Ami has earned a MBA from INSEAD. She is passionate about improving youth education, and has previously taught in K-4 classrooms and advised & volunteered at education-related non-profit organizations. Ami is a graduate of Imagine K12, the EdTech vertical of Y Combinator, a fellow of Uncharted’s Early Childhood Accelerator and winner of NewSchools Venture Fund’s Early Childhood Prize. Ami has been featured on Toronto Life, Flare, TechVibes, CBC and numerous other outlets.
About Peekapak: Peekapak is an award-winning social-emotional learning platform which engages elementary students to learn skills like self-regulation, empathy and teamwork and reaches over 200,000 educators and students. Peekapak does this using stories, evidence-based lessons and game-based learning. Behind-the-scenes, teachers and administrators receive real-time reports showing a student’s progress and emotional state. This empowers educators to be proactive in helping curb future mental health issues.
Ami Shah talks about the importance of social-emotional skills and what it means for the future of education and work. She also shares what it means to take ownership of your physical and mental well-being and why we need to take care of ourselves as founders.
First of all, thank you for agreeing to do this interview. I was drawn to you because when we met, you spoke a lot about social regulation. The importance of emotional intelligence. It made me curious to know more about you, as a person.
What led you to the work you do now? What's your story?
I’ve done a lot of soul searching being in the education industry. A lot of education leaders want to know that you're genuine. I truly am genuine in my intent, especially being in education. Recently, I was at this conference and school district leader asked the question: “So why are you here? Why are you doing the work that you're doing?”
I had this nice origin story. I started Peekapak with my co-founder, my childhood best friend and we are both deeply passionate about children's education. But I need to dig deeper. When I did, it took me back to when I was 16. My mom was robbed at knife point in her own store flower store and it was a critical turning point in life.
It gave me this path: I could either be angry OR I could do something about it. I decided I wanted to do something. In high school, I worked on making our schools and communities safer with a student organization I founded called Students Against Violence Everywhere. Whereas now, starting Peekapak is focused on prevention by equiping the future generation of students with skills like empathy, respect and self-regulation. Skills we know from research can help students achieve their goals, make good decisions and have healthy relationships.
Yeah. Thank you for sharing about your turning point. One thing you mentioned is wanting to bring change. What's the change that you want to create?
When we first started off, it was using the power of narratives to help inspire children to essentially be good people. Simple as that. When we design our stories, we incorporated strategies to help learn these skills, so that children understand and model the skills. Our first product was initially helping parents bring this learning at home.
However as we progressed, we started meeting educators who feel in love with our stories and with what we were building. They were open to collaboration and working together. We were so impressed, as many educators let us come into their classroom, test our lessons and gave us feedback.
Over time, as we listened to our teachers and to our customers and we saw our stories become a catalyst to intentially teach social-emotional learning skills and building a curriculum and personalize learning experience to teach these skils.
We have this whole toolbox of resources, not only for educators, but parents and students as well. It's been exciting to see the difference that we're already making.
As a former educator, it sounds like you tapped into something important for schools. Peekapak has been around for a bunch of years, but you saw a trend that was coming.
Yes, we’re pretty lucky we also had some great advisors who helped us see this would be an emerging trend.
But now, all of a sudden, everyone is noticing. It's been a huge shift in mindset, especially in the U.S where we see all these school shootings and the increase of mental health issues. Being able to just become aware of how you're feeling and how you can manage those emotions becomes such a critical skill.
If we can teach children at a young age, students will be more prepared for the stress, anxiety, etc. that they may encounter in life.
What’s interesting is that we’re seeing the need for social emotional learning across all income ranges. As a result, having these skills has now become something that is an essential skill versus just a nice to have skill.
Yeah. It's interesting you speak to that. When I used to be an educator, I taught at the richest schools in the country, like Bishop Strachan and Crestwood. What was really shocking for me, was the variety of issues that came up around mental or emotional well-being. Mental health does not discriminate based on race or sex or social-economic status.
