Q&A with Nwanacho Nwana, Co-founder and Head of Product at Valfee

MITili Staff

Nwancho Nwana is passionate about using data and innovative strategies to solve problems in education and the African venture ecosystem. He is currently the Co-founder and Head of Product at Valfee, an app-based platform that helps students and young entrepreneurs articulate their ideas through mentorship and practice. Lessons include subjects such as launching a successful start-up, fundamentals of effective debate and negotiation, and analysis of foreign policies. 

A graduate of MIT, Nwanacho was recently awarded a MITili education research grant for his work on analyzing the current solutions to the problem of public speaking anxiety for students and young entrepreneurs. His platform, Valfee uses artificial intelligence to compare how effective users are in mimicking the speed, pause frequency, and filler word frequency of well-known speakers and figures. Using this data they will then test whether their AI-assisted observational learning could potentially lead to higher student motivation to learn, and a greater reduction in speech anxiety.

How did you initially become interested in education and finding ways to help with student anxiety issues?

I have always been a huge believer in the quantitative nature of human behavioral patterns, and I found myself frequently thinking about human behavior and quantitative strategies for solving psychological problems. I also find myself reflecting a lot on my education, both academic and parental, and how that education has shaped who I am, what I can do, and my behavior. The intersection of these thoughts gave birth to my interest in the problem of student anxiety, and how it can be fixed in an educational context. 

There are a lot of students who have a fear of public speaking, or stage fright. How will using your platform help mitigate some of that anxiety and make students more effective communicators?

Practicing before speaking is the best way to reduce public speaking anxiety. Practice allows a student to gauge how effective their speech is, and receive feedback on how to improve before a presentation or debate. Unfortunately, practice requires a student to go in front of some type of audience to receive feedback which also causes anxiety. 

Valfee allows a student to practice their speech without having to go in front of people. Unlike other apps on the market that score students based on a rigid ‘effective speech’ standard, Valfee focuses on empowering a diversity of students by helping students learn how to speak like their role models in society. Our thesis is that students will be motivated to learn how to speak like these role models, because they look up to them, and they will have lower anxiety speaking as they progress on the platform. As students speak more like their role models on the app, they will hopefully be more likely to practice in front of audiences and become more effective communicators in reality. 

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your work to date, and what advice would you have for any potential entrepreneurs looking to succeed in edtech or similar spaces? 

We have conducted numerous learning programs, competitions, and internships for our Valfee student community. Our philosophy at Valfee is that the Valfee learning community should be for students, by students, so we have made a ton of effort to keep the community strong.

The most rewarding aspect of my work has been the feedback from students, and the connections students make through Valfee programs. We have seen students actually become friends through a Valfee program which to me, is one of the coolest things! Students have also given us many testimonials on how Valfee has transformed their confidence and feelings of identity.

We are definitely in a very critical juncture in education. There will be numerous edtech startups creating AI tools to solve various problems in the education space. These products will only be successful if there is buy-in by students, teachers, and the administrators that purchase edtech tools for their schools. As much as possible, keep these stakeholders at the top of mind and make sure you are solving their problems and not creating more work for them. Teachers do not want to use an app that will give them more work to do, students want a gamified experience with numerous incentives, and administrators will not allocate an insanely large chunk of their already small budget to your technology. Know your stakeholders, and you will have a much larger chance of success. 

Obviously the new ‘it’ thing is AI and generative AI and we still don’t know what effect, if any, it will have in the classroom. How will your research determine the success of AI interventions?   

Valfee employs a method we call “AI-Assisted Observational Learning”. This means observing and learning how to mimic a certain behavior with the help of artificial intelligence. The artificial intelligence compares your behavior to a target behavior based on predetermined quantitative metrics, and coaches you on how to mimic the target behavior. Valfee compares the speed, filler word frequency, and pause frequency of the student speech to the role model’s speech. Based on this comparison, Valfee will give personalized feedback to each student to help them speak like the role model.

I believe that this research could really unlock a side of AI that not enough people are looking at. Most conversation right now seems to be around how AI will replace jobs or displace human intelligence. I believe, however, that AI has the ability to help us learn effective behaviors from each other, faster, and ultimately power up the human race. Now that we are in a digital age, you can collect significant data on different desirable behaviors from Youtube and other sources, and create technologies that assist students in copying these behaviors. 

I believe this research will open the door to more research into  AI-Assisted Observational Learning interventions that will help students learn useful behaviors at an earlier age. 

What is your favorite thing about being a part of MIT?

My favorite thing about being a part of MIT is having a community of people that are willing to think outside the box, and collaborate on cool projects. I came into MIT knowing I wanted to start a company at some point. At MIT, I attempted to start a company with two of my best friends. I started a minority business association with my fraternity brothers. Now I am working on MIT-funded research with Lori Breslow, who is a senior lecturer in managerial communication at Sloan, and was my former professor. If it weren’t for MIT, I do not think I would have been able to maintain my risk tolerance and willingness to dream of solving big problems. Valfee’s success would not have been possible without the connections and collaborations I have found through MIT. I am forever grateful to be part of such a special community!