ve always wanted to do things that help people and change the world. I think this mindset is very common among girls, which is one of the reasons women don’t go into computer programming; very often, computer science is not framed as a means of changing the world when, in fact, it can be hugely powerful.

At Hopscotch, we’re building an accessible way for non-engineers to use their phones and other touchscreen devices to program and experience the empowerment that programming gives you. I think that tapping into this power will have very broad implications for the future.

MONDO: Hopscotch is all about “building something.” Do you think this taps into the same instinct kids have to play with Legos or build a fort?

JOCELYN: Definitely. Recently the @Hopscotch twitter account tweeted Edwin Land’s quotation: “An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail.”

MONDO: When did you take a chance and fail, but ultimately learn from the experience?

JOCELYN: I feel like that happens every week at Hopscotch. We’re trying new stuff and failing all the time. A big part of the creative process is having a lot of different ideas and, invariably, not all of those ideas are going to be the right ones. More than half of them will fail and a few of them will be quite successful.

MONDO: In your bio you mention that you wish you had studied engineering. Why is that? What’s your educational background?

JOCELYN: There are so many things that I like about engineering. I like the idea that you’re inventing, making, and trying to solve a particular problem with a practical solution meant to be used by other people. That aspect appeals very much to me and my personality.

But when I was in school, engineering just seemed so dry and irrelevant. I didn’t have a clear sense of what engineering even was, but it didn’t seem intellectually engaging and wasn’t marketed particularly well. Knowing what I know now, I wish I had studied engineering because I think I would’ve loved it.

As for my own education, I started out as an Environmental Studies major because I was deeply idealistic and wanted to work on international development and indigenous peoples issues; later, I turned towards Geography. I also studied Music and Education and became increasingly more involved in the Education department over the course of my college career.

MONDO: Do you think it’s important for those in less analytic, more humanities-driven fields to learn to code via an app like Hopscotch?

JOCELYN: Just as every engineer benefits from exposure to the humanities, I think every person who studies the humanities should have exposure to STEM. The phobia of math and science that is perpetuated and accepted in the United States is quite a shame. High functioning adults can excuse limited math skills by saying, “Oh, I’m just not good with numbers,” and will still be considered smart. People would not receive the same response if they said, “Oh, I’m just not good at reading.” In the United States, illiteracy is not considered okay, and yet it’s acceptable to be innumerate or not understand empirical processes. Some exposure to rational, problem-solving decision making would actually benefit everyone a great deal.

MONDO: Do you think coding skills should be included in all school curriculums? Is coding the new “art class” in kindergarten?

JOCELYN: I do think that coding skills should be included in school curriculums because, if nothing else, it can demystify how the computers that surround our daily lives work. Yet, as a former teacher, I can understand how the idea of a new requirement sounds terrifying, especially if you are under resourced. Part of the problem is that there aren’t enough trained teachers out there, but Hopscotch can help. We just released a curriculum designed for teachers without a shred of computer science background who want to teach computer science in the classroom. It’s free; just visit our site and download it.

Teaching “coding” doesn’t always have to happen on the computer, either. You can find coding curriculums that require a pen and a piece of paper and never touch a computer. You can find board games that teach “coding”; it’s really just about writing algorithms and algorithms are all around us. When I was growing up, we had Home Economics class where you learned how to cook. Writing a recipe, to some extent, is in many ways just an algorithm: a set of instructions that need to be very clear and repeatable so that another person can understand and execute them. In programming, the only difference is that the other person is a computer with a more specific vocabulary.

MONDO: What do you think is at the root of the lack of women in tech-fields? Can Hopscotch help to close that gap?

JOCELYN: I think there are a couple of different roots. There’s the pipeline problem. There’s the fact that historically, not as many girls have been interested in programming and engineering during the critical middle school years. A lot of times, identities get formed at those grades that will sustain an interest through high school when others become distracted.

There’s also the problem of attrition when women enter tech. We’re well aware of the existence of sexism and we’ve got to reduce it. The whole point of Hopscotch is to close this gap.

MONDO: Where do you see Hopscotch 5 years from now?

JOCELYN: In five years, Hopscotch will be much more ubiquitous. It won’t just be for kids; it’s going to be on phones as a useful utility that anyone can use to create and share amateur programs. Fifty years from now? Who knows what the world will even look like.

MONDO: As a female entrepreneur in the tech industry do you have any advice for other women looking to start their own tech businesses?

JOCELYN: I have a female co-founder and it is a real joy; we get along so well and I really appreciate that. But I think it’s harder to have an all-female founding team. My general advice to founders is make friends with other founders. They’re the most useful people to know. Investors are constantly evaluating you, so remember to establish friendships and make a good impression. If you don’t have to be a venture-backed startup (i.e., your product is not consumer-facing or it’s a consumer product that can monetize quickly), try not to take venture money. People may pigeonhole you as a “lifestyle” business, but don’t be deterred.

To learn more about Hopscotch and download the app, visit their website.

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