Originally aired on June 2 @ 7:30 AM - 8:00 AM EDT
Founder Focus is a “Humans of New York” style spotlight on the human stories behind diverse startup founders, their life experiences and perspectives, the origin stories of their startups, and the path they took to where they are today.
This week's guest is Indra Sofian, Co-Founder of Sora Schools.
All right, and we're live. Hello, everyone. Welcome to another episode of Founder Focus. I am your host, Jade Wang, and I run the startup program at Cloudflare. Today, we are lucky to have us as a guest, Indra Sofian. Welcome to the show. Thanks for having me. So tell us briefly about what Sora Schools is and how it's different from conventional schools. Sure. So for those of you that don't know, Sora is an online student-centered middle and high school that really empowers students to pursue their interests and discover who they are. So in our school, students grow by mastering concepts and skills in their projects that sort of reflect the real world and prepare them for the challenges of the future. So at the core of our philosophy, really just the thing that makes Sora different from like a traditional school is that everything we do is sort of rooted in giving students agency and choice in their learning. And so by teaching students how to be independent, critical thinking people that can chart their own path and explore life in a way that's meaningful to them, we're equipping them to succeed in the real world, and their career is much better than a traditional school. So we're very different from a conventional school, as we'll dive into, and utterly different, I'll say, from the vast majority of online schools. So since most of our audience is not in the educational space, and most of our audience is tech workers, I wanted to define or explain a few terms just to get everyone, just to provide context for everyone. First is project-based learning. So project-based learning, flipped classroom, and student-directed learning. And which of those apply to Sora? Can you help us provide a little context here for our audience? Sure, well that actually would be super helpful, because they all kind of apply to Sora. So yeah, and so I'll just kind of go through some of the terms you mentioned. So flipped classroom is this concept where students are introduced to content outside the classroom, and then they work on or practice the concepts in the classroom. So as the name suggests, it's the reverse of a traditional classroom, where normally you would get the content through like a lecture or a video or something in class, and then you work on assignments on that content at home. So flipped classroom just sort of takes that on its head. Project -based learning, so in PBL, students learn through real world and or personally meaningful projects. Typically in PBL, they solve a real world problem or answer some complex guiding question. The difference between PBL and just doing a project, like most people in traditional schools are aware of, is that in PBL, projects drive the whole learning experience, and the whole like learning process. Like it's not just some like dessert project, you know, at the end of the class, like at the end of a unit where it's like, okay, we learned, you know, physics. Now everyone like quickly go launch a rocket for fun, you know, kind of thing. Like in PBL, like it's the whole class is the rocket basically. So student -directed learning, like open classroom, just a couple different terms, but as the name suggests about student-directed learning, students just guide the learning process. They have choice typically within a range of objectives. So ultimately, they just take responsibility for their own learning. Like that's kind of the purpose of student-directed learning, which ultimately results in a higher amount of engagement and just investment from the student, because the student is usually creating something they care about or want to learn more about. So at Sora, as I mentioned, this sort of all applies because we sort of employ all these different, all these different practices. So at Sora, giving students agency and their learning is pretty much the absolute core of our program and philosophy. So in our program, students constantly guide their own learning. They choose from an array of learning expeditions, which are these sort of are basically our versions of classes at Sora. They do, they work on their own individual student projects that they get the design with the help of a learning expert, which is our version of teachers at Sora. And so like a single student at Sora, their journey, their learning journey can look very different from that of another student. So let's dig a little bit more into the expeditions. Can a student choose to go on a solo expedition? So if they happen to be the only kid who's interested in a topic at that particular time, or do multiple students pool together in an expedition, how does that work? Sure. So just explaining expeditions in general, it's a long answer. Is there like a minimum or a maximum group size per expedition? So yeah, like we actually, actually there is at Sora, we kept them at 15. Generally 10 to 15 we find is like the optimal range for like maximum student engagement. But just to kind of give a quick overview of learning expeditions to answer your question, expeditions, as I mentioned, are a version of classes. They're sort of these intensive interdisciplinary six week courses with real world application and context for students