Aaron Saunders’ Luma Lab Making Change Through STEM Education

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LumaAaron Saunders is in business to do good. He is founder of Luma Lab and CEO of Clearly Innovative. Washington, DC-based Luma Lab was started by Saunders to teach children from underrepresented groups how to code, design and program. And not long ago, Luma Lab received a $100,000 grant from JPMorgan Chase for its STEM education program.

Through Luma Lab, students learn how to become designers, developers and entrepreneurs by solving community issues using technical and entrepreneurial skills. The program offers education and mentorship, as well as positive learning spaces for children and adults.

Saunders used his personal savings to start both Luma Labs and Clearly Innovative. It has long been a dream of Saunders to help others enter the field of tech. “Since I was in middle school, I was always interested in technology. I majored in Computer Science at Ohio Wesleyan and worked for a number of years managing and developing software at different corporations. After working in the corporate world, I was ready to start my own company,” he says. So, he started his first company: Clearly Innovative.

“Clearly Innovative started back in 2009 and had one employee. We used to work out of the basement in my house. After a few successes, the firm quickly grew in size, and so did our brand.  The services side was doing well, however we never just wanted to create software and go home; we wanted to get involved with our communities. Specifically, help underexposed students become creators of technology –  and not just consumers. Through our partnerships with local organizations, we started getting involved with tech education in an impactful way,” notes Saunders, who finds various ways to engage youth.

“I helped produce a youth hackathon in Anacostia, an area that has a reputation for poor performing schools and high crime rates. There wasn’t much confidence we were going to get a strong turnout. But, as it turned out, the event was well attended and successful. The kids were excited about the work and when the hackathon ended, there was no place for the kids to funnel their enthusiasm to continue learning,” says Saunders. “I was inspired to create an after-school program, where students who are interested in technology could continue their passion.”

Next came Luma Lab. “Fast forward three years and Luma Lab has been a huge success in the District. We continue to provide programming and have worked with about 300 students through after-school programs, hackathons, Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), and college courses. We are about to launch an incubator on Howard University’s campus to further educate not only students, but adults as well,” Saunders says. “The mission of Luma Lab is to create a world where technology is approachable and people in every community can take a seat at the digital table as creators, innovators, and entrepreneurs.”

Here’s how Luma Lab works. “Our Luma Lab curriculum exposes students to all facets of technology including software development, lean startup principles, product management and user experience. Students work in teams and use a lean startup approach to build innovative solutions in the classroom. Throughout the program we focus on teaching the soft skills students will need that will best prepare them for pitching ideas to investors or interviewing for a job. Our Luma Lab program introduces students to a variety of technology careers and empowers students to solve community issues with their newly acquired technical skills,” shares Saunders. “Luma Lab is growing and we are starting to create curriculum for young adults and provide services for entrepreneurs and startups who do not have access to the right mentorship and funding needed to scale their businesses.”

Of the JPMorgan Chase grants, Saunders says, “The grant is being used for the 2015-16 school year to scale our staff, develop a workforce curriculum, raise awareness, and provide IT infrastructure. It will directly help us support hiring staff and marketing Luma Lab so that schools can be made aware of our program offerings and we can continue to scale our curriculum for older individuals entering the workforce.”

Though Saunders’s efforts have receoved wide support, there have been challenges. “On the services side, the biggest challenge has been brand awareness. As a small services business, it’s tough to compete in the technology arena when some large organizations are unaware of who we are and the excellent level of service we provide. We are now getting some recognition as a result the award winning apps we built for Queens Public Library and National Military Families. We’ve maintained great relationships with these two clients and we’re learning to manage our other clients and develop a long term relationship as their strategic partner. Our goal is not just to build one solution for our clients, but to build a relationship that turns into long term technology partnership,” he says and adds:

“Surprisingly, the challenge on the Luma Lab side has been to get organizations interested in our tech education programs. In early 2015, we established a great relationship with TDF Foundation. We have entered into a long-term strategic partnership with TDF whereby they have committed fund three after-school Luma Lab Programs for three years. The challenge has been to find organizations who are just as committed as we are to educate the underserved and ensure the success of our programs. We are continuously looking for schools and organizations looking to partner with us in order to educate our youth.”

For Saunders, success isn’t measured in money. “The biggest business lesson has been that success is not only measured in dollars and cents, but in changing the future. I first focused on tech education, not because I saw great profit potential, but because I knew there was a need to educate the underserved. For years, both my staff and I volunteered our time and services, through school and weekend programs. The growth for Luma Lab came on full force. Because of this rapid growth, I have come to the realization that in order for Luma Lab to grow to its full potential, I have to consider the possibility of creating a separate entity for the education business to give it the full focus and attention that it deserves. I suppose the lesson is that whatever you’re passionate about, you should go for it,” he says. “The initial success I’ve witnessed has been the 300+ students’ lives we’ve changed because we were able to educate them with our Luma Lab curriculum. My passion of providing tech education to the underserved has taken on a life of itself, and opened doors I could never have imagined. Ultimately, I believe Luma Lab will grow into a much larger business than what I’d ever envisioned for Clearly.”

There is a lot ahead for Luma Lab. “Luma Lab was recently selected by DC Government and Howard University to operate Howard University’s incubator space.  We will provide access to tiered services and programs through our members-only network, Howard staff, alum and faculty, as well as the broader Shaw and DC communities. In addition to technology and entrepreneurship training, we will provide co-working space, networking events, mentorship and strategic connections to potential investors and partners,” says Saunders.

There is more on the plate–and it’s a tall order. “Our biggest goal for 2016 will be to successfully launch the new incubator space, In3, and identify local organizations and entrepreneurs to join the space so we can continue to grow an inclusive, diverse tech community in DC,” explains Saunders.

In the long-term, Saunders has major goals. He shares: “My long term goal is that In3 will create a pool of tech savvy, tech educated and well rounded diverse professionals and Clearly Innovative can offer apprenticeships for those members who complete our technology training. As a result of this new pool of diverse professional, my goal is for Clearly Innovative to develop more technology partnerships, so that organizations will continue to come to us for their mobile and website needs.  My long term goal for Luma Lab is to become a brand name for tech incubators. I believe we can successfully recreate the business model of In3, using the Washington DC location as an example, and port it to other states across the country. My hope is that the Luma Lab name will become synonymous with inclusive innovative incubators everywhere.”