When you think about schools and education, virtual reality is not the technology that comes to mind. But when Gemma Busoni thinks about education, she sees her company, Discovr Labs, revolutionizing children’s learning. Her passion lies at the intersection of education, technology, and accessibility, partly because of her upbringing when she struggled to access the resources that could advance her education.
Growing up, Busoni’s mother would drive her from Chino Hills to Downtown Los Angeles every day to attend USC Hybrid High School. Born in El Salvador, Busoni and her mother immigrated to the United States when she was three years old. She describes her mother as someone who loves learning and has seven different degrees to show for it. Busoni’s mother believes that education is something no one can take away from you. Once it’s yours, it’s like a secret weapon, but first, you have to acquire it.
You’re going to face a lot of people who doubt you, but for all the people who are doubters, there are plenty of people who really want to help you.
In school, Busoni recalls feeling frustrated by the lack of structure set up by her school advisors. Busoni’s mother had to intervene when they found out that the school wouldn’t offer the PSAT exam to their students. Busoni and her classmates had to take their education into their own hands if they wanted to take the actual SATs to apply to college.
When Busoni wanted to learn how to code, she didn’t know where to turn. That’s what inspired Busoni and her classmate, Zach Latta, to found Hack Club. Seven years later, Hack Club is still going strong as a non-profit focused on providing inner-city students with resources to learn how to code and organize events like summer hack camps.
Just last year, Hack Club received a one million dollar grant from Elon Musk. Busoni says that their ability to get funding and recognition from big-name technologists stems from the amazing community they’ve built after all of these years.
In Busoni’s eyes, after graduating high school, she would attend college to study computer science. Cut to her sixteenth birthday, when she was named a Thiel fellow, Busoni and her mother had to weigh the pros and cons of not receiving a college degree. “You essentially have to not go to college to prove his hypothesis that you don’t need college to be massively successful,” explains Busoni.
Despite her mother’s initial fear of her daughter essentially skipping college, Busoni says that winning the Thiel fellowship alleviated her mother’s concerns. They both recognized what a massive opportunity this was, and neither wanted to pass it up. “She was always confident with my business ideas and, if anything, helpful. She was the one who helped me incorporate my LLC,” says Busoni.
With such a massive win so early in Busoni’s career, the pressure was on. Busoni and her mother would proceed to drive 400 miles from Los Angeles to San Francisco every weekend to meet with potential investors.
After meeting Mike Rothenberg of Rothenberg Ventures and securing a $100k investment for her company, Busoni moved to San Francisco. That’s when she embarked on a grueling journey that would also be one of the most rewarding times for Busoni and her virtual reality start-up, Discovr Labs, which aims to create educational VR experiences.
Busoni’s life in San Francisco was all about the hustle. At the time, there was no work-life balance. “I lived and breathed start-ups,” says Busoni. She recognizes why she had to network so much while raising funds for her company. “VR companies are sexy in the news, but to investors, they’re not that sexy. They look like money pits because there’s not a huge consumer market,” she says. Once Busoni and Discovr Labs got comfortable funding and enough clientele, Busoni moved back to Los Angeles to get away from the grind of Silicon Valley.
The work paid off. Busoni and her co-founder, Josh Maldonado, were featured in Forbes ’30 under 30′ in 2019. Discovr Labs also made TechCrunch’s list of the “Top 10 VR companies.” Busoni describes these major accomplishments as “seals of approval.” For someone who achieved so much at such a young age, she does not appear to have a big ego when it comes to awards and recognition. She’s focused on the progress.
VR companies are sexy in the news, but to investors, they’re not that sexy. They look like money pits because there’s not a huge consumer market
This year, Busoni turns 24 years old. She says that her life feels more balanced living in Los Angeles. She lives downtown, not too far from her old high school, and spends her weekends rollerblading with friends. Not just any rollerblading. Busoni finished a 40-mile skate in February, but now she’s determined to complete a 50-mile skate.
When she’s not building curriculums and sourcing content for Discovr Labs, Busoni enjoys going to the schools they’re partnered with and seeing the kids use their VR headsets. “Rolling in the headset cart is very similar to when teachers would roll in the projector,” says Busoni. Kids love it.
How could you not? When choosing between learning about Rome from a textbook or a gamified experience with a VR headset, it makes sense that kids would jump for joy when Busoni walks through the door.
Busoni continues to focus on accessibility by getting creative with low-income schools that may not have the budget for VR headsets. “It’s us having to campaign to companies like Oculus and tell them that we have these schools that have very capable students who want to use your technology, but they need a bit of a helping hand,” says Busoni. Thankfully, multiple schools have received headsets for either free or at a reduced rate.
This is exactly why Busoni loves her job. She found a way to address the problem she faced during her school years. If a school says that they don’t have the budget for the Discovr Labs headsets, Busoni will sit down with them and find one. “One of the questions I ask is ‘Did you guys have a yearbook club?’ and when they say yes, I tell them to email that yearbook teacher,” says Busoni. Odds are, these yearbook clubs have old funds that can be put toward their new VR headset budget.
When Busoni speaks about virtual reality education, it’s hard not to hear the passion behind her ideas and how she hopes to expand Discovr Labs into other sectors. “When people hear education, they think about schools, but there’s a lot of adult training where it makes sense to do it immersively,” says Busoni. If you think about all of the companies that have to train their employees who deal with heavy machinery, there’s a huge market for virtual reality to step in and make training safer and cheaper.
Looking back, Busoni says she’s grateful for the chances people took on her as a teenager and her start-up. She’s inspired to do the same for other young entrepreneurs. “I feel like a lot of people deserve those chances,” says Busoni.
When talking about the future, Busoni says she hopes to be an early-stage investor in other companies. “A little bit of money goes a long, long way, and you need someone to make that bet on you and to be there for you,” says Busoni. “When we started, we wanted to be a consumer company, which was so wrong,” she says. Luckily, Busoni’s investor knew how to steer her in the right direction due to his years of experience.
Now, Busoni has the experience, and she’s excited about the possibility of launching someone else’s dreams. As an immigrant, Busoni wants to uplift Latines in tech, which is why she pushes herself to host more Latine-focused events and is intentional when hiring for Discovr Labs.
Whether it’s becoming an investor or working in venture capital, Busoni is determined to give back to her community. When asked if she has any advice for people who want to follow in her footsteps and make a significant impact in the tech world, Busoni says to be diligent and put yourself out there. “You’re going to face a lot of people who doubt you, but for all the people who are doubters, there are plenty of people who really want to help you,” says Busoni.
If you’re reading this and thinking about a career in tech, know that Busoni is rooting for you.