dive deep into a subject. So expeditions are usually pretty active learning experiences. Like students aren't just sitting back and passively listening. These aren't cookie cutter courses either. Each student has a sort of different customized learning experience, a range of objectives within an expedition that they can sort of tailor really to like what they're interested in and how they want to learn. So expeditions usually focus on a single topic, but students can often take the projects and assignments and design like a unique deliverable around the topic. So it may not be that every student just does the exact same project. Everyone has their own like spin on it and does it in a way that's like personally meaningful to them. So as I mentioned, they're typically kept at 15 students. If students want to participate just in like, as you described, like a solo expedition. So we actually just have what we call individual student projects at Sora where students can literally just design their whole learning experience based around what we call a guiding question. So this could be like a challenge. It could just be like a topic student really wants to learn about. But regardless, like that's sort of like the very, very customized version. I'll say expeditions are a little more guided and structured sort of like sort of like classes and students sign up for those like every six weeks at Sora, same with their projects. So if I'm a kid and I'm like super into Minecraft and I want my project to be writing a bunch of Minecraft mods or maybe getting started with my first Minecraft mod, like are the learning experts equipped to help me specifically with that kind of project and journey? Yeah. So really that's, I would say that's honestly like the main awesome part about Sora because the answer to the question is yes. So students, like in your example, like Minecraft, it could be, I mean, it could be anything. It doesn't have to be Minecraft, but a lot of kids start doing value mod. Yeah, start doing value mod. Anything applies. Like students can turn that into an individual student project or even take an expedition where the concept is close enough that they can sort of combine that goal and the learning objective of the expedition. But if there's not an expedition that's like close enough to interest, they can just go on their own like individual student project and go after it with the help of one of our learning experts. Learning experts typically come from, I'll say like there's a pretty like broad range of backgrounds. Like most of our learning experts are not say like veteran teachers, like we've been doing for like 20, 30 years. Like it's a, I'd say like we have a pretty good variety. Like you have some teachers that have been teaching for like a handful of years, some who are like pretty new that come from, that come from other like sort of teaching or like working with students sort of backgrounds. But regardless, like they all have the experiences that can work with students. I'll say broadly across like most subjects, of course, if a student is doing something truly like advanced, you know, like advanced, you know, like physics or something like that might be a little outside the realm of, you know, what are- Would you go out and find an expert for them? Yeah. I mean, at that point, so the thing about, yeah, the thing about, I'll say like the thing about this kind of like learning model that I'll say sometimes people get wrong is that like schools like can't, like can't exactly like teach every single thing. It's kind of, I mean, it's like physically impossible to be like a master of everything. So ultimately like what a student, you know, students of sufficient levels, like what schools really have to get good at is just preparing students to basically be their own, like be their own like seekers in the world and like teaching them how to like find mentors and reach out to people and like learn on their own, et cetera, like past like a certain foundational point. Cause otherwise, like, you know, it, as you might imagine, it can get, it can get rather like impossible to like follow, like follow a student, like so far down, like a certain like interest or path or whatever. In some cases they can honestly be like teachers themselves. Right. So we just, you just have to get really good at like teaching students, which again, is kind of the point of our program to be like independent, critical thinking, like human beings that can ultimately like truth seek and, you know, do good research and find people and talk to them and learn and so on and so forth. So digging a little bit more deeply into the, the, the, the teachers and the learning experts as you call them there, do you, do you usually target, so are the educators, are any of the educators from like an open school background do some, or are they primarily, or are most of them in specific subject areas, the experts in those areas? Yeah. So our teachers, like I said, writing backgrounds, like we do have some teachers from like more sort of like progressive non-traditional schools. And then we also have teachers that just come from straight up like public school as well. Like, and then some teachers that come in with very little experience that still do well at Sora, but regardless of like what they're coming in, usually at Sora, like what happens is that, is that our learning experts will come in and we'll actually have them do like a sort of a practiced like learning expedition with