The word “education” in California is usually associated with teacher unions who supported the election of Jerry Brown against the former CEO of eBay, Meg Whitman. Innovation in education seems to be an oxymoron. Actually, the most viewed TED Talk today with 10 million hits is from Sir Ken Robinson who contends that schools kill creativity.
A number of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are trying to help schools do the contrary. And the trend is starting to hit the media with the recent inclusion of Salman Khan among Time’s 100 most influential people. Geoff Ralston (picture above) is a business angel who would like to see more education start-ups popping out of garages. After he sold his last company to Apple in 2009, he launched Imagine K12 along with two other start-up veterans who believe that technology can transform education.
“We have spent billions of dollars on technology in class rooms, mostly on computers across the country, but with a negligible impact” tells me Geoff who acknowledges that the issue is not new. “Actually a report was published 30 years ago on the dire state of education in America and little has changed since then.”
Geoff agrees with me that the world of education is synonymous of “not moving”. In 2010, he went to Sundance Festival to see the movie Waiting for Superman and connected with old friend Alan Louie who led Google.org. They started to think about how they could be most impactful and Tim Brady, known as the first employee at Yahoo, joined the trio.
They decided to look for disruptive approaches, a recipe that has worked in high-tech businesses dominated first by large and slow moving companies. Imagine K12 invests time and money in entrepreneurs who are passionate about education and have the technical know-how to build solutions. In early 2011, they launched Imagine K12 as a business accelerator for education start-ups (picture below).
It was not the first time that Geoff banged his head over this problem. After spending 9 years at Yahoo, he had already thought hard about education but could not find a way to make a difference. He went and took the lead of another high-tech start-up, Lala Media. Today the time is right. “There is a confluence of factors coming together that sets education and technology on an inevitable collision course”, he says.
Paul Graham, the founder of Y-Combinator, loved the idea and has been tremendously helpful to put the project in motion by opening the doors of his incubator where Geoff is also a partner now. Like the largest accelerator in Silicon Valley, Imagine K12 invests $15,000 to $20,000 in a class of start-ups. Entrepreneurs spend 3 months in Palo Alto in exchange of 6% of equity on average. At the end of the session, they can showcase their solutions during a Demo Day.
Hackers who can build real solutions are the type of entrepreneurs that Geoff looks for. “All three of us have been around the block a lot, and have a pretty good feel of what it takes to make things work.” Geoff is focused on helping companies get to the next level. “A lot of the value of the program is to keep trying, improving, testing, changing and it is hard for companies to do that rapidly on their own.”
Out of the first ten companies who graduated last summer, six of them received financing, three are still going and one closed. "We are thrilled! And some investors are not small investors, like Sequoia who made an investment". Class Dojo is one of his favorites (picture below). The founders are from England and came up with a technology that provides feedback to children in a way that they love. They have more than a million end-users.
The move by Geoff and his partners is refreshing. There is a myth in Silicon Valley that education is not necessary to build a good company. Not that is a must but the success of famous College drop-outs, such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, can be the “tree that hides the forest”. What is less known is the level of support and education that Bill and Mark received from their families; values that seem to decrease in America.
According to recent studies, one in every four pupils will drop out of high-schools, and the number goes as high as 40% for some minorities. As a result large companies like AT&T are doubling their donations to advance education in the US. Steve Jobs was famously not a philanthropist but hoped that the iPad would help transform Education for the better. He had noticed that Apple started to hire massively overseas because they could not find the mid-level technicians and engineers in the US.
Geoff values education, and it has served him well. He has a degree from Dartmouth in New Hampshire, Stanford in California and INSEAD in Paris. All of them are top-notch schools but that does not syop him for questioning the status quo: “Strangely, if you look at the impact of technology on all aspects of our life, all it had on education is small. How can it be?” As we are having a free phone conversation over Skype, Geoff points to the far-reaching implications of technology in our daily lives.
“When I was a kid, if I wanted to get to knowledge I went to the library. Now children have access to a reasonable approximation of all human knowledge, except when they go to school where they are forced to shut down. Think about that…” There is a “gravitational force” that has not hit education yet but Geoff believes that it will inevitably, with broadband infrastructure and new tools like iPads coming to schools, and new services being built.
Beyond economic stakes, Geoff is amazed how technology can help children around the world tap fully into their potential. These days, Geoff shares his time between California and Spain. “It was a family decision and I come back to Silicon Valley every six weeks.” Innovation is part of Geoff’s life who spoke recently at a new incubator in Spain, but so is education.