At the root of technological innovation, is the desire to make humans’ lives more efficient and accessible. Even in developing nations, access to the internet has opened up a plethora of education and work opportunities. The pandemic not only introduced challenges but forced us to reconsider better opportunities for growth and adaptation through technology.
Taking it a step further, we have the emerging Web 3.0 space and the opportunities it presents to enhance our current educational institutions. Immersive experiences prove to be stickier, especially in the business world. How can this same concept be applied to the way in which we learn?
Michaela Jamelska is a tech entrepreneur and human rights advocate, with a great number of accolades under her belt. Graduating from London University and extending her post-graduate education at Stanford in international human rights and technology management, Michaela has always been naturally curious about the ways technology can contribute to more equality. She’s written numerous fascinating articles on the controversies pertaining to AI and human rights here. As well, she’s built and exited a variety of companies, some in tech and some in other sectors like retail. She discusses her perspectives revolving around the metaverse and learning, through her development of NOVA, an Ed-Tech company based in the metaverse.
Interviewer: You’ve graduated from one of the top universities in the world. Do you think having this level of access, contributed to some of the success you had early in your adulthood? Do you think higher education is a route for everyone?
Michaela: Studying at different schools and universities around the world opened my horizons to new ideas and cultures. Overall, I don’t believe learning can harm you. Every experience teaches you something, can broaden your horizons, and pushes your limits.
In that sense, I believe that education increased my curiosity, open-mindedness, and made me hungrier for new ideas and information. As humans, we sometimes indulge in comfort but that doesn’t always serve us. I don’t think higher education is necessarily for everyone and that everyone can choose their route in life. For individuals who decide not to continue with higher education, I think they need to be very self-aware about the way they want to progress in life because they have to become their own teachers.
They need to own a sense of discipline and learn how to critically think through problems that will arise in the real world. It is not just the passive consumption of learning and the other extreme, which is conspiracy theories. To simply answer the question, I don’t think higher education has to be for everyone but you need to be very confident that you can learn and progress on your own.
Interviewer: You’ve started and sold a few companies. Was there a common niche you stuck to or a specific factor that made the process easier?
Michaela: I worked on a variety of different ventures. I’ve always been a person who was interested in many things. Essentially, the common ground was that every venture was successful because there was continuous innovation. I was quite disciplined with that and I think it’s the same as a sport. If you want to be a good athlete, you need to wake up every day and train— and it’s the same with the business. The other two factors are learning good marketing and branding.
In terms of the work environment itself, I always liked surrounding myself with creative and motivated people and having either a team or just a few people around you that inspires you to push your limits creatively. These three elements that I mentioned, and then having the right people around you is the key to success.
Interviewer: Would you say that discipline in school and discipline in business are completely different?
Michaela: Precisely. There’s a lot that you learn by yourself just by doing. However, there is a commonality between the two. In university, you garner discipline through reaching certain KPIs, like exams. The same thing in business, you’re constantly striving toward certain targets. Other than that, discipline in running a business is a little bit different than education in the sense that you have no one, like a professor to keep you accountable. You need to be your own boss in a way.
Interviewer: Many founders may struggle with ‘when’s the right time to let go’. What influenced your decision-making when selling? What was your end goal?
Michaela: A concrete example I have is from the pandemic. I had one venture that was an in-store business and when the pandemic hit there were a lot of questions about its survivability. Based on my projections about the current environment, I made a decision that it was the right time to sell it because I just didn’t see how we could survive as a retail shop.
I based my analysis on short-term and long-term losses, as well as looking at the historical data on previous pandemics. Fortunately, the business didn’t fail because of the pandemic, and it was sold at the right time where I was able to make a profit.
At end of the day, your business is not your baby, it’s a project. You can’t be too emotionally attached and you have to make rational decisions. Sometimes you need to make hard decisions like to sell because it’s time to sell.
Interviewer: Can you walk us through your recent pivot to Ed-Tech and Metaverse? How do you think NOVA will comply with some of the key points you mentioned in your articles: AI and gender equity, and AI and human rights.
Michaela: I studied human rights in university and I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection between tech and human rights. In recent years, technology has changed the way we live in a significant way, whether it’s connecting people in remote places, or how we travel, but I’m also aware of some of the drawbacks of technology. At the end of the day, technology isn’t just a tool; behind this tool and data, there are still humans.
NOVA was created with a human-centric vision; how can we accelerate essential areas of life, like education, using innovation and technology. We are coming from the standpoint of educators, and my co-founder is an educator himself, and he’s been battling with the current problems of education for a couple of years. Once of the negative trends is that interest in education has been stagnating, and 1.2 million students drop out of schools annually in the US alone. Education is also severely underfunded. When we spoke to teachers we found that they either did not have the right digital tools or have ones they can trust.
