Meera Dolasia is the CEO, publisher and founder of DOGO Media, a leading COPPA compliant platform that empowers kids to engage with digital media in a fun, safe and social environment. Born in Kenya—dogo means “small,” in Swahili—Dolasia is a chartered financial analyst and had a career in finance at Seneca Capital Management, SKBA Capital Management, and Bankers Trust prior to founding her company.

Launched in 2010, DOGO Media is now comprised of DOGOnews (a popular source for nonfiction literacy), DOGObooks (for kids to discover, rate and review books), DOGOmovies (for kids to watch trailers and review movies), and DOGOteachers (a collection of classroom resources for educators). In advance of next month’s Global Kids Connect conference, where she will be a panelist, PW spoke with Dolasia about learnings the DOGO team has gleaned over the years from listening to kids and teachers, as well as the surprising ways kids choose to engage with each other and with the world around them.

You embody the GKC theme of transforming challenge into opportunity! Faced with a lack of current events resources for your middle school daughter, you built an entire media platform. Can you give us a bit of background on how DOGO Media evolved?

It literally started with an earthquake. When my fourth grade daughter and I went online to look for the magnitude of an earthquake as part of a class assignment, I discovered there were not many resources for kids like her who were assigned current events homework.

I sent my daughter to school with a cut-and-pasted PDF of information culled from various places. Her teacher contacted me to ask if I would do this for the whole class, which spread among the teachers in that grade, then throughout the school. I started an e-newsletter, and as the number of subscribers grew, I thought, “Hmm, there might be something here.” So I launched a little blog and started writing original current events content specifically for kids.

When students need to present a current event to their class—which is part of many school curricula—they want to share the coolest event possible, and be the one who doesn’t put the other kids to sleep. The other kids then hear where they did their research, and they want a good grade too, so they visit the site. It’s all grown organically.

Soon we started hearing unsolicited feedback from teachers along the lines of “finally there is a link we can use when we are doing current events and kids don’t roll their eyes.” That’s when we knew we were really on to something.

The common perception is that kids are not interested in reading news. Is this the case?

I don’t think that’s true! Kids like to read interesting news that is relevant to them, relevant to their lives.

Kids don’t consume news like adults—for them it is not an everyday thing. At DOGO, we are not about breaking news; we try to stay away from daily mainstream headlines. We let things unfold, assess the situation before we cover it. We want to give a complete picture of what’s going on, or what happened. We try to keep sensation out of our reporting.

Teachers appreciate this approach. When we cover something like the presidential election, or the Northern California wildfires, we produce a couple of articles, enough for teachers to utilize, and we go for a different angle.

That said, you can lose kids very easily. We publish five or six new articles per week, and we mix it up to appeal to all levels of interest. Kids may come to research a science project, or just because they heard about the fidget spinner article, but they may stay to read about the hurricanes in Houston and Puerto Rico. Sometimes it’s for serious news, sometimes it’s for lions playing fetch.

You expanded from current events into book and movie reviews— reviews written by kids themselves. How did you evolve from an information resource into a media platform?

Once we built an audience of a reasonable size, we looked at how we might offer other ways for kids to engage. We realized kids listened to other kids, and wanted to see what other kids are reading and watching. Based on this feedback, we launched DOGOmovies and DOGObooks. Creating opportunities for kids to share what they are passionate about was a natural extension of the community we were already building.

We added features to provide kids with options beyond just reading an article or visiting for a class assignment. They can create and customize their own account. They can add books to their personal bookshelf, for example, or write reviews, or follow others — all within the COPPA-compliant DOGO environment. They often come to read current events, and then stay to write a book review, or join a book club.

We are very careful, of course. User-generated comments and reviews are filtered for language, and actual humans review content before it is posted—but all reviews are authentic. Whether a kid likes a book, or thinks a book is boring, it’s their opinion, and this is a place for their opinions to be heard.

Ninety-nine percent of the time kids are very respectful of the site, and they will call out others who are not. We were one of the first to allow kids to comment, so the first comments we received were “wow” and “cool,” which we still get, consistently. We anticipate these community features will evolve as kids get comfortable with social media at younger and younger ages.

Have there been any surprises along the way?

Funny you bring that up because it happens all the time, even after all these years!

Early on, we were surprised to learn that kids want more than a couple of little paragraphs, they want details. Take something like an article commemorating 9/11. This generation of kids doesn’t know what 9/11 is, what happened. They need background, context. They need the whole story. This feedback shaped our editorial process. Our writers do not have pre-set word limits; our instruction is to write as much detail as possible, and in the edit process we take out things that might not be necessary.

A more recent example is our Text to Speech feature, which launched eight months ago. We were surprised to learn that listening to articles is proving to be a winner not just with kids at home but also with teachers in the classroom.

Bonus question: You were born in Kenya, were educated in India, returned to Kenya, attended undergrad in London, moved to Calgary and have been living in Northern California for some time. Has global immersion impacted the way you steer DOGO Media?

You could say that from early on I was fascinated by what is happening in the world. In terms of how this informs the work we do, well, I believe kids have to look forward to their lives. There are lots of good things going on in the world. So many interesting scientific breakthroughs, technological innovations, so many people doing good things. It’s nice for us to highlight those. We try to give them reality, but there is a good reality, too, which gets lost in the headlines.

Our aim is to inform kids of the breadth of the world. It is not our place to tell them how to think. We provide them information to become well-rounded individuals, which makes for a gratifying day, every day, for all of us at DOGO. We feel like we are, in some small way, making a difference.

Dolasia will be sharing her expertise in engaging kids at the Global Kids Connect conference on December 4 in New York City. Produced by Publishers Weekly in association with the Bologna Book Fair, this half-day event is followed by Celebration!, a cocktail party celebrating the authors, illustrators, translators and editors who participated in the making of the books featured in PW’s 2017 Children’s Starred Reviews Annual.

For more information on the conference, click here.