Amy Maguire Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange
Amy Maguire Interview
moderated by Paul DiPerna
Amy.. We go way back to the good old days (in our teens) at the
Edgewood Club, and both of us were very involved with the summer
home swim team. I witnessed firsthand how good you were with kids back
introduction then... from little ones to high schoolers. It was obvious to me that you
themes not only enjoyed working with children, but you also liked working with
interviews index parents to help their children.
Thank you- very nice of you to say this.
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At what point did you know you wanted to
RSS for interviews pursue a career rooted in education?
Were there influential events, Maguire's Bio
Paul's bio and projects Amy Maguire:
Although I worked with children through high school and college, I
thought I wanted to be an environmentalist. I went to Penn State and
earned a B.S. in Environmental Resource Management. I didn't realize
comments policy I missed working with children until I started my first job after college
looking at a possible career change so I decided to volunteer in the
physical therapy department at Children's Hospital in New Orleans.
One of the regular patients was a three year old with multiple
disabilities. I was amazed by the many things she could do, how
happy she was, and how much she benefited from the early
intervention she was receiving. I decided to change directions and
applied to get my M.A. in special education.
What were your teaching experiences like after graduating from
My volunteer experience at Children's Hospital of New Orleans
was with children with a variety of physical disabilities and ages. Once
I started my program at The University of Georgia I worked with
children with a variety of strengths, needs, and diagnoses. I have a
firm belief in the importance of early intervention and my internships
and student teaching were with preschoolers. I completed part of my
student teaching at a school in Lima , Peru . Unlike the United States,
children are not entitled to a public education and there is absolutely
nothing like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Many families rode on buses for two hours or longer each way so
their children could have a half day of school.
What were some of the greatest challenges and rewards?
Learning how to best utilize technology in the classroom especially
for very involved children was the toughest challenge. I relied heavily
on the experiences of the occupational therapists, speech therapists,
and experiences of other educators. Students' progress was always
the greatest reward.
You earned an M.B.A. in Entrepreneurship at Wake Forest
University several years ago. Can you describe your graduate school
experience for us?
I went to school planning to work for a non-profit after graduation.
While playing tennis with a classmate, we started discussing the need
for different educational materials and opportunities for children with
autism. We spent every weekend between our first and second year
of business school writing a business plan. Our second year, we
traveled to MBA business plan competitions around the country,
writing Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants, and going
through due diligence with angle and micro-angle funds. We
succeeded in raising enough money though competitions and
investors to commit to Sandbox Learning by graduation - so no 'real'
jobs for us.
Although our original business plan is very different from what we
currently do, we are still up and running well after we first started our
website in October, 2004. We are working on expanding our materials
through SBIR grants and the company's growth. Some of my
coursework was beneficial for marketing and financial projections, but
I find that a good deal of information from class did not prepare me for
the world of a small business owner.
Desiree and I joke that the four
"our version of P's of marketing (product, price,
the promotion, and place) are nothing
entrepreneurial compared to our version of the
four P's: entrepreneurial four P's - patience,
patience, persistence, positivity (yes, made-
persistence, up word), and poverty (at first...
'positivity', hopefully not forever). I love the
and ... poverty" idea of still working with children
through grants and research while
creating products, marketing the products, talking to customers, and
learning a about a variety of other things (such as patents).
When and How did you start thinking about using technology as a
way to help children with special needs?
When I was in graduate school one of my professors focused on
technology in the classroom and how it could be integrated into almost
all aspects of a child's day. I became interested in learning more about
ways technology could be used and based my thesis on children with
disabilities using a computer program to learn receptive language. As
a teacher, I worked closely with occupational therapists and speech
therapists to integrate various technology in the classroom.
What have been some of Sandbox Learning's greatest challenges
these first few years?
Moving from a concept to a functioning company was probably the
greatest leap. We had all of these different ideas for where we were
going to go with the company and had to realize what could be done
with the time, money, and other resources we had.
What do you consider to be Sandbox Learning's greatest
accomplishments to date?
As we keep moving forward we constantly have new
accomplishments. I guess the three biggest accomplishments in
chronological order would be winning/ receiving money at different
business plan competitions; getting the site online and functioning; and
receiving an SBIR grant.
Do you have a favorite story or experience that might be instructive
to new entrepreneurs and recent graduates?
I am not sure if this counts as a story, but the one thing Desiree
and I believed from the beginning was that we would try as many
avenues as we possibly could and we wouldn't give up on any ideas.
We sought advice from everyone we knew when starting the
company. We approached different investment firms. We wrote SBIR
grants. We did our own PR. By trying everything and making other
people say no to us rather than giving up or not trying, we learned a
great deal and this probably is what helped us start the company (and
keeps us going).
In recent years, there are media reports that the U.S. has an
autism epidemic. The Autism Society of America says that about 1.5
million Americans are affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD),
including roughly 1 in 150 children.
What exactly is ASD?
Autism is a spectrum disorder which means children with the
diagnosis can have a wide range of abilities/weaknesses. Children
with the diagnosis have deficits in social and communication skills and
they often have repetitive or unusual behaviors (repeating
phrases/echolalia, rocking, flapping, etc.). Because of the range, the
diagnosis itself does not tell you a child's functioning level nor does it
mean much in terms of a prognosis. A thorough assessment
including cognitive skills, motor skills, adaptive skills, and
communication skills is needed to give a more complete view of a
child's abilities and is used to develop an Individualized Education Plan
(IEP) to meet their needs.
Why have more and more children been diagnosed with ASD over
the last 10-15 years?
It is really hard to say why there is an increase in diagnosis.
