He wants to make math accessible to all through Math Plus Academy.
Raj Shah is troubled by a dichotomy he finds in U.S. society. More than half of Americans have said the words “I can't do math,” he says, while almost the entire population agrees that the subject is critical to success.
To help bridge that chasm, Shah founded Math Plus Academy, which aims to inspire a love of numbers in young people. “We've taught everyone that math is important, but we've done a really bad job of actually getting anyone to feel like they can or want to do it,” he says. “I was put on the planet … to change that.”
With three Math Plus locationsin Columbus and a wide range of camps and workshops, Shah's message has caught on since starting the business a decade ago. This March, Math Plus welcomed its first franchise in Solon, spreading Shah's formula—a mix of computers, robotics, chess and entrepreneurship classes and workshops for kids 5 to 14—to the Cleveland area.
Shah grew up in Columbus, earning a bachelor's degree at Ohio State University and a doctorate in physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He began his career at Intel's microprocessor research and development labs in Portland, Oregon.
He started thinking about math education when he realized a kindergarten class wouldn't challenge his son Jaden. Rajesh Gummadi, one of Shah's franchise owners in Solon, had almost the same experience with his children, so he drove to Columbus to learn more about Math Plus. He came away impressed and set out to bring Shah's unique ideas to Cleveland.
“I come from India, a country where math is treated as the most important thing,” Gummadi says. “I felt kids were not being given the opportunity to really understand how fun and interesting math should be.”
At Intel, Shah's vision was strategic, too. “As I moved into management at Intel, I realized almost everyone we hired was from a foreign country,” he says. “I was born and raised here, and I felt this is a problem. If we can't get talent from our own country, some day these people are not going to want to work here.”
So he packed up his family in Portland, moved in with his parents in central Ohio and spent 18 months on launching Math Plus, hoping the next generation would embrace his ideas about science and math.
Since then, growth has been steady for Math Plus. Class prices range from $90 to $137 per month, and Math Plus's curriculum includes robotics, computer programming, chess, weeklong summer camps (under $200 a week) and national and international celebrations of math and coding.
“The kids who like math also like computers, robots and chess,” Shah says. “Those are all the things I like. Half the reason I started robotics is because I wanted a Lego robot for myself. The kids at the time were too young to play with it, but I wanted it.”
“My typical client is a college-educated parent who sees the world changing quickly and realizes that every single day math becomes more valuable,” he adds. “They know if you raise a child who shuts that door at an early age, you've just shut off an incredible number of opportunities.”
Indeed, parents like Pattiann McAdams of New Albany are true believers. She has four children at Math Plus Academy classes each week, including a four-year old daughter and a second-grade son doing fifth grade math. “When I pick [my children] up, they're not packing their bags, waiting at the door,” she says. “They're still engaged, and they want to get the last game in.”
Shah worries about those who don't have the resources for that level of commitment, so he's active in the Julia Robinson Math Festival in Columbus for 5th to 9th graders. He also looks for low-cost event opportunities like national or international math celebrations that may cost as little as $10.
The themes of Math Plus summer camps range from brain games to 3-D modeling and printing, robotics, LEGO engineering and video game design. A favorite is the “maker” camp, ideal for tinkerers who want to do hands-on creation and innovation.
“There' s no such thing as a kid who hates math,” Shah says. “There's only a kid who doesn't love math yet. If you want to do this work, you have to believe that.”
Mike Mahoney is a freelance writer.