Q+A: Alex Rappaport, Flocabulary
Math as rap? Yes please! Where was Flocabulary when we were all in middle school? Co-founders Alex Rappaport (who studied music in college and found himself scoring indie films and producing ringtones for cell phones (left)) and Blake Harrison (an English major who struggled to memorize facts for tests but loved rapping at gatherings around Philly (right)) met in San Francisco in 2003. The rest, as they say, is history. We sat down with Alex to learn about the origins of Flocabulary, and the intersection of music + education + tech.
What are the origins of Flocabulary?
Flocabulary grew organically out of a very simple idea: Most kids have dozens of rap songs memorized but can't remember the definition of a word like obsequious. We figured if we could make rap songs with SAT words in them, we'd make learning much more fun and effective for a lot of kids. So we made one song back in 2004 and sent it around for feedback. Just about everyone said 'we love it! Make more!' So we did. Now Flocabulary has more than 600 videos on our online platform, teaching everything from math to social studies to life skills like financial literacy.
Everything we create is made with students and teachers in mind. We have a great deal of respect and empathy for our users, and when we're trying to figure out how to bring a certain piece of content to life, we're thinking about that kid in the back of the class with his head on the desk.
Alex Rappaport, Co-Founder of Flocabulary
What kind of work do you do, and what makes you unique?
We make educational videos, lessons, and assessments for students in grades K-12. We're the only company that makes educational rap videos, so that makes us unique. But I like to think it's more than that. Everything we create is made with students and teachers in mind. We have a great deal of respect and empathy for our users, and when we're trying to figure out how to bring a certain piece of content to life, we're thinking about that kid in the back of the class with his head on the desk. Students and teachers talk about how transformative our music can be in the classroom. Somehow, we've managed to make that kind of impact and build a scalable technology company around it. More than 35,000 schools around the world have used Flocabulary to date.
Is there a story behind your name?
Even if there wasn't, I'd have to make one up! But there is. We saw the combination of rap and vocabulary as a pretty unique thing, so mashing up two words in our name always made sense. The nerdy literary term for this is a portmanteau. We were sitting around drinking beers one night at [co-founder Blake Harrison]'s apartment, as we tended to do in those early days, and we started playing around with names. I can't remember who said it, but Flocabulary just sort of bubbled up, and we knew we had it.
What has been the craziest/most interesting collaboration you've done lately?
Honestly, there's never a dull moment because we get to collaborate regularly with incredible rappers as well as amazing educators. Teaming up with new rappers is always great because you get to see their passion as they realize that their work is connecting directly with kids. Teachers are equally inspiring. We work with a teacher from Baltimore, and she spent some time at our booth at a recent tradeshow. We had a live performance (yes, we rap at tradeshows) and this teacher basically became the hype woman, the Flava Flav or Lil Jon of edtech.
Not everyone knows that Flocabulary is the mastermind behind Big Idea Week. Can you tell us a little bit about that project and how it got started?
Absolutely. Big Idea Week is a school program that teaches students about product design, entrepreneurship, and STEM by connecting them with mentors from technology companies. Back in 2013, I was approached by the lovely people at the DUMBO BID to create a program that would build a bridge between the DUMBO business community and the students and teachers at P.S. 307, an elementary school a few blocks away. I came up with a curriculum that would expose students to 21st-century skills and bring the STEM curriculum to life by connecting it to real-world problem solving. While this program was supposed to benefit the kids, an interesting side effect is the eye-opening inspiration it brings to the mentors too. Last year, the program expanded to ten schools and reached 500 students.
[DUMBO is] a little village of innovation, and the companies here do such cool things. That energy and innovation is contagious. And the opportunities to collaborate and build are endless.
Alex Rappaport, Co-Founder of Flocabulary
DUMBO attracts innovative companies, and I think there is a kind of cluster effect here now. It's a little village of innovation, and the companies here do such cool things. That energy and innovation is contagious. And the opportunities to collaborate and build are endless. We were drawn here in 2008 by the sick river view from our office in 25 Washington (now a condo with a sick river view). But the sense of community is what keeps us here. Now we have to surpass Flatiron as the tech hub of NYC. Maybe we should challenge them to a giant game of kickball. Flocab has gotten pretty good.
What are your favorite spots in DUMBO?
I go to Brooklyn Roasting Company everyday, as do several members of my team. We have a slack channel called BRC-runs. I lure people to meet me in DUMBO by saying we have the best coffee in New York. I should own stock in Foragers after six years of salad bar indulgences. When we go as a group, we try to compete for who can get their salad cost closest to $10. I'm embarrassed to admit how much I have spent on a salad there. We gripe, but we keep going back because it's just that good. DUMBO boutiques have become my go-to for gifts for my wife. The convenience factor is huge and I love all of the unique, local goods. Trunk has been especially clutch for me. I also love the vintage store on Front, but I'm not cool enough to wear most of that stuff. I'm working up the confidence to buy a giant Pharrell style hat for this fall. My co-workers have been very supportive of that.