Niara Valerio – Putting the Key to Success on the Phones of the Next Generation
Hi there, I’m Spiffy. As an interplanetary journalist, I’ve seen young people overcome great adversity and solve problems – like on Planet Fanoolu! Today I’m talking to an entrepreneur helping other young people achieve their dreams and make change, meet Niara Valério.
SPIFFY: Howdy Niara! I’ve heard you’re doing big things working with young people. But let’s start at the beginning, what challenge is Learnabi addressing?
Niara: Howdy Spiffy! At Learnabi, our goal has always been to make quality education accessible to every single student. But more importantly, we want to re-envision education in a way that accounts for how today's students use technology and social media. We started as a tutoring and mentoring service 3 years ago, we worked with students who were struggling to pass standardized tests. For many students, passing these exams became the central focus of their senior year of high school – if they didn’t pass, they didn’t graduate. We feel that learning and education should be about far more than passing standardized tests, so our mission at Learnabi is to use technology to help students become more empowered, independent learners.
SPIFFY: That must be a lot of pressure on these young people. What motivates you to work on this?
Niara: I think one of my favorite aspects of this job is working with Gen Z students - it’s hands down the best! Our students are full of big ideas to change the world in imaginative ways. They’re socially responsible, conscious, and want to create systems and societies that are inclusive, and ultimately better everyone's lives. They’re well versed in environmental justice, human rights, and racial inequality. I think it’s great because they keep companies accountable for the work they’re doing too. If organizations want to appeal to a Gen Z audience, they need to be really vocal about what they stand for and believe in, because it’s important to Gen Z to align themselves with brands that reflect their values.
SPIFFY: They have the power to make the world a better place but how are you helping them reach that potential to bridge the gap in education?
Niara: We think the best way to bridge educational gaps in the US is with technology. Mobile devices are great sources of information and there is a lot of potential for connecting students to resources they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. 82% of all high school students have a mobile device they access regularly, but I don’t think we’re maximizing them nearly enough. We should rethink education as something that doesn't just take place in a classroom.
SPIFFY: Have you done any initiatives recently with your students?
Niara: We spent the summer highlighting youth activists in the BLM movement on our social media. Most protests are led by young, Black, women and we wanted to amplify their voices and support their work. The protests are still going strong and have no intention of stopping any time soon, despite it no longer being a trending hashtag. The BLM movement does important work that will continue for a long time – we should amplify and support the young women spearheading the movement as much as possible.
SPIFFY: Young people are SO inspiring & persistent. Speaking of persistence, tell me about a time you’ve faced failure.
Niara: At the start of the Spring semester this year, we had some big ideas that we wanted to implement for an online event. We spent a lot of time planning and strategizing and it ended up being a complete disaster. Everything that could've gone wrong went wrong – plus maybe 3 or 4 more things we hadn’t anticipated. It’s always difficult to spend time and effort executing something that doesn’t pan out.
SPIFFY: I know the feeling. What did you learn from this experience?
Niara: I’ve found the best way to move forward is to acknowledge the failure, allow yourself to be sad about it for a bit, then take what you learn and apply it to the next situation. The failure always stings, but your time spent dwelling on it gets shorter the more failures you experience – how you rebound is much more important and you end up becoming very resilient. Some ideas will be great and will work out, and others will not be so great and will fail terribly. Though I think it’s better to fail in a really big way vs. playing it safe by aiming lower than you should.
SPIFFY: What’s one thing you’ve learned unexpectedly?
Niara: One of the best things I’ve learned recently is just how much students are turning to social media for educational purposes. It’s actually very commonplace and is occurring more often than people assume – I think it speaks to how much potential there is in reimagining social media as a way to create and promote educational access. Students have developed really creative solutions to the online learning challenges associated with COVID. For instance, there are students who are utilizing Instagram lives to teach material and content to other students, as sort of like a live tutor.
Niara is originally from Queens, New York and is passionate about increasing the number of girls studying STEM at the college level. She co-founded Learnabi when she saw a study skills gap while teaching SAT classes in the South Bronx and she draws from her own academic experience to develop personalized approaches to learning.