At CORI, we are interested in broadening the conversation about rural America and sharing stories from local change agents and entrepreneurs who are driving innovation in the small towns and communities they call home. Our Rural Edge series features conversations with the people who are changing the narrative about what’s possible in rural America.
We recently spoke with Kanesha Barnes-Adams, founder of EduScape, based in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. EduScape is a “mobile escape room” that travels to different schools, especially in rural areas, to deliver hands-on exploratory learning for students—and now, during COVID, EDUScape is designing online escape rooms as well, leveraging the expertise of our Rural Innovation Network partner Codefi in Cape Girardeau, MO.
In our conversation, Kanesha discusses the power of connections in rural entrepreneurship, her path to this innovative education delivery model, and how she’s contributing to the digital ecosystem in Pine Bluff.
How did your entrepreneurial journey get started?
I started my career as an educator, still to this day see myself as an educator, and will forever be an educator. But three years ago, I started a small side hustle that grew into a business. And since I live in a small town, I knew my neighbors, and I was well connected, it was successful and I was encouraged to explore entrepreneurship further. Not to mention that my dad ran his own business growing up, so that gave me the confidence to dive in and start the company, and lean on him for guidance and support.
After realizing I liked being an entrepreneur and realizing I could do it well, I got the idea for EduScape. While working on my PhD in Educational Leadership, I needed to find a platform to support unconventional teaching models, and I noticed that many students didn’t have the resources they needed in the classroom to succeed, and when COVID-19 hit, the shift became even more evident. The need for virtual learning and unconventional learning experiences is necessary. The same had been true when I was a rural student myself, and when I had worked with Teach for America in a rural school in Pine Bluff, and even when I traveled across the country to see schools as part of a rural school leadership academy. In an effort to engage my students better, I used the concept of an “escape room,” an interactive game where people solve clues to advance, as a learning tool. My mantra was “creating unconventional experiences for students, where we escape conventional education,” so my idea for a mobile escape room focused on core educational concepts was born. I put together a model, got accepted into the Delta I-Fund, and really started to build out my idea for EduScape Room.
We hear you’re working with one of CORI’s partners, Codefi, based in Cape Girardeau, MO. How did that connection between your two small towns come about?
After building out EduScape’s model, we were seeing initial success—school districts had started to book our program. However, COVID has definitely put a wrench in those plans. Fortunately, the Delta I-Fund has provided a lot of support helping me hone my prototype and build connections. It’s a 12 week program where you’re assigned mentors and placed in a cohort with other entrepreneurs at different stages. These conversations helped me pivot my idea to focus on how I could deliver these services online. One of the two web vendors in the I-Fund was Codefi, so I started working with Chris Carnell there to help me build out my online offerings and platform.
With your collaboration with Codefi, what will EduScape Room look like digitally?
Codefi is helping me create digital escape rooms with 360 degree visibility. For example, the kids will be “locked” in a restaurant, and all the puzzles they have to solve to get out will be wrapped around state education standards. We’ll start with one room a month, and the first will be wrapped thematically around healthcare. For kinesthetic and visual learners, seeing a representation of the character in the room is really beneficial, so Codefi’s high-fidelity designs will make a huge difference. Originally, we were focused on delivering the in-person mobile escape rooms to rural schools specifically, but now with the reach of the internet, we’re expanding our focus more broadly to include low-income schools and schools with high populations of students of color. The digital transformation will even help us branch out to community organizations or parents seeking to provide individual licenses to support homeschooling, micro-schools and learning pods.
What have you found most helpful about launching a startup in a rural area like Pine Bluff?
I’ve been blessed to make lots of good connections that have helped the business grow. Codefi is one. I’ve also appreciated the collaborative atmosphere, rather than the competitive atmosphere I might find in ed-tech in a place like Los Angeles. Working with ed tech companies like Zuni Learning Tree, and nonprofit leaders like Dr. Dionne Jackson at AR Kids Read has been vital to my customer discovery and market research. Further, as a black female founder, I’ve also had lots of people willing to collaborate with me because of the diversity I bring to the table. It’s true that access to capital might be a little harder in a place like Pine Bluff, and that’s something rural entrepreneurs everywhere often have to deal with. But at the same time, there are lots of rural specific resources, and lots of people who are willing to help you make connections. When I attended the RuralRISE summit, I hadn’t met the people in person before, but through all the connections made beforehand and all our overlapping networks, it felt like we all knew each other well; rural spaces are so interconnected that you don’t even realize it.
The Delta I-Fund has also been a powerful program. One of my mentors is highly familiar with rural entrepreneurs, and most of the entrepreneurs accepted into the program are from rural communities of the Delta. The people I am connecting with are familiar with the challenges and opportunities that present themselves in rural areas, which has been immensely valuable as I work on building out my idea.
How does The Generator at Go Forward Pine Bluff, a local hub for digital jobs, coworking and entrepreneurship support innovation in a rural area?
I’ve spoken with Mildred Franco at The Generator at Go Forward Pine Bluff ever since the early stages of my idea for EduScape. She has been helpful as well, sharing resources and contacts. She knows everyone in the rural space. Whenever I mention a name, Mildred knows them, and she’s deeply intertwined in the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Arkansas. Rural entrepreneurs need spaces and support networks like Go Forward Pine Bluff. EduScape has benefited from the ways I’ve been able to plug into a larger community. And the mentorship and community I’ve had access to has greatly impacted EduScape’s growth trajectory.
What would you want to tell other founders thinking of launching a startup in a rural area?
First, you have to be persistent. You have to seek out opportunities to learn and gain more experience. Often, as rural people, we underestimate our talent, or have imposter syndrome. We think there’s not a space for a rural entrepreneur or a small business, or no opportunity to scale. But when we’re persistent, when we actively build a community of people who can help strengthen and grow and fine tune a brand, we can succeed, it may take time, but I do believe it is possible. When I first thought about EduScape, I never thought of it as scalable; I thought I was just a little girl in Pine Bluff, and like many other people in Pine Bluff, I thought I might need to move to a big city to really grow my idea. I don’t agree with that, with the right tools, resources, and network “great things can happen.” There’s a misconception that small spaces can’t support big growth. Rural entrepreneurs should know that it might take more time, more work, and more patience to launch their ideas from the rural places they love, but it’s possible, and worth it. My own idea isn’t fully scaled yet, but today I have more belief that now more than ever is the time to intentionally launch, integrate myself into rural entrepreneurial ecosystems and persistently seek out new networks. People outside the ecosystem might not always understand your dreams, but within the ecosystem, you’ll get the support you need to keep going and succeed.
I’d also tell people, and this applies to rural and urban alike, to make sure you really believe in your product. People don’t always pay for the product; they pay for the person delivering it. If they believe that you can do the job well, the product will come. That’s another reminder that in rural communities we have to be confident in who we are as people. You’ll have to be open to learning, and when you don’t find resources, you have to be willing to seek out connectors who can bring in new skills, and you will be able to put together everything you need. I created the EduScape Room solution because I lived the experience of a rural student not having access to the best resources. That experience drives my desire to make EduSscape succeed and help my students make real progress. When people talk to me, they know I believe in what I’m doing.
To see more profiles of rural innovators or to learn more about CORI’s work building digital economy ecosystems in small towns across the country, you can sign up for our newsletter. If you’d like to nominate a compelling rural leader for the Rural Edge Series, let us know.