some, with like a select group of students that basically volunteered to do, to like join this like potential learning experts, like expedition. And then basically they rate them on how they're doing. And sometimes our students can be rather brutally honest with their opinion of some, some candidates. But I mean, that's kind of the point of what we're doing. We want them to be very honest. And so like with this, with this kind of like learning model, we do attract like a ton of different types of teachers. Like there's actually, actually that was one of the most surprising things, you know, we had when we first started Sora was that we weren't quite sure how teachers would actually see like our school model. Like we'd done a lot of research and like talking to like teachers and stuff, but still very different from, you know, working and doing it in practice. But then we found out that a lot of like traditional, like teachers that just worked at like public schools actually really, really, really liked our model. And like, they were like, this is like, this is, I wish my school could be, you know, if, if I could ever convince them to like change X or whatever. So we found that a ton of teachers actually really wanted to work at Sora, which has been actually a really, you know, nice thing. That's fantastic. But so when you change gears a little bit, when, when parents are inquiring about Sora, do they have kids who previously mostly had their schooling in a conventional, conventional school systems or are they coming from other open schools or from homeschooling or non -traditional schooling? Yeah. So the families that come to us are typically looking for like a non-traditional educational experience. Like maybe the student is really bored with the pace and level of their current schooling and just want to dive deep into like advanced fields and subjects. Maybe the student is just not engaged in school and because of how they teach and they just lost their love of learning. Or maybe a student just doesn't see the point in traditional school. Like, why am I learning this? Or like, when, when will I ever use this? And they just want something more hands-on, more active that they, that's more personally relevant to them. So in the beginning of Sora, I'll say we saw a greater proportion of our prospective families that came from like homeschooling backgrounds and other non-traditional backgrounds. Like, oh, like, you know, my student went to like this Montessori school or, oh, they came from like Sudbury or, you know, any number of like different, like, you know, non-traditional options or just homeschooling. And nowadays I'll say like the majority of our prospective families just come from like public schooling backgrounds, like just straight out, just public school. Like they never did any sort of really like non -traditional like school. Like they might've known someone that did it. Like, oh, like my sister, like, you know, went to, you know, this like, you know, project -based like high school or something. And then that's how they're like generally aware. But the students themselves just went to public school and then to Sora. So all they know is that they're just, their current school is not working for them and they're looking for something better and different. Are they geographically clustered in a few metropolitan areas or are they spread out all over like continental U.S. or the world? Good question. Honestly, like pretty, pretty spread out across the world, well, the country and the world. We only accept students, like right now we only enroll students in the U.S., but we've received inquiries from like across the country. Like as far as densities go, like I will say that, you know, generally speaking, like most of the, most of the interest we've gotten, like tend to come from like larger, like metro areas. Like you do have like the students that come from like just small like towns. I mean, like I'm from like a tiny, tiny town, but like the, you do have students that just come from like small town, like far out kind of towns. But then you also have students that just come from like large metro areas. Like as far as like any sort of like patterns, like we do have, I mean, this might be, I don't know if this is like one of those, I don't know if this is sort of related to like progressive type schools in general, or it's just something like that happened, we happen to experience, but we tend to see more students come from like, well, Atlanta, mostly because I think as we started there and that's where I'm from personally and that's where we started and the other founders were. But we also have like more and more students coming from like Texas, like which has been significant, like bump up. And then recently kind of Arizona, but mostly been like Texas and California, I'd say. Like historically, like there are like, there tend to be more like progressive sort of like non-traditional schools in places like the New England area, and also very randomly like in certain like cities in Texas, and of course California. So I'm not like surprised. So, I mean, I have, I've toured an open school and known about some other open schools, especially in the elementary school range, but I've never like, unlike all the other ones, you guys had the idea to take it Internet scale, right, and bring it online. Can you tell us a story of that origin story of how you decided to do that? Sure. So this is back in 2018. So before the pandemic. Yeah, like well before the