It can affect everybody at every tier.
Exactly. If you think about as founders, like when we went to Silicon Valley, we were always being pushed to achieve and prepare for demo day. It was like a high-pressure chamber, right?
My co-founder, my childhood best friend, we admitted to each other: “Wow, this is causing us a lot of anxiety.” It tested us in terms of our own mental health as we didn’t necessarily have the skills to cope.
If we think about the future, jobs are changing and more and more and technology will have a role. It will be social skills that are going to help us navigate. Constantly changing environments, dealing with anxiety, and being more self-aware. Personaly I definitely had to learn that myself as the founder of this company.
I know Peekapak was one of the first promoting social-emotional skills. A lot of founders want to lead movements or set trends, to be the first. What was that experience like for you?
When we first started speaking to school leaders there definitely was a lack of awareness on what was social emotional learning. A lot of leaders saw it as a ‘nice to have’ and really were focused on preparing their students for testing..
This was a great insight for us as we decided that with Peekapak, to overcome this barrier we aligned everything we do to literacy, writing, and reading activities. As a result, a teacher doesn't have to compromise.
With our platform, we help teachers bring this learning seamlessly into their classroom. Our goal is to shift a teacher’s mentality, so that these skills are integrating into everything they do – and they see that teaching these skills will not only make their students amazing people, but also be more successful in their acadmics, achieve their life goals and be productive citizens.
Wow. That is an incredible journey. What's been the most surprising part of what you’ve experienced?
Good question. There's a couple of things.
First, as a founder who started an education technology company, it's been interesting. A, I wasn't a tech founder. B, I wasn't in education. C, I never done enterprise sales. But I've had this mindset of having an open mind, of learning from others and of having a sense of curiosity to keep growing.
Second, I've been so impressed with teachers, they're already strapped for so much time. They're doing so much work in the classroom, it's really exhausting and taxing. Yet they were willing to spend time and give me feedback and help us design the product in partnership. It was really amazing.
Third, we sell a lot to the U.S. They've been open to innovation. I was just in New Jersey last week. I met with the superintendent and the Director of Special Education and they heard our story. Even though we’re a young company, they were excited to be part of the journey of developing an innovative company.
These school leaders do truly invest in and partner with us – it’s been amazing. They've opened doors for us. They've let us come into their classrooms and to their districts. They've, just been really generous and gone out of their way to help us. That's very heartwarming.
I loved the hope in your share. In our industry, we often expect worst-case scenarios for every single thing. Yet in your story, it sounds like so many people resonated with not just your message, but your presence. How you made educators feel seen and heard.
It resonates the work that I want to do with founders. Making them feel seen and heard.
Thank you. I think people resonate with us as I practice the skills I help bring to classrooms.
However, I can’t say I’ve always been good at this. At a point in my journey, it was really challenging. I was, learning all these new verticals and industries. I didn’t I realized how much it caught up with me.
A good friend ended up calling me out on it. They're asked if I was practicing the skills I so passionately was trying to bring to classrooms. But I realized I wasn’t and I wasn’t taking care of myself.
You, as a founder, often are trying to keep face. You’re saying to yourself, “I'm going to keep doing this. I'm going to persevere. I'm going to work hard. I just have to keep working harder.” Everyone else in the industry is working so hard, they're working around the clock. I thought I just need to work harder.
But if I think about my body at that time - I was constantly hurting. I had this constant headache. It was literally all I remember feeling for months. I don't know why I thought this was normal to sustain, but I did and I had to try to persevere.
I realized I needed to change and I decided to make the time to practice the skills and take care of myself.
It reminded me that praticing these skills is so essential for all people, not only young children, but all people in society. We take it for granted. We think that these are again, fluff soft skills. If anything, calling them “soft skills” demeans the essential need of these skills.
