sophia bush, actress, hollywood

How Sophia Bush Is Investing In Education Technology

Words: John Guadiosi
Photography: Getty Images/ Maarten de Boer

The actress has been a savvy investor in new technology, including VR for education.

As Hollywood experiments with 360-degree filmmaking and virtual reality experiences, actress Sophia Bush is more interested in the emerging platform’s opportunities in education. The Chicago PD star has invested in PenPal Schools, which so far caters to more than 134,000 students in more than 170 countries. 

PenPal Schools is producing a series of 360-degree field trips to connect students from around the globe. The first up explores the culture of Pakistan, while a second field trip will launch soon, bringing the state of Texas to life. These trips are designed around courses for instructors to teach about different cultures, and there’s an added layer of connecting with actual students from other cultures — bringing the concept of penpals into the 21st century.

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Approximately 2,105 students in 82 schools across 12 countries have participated in the VR Field Trip to Pakistan thus far. PenPal Schools has partnered with the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation, which represents 20 million students, so that every student can have a Pakistani PenPal.

Bush took a break from filming to talk about her investment strategy and explains the role technology can play in bringing cultures together in this exclusive interview.

THE RED BULLETIN: Why did you originally decide to invest in PenPal Schools?

SOPHIA BUSH: I met Joe Troyen last year at my education panel discussion with Michelle Obama at SXSW. She and I were discussing our work with girls’ education access, and Joe had so much to say on the subject. We had mutual friends through Pencils of Promise, and his quick explanation of PenPal really inspired me. We kept in touch, and when he was raising this round I knew I wanted in. Education is an arena where I truly want to put my money and my advocacy where my mouth is.

How have you personally been involved with the organization?

I’ve been following PenPal since I met Joe, and have toured schools via their VR films. I’m really looking forward to the next big break in my shooting schedule so that I can venture out to the schools in person.

An early focus for virtual reality has been video games and entertainment experiences. What opportunities do you see this new medium opening up for education?

Virtual reality is an incredibly powerful form of media. Engaging students is essential for learning — students can’t learn if we don’t first capture their attention. Programs like PenPal Schools harness the engagement of VR and use that to get kids excited about learning. In some cases, such as PenPal Schools’ VR Field Trip to Pakistan, students can build empathy by experiencing a place and a way of life that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to see.

© YouTube/PenPal Schools

What role do you feel the VR experience will have in connecting kids from different cultures and religions given the current state of U.S. politics?

PenPal Schools plays a big role in connecting students from different cultures and religions. But this new project focuses on the particular problem that Muslims and their culture are frequently misunderstood in the U.S. And we often fear what we don’t understand. We often don’t think about how kids react to political stories. When a kid learns that people from some countries might be banned from entering the U.S., how might that affect that child’s perception of those people?

Considering the current political climate, it’s more important than ever that we provide young people with opportunities to understand other perspectives and form personal relationships with people from outside of their own communities. If our government and media want to stoke fear and threaten to build walls, it’s up to the socially conscious and technologically connected community to focus on bridge building instead.

How do you see VR and other technology allowing educators to show what other countries are really like, rather than just what’s portrayed on the news?

Students (and adults) often form perceptions about countries like Pakistan based on what’s shown in the news, and the news usually focuses on violence and political instability. PenPal Schools helps students to see another side of Pakistan — the people, history and culture — and actually get to know Pakistani students of the same age. I think in the long run this could create more understanding and less fear between cultures. The personal connections that PenPal Schools provides are the most impactful, but VR is another way to get students engaged and experiencing things that they otherwise couldn’t see.

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Kids are especially impressionable, what’s your hope in using VR and technology and old-fashioned pen pals for positive purposes amid a lot of the negative political climate that’s all over the internet, social media and websites today?

One of the things I love about PenPal Schools is that it’s not old-fashioned. Sure the concept of pen pals has been around for a long time, but PenPal Schools uses online connections combined with collaborative lessons to make pen pal relationships more educational. Technology can be used to fix problems in the next generation that we see in our own. For example, during the presidential election we saw how fake news can easily spread on social media. We saw how people form “echo chambers” on social media where they only communicate with like-minded people. In the rare instances when people exchanged opposing viewpoints, it usually got nasty pretty quickly. Technologies like PenPal Schools help to form better habits in the next generation. They’re encouraged to distinguish between real and fake news, treat people with with respect even when they disagree, and consider multiple perspectives on the issues. Creating platforms that encourage and foster empathy and acceptance are just as crucial as teaching kids historical information, business skills and critical thinking.

How did your own experience in schools growing up influence your involvement in educational organizations today like PenPal Schools and Pencils of Promise?

I owe my life and my love of the world to the education I received. If it weren’t for Westridge, the progressive, thoughtful, and incredibly advanced school that I attended in Pasadena, I might not be having this conversation with you today. We studied everything. We celebrated everyone. I had access to theatre programs. Studied biblical texts through the lense of AP English, took a year of Islamic study that fostered my love for the Middle East, fell in love with literature and its nuance and complexity, and was completely geeked out on all things biology related. The art. The music. Having a complete and thoughtful education formed my ways of thinking, my ability to view and honor different perspectives, and made me forever curious. I think that’s why today I’m so hungry for the world and so in love with people from all walks of life. 

There are a lot of startups out there in tech. What do you look for when investing early in companies like StyleSeat, Omni, Mark43 and Uber?

I like to invest in companies that provide services I refer to as “lifehacks.” Companies or platforms that are zeroing in on problems or redundancies in our current society and making them better.

How did you become tech savvy as an investor?

Investing has always felt intuitive for me. But I appreciate you calling me savvy!

How have you seen the role of social media evolve in the current political climate to promote awareness and encourage positive change?

I think social media is a fantastic tool to highlight meaningful opportunities for people to get involved in their local and global communities. I use mine as a megaphone!

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