pandemic. Before, you know, in our innocence, you know, before the pandemic. In the before times. Yeah, if only I knew what was to come. Yeah, the three founders, Wesley, Garrett, and I, we all, we were all students at Georgia Tech. We were all like, we all generally got to know each other because we were generally doing entrepreneurial things. Like Wesley and I had our first like business, like a creative agency. Garrett was learning like an educational nonprofit. We were also all venture partners at a firm called Contre Capital. So we're just generally doing like startup things around campus. And one night, we're just chatting about our high school experiences in our apartment. Like I think we were just complaining, you know, like, oh, like our school was like really stupid because, you know, they had hour and a half block period classes and you could never pay attention because you fall asleep like 30 minutes in and then the teacher would have to inevitably call a breaker on 45 minutes, which, you know, oddly enough, was like the period of like a normal class anyways. So it ended up just being two classes. So yeah, we were just complaining about our old schools. And then we had this whiteboard in our apartment, and we just started writing a list of all the stuff that we didn't like. And then all the stuff that we would have like had basically we had been in charge, we're like, oh, like, we would have changed this and this and like, had this instead. So after that night, it was like a really long night. We had this little group chat between the three of us that we just kind of started texting each other, following up after that conversation, because like, I think one of us would like see an article about like this cool school concept in like Iowa, there was like, oh, like, this is, you know, really interesting. Like, I don't know, there was no like, I mean, this wasn't like a formal project or related to school or a company in any way. Like, this is just us like talking about something that personally interested in us. Brainstorming is footballing. Yeah, I mean, yeah, that actually turns out, like, as we later learned, Garrett was like, super into this stuff and had been since he was like 13 or 14. Because he had a very unique kind of school background. He was like a military brat, you know, went around the country, like throughout his entire childhood, went to a bunch of different schools. I personally went to like two. But we just started talking about, like, basically, different school concepts. And also just kind of following up our discussion, like, why does school have to be like this, be a certain way. And I think at some point, I think it was probably Garrett, just probably Garrett, we started, when we started sharing, like articles, like we would just recommend stuff for each other, for, like, each of us, like, you know, each other, yeah, to read. So Garrett's like a big reader. So he would often just share, usually like larger, thick, you know, volumes of stuff, or like research papers, or like whole books to read. So we had, I guess we had an informal little book club going for a bit. And at some point, like, we realized that we just really cared about the topics. And we wanted to start talking to people in education. So we'd reach out to like teacher friends, and like really just anyone we basically knew in education, just to like learn about basically what they saw as like problems in like our school system and the education system. And over time, as we talked to people, we were like, yeah, there's some pretty systemic, large problems. And I guess we started forming some like very informal, like hypotheses is the best way to put it about like the different flaws and ways in which our, our school systems were broken, or just were fundamentally flawed. And this is again, like several, this took place over the course of like several months, like this was like seven, six, seven months, like into the year. We, I can't remember what conversation did exactly. But I think at some point, we just were like, oh, like, so these are problems in school, but is there anything we can do about it? You know, because we were just personally, like invested in the topic at that point. Like, like I said, we've been like talking and reading and reaching out to people for like the better part of like half a year. So we started brainstorming different ideas about the way basically schools were broken and how, how we could change or improve them. At that point, we started talking to people who had actually already worked to like solve problems in school in our school system and like change things like we talked to like the founder of a charter school or someone who worked in Georgia, like state education policy, like or someone who like started like an edtech company, like we just started talking to people that were already in the space. And the general, I'll say the general vibe we got from them was that it was really, really hard to change existing schools. And the problem we kept running into is that we kept wanting to change different parts of school. Like we kept like realizing, oh, like, you know, we need to change how we do assessment, like in testing, we need to change like the curriculum, or we need to change like how teachers are actually teaching the classroom. And probably kept running into is that each problem was interconnected to the other problem. Like we couldn't change one thing without changing another. Like, and so that was really