Originally from Virginia, Mala Bawer
(MBA ’79) currently resides in Senegal, West Africa, where she serves as executive
director of CyberSmart Education LLC, a social enterprise she co-founded with her
husband focused on scalable and sustainable digital learning. CyberSmart
Education has impacted over 10 million students and teachers in communities
around the globe, including sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and the United
What were your early years like? Why did you
decide to pursue an MBA at Darden?
I grew up in Fairfax, Virginia,
attending public schools. My father started his own company when I was in
elementary school. I spent almost every Saturday at his office. I did not
understand what he did, but I felt that he worked hard and enjoyed doing so.
I actually pulled out my application
to Darden and reread it for the first time in 42 years. I felt very proud. I
would have written essentially the same thing today. I wrote that I wanted “the
professional capabilities to initiate organization change in the most effective
way,” noting my particular interest in “the psychodynamic aspects of initiating
change in an organization.”
What do you
remember most from your time at Darden?
foremost, the indelible friendships I made and treasure to this day
Darden was a
huge adjustment for me. I arrived after 18 months of budget backpacking in
Europe and Israel. And I mean budget; I think it was $20 a day then. I was
failing after the first semester. I was lost. I was forced to appear in front
of a faculty committee: I recall telling them that they had accepted me to
study with classmates with undergraduate business backgrounds and business work
experience. I had neither. So they had to admit they made a mistake with me, or
I simply needed more time. They gave me the time and Darden transformed my
What was your
path to co-founding CyberSmart Education LLC?
I first entered the print publishing industry then got involved with videotext
technology, the two-way interactive electronic delivery of information to
consumers that was the precursor to what we all know as the internet.
and I had professional skillsets that were very complementary, and so we decided
to launch our first company, a financial information service called Stockalert.
We provided major financial institutions with the very first interactive
telephone and fax-based market data package for consumers.
launched a family. It so happened that our children’s elementary school years
coincided with the onset of schools spending money on computer labs, which is
how the idea for our second company, CyberSmart Education, came about. My husband
and I were interested in this area because we had both been involved up close
in the early interactive technology ventures and saw clearly the potential
benefits of technology for young people. So in the midst of the initial public hysteria
surrounding the safety of the internet for children, our company offered a groundbreaking
research-based curriculum to foster 21st century learning, or digital literacy.
Our strategy of positive empowerment is now modeled internationally.
Can you tell me a
bit about your current role in CyberSmart Education and the work you are doing
in sub-Saharan Africa?
learned that it is simply impossible to adapt existing commercially available
technologies. The reality is that these existing technologies were not designed
for use in developing countries. That
is why CyberSmart Africa has come up with the first massively scalable digital
learning platform — an affordable
bottom-up solution based on insights from our 9-year
grassroots collaboration with teachers across rural Senegal — designed
specifically for schools without electricity.
The CyberSmart Digital Learning
Platform is an all-in-one mobile, solar-powered device extending traditional
whole-class instruction with multimedia-rich digital resources. Just imagine
virtual science experiments in schools with no science equipment! The
CyberSmart Digital Learning Platform combines an Android computer, interactive
projector, and connectivity together with compelling learning content and
teacher training. This is a high value addition to what is now labeled “the Internet
of things,” bringing together new devices for innovative, practical
Traditional whole-class instruction is the
most sensible and least costly starting point, but teachers can also use their
mobile phones to preview lesson content, access training modules and share
knowledge with colleagues. The CyberSmart Africa network of connected teachers
will become the basis for numerous future e-commerce opportunities. Students
will also be able to connect with tablets and engage in more personalized learning
when costs come down.
We also believe that financial sustainability
is crucial and have embraced a for-profit business model based on ongoing
What began your
interest in working globally? How has working around the world influenced your
We were on a
tourist visit to West Africa visiting some schools for fun, and we began
thinking how we could leverage our expertise with online services to affect the
dire need for education in the developing world. We were convinced that
effective use of technology, including solar power, is the only way to educate the
fastest growing youth population in the world. We came to this with a background
in content development, product development and online training. Specifically,
we had developed the very first and largest online digital literacy program in
the U.S. Then, the expansion of our work to Qatar gave us direct insight into
the cultural issues affecting education.
collaboration is essential. We have seen hundreds of millions of dollars flushed down
the toilet in a variety of education technology projects in sub-Saharan schools
that were completely unsustainable and totally ignored the needs of the
majority of sub-Saharan classrooms that have no electricity.
What kind of
impact do you aim to make through your work?
Sub-Saharan Africa has the fastest growing youth population in the
world. Forty-three percent of the population — nearly half a billion people —
are under the age of 15. Furthermore, the vast majority of schools will not
have electricity for decades. At the same time, it is widely acknowledged that
it will be impossible to educate these young people without effective use of
technology. The international community just has not been able to harness
technology in the best ways to address this enormous challenge, but it is
possible and that is exactly what we want to do.
A quality education will be the key determinant as to whether
young people in developing nations will have the skills to contribute to their
country’s economy or become an added burden to it. The global implications of
hundreds of millions of poor, uneducated young people is a recipe for disaster.
What do you
consider your greatest achievement? What does success look like to you?
All said and
done, my greatest achievement has been a 30-year marriage to my best friend and
business partner and, together, raising two amazing children, Remy and Jeremy. Remy
is pursuing an acting career in New York City, and Jeremy is an accomplished
film director. His first film was the award-winning feature film Tall as the Baobab Tree and his second
feature film, Tracktown, was
co-written and co-directed with his fiancée Alexi Pappas, who ran in the Rio
What advice would
you give to future global leaders?
The world is
made of so many different religions, cultures, traditions and habits; and we
all need to get along in order to do business, operate our governments, and
prosper as societies and individuals. Leaders need to develop a deep
understanding of what it feels like to be in the other person’s shoes.
What’s next for
My husband and I are enjoying the home
we recently renovated in Senegal. We look forward to continuing our work with CyberSmart
Africa, building the partnerships necessary for
growth and impact. And at the same time, we are exploring new, exciting ways to
apply all of the lessons we have learned in this exciting journey.
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