William Leonard

Hey everyone, my name is William Leonard and get ready for a fun and spirited conversation today with Naomi Thomas, founder and CEO of InfinityEDU, formerly known as Beyond. Naomi is unique and that her passion for computer science, technology and building stems all the way back to the age of six when she built her first computer, and from that point, Naomi’s passion for tech only evolved as a few years ago, she set out to build InfinityEDU, and InfinityEDU was building web3 tech education software and hardware for diverse learners. And by placing students at the center of their own unique learning experiences, Infinity edu is on a mission to empower 1 million students by 2026 through immersive tech education using gamification, mentorship, and incentives. And Naomi is truly an amazing and selfless individual. So expect to feel empowered and motivated from our conversation today.

Naomi Thomas

Yes. Hi. Thank you for having me.

William Leonard

Awesome. I’m really excited to have this conversation. We met, actually for the first time a few weeks ago. But I’m excited that now a strong portion of our listeners get to hear more about you and what you and your team are building at Beyond. I would love to kick it off here with maybe just a quick introduction to what Beyond is and what you and the team are building.

Naomi Thomas

Yeah, absolutely. At Beyond we’re building the future of STEMeducation. STEM, meaning Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. We’re taking a different approach to this. I can talk a little bit about my background and what led up to this. But a full-circle moment leading to launching Beyond, my background, I entered the technology industry at a very young age. I was six years old when I built my first computer. My parents put me in a lot of women in tech and engineering camps throughout middle school and high school. I attended some computer science institutes at UC Berkeley and UVA. While I was attending some of those institutes and taking tours of tech companies in the areas, Silicon Valley, and whatnot, I quickly noticed outside of all the glitz and glamour behind tech companies and their culture and pool tables, and free food, and all this stuff, I was so excited about it but was disappointed to see the lack of diversity and diverse talent. I didn’t feel like as many people that I guess looked like me, many black women, black men weren’t really represented in those rooms. And as much as I was passionate about STEM, it made me eager to want to get more of my peers involved. It became my mission to improve the retention and interests around technology and minorities in technology. It’s been like a full circle moment navigating the tech industry. I started a web design company while I was in college, and then evolved into a digital marketing agency as I was working on my personal brand and monetizing it, growing my social media to pretty much get more interest around women in technology and getting more women interested in nontraditional fields like entrepreneurship. It led to a moment where after running the service-based industry or running the service-based company for the past four years, I still wanted to create an impact amongst STEM education. I mobilized a team this year, January, and we really wanted to combat an issue around diversity. Diversity in tech is a big issue and there are a lot of different problems and systematic issues that revolve around it, but it’s more so I believe that diversity in tech begins with inclusivity, and education. We really need to figure out a way to improve, revise, and almost build from the ground up of what the future of tech education looks like for minorities and STEM because it’s not enough to get a student that doesn’t even have exposure to what tech careers look like. It’s not enough to tell them you should learn all these foreign languages like Ruby on Rails, C++, and JavaScript in their ears. It’s foreign. We take a different approach to that. We spent the first half of this year serving around 2000 STEM educators, students, STEM professionals, and figuring out ways to improve STEM education. We decided to look at it from a passion-first approach and built Beyond, our first MVP. We launched in August and we kind of made it a little bit different, take a different approach and make it more conversational. Right now, Beyond is a chat experience that helps students match their interests to careers in technology. It’s very culturally relevant, very casual, and students get that first exposure into their future career, technology, and into what tech could look like based on the interests that align with them. That’s where we are right now.,

William Leonard

That’s really interesting that you were really impressed with the technology world since you were six years old building a computer. I mean, how often do you hear a six-year-old really building something from scratch like that? That’s really interesting. Were your parents technical as well? Or did they just kind of put you on that path from a young age?

Naomi Thomas

Both of my parents’ backgrounds are in STEM. My mom is an anesthesiologist, Doctor Of Anesthesia. She taught me a lot just from the leadership standpoint, and just being immersed in the sciences. My dad’s background is in Computer Science as well. He loved to order different parts and build things from scratch. I was just sitting there just watching with admiration. And finally, I was like, “I want to build my own computer.” And he ordered all the parts and with the assistance of him as I built it, but it’s one of those things where they bought me gifts like Christmas, birthdays, and technology, that computer just really playing around with different software, like I couldn’t keep my hands off of it as I played with my computer more than I did with any other toys going on. It was really a cool experience and an eye-opening experience.

William Leonard

Yeah, I love that. And then you went to college in Charlotte, is that right?