frustrating. But ultimately, we came to this realization that if we wanted to change, like schools, we had to change the whole thing. So we said, well, if we started a school, spitballing, if we did have, if we had to start a whole new school, what could it look like? You know, what, what, what's the purpose of the school? Like, actually, what is the purpose of school in general? Let's answer that question first. So we went down that little rabbit hole. And this is where all the research and like conversations with people we had, like really started to shine because that's like, I'll say that like a lot of what we initially started out Sora with was just really inspired from like other cool schools that we admired, like high tech high in California, like the like Sudbury, which is kind of like a, or like, I'll say niche concept at this point, but that wasn't that was like an interesting inspiration, like powderhouse studios, which never really got off the ground in Massachusetts, but still cool. And really like the founder, like we were inspired by all the different schools when we sort of created the first version of Sora. And oddly enough, actually, the first version of Sora, when we first like, told the world, hey, we're starting a new school back in fall 2018, actually wasn't virtual, we're actually going to launch like an in person like brick and mortar school. But the problem we kept running into was that, for one, the, you know, as we were getting the word out, we had a lot of interest from families, but they were like pretty spread out, like I'm talking like an hour and a half dry, like two hours, like, just kind of all over. So like logistically, it was a little complicated for us to try to figure all that out. But also like, as we sort of realized, like we had a lot of people, like as we were sort of designing the school, like we had a ton of people reaching out, like, I'll say like, we started getting signs that we should, something should change, that we should eventually, when we became virtual, like it happened. But like, we would have people reach out to us, like across the country in the world, they were like, Oh, like, you know, love the mission of Sora. Is there any way I could help? Like, could I teach or could I be a mentor, etc. But they were located somewhere. And I was like, yeah, but they're like, yeah, they're, they're like in some, you know, they're 2,000 miles away. Or, and I was like, yeah, it's unfortunately not possible. The, like, you can't, you can't. And, you know, the, and the other thing was that, like, as a school, we had this conversation back in like, beginning of 2019. We're just, I guess, I think we were, we were discussing like, logistically, how the school would work. And by and large, like, a lot of things we wanted to do just, you know, we sort of realized just didn't have to be like, in person. Like, that was just, I guess, I'll show you, you know, oddly enough, like, that was one of the core assumptions. We just failed to basically examine back in, you know, because in the beginning, we said blank slate, you know, we'll look at everything, you know, school differently, like, forget every element of school and just, you know, examine every aspect of it and see if like, if it makes sense with the purpose of school and what we're trying to build. And I guess we just left one big assumption in there was that it had to be in person. So we said, well, could we do all the really cool things we want to do virtually? You know, and to us, like, that sort of question sort of unlocked, like a big thing for us, because one of the things that we were sort of always, like, that was always on our minds, and since the very beginning of SOAR was how can we create a school model, and ultimately, a school system, eventually, with significant scale that can actually serve thousands, hundreds, thousands, millions of students? Like, what, like, what can we actually design, what can we actually design that can actually scale, like, meaningfully, not just, like, serve, like, you know, several dozen students or, you know, a couple hundred students at max or whatever for schools, because that's the problem with a lot of, like, progressive schools. Like, you'll notice that a lot of them, I mean, even, I think you mentioned an open school. I'm not as familiar with them, but if I had to wager a guess, they probably follow similar patterns. Like, a lot of progressive schools, the ones that we talked to, like, often serve, like, this community in, like, this small town or, like, this, you know, city here, and they serve, like, 100 students, 150 students, maybe 300, 400, 500, like, max. Like, and I don't know about you, but that's a very, very tiny drop of, that's a very tiny percentage. How many students are currently enrolled in, in Sora? Like, right now, we have, like, 150, about 150 students or so. So, we started three years ago. We started off with just, like, seven. But the thing, like, we sort of figured out, we figured out was that, like, being virtual could allow us to, like, meaningfully scale, like, offer Sora, like, an affordable, like, price point to families. Also, literally scale, like, grow across, grow across, like, the country and eventually the world, like, quickly. Like, it was just something that made it, that was just, like, our aha moment. We're like, oh, this makes it work. Like, we can, you know, we can actually, we can actually offer this thing because ultimately the mission of Sora is to build a new kind of school