Gary and Valerie Berman are the co-founders of Grasp Learning, a pioneering after school program that provides academic support and enrichment to children with hands on tutoring and tech.
Our City Thoughts: Why did you create in Miami?
Gary We’ve been in the Miami community for almost 40 years, and we’re seeing that Miami is just at the precipice of something that can be very important regarding entrepreneurship. There is an ecosystem that’s been created here over the last several years to facilitate that.
OCT: What does your org do? How was it founded?
G: We open micro learning centers inside not-for-profits such as JCCS or community centers or churches and other settings for after school and out of school learning for k-8 children. One of the most important innovations of our system is that we’ve figured out how to drive most of the costs out of starting your own company. In particular, we’re focusing on educators because we know that teachers are underpaid, and this is an opportunity for them to earn supplemental income by opening their own micro-learning center wherever they live, in every neighborhood throughout the United States.
V: We were challenged by a local entrepreneur to “do something disruptive in education.” So the journey began in Miami and proceeded through different parts of the country where we checked out innovations in education at Stanford, Harvard and other centers of academia, and gathered best practices in out of school learning.
OCT: Describe a challenge you have overcame to get here.
V: Working as a couple, a married couple was one of the big challenges. We have worked together before and we have been successful together before, but this is something that we started at a later stage in our lives and in an economy that has been challenging. So finding our individual areas of influence within the company has been very helpful.
OCT: What does it mean for you two to be co-founders?
G: That Valerie and I are cofounders, to me means that we trust each other. Trust is a very important commodity when you’re dealing with a partner. We have built-in trust from our 26 years of marriage. But also skill sets. Valerie has a very strong academic background, a masters in curriculum development from Stanford University, and she’s been in academia and non-profits her whole career. My background is very complimentary, in the business world and specifically in the marketing world. Together we’re a powerful combination.
OCT: How has Miami impacted who you are today?
V: We are a bicultural couple, so we are extremely comfortable in a multicultural and multilingual environment. Miami makes you really empathetic in terms of the struggles and dreams of many different groups. So you really feel a sense of duty and loyalty to the many different groups that make Miami home.
G: Miami has impacted me personally because I’ve always had an affinity for Latin America. The first 20 years of my career dealt with Latin America and the U.S. Hispanic marketplace. So I’ve always been oriented towards multiculturalism in a very profound way. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
OCT: What do you love the most about how Miami is being redefined?
V: What I love the most is that my children are having a Miami experience that is different from the one I had. They’re finding outlets in the arts and in culture—they go to Wynwood and blackbox theater and on these bicycle things. So they are experiencing Miami in a different way. Not so much in the beach but on the streets.
G: I think Miami is becoming more substantial than what it used to be. With the opening of the Pérez Art Museum and now Museum Park; all of the conferences that are starting to happen here regarding entrepreneurship and technology—I think all of this is gaining momentum and I think Miami is going to be unstoppable. What I love about it is the energy. You can make it here. You can come with an idea and passion and it can be successful in Miami where that may be less true in a less dynamic city.
OCT: Describe an innovation advancement you are working on?
G: We have several innovations. The first is the business model itself, which is to empower a generation of educators to own their own micro-learning centers. The second very exciting innovation is that when a child comes to one of our centers, they’re also going to have access to 24/7 on-demand academic coaching through any electronic device. So if a child is stuck, 4:00 in the morning with geometry, they’ll be able to go online and get help. I think the other big innovation for us is establishing partnerships with not-for-profits. So by opening up inside not-for-profits, we’re really helping the not-for-profits accomplish their mission by providing high quality academic support.
OCT: What’s the most gratifying aspect of what you do? And the most grating?
V: The most gratifying moment when that child “gets it,” and is proud of his or her achievement and a smile appears on his face, and he wants to come back and loves coming back.
G: What we love about Grasp is that we’re actually taking stress out of family life. We’ve had fathers cry from joy of relief, and moms the same way, saying, “Where have you been? Thank you so much.” So for me, that’s the most gratifying thing—seeing parents and families very quickly realize a sense of joy where before it was stress and pain.
G: To me the most grating part is breaking inertia, sameness. The education system on a national basis is still in the industrial age more or less.
V: When a child has lost his motivation or love of learning because he has been labeled. We want to be able to peel off the label and interact with children as learners, period.
OCT: What wisdom would you share with your younger self (maybe when you were 18)?
G: If you focus on the mission, the money will come. If you focus on money, you will never accomplish the mission.
V: I would have told my younger self that entrepreneurship is extremely liberating but at the same time requires everything, it’s 24/7.
OCT: What community issue keeps you up at night?
V: The unequal access to the opportunities that this country offers. So many good things are happening that a large proportion of our population can’t have access to.
G: The kids that need us most can afford us least. We’re working to correct that.
OCT: Describe your ideal Miami. Why are those qualities important to you?
V: An ideal Miami is less segregated and provides more common areas for people to play, learn, and interact. I think that living in community goes a long way to dispelling myths and prejudices about people we don’t know. When we have more opportunities to interact in a diverse community, we can become more empathetic and understanding of other’s needs.
For more info, please visit: www.grasp-learning.com