Awesome U-M undergrads launch startup to teach American history through the stories of inspirational women

The Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation a few days ago awarded a $1,000 grant to Virginia Lozano, an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, who, along with her twin sister Beatriz, created an education technology company called Leesta in order to “inspire 8-11 year olds by teaching American History through the stories of women.” After bestowing the grant, which will allow the company to complete an animated module about the work of autistic inventor and activist Temple Grandin, I had an opportunity to ask Virginia a few quesitons.


[above: Beatriz and Virginia Lozano, pictured with representatives of the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation, after receiving their $1,000 grant.]

MARK: So, before we talk about Leesta, let’s talk a little about you and Beatriz. Where did you grow up? What were you like a kids? And what made you decide to attend the University of Michigan together?

VIRGINIA: Beatriz and I were born in California, but grew up in Sterling Heights, Michigan. Since childhood we’ve been very close, and have loved collaborating together. We were always curious and enjoyed learning about how things worked. From an early age, art came naturally to us. We also both loved math and science, though. Having similar interests, we were both drawn to Michigan’s engineering program, which is amazing. Our time here at the University, though, has allowed us to find other, and individual, passions, like social justice and storytelling. And, the more time we spent working toward our engineering degrees, the more we realized that we enjoyed figuring out how people work more than we did mechanics.

MARK: So you’re both art majors now?


MARK: And would it be safe to assume that, in your formal education, prior to arriving at the University of Michigan, you probably learned very little about the lives, work and contributions of women… especially women of color… in American history?

VIRGINIA: Absolutely. And that’s one of the main reasons we came up with Leesta. Outside of school, we had strong women as role models. Growing up, we heard stories about the hardships my mom and our grandmothers had overcome as women in Mexico, but we didn’t see that strength reflected in our textbooks, especially when it came to Latinas in America.

MARK: When did the idea for Leesta first occur to you? And what made you decide to invest the considerable time and effort to pursue it?

VIRGINIA: The general idea came from thinking back on our own history education, and trying to name women that we had learned about in school. Beatriz and I could not name one American Latina that we’d learned about. And, after posing similar questions to our friends, who come from different cultural backgrounds, we started hearing the same things from them. Like us, they couldn’t name women in American history that they related to. Then, there was this defining moment when, about two years ago, Beatriz and I came across a beautifully animated ad for Coco Chanel. We thought, “Imagine how engaging traditional education could be if the same multimedia visual tools that companies use to sell their products were used to teach in classrooms.”

MARK: Your plan, as I understand it, is to formally launch Leesta with animated profiles of ten American women. Who are they? And how did you come to choose them?

VIRGINIA: Currently, we’re working on four of the ten profiles. They tell the stories of Bessie Coleman, Dolores Huerta, Temple Grandin, and Grace Lee Boggs. The selection of the other six women is still in the works, but we’re always open to nominations. Our selection process began by gathering nominations from a broad audience, which included teachers, children, and faculty at the University of Michigan. Once we had our list of nominees, our team then began to research these women’s lives. And we also began reaching out to them personally, when possible.


[above: Kids explore the Leesta module on Bessie Coleman.]

MARK: Can you walk us through one of your first modules… What would a kid encounter, if he or she would open the interactive timeline you’ve created for Dolores Huerta, for instance?

VIRGINIA: Leesta is created to be a supplement to traditional history education, where children will learn about topics they are familiar with, but from new perspectives. In the case Dolores Huerta, children will learn about the Great Depression, but more specifically what that experience was like for a Mexican-American girl growing up during a time of Mexican Repatriation. Each module features an interactive scroll design with an audio narrative, that allows the user to experience the life of the woman from childhood until adulthood. An integrated point-winning system is implemented throughout the site, which allows the users to answer questions to unlock certain activities, like recipes and outfit changes.


[above: A screen capture of Leesta’s Dolores Huerta animation.]

MARK: So there’s a bit of gamification… Was that part of Leesta from the outset, or is that something that you decided to incorporate as a result of early focus groups?