I ended up doing things like daily meditation. I started doing yoga. I started even thinking about what I put into my body in terms of nourishment. I ended up with this huge transformation. Months later, the headache went away and my body felt healther and stronger. And I feel happier.
Being a founder, we often don't take time for self-care. We put our own needs aside and it can result in burnout. It's a challenging industry and so you do have to care about yourself and practice those skills. It's been definitely a learning process for me.
Yeah. I relate so much to this. A few months ago, I flew out to L.A. My last coach was there. I remember one time, I messaged him saying, “Hey, I'm in a pretty bad place.” I was speaking at all of these tech conferences about mental health. Six months talking about burnout, depression, you name it. I told him, “Hey, I don't like the way that I feel when I do this work. It feels heavy. It feels like a lot of pressure. I’m not happy doing it.”
I was really embarrassed because I’m in this session, I'm just crying. It's the ugly cry. I know this work means a lot to me. I would never want my future children to inherit the culture we have right now because it's going to kill them.
And I remember him telling, “Focus on what you think really matters.” And for me, it’s not just a conversation about burnout, but it's a conversation about being human. How can we take ownership of our lives? How can we do that from a place of emotions?
Yeah. It's like our experience and bringing social-emotional learning in education.
In the founder journey, how can we navigate those highs and lows? In the beginning, we associate your company success with your own success. In the beginning, it's hard not to. How do you manage that? How do you stay calm?
I think the work that you're doing is so needed and it will help prepare that next generation of founders to be calmer and be able to avoid that risk of burnout. Self-awareness will be so key and I'm grateful or the work that you're doing.
That’s the thing, isn’t it? You're not alone and despite the critic in our heads, you're not doing terribly worse than someone else. The highs and lows, it’s going to be like that. Because you're in a competitive industry.
You're on a journey. Often, we're comparing ourselves to organizations that are further along. You feel constantly, you're not making it. It’s hard in that moment to know how you're feeling and it tumbles into these lows.
For example, when you're talking to your coach and becoming super aware of that (“I don't feel great with this feeling”), a lot of people just don't feel that. They just don't even recognize in the moment how they feel, how it's affecting them, and where they'll go with it. That simple skill can make or break your day.
I think the fact that you were identifying and addressing those feelings, that's great. As an industry, we almost have a responsibility to do more of that. We make better decisions and we are better in our teams and our environments.
Yes, not a lot of people in our industry have that foundation, but I hope that will change. When you look at founders and investors, what can our community do to move mental health forward?
I think the work that you're doing in driving awareness is key. And better understanding with tools that are out there. We need to be proactive about it. When I speak about mental health, I really love to speak about self-regulation and its two core aspects are self-awareness and self-management.
Self-awareness seems so simple and yet to practice it, it’s a very different thing. If you use apps like Headspace for example, it can help with self-awareness. You're doing body scans, you're understanding how your body's feeling. How are you tense? Are you feeling sad? Are you feeling happy?
Most of us would feel too busy to do that check-in. There's so many different ways of doing that check-in. Meditation might not be for everyone, but understanding that there are various tools for self-awareness. It could be journaling. It could be having conversations in a mastermind group. And ulitmately understanding that not one tool works for everyone and to explore and choose the tool that best works for you.
The second part I mentioned is self-management. How do I start becoming more proactive now that I know how I feel in a given situation? How do I take ownership of how I feel and be more mindful of that? It could be taking a timeout and exercising. Doing an activity that essentially will help you get back to that calm state to regulate yourself.
Often we don't feel like we have the ability to take control. We say, “We don't have the time, we don't have the money.” But there's so many different ways. It doesn't have to be when I finally am successful. For me, I realized practicing these skills are an essential to practice everyday so that I can avoid burnout and navigate the highs and lows of startup life.
I love your suggestions and it's such an important message. Mental and emotional well-being, and how it looks unique and people can experiment. See what really works for them.
Yeah. Every person is different and what works for you, well, it will be different for me.
Love it. Thank you so much!
Thank you for including me.