When Maria Burns Ortiz launched 7 Generation Games with her mother, she sought a new challenge and a chance to make an impact. The result of this family enterprise was an educational gaming studio that partners with organizations to create games around curriculums that also reflect the audiences that content is being built for.
“We started working in Indigenous communities with specific tribal partners, looking at how we could create computer games that would improve learning outcomes and be applicable. When you look at what makes something engaging, it’s seeing yourself reflected in it,” she explains, of why games are created with narratives, imagery, and characters that reflect the children whose classrooms these games will be played in.
Having raised over half a million dollars in investor capital and two million dollars in grants, 7 Generation Games’ next move is to democratize the process of making educational games by giving educators and community leaders access to build their ideas into digital reality.
“We could create something that would empower other communities — or anyone with content ideas or existing curriculum — to be able to make games. Because often, you find that the communities that most need resources have the least access to them. Anything that we could do to remove those barriers is what we’re doing with the 7 Gen Blocks game development platform.”
Read on to discover how this digitalundivided Do You Fellow’s unlikely career move has mobilized thousands of children nationwide to see themselves reflected in their educational experiences below.
digitalundivided: Take us through your founder origin story. What inspired you to create 7 Generation Games?
Maria Burns Ortiz, 7 Generation Games: It was a combination. I have worked in media for over ten years. I’d set out to be a journalist. I was writing at ESPN as a sports journalist. It was fun, it was great. But it wasn’t everything that I wanted to do for forever. When you are younger and say, ‘I’m going to do something when I grow up,’ everyone says that’s great. But no one asks what you will do after you accomplish that.
At the same time, my mother — who’s one of my co-founders — was in a similar situation. She had applied for a grant to make a video game. She said, ‘We should take this and make it into something.’ Initially, we were focused on making math video games. I was a kid who hated math. I wasn’t bad at math but thought it was dull. But I was raised by a mother who was raised by a grandmother who didn’t speak English. She happened to push education and learning calculus, even though she couldn’t quite fully pronounce the word “calculus” in English, right? Because she did that, it opened doors for my mother. My parents divorced. My mother would remarry but become widowed with three small children. Because she had that education, she could meet those life challenges in ways that she mightn’t have been able to if she didn’t have an MBA and a PhD. That opened doors for me, which opened doors for my kids.
For me, I was a good student, but there are a lot of students that aren’t that engaged in the classroom or don’t care. Maybe they don’t have that family support at home. There are a lot of kids that don’t have those opportunities. I think education is a foundational part of that. So, how can we find ways to ensure they don’t fall through the cracks in the educational system? Or at least provide ways that we can better serve them? There’s an opportunity to do that here. This was a chance to make math applicable for kids in a way that it often wasn’t.
digitalundivided: Why video games? What about gaming or the gaming medium that made you realize video games would be the best approach to teaching children a subject like math?
Maria Burns Ortiz, 7 Generation Games: I’ve always focused my media career on digital. You also reach people where they are. Kids are on their devices, and they like playing games. Video games are fun. Even if you look at my generation, if you ask people about their classroom experience and who remembers the Oregon Trail, everyone remembers it. They’re super excited. It brings back these memories, and people start talking about it. Those are the kinds of things we can use with games to engage kids and teach them. I mean, we founded a video game company. So that’s a possibility. But it gets people excited about learning and wanting to learn, as opposed to this is this thing I have to do.
digitalundivided: What learning curves did you face as a nontechnical founder? And what advice or insights would you have for other women looking to build startups in a technical space but might need that background?
Maria Burns Ortiz, 7 Generation Games: I’d first say find a technical founder. I’ve seen a lot of people who try and do it without a technical founder. That’s hard because creating technology costs a lot of money, even in the beginning, when you’re prototyping things. Finding someone who can handle that part and will do it for sweat equity is usually a co-founder. Finding a technical co-founder can be complicated and frustrating. But I can’t imagine having done it without that part.
There’s value in having technical and non-technical people on your co-founding team because they’ll have different perspectives. We always joke that it’s never as intuitive as developers believe it will be. Either understand you’ll have to put a lot of money into it if you don’t have that technical expertise or find someone equally excited about your goal and mission that can be part of your team.
digitalundivided: What was it like to build a company with your mother and family?
Maria Burns Ortiz, 7 Generation Games: Sometimes people will say, ‘Investors don’t want to back companies that are parent and child-owned, spouses, or whatever it is. It seems like a much better bet to bet on people who have been working together literally their entire lives. How often do people break up with their mother versus a random college roommate they don’t get along with anymore?
Our family came into this with an understanding of how we work together, what that looks like, and how we manage conflict. We’ve spent an entire lifetime doing that. If you’re going to be in the trenches with someone, you should know that it’s someone who 100% will have your back because they’re fully invested. It seems like a great thing.
digitalundivided: How did participating in digitalundivided’s Do You Fellowship help you navigate your founder journey?
Maria Burns Ortiz, 7 Generation Games: Having a cohort of other women in similar situations has been helpful. I always joke that I went from sports media into tech startups, which are white, male-dominated businesses. At least the line for the women’s bathroom is short. But having other people having similar experiences and being kind in similar stages has been helpful. My mentor throughout the fellowship has been incredible, and having someone you can go to and be very honest with is enormous. In the startup world, no one often wants to hear if this has been the worst month of my life. You’re selling and trying to make sure that it always looks good for you, for whoever you’re trying to get to buy or invest in your thing. But really, having someone to be honest with is helpful and gives perspective.