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We are thrilled to introduce SHIFT Talks: a series of unique stories from local entrepreneurs, each detailing how they've experienced shifts within their personal life, their company’s journey, their industry, and most importantly, our city. Their stories.Their SHIFT Talks.
Chris Sleat is the CEO of Workbench, is the only end-to-end ecosystem for hands-on teaching and learning, referred to as Project Based Learning (PBL). It provides all the tools necessary for school districts and libraries to fully deploy PBL curricula at every level. Workbench is an exclusive education community for the top maker-education companies worldwide.
Q: Can you tell us about your journey? How did you get to where you are today?
A: I started a service company called Realinterface right out of college. We built custom software for folks for about a decade. Next, I started a company based off of a patent I had for deductive reasoning called the Realinterface Expert System. It was initially used to shrink sets to make purchases more quickly – in the early days of [Internet] shopping carts. It ended up being used in disaster medicine as well as oncology research because it would match patients for clinical trials, so we went from selling beer and sneakers online to being cancer researchers. Then, we were acquired by a CRO. From there, I transitioned to where I am now. I had kids growing up very differently than I did. For some time I’ve had a passion for project-based learning and getting kids to do projects for their education, not just to pass a class. I never like just doing straightforward rote memorization and I wanted to change that, but it didn’t sound like a business at the time. Fortunately, we were able to find a way to match up the maker space with the robotics and drones.
Q: What is it Workbench does that is so unique?
A:We teach kids math, science, language arts, and art with things like drones, fire, explosions, and robots. It’s kind of the best job on the planet. If you walk into my office it looks like a robot threw up in the middle of the room, and it’s a fantastic job.
Q: What is the most significant event you’ve had in your life so far?
A: Most significant event of my life was marrying my wife. She’s been the biggest change agent that’s ever hit this whirlwind of a person. Getting me to channel my energy was really, really important to me. I was very wild in high school and college, and she helped me control my energy and focus on what I need to do for my first company and make it a real company. Without her, it would have been a band of crazy people out in the early days of the web. She helped me change how I approached myself and my health and everything; definitely would not have done it without Laura.
Q: What’s the most exciting thing you’ve ever done?A: The most exciting things that I’ve done – that we can talk about on camera – is offshore kayaking at the end of hurricane season. I have friends who go out with me and do the pre or post hurricane waves in the Chesapeake. We did one last year that was completely stupid and ridiculous, but really on the edge of frightening. It was pretty awesome.
Q: Can you tell us about some of the things on your bucket list?
A: I want to travel with my children. That seems pretty simple, but we’re kind of older parents of younger kids. I have a 10-year-old and a 14-year-old, and going to a new country for the first time with my kids in tow is something that’s less adventuresome but really important to me. I think getting my kids out into the world is a big deal.
For me personally, I want to do a Hawaii paddle called the Molokai. It’s a 30-mile open water kayak race. That’s one of my big bucket list items.
Q: How do you foresee yourself continuing to shift the purpose of business today and in the future?
A: Pivot is another word for shift, and we shifted from a [retail] services company to a product / project company. You need to make sure you look at opportunities around you and don’t miss them when they’re running straight by you. Now we’re shifting to a real mission-based company being able to change accessibility and outcomes in education. With project based learning we started scratching the surface almost five years ago when we were first looking at the model to see what we could do with robots and drones to supplement everyday education. We went from thinking “this is a good supplement” to “you should teach everything like this, the retention is better.” We shifted from being supplemental to core. And now we’re helping the education world shift into that too. We have some of the biggest education product companies in our partner portfolio, people like Sphero Education, and they’re amazing. They’ve changed their approach, and just watching them enable kids and make sure they’re learning through projects – plus 20 other companies now – that’s a big change.
Q: What is your greatest hope for the world?A: My greatest hope for the world is for everyone to listen to each other…to the point where people can actually change their minds. I think that’s the biggest challenge right now, not just in the States but elsewhere too. When you’re engaging with somebody and allowing yourself to change your mind, maybe not whole cloth, but I think that’s an opportunity. I would love to see people actually say, okay, I’m going to listen. I don’t want to see people walking into a conversation thinking, “I’m going to completely argue with you.” Instead, stop and allow your mind to be changed, maybe 1% or even 100%. But most folks I’ve seen have been unwilling to this point, so if the world can listen and maybe change their mind a little bit about how they approach things. That’s what I want to see.
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