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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : A Big Math Attack : Jan Davidson turned a lifelong passion for teaching into a multimillion-dollar software corporation. But she hasn't let her new life as a successful businesswoman draw her away from her true love.

July 03, 1994|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twelve years ago, Jan Davidson was exactly where she wanted to be--in a classroom.

She had known since age 13--when she began tutoring other children after school--that she wanted to teach.

Her home life was on track as well. Davidson and her husband, Bob, were raising three preteen children in Palos Verdes. His career as a corporate executive was on a meteoric climb.

But Davidson had a vision that would forever alter their lives: Why not use a home computer to teach kids math?

It's not a radical notion today, but at the time only a handful of educational software programs were available, and almost none of them were widely used.

"They were dull and if a kid missed something they would make this horrible 'beep,' " Davidson says with disdain. "Here you had this powerful tool for teaching and all you were giving a kid was negative feedback every time they hit the wrong key. And it was loud enough that everyone in the room knew that Johnny had made a boo-boo."

Davidson's computer experience was limited to an Apple II--woefully primitive by today's standards--purchased in the late 1970s. But she believed that if educational software could be as exciting as computer games, she might use it to good advantage in the classrooms where she ran an after-school tutoring service.

She sat down at her Apple with a friend who knew a bit about programming and created a game for grade-school students called "Math Blaster."

"Whenever you got an answer right, you'd shoot a man out of a cannon," Davidson explains. Kids loved Math Blaster. Their parents wanted to buy copies to run on home computers.

"There was no 'beep.' "

Davidson began selling the software through her tutoring service, and later via a catalogue distributed by Apple.

Her kids--Elizabeth, now 23, Emilie, 20, and John, 18--were her first workers. When an order came in, they used her computer to copy the discs. Their mom used an unwieldy shrink-wrap machine ("I hated that thing," she says) to give the little packages a finished look.

Davidson, 50, still sells "Math Blaster." But instead of asking her kids to do the work, she now has a team of employees--about 500 in all. They work in a sleek, modern building--with her name across the top--in a Torrance industrial park.

Last year, Davidson & Associates racked up almost $60 million in sales. The original "Math Blaster" and its update have sold 1.6 million copies, making it the world's second most successful educational software title--behind the "Carmen Sandiego" series.

"It's nice that I got rich," Davidson says. "But honestly, it wasn't my main objective. All I wanted to do was to teach kids."

If she is daunted by the events of the last 12 years, she hides it well. Dressed in a plain red jacket and simple gold necklace--more parent-teacher night than corporate executive--she speaks almost shyly about her financial success.

Erin Yoshida comes into the office to set up a software demonstration. Davidson rushes over to her.

"You are wonderful!" the boss says. "I have not given you your hug yet."

She embraces a beaming Yoshida. It is not a David Viscot-style, touchy-feely '90s hug, but a sincere expression of appreciation.

Yoshida, a 25-year-old who majored in fashion merchandising in college, coordinated the recent release of "Multimedia Workshop," a program that allows kids--and adults, for that matter--to create presentations incorporating photographs, drawings, text and even video.

"She got that program through testing and out the door," Davidson says with pride.

"We like to have people here who are not savvy computer users to work on our manuals and programs," she adds, "because those of us who use them all the time might be jaded. Someone outside of the business would be more reflective of the average consumer."

Yoshida leaves the sparsely furnished office done in variations of gray and Davidson returns to the table.

"I used to always think of education as something you did with kids," Davidson says. "Now I realize you learn all your life. I get a lot of satisfaction out of watching people grow.

"I think I enjoy building the people as much as I do doing the products."

*

Davidson grew up in Frankfort, Ind., a town that claims it gave birth to the hot dog. Her father distributed dairy products to grocery stores. Davidson, the oldest of three children, was a star student, but she did take time out for Indiana's overriding passion--high school basketball games.

"Of course I went to the games," she says, incredulous that anyone would even have to ask. "It's what you did in Indiana."

What kids didn't do is read heady tomes on educational theories. "Even then I was reading these books on pedagogy by John Dewey," she says. "I was always fascinated by education.

"I often get the question now, 'Would you have done something different if you were growing up today?' " noting that many women of her generation went into teaching. "And I really don't think I would have."

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