Nancy Knowlton is responsible for the day-to-day direction of SMART. Recognised as one of Canada’s top businesswomen, Nancy was the 1999 Canadian Woman Entrepreneur of the Year in the Export category, awarded by the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and the Bank of Montreal. She and SMART co-founder David Martin were awarded the 1999 Prairies Region Technology Entrepreneur of the Year Award, sponsored by Ernst and Young, and a Manning Innovation Award in 2002.
Why did SMART choose to work in education?
We have to be fair and say that education chose our product. We were showing our new products at several trade shows and it soon became apparent to us that the people who really got it, who could see the need for the product, were all from education. Several educators went on at some length to tell us how they could use our product, and it was that clarity of thinking that caused us to orient our plan to engage more systematically with educators at all levels. Of course, there was very little money in education at that time for technology, but that didn’t discourage us. The people who really saw the benefit of our product somehow found the money and became rabid fans.
Will SMART always focus on the urban sector in education?
We don’t think that we focus on the urban sector of education now. We want our products to be equally relevant to children in all locations. My husband and I both come from modest backgrounds. In fact, I grew up on a farm. We believe in the equal opportunity that education can provide because of our personal experiences. Perhaps we have to do more for a rural education product, but we will keep at the issue until we get it right.
How did you succeed in establishing a place for SMART in this global niche market of e-Learning? What has been your forte in this sector?
We have established SMART one customer at a time. We have become insiders by listening and delivering products of value to our customers. We have focussed on our customers and their needs and desires and not a sense of corporate importance, as we have grown larger. We have done many things right, because we are always trying to think about the customer. We do not follow fads and trends in business. Back in the dot.com era we didn’t focus on “eyeballs” and “burn rates” even though everyone was saying that this was the new way of doing business. We thought for ourselves and decided to run a business that was solid and here for the long run. Jim Collins refers to this approach in his book “Built to Last” and we still believe that this is the right
way to run a business. How do you see the global market for e-learning?
Which sector of the market (K-12, higher education, corporate learning, etc.) you think will see the maximum growth in the next few years? The global market for e-learning is exploding. People everywhere see the opportunity that technology tools can provide to really engage children in a way that pen and paper never could. Whether it is a teacher shortage in certain subjects (such as maths and science) or a classroom teacher looking for novel ways to explain everyday topics, technology is being used the world over to effect change. I don’t think that it is a case of saying that K-12 will grow faster than higher education. There are different ways of using technology in the various levels of education. What I have seen, and what frankly excites me the most, is the great opportunity that education presents to allow people who have been on the outside looking in as the world has moved into the 21 st century to fully participate in the global economy. There are young children literally on every corner of the earth who hav the brainpower, and maybe more importantly, the desire to be something special. Adding these children to the world’s workforce with all of the energy and creativity that encompasses is what will be the biggest boost to the world. What are the potentials for SMART’s products for developing countries market, especially in rural areas? The best things that SMART products can do are really threefold: • They can provide access to engaging learning experiences for children regardless of their location and the quality of the teachers in the local communities. With digital content accessible to all, there is no reason that these rural children cannot succeed to the same degree at their peers who live in urban areas. • They can make children confident. Children can recognize that they can learn and that develops a sense of pride and self-worth. A lot can be accomplished when these two elements are in place. • They can open the door to a world that many rural children have never imagined. These children can visit a zoo, see a man land on the moon and understand how waves work – and all this before lunch time. The world is open to them like it has never been before. We think that our products should be in all classrooms around the world.
What has been SMART’s experience in working with governments across the world?
Do you believe a high-end product like smartboards can become a viable option for the rural areas in developing countries? Governments around the world have been very open to working with SMART Technologies Inc. They know that we have a product to offer, but they also can tell that we are not here to sell them on products that won’t meet their needs. We have sold substantial numbers of our products to: • Mexico through the Enciclomedia project. This project is changing the educational experience in Mexican classrooms and engaging students in rich multimedia experiences. The teachers are feeling comfortable with the way in which technology is being brought into their classrooms. • The UK through the BECTA project for interactive whiteboards. This GBP50 million initiative drove adoption of technology to a critical mass. The momentum has continued and there are exciting pockets of innovation beyond the interactive whiteboard as well. It is clear that governments are looking at the opportunity that technology can provide. There are demands for lower process throughout the world. Volume drives a lot of efficiencies for with our hardware product, so we can meet the financial needs of our customers. Our customers also appreciate the superior quality of our product and know that this has to be factored in to total cost of ownership onsiderations. As the Co-CEO, where do you see
SMART five years from now?
We want to fulfill our dream which is to change the way that the world works and learns. Our products will be in classrooms literally around the world. We will have our SMART Board interactive whiteboards in many, many more classrooms. We may reach a billion dollars of annual revenue but we’ll still be hard at work for our customers .