system, like, for students, not just, like, serve, like, a tiny percentage of students. Like, for us, like, that would, I mean, it's cool, but it doesn't have meaningful change in the system, if only. And you've done some strongly heroic logistical things, like shipped sharks to individual students' homes, right? Yeah, that was a fun one. So, the, this is back in, I think this is, I want to say it was 20, like, late 2020. It could have been early 2021, something like that. But it was, like, it was during the pandemic at that point. And one of our learning experts, Carolyn, had this bright idea during one of our expeditions, which is kind of, like, this marine biology focused one, like, they're, like, studying marine life. And she was, like, well, like, we could do, like, a lab. And she's, you know, I'll say she's a pretty creative person. Like, she was, like, we could ship, you know, like, we could get the lab, bring the lab to them, you know, like, send these baby sharks. They could dissect, you know, in their homes. Then we, you know, turn on the camera, like, you know, examine it together, like, during the expedition session. So, yeah, I still, today, like, one of our, like, older families, like, still quotes that as one of our more memorable SOAR experiences. Because it's just one of those things that I'll say that you don't expect as, like, a... Were there any parents that were, that were surprised when they opened a box? They're, like, what is this, a shark? I think everyone was pretty surprised. I don't think, that's not one of those things that you just kind of meet with, like, a, oh, yeah, that happens. But, like, for us, like, it was just, like, you know, we wanted to, really wanted to make the school experience, like, the learning experience special. And, like, you know, we really wanted to push the bounds. Because, like, you know, I don't know about your experience with any sort of, like, you know, school, online schooling during the pandemic. But, I mean, you talk to most people. It's, like, online schools for most, most people. They're, they consider it to be, like, a pretty, like, isolating, like, terrible experience. Like, for the most part, obviously, with some exception. But, like, for us, like, we just, like, had this, I don't know, this general drive to, like, prove people wrong. We're, like, no, like, school can be totally social. And it can be totally, like, engaging, like, online. You just have to do it right. And you actually have to put in effort. And you can't just, like, slap, like, what you do in, like, in -person school and then expect it to work perfectly, you know, in a virtual environment. You have to design it specifically for that environment. And if that means shipping some stuff to students, then so be it. So, so, right. So, conventional high schools have certain kind of cultural touchstones, like prom or, like, a homecoming dance, social events like that. What, what does, what does Sora have for students in, in that arena? Yeah. So, first of all, super excited to answer this question. Because, like I said, most people think online schools are just completely not social experiences. And like I said, to be fair, they're mostly right, except for Sora. So, for Sora, like, from day one, we designed our school to be a social experience. Because, as most people are aware, the social aspect of school is kind of one of the most valuable aspects of a student's development and the school experience. So, firstly, at Sora, we have what we call houses. So, students are organized into these, actually, I don't know. Gryffindor. Yeah. Yeah. I don't know the, I don't know the underlying term, cultural group. That doesn't sound right. Social groups, whatever. Yeah. Sort of like Harry Potter houses. Yeah. They meet in these houses. They meet daily as this sort of accountability group where they talk about their projects, expeditions, and what they're working on. Like, talking about basically just, like, their day and their schedule. Yes. We call them stand-ups, like, in tech. And so, they, they operate in these houses, which have, like, a whole, like, it's a whole thing. Like, there's, like, the house, you know, emblem. Like, they have, like, house personnel. Like, there's personalities of, you know, what kind of students are in each house, that type of thing. They also participate in house competitions against each other. You know, most, again, virtual. So, anything that can be, that can happen virtually, like, art contests, Minecraft-filled competitions, et cetera. Sort of like their designated group of friends at Sora. And they're mostly student-led. So, outside of houses, which are sort of how Sora is structured around, students also have a number of different, like, extracurricular opportunities. There's a ton of active clubs that students, again, it's, and it's all student-led, of course. So, like, philosophy club or art club. And they typically meet in the afternoons, like, after the expedition sessions. There's also a couple external-facing, like, teams. Like, our esports team, which plays mostly, like, League of Legends. But then, also, our robotics team, which occasionally, like, meets in person to actually compete against teams in other schools. So, there's stuff like that. And then, also, students can just meet up outside of, you know, school. Cool. And we're out of time. Thank you so much for- Oh, shoot. That was, that was really great. And thank you so much for coming on the show. Yeah, sure. Thanks for having me.