Professionals are better trained to identify the signs of autism which
means more children are given this diagnosis, but there is definitely an
increase in overall numbers. There are a number of theories about
why it is increasing but no one has a real answer.
Was the national media late in reporting this phenomenon?
It is hard to say at what point they should have made people more
aware of things. There are a few well known people who have
children and/or grandchildren with the diagnosis and that may have
helped increase awareness, but I am not sure when they really started
reporting things. Early intervention is important, and the earlier the
diagnosis the sooner children can get speech therapy, occupational
therapy, and early education services. So the recent coverage has
been helpful in helping parents look for signs which helps with early
diagnosis and treatment.
How does Sandbox try to help
autistic children and their parents?
Our products are not specifically for
this group but we do sell materials that
focus on social, communication, and
safety skills and a good deal of the
professionals and parents who purchase the materials use them for
children with ASDs. Also, we finished a Phase I SBIR grant which
was a beta video game for children with disabilities and the
participants for Phase I all had ASD diagnoses. Hopefully the Phase II
grant will be funded and the game will be helpful for this group.
Do Sandbox's services expand to children who have other kinds of
Yes, our products are used for children with a wide range of needs
including those that are learning skills but don't have disabilities.
Social workers, guidance counselors, church groups, and other
organizations buy the materials to teach a variety of skills.
I understand that Sandbox's services allow parents to customize
online e-books, called "Success Stories", to address an individual
child's specific learning and developmental needs and preferences. Is
that about right?
Yes, our materials allow the main physical features of the child, hair
color and style, eye color, skin tone, glasses/no glasses, and method
of communication (words, signs, a device or pictures) to be
customized to look like the child. The text of the materials also is
customized to address their specific needs.
Can you describe in what ways, maybe by one or two examples,
how parents and professionals use your products to help children
Since many children have very specific needs those can be
included in the text to address their individual needs. For example, if a
child becomes easily frustrated by transitions and finds these very
upsetting, a book could directly address this frustrating time in their
day and indicate what strategies they could use for remaining calm.
Also, some of the materials address potentially new or unfamiliar
situations. The story, "When Things Change", could be used to
discuss divorce, a new sibling, a new teacher, or other changes to
prepare a child for what to expect and how to respond.
We base much of what we do on marketing research. We
frequently survey our customers to see what they want. Our current
products are really well liked by our market, and we believe people find
them effective. We include ideas from emails or calls we get from
customers in our surveys. We want to make sure we are providing
products people need and parents and professionals realize we value
their opinions. I don't want to give anyone the impression that our
products are an answer or cure to anything. Within our service
capacity, we do our best to address kids' needs. What we are
currently working on in the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH)
grant process is a research-based video game.
There are so many products and services in the special education
market. We want to make sure we are spending our time, money,
and effort developing materials that make us stand out and encourage
people to look to us for materials and information. We also include
articles in our newsletters with helpful ideas for teaching kids useful
skills, working with schools, preparing kids for new situations, and a
variety of other things..
Are there any political, business, and/or academic leaders who you
think fully understand the need for customized instruction and teaching
to the individual child?
Albert Bandura advanced the idea of changing a character to look
like the child in Social Learning Theory (Bandura 1977). The theory
discusses how individuals learn from watching the behaviors and
consequences of those around them. The theory suggests similar
characteristics such as age, gender, and overall appearance are
factors in individuals modeling a behavior. Often teachers make books
for children with pictures or drawings to address very specific issues
such as sensory needs for children with autism. People frequently
purchase stories about feelings, health issues, or new situations to
help children cope with different things. These stories are a way for
people to address these topics and customize stories online. The
other materials we are developing have a customizable aspect to
them which is quite different but since we are in development I am not
really able to discuss them.
What individuals or organizations do we see as leading public
The Council for Exceptional Children is a leader professional
development and advocacy in overall disabilities. For children with
autism, the Autism Society of America (ASA) is a wonderful resource.
Many areas have local branches of the ASA. They are a fantastic
resource. They often have speakers, know the local resources well,
and provide support for families just learning about a diagnosis.
It seems to me that what you and Sandbox are trying to accomplish
falls squarely in line with the "social entrepreneurship" movement of
the past 25 or so years.. A movement that appears to be escalating
due to the connecting powers of the Internet and telecommunications-
though, that is just my take :) Sandbox Learning's goal for contributing
to a social good looks like it is very consistent with the values and
organizations promoted by foundations like Schwab, Skoll, Omidyar,
With respect to your passion for entrepreneurship, has there been
a role model for you? Maybe someone you learned about while at
Wake Forest, or possibly who you've met while running Sandbox?
One of the best things about the MBA program at Wake Forest was
listening to the entrepreneurial guest speakers. No matter what their
company did or how they became successful, their stories were
always inspiring. I always felt like, "If they can do it, then so can I." I
also found that most entrepreneurs are very willing to help other
entrepreneurs. They love to tell stories about their experiences, and
they want other people to avoid some of the mistakes they made.
While at Wake Forest, I had the opportunity to hear John Mackey,
the CEO of Whole Foods, speak. I also was part of a small group of
students who had lunch with him. His story about starting the
company, growing it, and his current role in the organization were very
interesting. The company helps the community and does well
financially. I think this is the ideal for any company, and they have
done an exceptional job of accomplishing this.
Do you have any special plans later this year, professionally and/or
Personally, I have a few trips with family and friends that should be
relaxing and fun. Kayaking, biking, hiking, and other activities are on
the agenda for the trips. I love enjoying nature so I am looking forward
to getting away and being outside.
Professionally, we are just working on growing the company and
submitting a few SBIR grants. We also are looking at some other
product lines and that is exciting.
July 11, 2007
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