Naomi Thomas

I started at UNC Greensboro. I was really, really active on campus. I was the President of the Computer Science Club. I worked with Google for a year on campus, and just part of like SGA, and things of that nature. I was really active in the community. I raised like $30,000, put on this technology workshop series for students in the community, and took a different approach to hands-on learning and Edtech products that are more experiential, and hands-on for students. That was kind of like the entry point into taking a different approach to introducing students to Computer Science and the opportunities and advancements around technology.

William Leonard

It sounds like you’ve been a builder your entire life from building that first computer to starting a digital marketing agency while still in school. And then now Beyond, how did you think about starting this company, you knew there was a problem of lack of representation for underrepresented individuals in the STEM world? Was starting a business kind of like the only way? Or was it the first thought that you had when thinking of solving this problem? Because oftentimes, we see programs, there are mentorship cohorts, there are things like that, but starting a company solely dedicated to this is amazing. I’m curious, how did you kind of think about solving this problem practically in the early days?

Naomi Thomas

I’ve been really involved just in the STEM education ecosystem. Even while I was learning, I was also volunteering with like-code camps. And there are a lot of incredible programs out there that are doing great work in exposing students through events and programming workshops, summer camps, and things of that nature. But I will say the beauty of technology, you can really leverage it to create something different and create something that I feel is molded around a concrete mission and being intentional with building around it, versus more service-based programming. I feel like technology, as we’ve seen in the past few years, how important it is to have an alternative to learning outside in-person approaches. Building this startup, taking a different approach to that, and also voting in a way that is different than what’s out there. Because today’s tech learning platforms aren’t made with diverse students in mind. They aren’t led by diverse founders either and it’s so important to create technology  that is used by everyone and not just some and the people that are in those rooms, and people that are building should have perspectives of all the consumers of that product. That’s really what drove me and my team to want to build something that was different and targeted to the demographic that we’re trying to impact which is underserved students. Making it an experience that is culturally relevant that is gamified and incentivized and excited to talk a little more about where we’re going with that. It’s important for us to create something that is different and built around a specific purpose.

William Leonard

I want to definitely talk about Beyond more at its core, but from a high level. I think you mentioned this earlier, but are you initially targeting high school students and their educators? Is that kind of how you’re seeking to break into the market a bit?

Naomi Thomas

Absolutely. I believe traditional education has been more of a factory approach. I feel like technology or education should be provided in a way that students learn at their own pace. We are kind of opening our user journeys to anyone who can use them, but we are targeting specifically high school students because they make the biggest decisions of their lives at 18 years old, right? It’s important for us to be able to reach them at a young age. There are a lot of technology platforms out there that focus on elementary and middle school, but like high school, I feel like the landscape out there kind of falls off. One of the discoveries that we made and one of the findings throughout the initial focus groups and surveys that we conducted earlier this year is around school counselors and how the ratio is 424:1 student to counselor ratio and it’s not enough time and capacity to truly reach the students and influence their post-graduation decision. We really want to be an asset and be an extension of a student counselor and career counselor educator’s voice.

William Leonard

I love that approach. Because, as you said, high school has been a bit underserved. I think there is an opportunity there for those students to really learn more about career choices that are may seem a bit distant to them. Especially if you’re looking from the lens of an underserved, underrepresented student. I want to talk about the platform a bit more. I know, you said, you’re taking a passion-based approach. You’re combining that with incentives as well for the students. Talk to us about the user experience a bit and what people can expect when they sign up for Beyond?

Naomi Thomas

Our current MVP is an experience that’s facilitated through a chat and like a chatbot experience where a student is talking to a chatbot named Brianna and they’re answering different questions around their interests and their future dreams of like where their career could take them to different locations that they want to live in, their favorite brands. It takes a few minutes after they answer about 10 questions, they get matched instantly, to what roles are aligned with their passion. If a student is interested in sports, they’ll get recommendations to work as a software developer for Nike or as a data analyst for the NBA. We definitely make that real-world approach and connect them to their passion, or from their passions to recommended careers and technology. And right now, educators are using it as an icebreaker before instruction. And so that’s our fully functioning product right now, we’re definitely evolving it because since launching in August, it has been a little bit over three months, and we have almost 1000 users that have provided us with really valuable feedback on wanting more industries, more locations. We are seven right now. I think one of the biggest issues right now and technology around is not just about capturing interest in tech, but it’s also, more importantly, retaining interest. We are taking an approach where we incentivize the STEM education experience and gamify it as well. That’s where we’re evolving the platform so that students are learning after they get matched to the roles that they could potentially pursue, they’ll get a list of skills that they should start learning to pursue these roles. We are incentivizing it. We can build a learning experience, turning company brand tech stacks into learning materials. They’re actually learning the specific skills that employees use at the brands that they’re interested in working for because different companies have different tech stacks. It’s important for us to be able to provide that education, especially if it’s something a dream career in mind, they’re already prepared for it. And as they’re learning, we’re creating an experience where they’re earning credits, and they’re cashing those credits in for prizes from their favorite brand. And so that incentivizes the experience and it creates retention around learning so that it’s making it fun as well. We really want to also gamify the experience so that learning should be fun. It should be exciting. That’s where we’re heading right now with Beyond.

