Syracuse University Magazine


Jesse Pickard '06

Educational Game App Guru

A few short years ago, while boning up on Spanish in preparation for a trip to South America, Jesse Pickard discovered something about himself that was a little hard to admit: He was a terrible student. “I hadn’t studied Spanish since high school, so to get back into it I hired a tutor,” he says. “But I would forget to do my homework, show up late to class, or even not go at all. It was a big mess.” At the same time, Pickard realized he had no trouble whatsoever devoting his undivided attention to a completely different activity: playing games on his phone. “So I just figured, why not combine this thing that I loved and was addicted to—playing games—with this thing that I was really struggling with, which was learning a language,” he says.

That bright idea led to the 2010 creation of MindSnacks, a San Francisco-based company that creates interactive educational game apps in a range of subjects for learners of all ages. Pickard is co-founder and CEO of the innovative startup, which began out of a small-business incubator in Philadelphia and developed its first product, a game app for Spanish learners, in just 90 days. “When we got it out, people seemed to really like it,” says Pickard, a graduate of the Department of Art in the College of Visual and Performing Arts from Albany, New York. “They would say that, for the first time, they were really enjoying language learning, where in the past they felt like it was a big chore.” 

MindSnacks quickly gained popularity and praise, earning Apple’s Education App of the Year award and Pickard a place on the Forbes magazine “30 Under 30: Games & Apps” list in 2011. In just four years, the company has grown from four employees to a staff of 25—an inventive and fun-loving group of engineers, artists, educators, and inventors—and now offers learning games for several languages and in such subject areas as vocabulary and U.S. geography, as well as an app for high school students preparing to take the SAT. Plans are underway for continued expansion into additional subject areas. “To create these games, we have an interdisciplinary unit that includes a game designer, an artist or animator, a game developer, and someone from our educational content team,” Pickard says. “The educational content team identifies the key skills we need to build within any specific subject. So, with geography, maybe we decide being able to read a map is important—understanding that a star means a capital and a dot means a secondary city. We’ll create a game around that, with those four people sitting in a room together until it’s built out. It’s very collaborative, and a lot of fun.”

Pickard enjoys sharing his experiences as a CEO with SU students, and regularly meets with iSchool students during the school’s annual Spring Break in Silicon Valley (pictured below). “It’s really inspiring to be around them,” he says. One thing he tries to get across to students is they shouldn’t fear starting their own businesses, something he learned from personal experience, and from growing up in an entrepreneurial family. He also cautions them not to enter into entrepreneurship for the wrong reasons. “I try to give them the sense that you shouldn’t do it just because startups are the cool thing to do right now,” he says. “You should do it because there’s a thing in the world that doesn’t exist yet that you cannot live without seeing come to life. And that’s really the only reason you should be starting a company.”     —Amy Speach