Entrepreneur Profile #7: Pizza and the Luck of the Irish Led this CEO to Help Connect High School Students to Today’s Digital Economy

Author: Melanie Lux

Facebook Web Meet Our Entrepreneurs Ellen Joyce


Notre Dame Company Run: Digital Leader Academy Company Status: Growing
Company Location: South Bend, IN Year Founded: 2020

If anything, Dublin, Ireland native Ellen Joyce had too many career opportunities when she graduated Trinity College in 2019. With a degree in Management Sciences and Information Systems, she had built a solid knowledge base in computer sciences, statistics and business. An internship with global consulting firm PwC was the icing on the cake; recruiters were pounding at her door with job offers.

And Joyce didn’t accept any of them, not a one.

“I always thought I’d be a technology consultant in something like cyber security, but I realized during my internship that I didn’t enjoy consulting. I really had to do some soul searching, to find out what I wanted to do,” she says.

Throughout her college years, Joyce worked as a math tutor for students from age eight through high school. She loved helping kids succeed with a challenging subject. “I liked teaching kids and running my own business. The more I thought about it, I realized I was an entrepreneur and the problem I was solving was math education. How could I turn that into a larger company?”

During her senior year in college, Joyce was studying in the library when she saw a notice advertising a presentation on the University of Notre Dame’s ESTEEM Program, an immersive, hands-on Master of Science degree in entrepreneurship. Students were promised free pizza if they attended. Her response was that of a typical college student. “I thought ‘Yay! Free pizza!”

Hunger may have led Joyce to attend the event, but what she learned inspired her to apply to Notre Dame for the 11-month ESTEEM program that immerses students into the action of entrepreneurship. “The program was attractive to me because it provides a playbook for starting one’s own company, which is exactly what I wanted to do. I was fortunate to be accepted and excited to move to South Bend, Indiana,” she says.

One of the hallmarks of the ESTEEM program is professional mentorships and Joyce found one in John Henry, the director of student startups for the Notre Dame IDEA Center. He was the ideal mentor; over the course of his career Henry has launched and exited several online companies, including an e-learning platform. And for Joyce, he was to become a powerful connector.

Jarek Nabrzyski, the director of the Notre Dame Center for Research Computing and co-founder of Notre Dame blockchain startup SIMBA Chain, approached Henry with the idea of starting a virtual blockchain bootcamp to train coders. Nabrzyski was looking for introductions to students who might be up to the challenge. Henry suggested hosting an informational event for students, with pizza as the drawing card.

Joyce laughs at the memory. “Free pizza again.”

Rather than hunger, it may have been the luck of the Irish that drew her to the event. As the only member of her ESTEEM class with an undergraduate degree in computer science, Joyce’s knowledge base and experience teaching students complex subject matter were well aligned with Nabrzyski’s need. Based on discussions with Henry, Nabrzyski and Alex Topalovic, an innovation fellow at iNDustry Labs, Joyce agreed to get involved.

“Alex and I spent two months talking with people about blockchain and learned there is a huge demand for those who understand the technology. But we learned something else, too—small to medium size companies were falling behind in adopting new digital technologies. Particularly in advanced manufacturing, where much of the workforce comes straight from high school, the people available to hire were technologically illiterate. This skills gap was making it extremely difficult for companies to embrace the digital revolution,” she says.

During the discovery period, Joyce was introduced to Joel Neidig, CEO and co-founder of SIMBA Chain, a high-flying blockchain startup out of Notre Dame that has virtually eliminated the need for all but the most experienced developers to code for blockchain. She also met David Wasson, who leads SIMBA Chain’s educational outreach, and Tommy Cooksey, who has literally written the book—most of it in the form of online content for broad access to learners—on blockchain education. Just as Wordpress and Wix have given non-developers the ability to create websites, SIMBA Chain’s proprietary blockchain platform allows non-coders to “drag and drop” their way to sophisticated blockchain applications.