William Leonard

I love that you are really helping the students understand each tech stack at each particular company. I think that’s really unique. Because like you said, it’s not a one size fits all approach to learning these different technologies and different programs that the software companies use. I’m curious, you said, you launched the MVP in August. You have over 1000 users now. Congratulations on that. That’s a really great milestone. What do you see for the company looking ahead in 2022? What are some of the big things that you all want to kind of check off as you think about growing?

Naomi Thomas

Absolutely. I’m really, really excited about next year. I think it will be an incredible year, because we took the time this year to kind of plant the seeds and really focus on listening to our users, our end-users, but also listening to all parties involved from educators and brands, and figuring out a way to create this collaborative effort. Right now, our users are all over the country. We really are trying to scale our reach. We’ve been in talks with a lot of different STEM programs that are interested in partnering with us. We just landed a partnership with the National Girls Collaborative Project that reaches around 30 million students, 20.2 million girls and 10 million boys. Next year, we’re partnering with them on a really incredible tech tournament that students are being challenged to innovate around their favorite industries through this tech tournament. Our goal is to reach around 20,000 students, it’s their 20th anniversary next year, and use it as an opportunity for students to learn and collaborate with each other, and have the opportunity to win prizes from the brands that sponsor each challenge. We’re excited about this tech tournament. As we are building this exciting experience with different programs that we partner with, we are also building for the future of STEM education and where technology is going around Web3, cryptocurrency, and immersive experiences like AR and VR, and figuring out a way to really enhance this STEM education experience because a lot of tech learning platforms out there, it’s one of those things where you can’t really teach students or expect students to really innovate and learn technology without innovating the tech education experience in itself. We really want to be on the cusp of not only learning, but also seeing it, and through the learning experience, and visualizing it. I think that will create just even more innovation for students to learn in different tech education and in different ways, specifically with tech education. We’re excited about next year, and scaling from 1000 to 20,000 within that one campaign, but also really figuring out ways to get all parties involved in more experiential brands and experiences in general. 

William Leonard

I love how you’re bringing brands into the equation here. As an early-stage company, what is your framework to approaching these brands and trying to bring them on? Because, oftentimes, they may be skeptical to partner with an early-stage startup, but you’re closing some of these partnerships. Talk to us about how you’re approaching that as well, because we may have some listeners who are seeking to have their startup partner with brands as well and maybe give you some advice that you’re kind of executing on.

Naomi Thomas

Absolutely. Our approach with brands is not as much from a marketing standpoint, but more from like a recruiting and diversity, equity recruiting as well. We approached them not for what the brand can do for us, but it’s more so like, what can we do for the brand to help improve their diversity statistics and improve their retention amongst employees or improve workforce development so that diverse talent is prepared when they do enter the workforce. We’re creating just an outlet for those brands to really reach the future of their workforce on a deeper level and early as well as going all the way from high school and following them along their journey all the way through post-grad. Because technology is one of those industries where it’s not required to have like a four-year degree. It’s one of those industries, you can learn really on your own. It’s important for students to really understand that there are nontraditional approaches to navigating the tech industry. It’s really important for brands to get involved because that’s like the end goal for students that are trying to work for a company and really impact the world through technology and whatever industry it may be. Technology is embedded in every single industry, sports, music, beauty, fashion, and we’re highlighting all of the technical roles at companies within those industries and also nontechnical roles at tech companies. And that’s another thing that I feel is important for anyone to understand that you don’t necessarily have to be an expert in coding to be successful at a tech company, there are nontechnical roles within like marketing and sales and HR, even on the developer side with like product management, where you can just really understand the fundamentals and have the visionary direction to be able to take that product to the next level. We’re really trying to highlight it and break it down and with brands involved, they understand that we are really preparing and specifically and intentionally directly preparing their students for a role at their company. It kind of bypasses just learning languages in general but makes it more mission-focused and more intentional.