VIRGINIA: From the beginning we wanted Leesta to allow children to control the pace that they were learning information. Originally we saw Leesta as a two part program with a timeline that had animations incorporated and a game that would be an app. Over the summer, we redesigned the modules and merged these ideas so the final product is a gamified timeline that children get to experience as the woman herself with the goal of empathetic learning.

MARK: Are there other examples of Leesta having evolved over time, as a result of your outreach to educators, academics and kids from different backgrounds?

VIRGINIA: Absolutely, being able to collaborate with children has been the most informative process to making changes as well as one of my favorite rewards of Leesta so far. Our team’s Educational Director Merin McDivitt connected us to a community center in Del Rey Detroit where we were able to collaborate with kids on the Dolores Huerta module. We were considering removing the quiz questions but were surprised when we were told that it was one of their favorite aspects of the game. From their feedback we also decided to make the audio narrations optional because some children liked reading the script out loud to themselves.

MARK: And what’s your editorial process like, once you’ve decided on a subject? What kind of research do you do, how do you decide what should be included, and how do you ensure that the story, as you’re telling it, is correct?

VIRGINIA: As of right now, our team is comprised entirely of U of M students. And, as we’re at one of the top research institutions in the country, we’re confident in the work that we produce. Our writer, Paula Friedrich, does extensive research on the life story of whatever woman we’re focusing on, and narrows it down to 10 main events. We then present these events to the woman, or her representative. So, in the case of Temple Grandin, Paula spoke to her on the phone directly. From here, the illustrator working on that particular profile will research art that correlates to her life, representative imagery of her time period, etc., and then illustrate the 10 main events into panels that will eventually become animations. A script is then written, and both the historical and linguistic accuracy is checked by professors and contacts at museums. In the case of our piece on Bessie Coleman, for instance, we worked with members of the staff at the Charles H. Wright African American Museum in Detroit. After all of this is done, we carefully select a voice actor to narrate the script, choosing actors who share the same ethnic background of the woman in question, in order to create the most authentic voice for the story.

MARK: And would I be right to assume that you have plans to eventually release these modules in languages other than English?

VIRGINIA: Yes, while we’re doing all of the recordings in English, we’d love to include other languages in the long term. Right now, though, we’re limited with regard to resources. Although we do feel confident about using English for now because as native Spanish speakers one of the ways we learned English was through computer games. But unlike the games we grew up with Leesta normalizes “non-traditional” English by including accents and words in other languages like in the case of Dolores Huerta who often speaks in Spanglish.

MARK: Your Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation grant will go toward completing a module on autistic inventor and activist Temple Grandin. What is it about Grandin that interests you? And what kind of groundwork have you already done with regard to her module?

VIRGINIA: Temple Grandin is an inspiring woman, but what interested me the most is her ability to use her neuro diversity as an advantage. Having Autism allowed her to see a necessity within that community for something like the hugging device which she created, which then went on to change the entire meat industry in the United States. Temple’s profile is a special and exciting case for us because we are in contact with her directly. With her input, we’ve worked on narrowing down her life’s story. We have even selected an illustrator, Stephanie O’ Neil, who specializes in scientific illustrations, a style that matches with Temple’s love of animal physiology. Next month, we’ll be meeting her in person, and we’ll get recordings of her voice to add to her module.


[above: Early work on the illustrations for the Temple Grandin module.]

MARK: I’m curious to know if you’ve experienced any pushback from people who, like presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, feel as though attempts such as this, which are intended to tell the story of our country from the perspective of non-white-males, is somehow destabilizing to our nation. [Huckabee, by the way, has launched an animated series of his own, which he claims is a completely “unbiased” response to “the ‘blame America first’ attitude prevalent in today’s teaching.”]

VIRGINIA: Thankfully, we’ve not experienced any pushback yet. I think this is largely because Leesta isn’t looking to replace curriculums. And we’re also just starting up. I’m very aware, however, that, as Leesta grows, it will reach communities around the country that aren’t going to be as welcoming as Ann Arbor and our partners in Detroit. There are textbooks that make sure to include that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree, but forget to mention that Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to receive her pilot’s license, worked picking cotton, taught herself French, and reached global stardom. This exclusion is not “unbiased.” Unlike Huckabee, I don’t think there is such a thing as unbiased, and trying to teach a history that clearly favors one demographic is an injustice to everyone.

