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Innovation Excellence: Arkansas Early Learning used voice recognition to ease caregivers’ paperwork burden

4 min read

Meet the Innovator:

Michael Patterson

Michael Patterson, CIO and Co-Founder, Arkansas Early Learning

Michael Patterson is chief information officer and co-founder of Arkansas Early Learning, a non-profit organization and head start grantee. He’s is a passionate social entrepreneur, lover of everything technology, and a father to three wonderful daughters.

Patterson holds a master’s degree in Computer Science from Troy University, is a UCLA Head Start Management Fellow, and a mentor for new directors.

How did you end up in nonprofit?

I’ve always been a service-oriented person. Before I worked in head start, I was in the funeral business for a long time. I always wanted to help people in their time of need.

I’m also a child of poverty, from the projects of Columbus, Ga. I know how it feels not to know when you’re getting a meal, or if the lights are going to go out or come back on. That perspective helped drive me toward nonprofit.

I actually wish I’d gone into nonprofit work earlier because I think I’d gain so much more personally. It has helped me grow in a lot of ways.

Why is innovation important to nonprofits?

In today’s world, you have to innovate to survive. You always have to be thinking about the future and looking down the road. Exponential technologies are just waiting out there, ready to be harnessed. As nonprofits, sometimes we don’t think of ourselves as innovative. Or maybe we wait for tech companies to lead, then adopt. But we have to lead sometimes too. Innovation is key to reaching the impact we need to make on our communities and society. 

And innovation doesn’t have to be technological. At Arkansas Early Learning, we’ve taken an innovative approach to our organizational structure.  We have two leaders who co-direct the agency based on our strengths. We have dual governance of our board of directors, our policy council, and down the line.

How do you find inspiration?

I find inspiration in our childcare centers. You can feel the emotion of the room and the caring environment our staff creates. Their passion drives me forward every day.

When you go into a classroom, you can almost see brain development happening and know that it’s going to change kids’ lives. I believe education is the great equalizer and one true path out of poverty for children. I truly believe in what we do. 

What’s one of the biggest challenges you faced in your project?

I do almost all of the programming for our voice-activated reports myself, and a lot of it by trial and error. One of the biggest challenges was getting the databases and information into a format we could use. To put it in early childhood educator terms, software companies prefer parallel play to cooperative play. They don’t play well together.

From a technical standpoint, what did your project require?

We’ve figured it out in-house, with support from one outside coder when things get too complex. We’re using Google Minis with cool mounts we found on Amazon. Otherwise, we’re leveraging software and tools we already had and are just connecting them. For example, we were already using keypads. Now, they’re connected through the cloud and activated by voice. We were already using Adobe Sign; now it’s connected to a voice flow. We haven’t had to buy any new software.

What’s the best part of your job?

Everything we do at Arkansas Early Learning is to end poverty in Arkansas; that’s our north star. We want to break the cycle of poverty for children early, so it doesn’t hold them back for the rest of their lives.

Our teachers, and staff, and the people I interact with every day are extraordinarily caring and motivated.  I get to be part of something so much greater than myself. I love what I do.


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