Sunny Washington: Launching Curiosity

Sunny Washington knows all about momentum. After leaving the banking industry following 9/11, Washington turned her focus to tech and has continued to move forward ever since.

Working with educational tech companies like Instructure and Certiport, she developed a passion for STEM education, especially experiences that give students real-life science knowledge. This led to the creation of her company Because Learning—formerly Ardusat—in 2014.

Jumping into the startup world, Washington was astounded by the magnitude of fundraising she had to do to get financing for her company.

“There are so many challenges as a startup: getting customers, getting traction and finding venture capital. It’s even more difficult for women, which has become more apparent to me,” she says. “Women get 7 percent of venture capital funds, and that number is getting smaller and smaller.”

As a woman of color, she finds that percentage is even lower—just .2 percent, according to a recent CrunchBase Women in Venture report. Washington is a first-generation American. Her parents came to the United States from Seoul, South Korea, raising their family in Orem. She lived in Europe during her teenage years but returned to Utah County to attend Brigham Young University.

Her original plan was to build her edtech company in San Francisco, but she discovered distinct benefits for staying in Utah, even though she’s found it difficult for women to create startups in the state.

“I don’t fit the cookie cutter mold. [Venture capitalists] fund who and what they’re familiar with. Women don’t get the same consideration and have to prove themselves more to get the same level of treatment and the same level of funding,” says Washington.

Even with these challenges, Washington raised $1 million in 2015 to fund product development and growth. Initially, Because Learning partnered with a satellite company, Spire, to use its small CubeSat satellites launched from the International Space Station. Students can interact with the satellites, collecting data and running their own experiments as the CubeSats orbit earth. The company recently rebranded as Because Learning to reach students beyond the CubeSat satellite program.

For Washington, education technology is an investment that will pull more girls into STEM classes and address the talent shortage in the tech industry. “We’re not producing enough scientists. We need to prepare and train a workforce to handle the tech jobs coming in the next 20 years,” she says.

“One of the best skills we can teach our kids is critical thinking,” she adds. “America continues to excel and innovate. As a nation, we like to create things. We just need to facilitate that in the classroom as well.”

Because Learning works with more than 30 countries, and Washington is excited for the growing opportunities in the Middle East and China. Her company’s hands-on STEM education projects are a big hit in the United Arab Emirates.

While schools overseas are building innovative and creative STEM tools, Washington says the U.S. market is a little different. Because Learning provides a lot of teaching support in the States as the industry waits for the education system to roll out the next generation of science standards.

“There’s great potential to provide different learning experiences and different ways of teaching science,” she says. “I truly want this to be a better environment for women because we’re neglecting that segment of the population. I see that changing a little, but we have a long way to go.”