William Leonard

I think the keyword you said with that whole description was intentional. You’re letting these brands know that we want these students to come work for you, or we want them to come to be impactful to your company to your business. I love the intentionality that you all are building at Beyond. Speaking of brands, you were a top three finalists at the AfroTech Young Founder Pitch Competition. Talk to us about that experience a bit and then maybe speak more broadly about how community and culture have contributed to some of the early growth that Beyond has seen thus far.

Naomi Thomas

AfroTech was incredible. I haven’t actually had the opportunity to experience AfroTech in person. But when I tell you this, the AfroTech world is a next-level type of experience. I’m really proud and admire and just seeing these types of initiatives that make the experience inclusive, where everyone feels like they have a purpose when they enter that world, and everyone has an opportunity to really explore. It was actually our first pitch competition ever with Beyond and so that was even more exciting to make it to the top three. It is one of those things where AfroTech really helped us have an outlet to express our vision and connect with so many people that we would have never connected with if we hadn’t gone for it. It’s the beauty of this community and its impact and connection in the virtual space. It helped spark even more conversations and more ideas. We’re now starting more partnership conversations with brands and things of that nature that really see the value in what we’re bringing. I love these types of initiatives. Because AfroTech is just so inclusive, it really inspires us to even build more tech education experiences in an inclusive way and culturally relevant way and really target the same type of demographic that we are, in a sense. I really am thankful and grateful for the opportunity to participate in AfroTech.

William Leonard

I was excited to see the pitch there. AfroTech is such a growing presence in our community, especially as you think about Atlanta and Miami and just other regions here in the southeast, where there’s a large population of underrepresented African-American founders building in the technology world. We’re really excited for you and the team and the exposure that you guys got from that. I think it’s only going to contribute to more success coming in the next year. I guess my last question for you is, what have you perceived to be the biggest barrier to diversifying the world of STEM historically? And obviously, there are some topics that we can discuss that everybody knows, but is there anything outside of the obvious that you’ve seen really inserted stuff as a barrier to STEM being more inclusive? 

Naomi Thomas

There are so many challenges right now around recruiting diverse talent that is very systemic. But I mean, diversity in tech really isn’t a pipeline issue. I mean, there are so many qualified minorities and women in technology that aren’t given the opportunity to enter the workforce because of, let’s say gatekeepers. It’s a community effort, right? From tech education and then also getting the job and the people who are hiring, the hiring managers, the team leads the maybe biased employees and prohibiting them from being hired. Retention in companies as a lot of companies is struggling to really create inclusive environments that offer a comfortable and welcoming experience for all employees to thrive, not just some. I would say that in underserved communities, there are many students that don’t have access to the resources to start their careers or the necessary support to succeed along the way. There are a lot of different barriers, and to piggyback what I talked about earlier with just today’s tech learning platforms aren’t made with diverse students in mind, and they aren’t led by diverse founders either. It’s important to help combat some of these barriers by leading charge and creating these inclusive environments, all the way down from the education and then helping provide that support as they navigate careers and making sure that we are influencing the entire process. From interest to success in that career to getting the job and things of that nature. There are a lot of parties that will be involved to start to really improve and change and it will take a while, but it’s important to start somewhere. That’s what we’re doing.

William Leonard

I think that’s very well said. We’re seeing incremental change now. But I think founders like yourself and startups like Beyond are really gonna begin to move the needle in terms of the numbers and the true representation that we’re seeing in the STEM world. I think this was a really dynamic and interesting conversation for our listeners. How can we find out more about Beyond? I know you have a large and great social media presence but how can we learn more about Beyond? What’s the website?

Naomi Thomas

The website is www.learnbeyond.io. You can follow us on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok at @itsbeyondgames. You can follow me at @iamnaomithomas. I keep updates and stories on my feed and stuff but love for y’all to support us and let us know what you think. We love any type of feedback to help improve. We’re really trying to make this the best type of experience from educators to brands to students. Definitely want to talk to anybody that has a thought or is interested in getting involved. I appreciate you having me on this podcast as well to really get our vision out there.

William Leonard

Of course, and I love that you all are on TikTok. I think that is such an underrated platform for virality. I think a lot of brands are going to start building their presence on Tik Tok. Really interesting, I’ll definitely check it out. But, Naomi, thank you for joining me today, really excited for our listeners. I think this is a privilege to hear you talk about Beyond your background and what you all are doing to solve the problems in STEM and increase access to more roles, jobs, and opportunities in that world as well. Really appreciate you joining me, Naomi. 

Naomi Thomas

Yes. Thank you so much, William. I’m happy to be here. 

Lisa

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