Click Here for Part 1 ETC: Investing in Baltimore’s innovative, emerging technology companies and entrepreneurs Lida Zlatic is the co-founder and CEO of ClassTracks. ClassTracks is a blended learning solution for the foreign language classroom that allows teachers to offload the drilling of vocabulary so they can focus on communicative lessons. Citybizlist interviewed Lida as part of our conversation series with the staff and entrepreneurs operating out of Emerging Technology Centers (ETC), the city of Baltimore’s hub for technology innovation and entrepreneurship. A nonprofit 501(c)(3) venture of the Baltimore Development Corporation, ETC is split across two campuses and offers three major programs: the ETC Incubation program; Beehive Baltimore, a coworking space; and AccelerateBaltimore, a 13-week intensive providing up to six local startups with mentorship and seed funding. Since 1999, ETC has helped over 350 companies grow and achieve success. Today, about 85% of those companies are still in business, and 75% have remained in Baltimore. EDWIN WARFIELD: Did you have a background as an entrepreneur before starting ClassTracks? LIDA ZLATIC: If you had asked me a year ago what I thought of entrepreneurship I would probably have said, “Oh, greedy people who don’t actually want to contribute to society.” So I would say that was our background with entrepreneurship. I was really, really opposed to it. I didn’t want to be an entrepreneur. I majored in classics during undergrad. My mom really wanted me to major in business, not because she thought I would make more money, but because she thought I would be better at it. In fact, I’m terrible at ancient Greek, and my mom kept saying, “You should take just one business class.” I just refused, and I was wrong. Mom always knows best, I guess. Why are you passionate about foreign language education? There’s a lot of research out there about the benefits of learning other languages. From the most practical—there are job opportunities, if you can communicate in another language—but also more hard-to-see things: kids that learn a second language tend to do better in Math, for example, they tend to do better in their own language, so they write better in English for example. It’s been shown that there is some correlation between a delayed onset of dementia and being bilingual, so there are lot of things that I think people are still looking into and trying to figure out what’s causing the correlation, but I think we know and we’ve known for hundreds of years, that learning another language makes you more intelligent—just the act of learning it, not even the act of being able to speak it successfully, but the act of sitting down and trying to learn: that struggle and trying to understand how someone else might think in a way that’s totally different than the way you think. What’s the company’s biggest challenge at the moment? The thing that is difficult for edtech companies, and we’re no exception to that, is getting districts on board. We’re not having too much trouble getting teachers to try it, but what would really be huge for us is if a big district said, “Yeah, we’re willing to give this a chance.” We’ve been talking to D.C. public schools, and they’re excited about it but district sales just take a really, really long time. Having a district like D.C. or Baltimore say, “Yeah, let’s give it a shot for a year and see what happens”—that would be really huge for us. What is your business model? We’ve been bootstrapping since we started. The business model is charging teachers directly, because the process for getting districts to pay takes so long and there’s no way that we could bootstrap for two years while we were waiting for districts to make up their minds. So, we’re starting by charging teachers, and it’s not cheap—we’re asking for $99 per year—but a lot of teachers are able to pay that out of their departmental budgets. We’ve talked to teachers in Baltimore who are willing to just write the check from their own personal finances. You know, that’s something I would have done when I was teaching, but I didn’t know whether I was a crazy individual or if there were really other teachers that felt that way about technology. I can’t say that it turned out that there are “lots” of teachers, because we haven’t talked to lots of teachers yet, but all of the teachers that we’ve talked to—overwhelmingly they’ve been willing to pay. You know teachers spend money on their classroom, and foreign language teachers don’t have as many options. I think in English as a native language—regular English classes—teachers have a million options, and the district has already bought five different ones for them, so that might be a more difficult model. But, like I said, in foreign language we’re selling direct to teachers. Are you ultimately more interested in private or public schools? I think private schools are really a great place for this to get started, because they have more flexible budgets, but we’re really interested in working with public schools. That’s where my cofounders and I work. Just from an equity standpoint, we don’t want to build a tool only for private schools; we want to build a tool that helps everyone. Do you see this technology having applications outside of language learning? In the long run there are definitely other applications outside of foreign language, but that’s where my cofounder and I have experience. We wanted to really target that first. It’s a market that’s not being served; it’s a market that we know well, so we definitely wanted to start with foreign language. I think we see a really clear path to doing English as a second, other language, and I think it could also be used for other subjects, but we’re sort of wary of getting spread too thin and trying to do too many things at once.
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