Something about SIMBA Chain’s launch strategy piqued Joyce’s interest further: the company’s emphasis on engaging college students with a growing repository of online blockchain classes, hackathons and professional certifications. The goal is to build an army of experienced blockchain advocates to start, staff, and lead blockchain enabled companies.

“At this point, we pivoted away from a company teaching blockchain coding to a company that could fill the digital skills gap for high school students so they could transition to tech jobs immediately after graduation or go on to college with a stronger foundation in technology. This pivot led to the founding of Digital Leader Academy in 2020 with the goal of providing vocational training in digital technology ,” she explains.

The business model is supported by a federal program called the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. Originally created in 2006, President Donald Trump reauthorized the Perkins Act with bipartisan support from both chambers of Congress in July 2018, committing $1.2 billion dollars to fund Career Technical Education (CTE)  programs and job training for students. Schools can receive up to $6,000 per student for CTE programs and the Digital Leader Academy’s curricula has assisted schools in unlocking these dollars by attracting students into high value programs such as Supply Chain and Logistics.

Joyce says the State of Indiana made training related to advanced manufacturing a top priority for high schools, causing schools to line up for funding and qualifying CTE curriculum. “With Digital Leader Academy, the political, educational, and industry stars were aligned for the type of integrated digital technology curriculum we wanted to offer. With a potential revenue stream from the government in place, we knew we had a viable business model,” Joyce says. 

Digital Leader Academy’s value proposition is three-pronged: Offer classes technologies needed by employers, make the coursework easy for non-technologists to teach, and make it fun and interesting enough for students that they not only become qualified for careers involving digital tech know-how, but also become lifelong tech learners.

Digital Leader Academy launched in fall 2020 with a one-course paid pilot in artificial intelligence with schools in Indiana and Ireland. Elevate Ventures provided the initial investment to build the curriculum.  Joyce remembers the day when the first check to Digital Leader Academy came in the mail to her family’s home in Ireland. “Here I am, locked down in a global pandemic and a check comes. And then another. It was proof we made the right decision to start our company in the middle of a pandemic.”

At the same time, positive feedback as well as quantitative data from teachers and students were also rolling in. Teachers appreciated how easy the curricula was to teach and the high student engagement. As part of the pilot program, they were required to submit insights (data points) weekly. Students appreciated the “real world” aspect and the fact that they earn certifications that go on resumes and online digital profiles and demonstrate their qualifications. From this feedback, the team continued to fine-tune their model.

Also during the fall, Digital Leader Academy formalized its collaboration with SIMBA Chain and will launch a second class based on blockchain in which students will learn how the technology is used in businesses, manufacturing plants and the U.S. military; how to create smart contracts and blockchain applications using SIMBA Chain’s platform; and ultimately earn professional blockchain certification and SIMBA Chain badge. Joyce calls the SIMBA Chain relationship a “beautiful cycle.” 

“Students will learn on the SIMBA Chain platform and be qualified to work for a company or the military currently using SIMBA Chain. They can also carry their blockchain knowledge into a company not using SIMBA Chain and create immediate value with their knowledge,” she explains.

Joyce and the Digital Leader Academy team are looking forward to launching the new blockchain curriculum in spring 2021 and expanding into new schools with both artificial intelligence and blockchain. She has also started fundraising for the company. Elevate Ventures has contributed a second small round and some South Bend angel investing funds have expressed interest. Joyce is also looking to social impact investors who appreciate the value delivered to schools, students and society at large. 

Thus far the company’s growth has been driven by direct outreach and word of mouth by teachers and school districts. Digital Leader Academy will continue to work with companies and industry to ensure its digital coursework reflects what is needed by employers. Joyce is currently fundraising in order to fuel this growth. 

Joyce attributes the rapid progress of Digital Leader Academy to ongoing support of her Notre Dame IDEA Center mentor John Henry with whom she meets with on a weekly basis and other advisors on an as-needed basis. Her advice to other entrepreneurs is to build an advisory board of individuals with skills you don’t have in your company. She adds,  “Make sure you also have champions for you as a person. You need support, too.”

If you are interested in leading a Notre Dame startup like Ellen Joyce did, please visit this page for more information.