MARK: Are you familiar with other initiatives which have sought to bring these kinds of stories to young Americans in an online format? For instance, I have the kids’ version of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States at home, but I can’t recall ever hearing about efforts to animate those stories. Has anyone tried, to your knowledge?

VIRGINIA: I love the Zinn Education Project! I follow them on social media and see them as an inspiration for Leesta. Unfortunately, like you mention, I haven’t seen those stories animated. A similar resource to what we are doing is BrainPop… they have illustrated videos, but they don’t specifically focus on women, or allow the viewer to interact with the animations.

MARK: How supportive has the U-M community been thus far?

VIRGINIA: The U-M community, from research help that we continue to receive from professors, to the interns that we’ve gotten from the STAMPS School of Art and Design, has been nothing but supportive… And our biggest supporter on campus has been the social change organization optiMize. We were selected as winners of their Social Innovation Challenge last year. The optiMize community has provided mentors and peers who share our vision for social change. This past summer we participated in their summer fellowship program which really helped get leesta off of the ground.

MARK: Have you given any thought to how you’ll charge for access to Leesta? Do you plan to sell directly to parents, or will you be focusing more on institutional buyers, like school districts?

VIRGINIA: Through our qualitative market research, we discovered that, in order for Leesta to reach the maximum number children, we would have to approach the education field by making after school programs and home use our primary audiences. The user will be introduced to one profile on our website and have the option to buy the rest as a package deal, or as individual modules.

MARK: What’s your long term goal for Leesta?

VIRGINIA: Our long term goal is to have a sustainable business model where we’re are able to create ten new profiles annually. For this upcoming year, we’re focusing on partnering with schools here in Michigan. A few years down the line, though, we’d love to expand our team and our personal interactions with users nationally. We would also like to expand the media channels that we’re using. For instance, we would love to incorporate short films as teaching tools.

MARK: Oh, and where does the name Leesta come from?

VIRGINIA: The name Leesta is a phonetic play on the Spanish word “lista,” which means a smart or clever girl. It was important for us that the name was pronounced the way it was meant to be pronounced.


[above: The Leesta team.]

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  1. Jay Steichmann
    Posted November 4, 2015 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Wonderful women with an awesome project! I will share this with some folks who would probably be interested.

  2. kjc
    Posted November 4, 2015 at 9:37 am | Permalink


  3. Correction
    Posted November 4, 2015 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    One correction to the article: The neighborhood in Detroit is officially Delray, not Del Rey (despite the latino sounding name). However, its name was Del Rey in the 1850s, after a local resident returned from the US war against Mexico. So I guess that’s a “stet'” better left in than changed. By the way, there are only a couple thousand people left in that neighborhood, after a high of nearly 25,000 in the fifties.

  4. Posted November 5, 2015 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    How wonderful that these young women are doing this incredible work. Beatriz is also a research intern on our Chicana por mi Raza digital memory project, which documents the development of Chicana Feminism in the 1960s and 1970s through the collection and digitization of oral history and archives. She is a force of nature and we are so, so proud of her!!

  5. Rob Davidson
    Posted June 11, 2016 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Beatriz and Virginia,
    I am so impressed by all you are doing. You are truly amazing. The need for Leesta is enormous especially in Southwest Detroit but also in primarily white communities where kids need to broaden their horizons and learn we all exist in an interdependent web which we need to value and embrace.
    Jill Lemond is director of multi cultural education for Oxford schools and is a friend of mine and Carter Cousino grad. Down the line you may want to contact her. Also Melissa Corsi is a teacher in Rochester schools who will be very interested in your project.
    Please send me an address where I can make a donation and where I can tell my friends to donate.
    Thank you for all you are doing for kids. I am very impressed but not surprised

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  1. […] with the fact that women are largely left out of the K-12 history curriculum in the U.S., decided to start an education technology company. Well, the company, called Leesta, launched a little while ago, and our first guest this Saturday […]

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