We took the problems that existed in the current educational system and tried to work around it. It’s not that we’re replacing teachers, but rather providing them with tools to advance their curriculum. NOVA was conceptualized a few years ago, and at that time, there was no such thing as the metaverse; we were just thinking of immersive learning and how it could look like, and coincidently, the metaverse appeared.
As a society we are used to the education of masses; too many students crammed into one class. As a result, many students’ potential are left untapped and some are simply left behind. On a personal level, I always thought that this was not the way I was building my strengths or developing my potential.
The questions we ask then are, how can we empower individuals to meet their potential and develop their talents and their strengths. This is the first one. This is where we wanted to bring a little bit more equality and I will take an example, dyslexic children, that have a hard time learning when they read.
In mainstream education, we study mainly from textbooks, so for them, it’s very hard to be equal with the rest of the students even while their intellect is as good as other students. Dyslexic children are very good with imagery and animations. When they’re immersed in virtual reality, they can easily soak up information from the digital aids around them. We tested it and realized that providing them with more personalized tools to learn, brings them on the same level as other students. Here’s that aspect of equality.
Another example are that introverts and bullying in schools are quite prominent nowadays, so at NOVA, we tested the metaverse learning environment with this particular introverted 11 year old student who had a hard time socializing. The expectations were that maybe students who learned in the metaverse had a harder time practicing social skills in real-life settings. The opposite was true and even her parents confirmed that.
What happened was that this introverted student gained confidence in an immersive learning space because she didn’t feel judged. She’s was an avatar, and took this confidence and mirrored it, using it in a real life. When she put down the virtual mask, she started to speak and become very excited about things. This confidence and this feeling of, “Okay, I did something amazing in the metaverse, I was flying, I was moving I saw this and that.” She had this emotion and this memory in her head. Then she just replicated in real life, so her mother said that she was more open to talking to kids. That’s another example of how technology can bring a little bit more equality if we use it in the right way.
Interviewer: What do you think will be particularly challenging in getting this idea to scale?
Michaela: I would say, first of all, interest in EdTech is growing, but there is still less interest compared to other areas, especially amongst investor circles. Even the parents, school boards, and schools themselves are willing to try something new because it’s just the time to do it. We haven’t done something really exciting in education for a very long time. There is not enough funding and not just to deploy technology; I’m talking about doing the research, data collection, and educational projects, which require an adequate level of funding.
I understand investors want to see the return on investment, which is certainly true for all businesses. At the same time, I believe that as a society, we have a collective obligation to sometimes fund the areas that are not super profitable, because they are the foundation of society. Those are the areas where society collectively needs to put money if we want to progress. Because if we only going to focus on everything that makes money, we’re going to face major consequences.
Interviewer: Many say we’re still years away from the adoption of the metaverse. Do you see yourself in an advantageous position with NOVA, or is this dubious state a risk?
Michaela: I’m aware that many investors are still cautious just because they don’t know what the future holds for the metaverse. They are less likely, of course, to immediately jump in and support these projects. At the same time, they saw that the public started to adopt the metaverse and it’s beginning to come up in large companies.
Of the investors I’ve spoken to, I would say about 60% say they’re still waiting a bit longer to see how the market evolves. If they see that the adoption continues, they will invest. Also, because there’s been a pandemic and a war, everybody is more cautious in this state of instability.
Then there’s 40% of investors who have the mindset of early adopters, meaning, they remember the internet days and the skeptism, but suddenly, it became widely adopted. They see the metaverse as a similar situation. The younger generation is also more adventurous and willing to jump on the bandwagon.
Interviewer: What’s your experience as a woman in a male-dominated industry and what would your advice be to young female entrepreneurs who want to get into tech?
Michaela: Being a woman in a male-dominated environment has its own challenges. Sometimes it has been harder to be heard and respected, or not always have your opinions considered.
However, I met a number of men who were aware of the importance of diversity, and acted based on this. Conversely, I’ve met women who I assumed because they were women would be more inclusive and supportive, but the opposite was true.
My advice to young females in male-dominated industries is to be confident but not arrogant. Sometimes we tend to think we know everything, but it’s not true. Have your opinion but also listen. Often when you listen and collect all the information, you can create a much more complex opinion.
My last piece of advice would be, no matter how much negativity you receive, stay positive because this will essentially get you much further in life. People like to be surrounded by positive people, so don’t let others make you a frustrated and angry person. Stay true to yourself.
Jamelska’s mission to bring greater equality amidst the age of AI and avatars reflects her spirit as a multi-faceted entrepreneur and an active participant in the human eco-system. It provides a rather optimistic reminder that technology can be used to raise the flags of all ships, rather than beneficiate the few at the top.
As emerging trends in the metaverse follow an ebb and flow, are the ones that will truly survive be the ones that generate the most value for society as a whole? Or will we carelessly fall into an abyss of betting wars as a society (and this time as avatars).