Get to Know COSMO Technologies Founders Russell York and Michelle Ross
Want to know more about COSMO's founding team? We sat down with Russell York and Michelle Ross to hear their stories, stretching from a 7th grade classroom to Afghanistan (and yes, even a story about a town mayor sucking helium). But most of all, why they're passionate about family-first technology and what's ahead for COSMO.
We’ll start with a fun one: what was the first phone you ever owned?
Michelle Ross: My first phone was one of those black Motorola Razr flip phones. My parents let me get a phone when I started driving and as the oldest of four kids, I was so excited to be the first in the family to talk to my friends without anyone else getting to pick up a different phone somewhere else in the house and listen in on my conversations. Also! As I think back on learning to text on those old school keyboards with all of the clicking, it makes me want to challenge any 7-year-old to a thumb war.
Russell York: I actually had a Blue Steel Blackberry Rim 7290. It had a full keyboard and one of those old school, zero resolution screens. I remember that despite having a full keyboard, the data plan I had only allowed me to send 45 texts a month, so I didn’t get much use out of it.
What makes family-first technology a radical idea today? Why are you passionate about this?
Russell: We are nearly three decades into the digital revolution. In that time we’ve made more devices for more use cases than you can shake a stick at. Phones, laptops, tablets, video cameras, headphones, smartwatches, and the list goes on and on. And we’ve made these devices for every conceivable customer, from the elderly to the impaired to the pets! But somehow we’ve ignored kids and parents along the way.
Twenty-five million American kids leave home and go to school and they are off the map - no way to call home, no way for parents to reach them in an emergency. Parents are still having to call an adult who is in the proximity of their 5-year-old in order to reach them. If you think about it, it’s crazy how far behind we are in making devices that meet real, every-day needs of our kids and parents.
We’ve made these devices for every conceivable customer...But somehow we’ve ignored kids and parents along the way.
Michelle: I first started thinking about building technology for families over 10 years ago when I was a 7th grade math teacher. Before I started teaching, I was given an iPad and a set of class computers. I used these several times a week to play math games with my students that drilled on foundational skills. While I loved using tech as a tool, I simultaneously hated what smartphones did to my 7th graders. At the best, I was in a constant battle to keep phones off at school. On the worst days, my fellow teachers and I were fighting to trace the social media bullying and fighting that led to actual harm for kids.
I left the classroom hoping that some company would make technology that brings out kids’ superpowers…without stealing the whimsy of childhood. A company that starts with what kids and parents really need, instead of just taking adult tools and adding kids features/settings, hasn’t been done yet. I’m beyond excited that COSMO gets to be the company I wanted to find as a teacher.
What did you do before launching COSMO?
Russell: My career really started in defense. I had the opportunity to work on the commanding general’s advisor team in Kabul, Afghanistan as a civilian not long after college. It was an eye opening experience, one where I got to sit at the nucleus of a lot of different streams of information. I went on to work with some of the most prominent cyber security companies in America, helping them define complex threat intelligence to the public. It’s one of the reasons that I was so interested in starting COSMO - the reality that there were so few quality, data-secure solutions for keeping families connected. That’s something we’re absolutely committed to at COSMO.
Michelle: I started my career as a 7th grade math teacher with Teach for America. In one way or another, all my work has stemmed from that and the passion for seeing kids and families learn and thrive - and how tech can actually help! After using tech in the classroom while teaching, I ended up getting into a rotational management program with Apple and eventually joining McKinsey (a consulting firm) launching a project to scale tech-based learning programs designed to help unemployed young people find jobs. After working on that project for two years and going to business school, I knew I wanted to start a company of my own that met the kinds of needs I’ve seen throughout my career!
So what is one of the most interesting phone calls you’ve ever made?
Russell: In college I hosted a talent variety show and we were going to announce the date at a student general assembly. I thought it would be funny if I could get the Mayor of our college town to come and give the announcement. I also thought it would be extra funny if he would gulp helium before reading the announcement. So yeah, calling the Mayor and asking him to suck helium and speak to our whole student body was definitely a memorable phone call. He said yes, by the way.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?
Michelle: As a teacher, my 7th graders definitely taught me some of the hardest-won lessons of my life. I think that the best one is the importance of helping people invest in and understand the “why” of what you’re doing. Kids love to ask their teachers, “Why do I have to know this? How will this ever help in my life?” and when you’re teaching algebra, you have to get pretty creative with the answer; kids don’t actually see their parents “solving for x” most days. So 7th graders taught me to take a step back and ask “Where is this leading? What will we do with this information? Why does any of this matter?!” And when you’re running a company, you get to make sure that “why” is clear for your team and your customers.
Russell: Ego gets you nowhere! If you don’t know something, say it! There is nothing more powerful than honesty, humility and curiosity put together. When you are able to admit what you don’t know, you put yourself in the position to learn. Knowledge is power, and ego will have you forever running around with your ears plugged avoiding life-changing information.
What makes you most excited about where COSMO is headed?
Michelle: COSMO is the most fun thing I’ve ever done. Our products, customers, partners, and message get me fired up every single day. But if I had to pick the most exciting thing, it’s the fact that we offer a tech product that gives kids some of their childhood back. I was part of the last generation that got to run the neighborhood free for hours without supervision. COSMO offers families the opportunity to re-introduce some of that childhood freedom and play while giving parents confidence and peace of mind knowing that their kids are safe. COSMO is more than just a way to avoid screen time and smartphones - it’s an open door to early independence, freedom, and play!
COSMO offers families the opportunity to re-introduce some of that childhood freedom and play while giving parents confidence and peace of mind
Russell: I have never been part of an organization where the customers we worked with were such vocal advocates of our mission. We have parents reaching out to us constantly with ideas for how to improve the product or with stories about what they’ve done with it. I love hearing the stories of kids that were able to call for help in emergencies, or just in funny emergencies like overflowing toilets. COSMO is an amazingly fun company to be a part of because we get to be a part of our customers’ lives!
_ _ _ _ _ _ _