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Diving Into Ed Tech: The Forrest Gump of Arkansas Finds His PathLock Icon

6 min read

Harvey Hughes likes to call himself Arkansas’ Forrest Gump, but comparisons to Winston Groom’s beloved park bench talker may not do justice to the Arkansas ed tech pioneer’s storytelling skills.

Hughes’ adventures in football, aviation, programming and even janitorial work gush out when you talk with him, framing the success story of a true believer in the potential of at-risk students.

“Like Forrest Gump, I’ve literally backed into more good opportunities just by being around,” he said. “Little did I know when I joined Walmart that Mr. Sam had these five senior guys that he built his whole technology around, right?”

The Mountain Home linebacker-turned-computer system programmer-turned-pilot-turned-entrepreneur was discussing Sam Walton, who amazed him — a recent hire — by calling him by name once with a word of praise.

“He walked out and I’m thinking, man, he knew my name.” Of course, Hughes was wearing a name badge, and his co-workers were giggling.

That’s not all Hughes had to say about Walton. But he’s hardly one of those CEOs who never stop talking. Twice during an hourlong luncheon interview at Top the Mains Cafe & Grille at Adams Field in Little Rock he halted proceedings to talk with employees at length about their charities and dreams, including the budding career of a server getting her degree at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Hughes gave her encouragement and his email address.

Listening Up

“When we talk with a principal or counselor, what we really do is listen,” he said. “That’s how I think most tech companies make a mistake, designing things they think might sell and then trying to sell them, when it’s better to listen and to design something that does what the client wants.”

Hughes, who developed risk-tracking software after hearing of a teenage girl’s suicide after cyberbullying, had plenty of exploits beforehand, from being one of Arkansas State University’s first computer science graduates through early jobs at Texas Instruments, Boeing and even NASA.

But his true calling, he said, was ed tech, building programs for educators like those who saved him from dropout risks in high school and financial need in college. His products reveal at a glance which students need help, indicate what help they may need, and supply real-time data timely enough to change their trajectories.

That’s the mission for all 30 or so employees and 10 contract programmers at Hughes Technology, which the CEO has been building out for the past eight years, sometimes landing his Bonanza B36TC on crop dusters’ strips to meet with superintendents.

SmartData Dashboard, Hughes’ premier product, lets school officials track grades, attendance and even how many times a child has been sent to the office for discipline.

“The SmartData Dashboard is basically a one-stop system for administrators,” said Jon Laffoon, superintendent of the Farmington School District. “It lets us access a database that contains real-time discipline information and identifies at-risk students. It also provides insight into graduation tracking, behavior and academic interventions for students, and a paperless record for each student that saves time for principals, counselors and building leaders.”

Lee Smith, the superintendent in Mena, agreed. “The way artificial intelligence works, it can pick up on patterns and correlations we would never see, and give us solutions that we have never seen in looking at it through human eyes,” he said.

The data analysis helps identify “soft indicators of success or failure,” Hughes said, describing a student who could have been dismissed as a simple troublemaker. “The hidden reasons for struggles can become obvious,” Hughes said. A student who had trouble with math refused to do problems at the chalkboard, acting up and challenging the teacher. “He kept getting sent to the office, but he’s not a discipline case who needs to be kicked out of school. He just doesn’t want to go to the board and be embarrassed in front of his friends. If you look at raw data, it’s a behavior problem. But the patterns helped show he actually struggles with math.”

Fast Growth, State Contract

This year Hughes Technology was listed by Inc. magazine at 89th on its list of 5,000 fastest-growing businesses in the United States. The company exploded in growth during the pandemic and is on the cusp of a nationwide breakthrough, Hughes said.

The company has a $16.5 million three-year contract with the Arkansas Department of Education to put the company’s SmartData Dashboard in all 264 Arkansas public schools. In fact, in every instructional building.

And yet Hughes, whose employees and contractors work remotely across Arkansas and the country, has no real home office.

“We literally don’t anymore,” Hughes explained. “We have a hangar in Mountain Home and a hangar in Springdale, and we’ve landed in some crop dusting fields. Kevin [Tyler, Hughes Technology’s system product engineer] and I have been to Biddeford, Maine, where we landed on a frozen runway. We’ve been all over but it’s been an adventure, and we love mixing business and aviation.”

Both men have been pilots for more than 25 years.

But long before he was a pilot, Hughes was a Bomber, a touchdown-scoring linebacker for Mountain Home High whose coaches feared he was about to drop out of school in his fervor to go to work. “I wasn’t in trouble. I just needed to make money,” Hughes said, explaining that he had begged his family to stay in Mountain Home, on his own, when his steelworker father had to transfer for a good job out of state. “So the superintendent, Dr. Ron Bradshaw, made me a janitor at the high school. That allowed me to make money, and I’d eat at school, play football, clean the school, and then the cafeteria ladies would have dinner for me to take home.”

That crucial bit of interest from the administration not only kept Hughes in high school, but also inspired him for college. A similar helping hand and tutoring in Jonesboro helped him master the school’s first curriculum in computer science, and after graduation he was off to posts at Texas Instruments, NASA and Walmart.

In the middle 1990s, Bradshaw had moved from Mountain Home to lead Springdale’s schools, and he and Hughes rekindled their friendship.

“One day about 1995, he asked if I could build him a special education program.” Hughes didn’t know the subject, but replied that if Bradshaw would teach him, he’d do anything requested.

“So he gave me access to his staff and they started teaching me how to digitize individual education plans for students,” said Hughes, who had already digitized school bus transportation records for Bradshaw.

“We became the first company to digitize IEPs. Forrest Gump again, you know, because when I looked at the data I thought this all looks so logical, I’m sure somebody has developed software to handle it.” But he was wrong. Hughes was breaking new ground.

“I told Dr. Bradshaw I was looking to do something with my life that I was passionate about, and he asked me to do this one last thing. So we came back and said, OK, we’ll do it, and we’ll do it for cost, but when we’re done, we own it.”

As he developed the software, Hughes hired a marketer to see if any other schools might be interested. “By the time I delivered it six months later, 45 districts in Arkansas had signed up. We went on to do every district in the state, and it became the first digitized program to go national.”

Hughes had discovered his path, and his dashboard now monitors well over a million students in five states. “Before SmartData Dashboard, schools had to have five or six applications, one to keep grades, another for discipline, another for special needs and so on. What our software does is it takes all of the data and aggregates it every night. The greatest thing is that all this was invented in Arkansas.”

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