The Edu-Entrepreneurs bargain

The sun set at 4:22pm at latitude 47.3.  It will set about a minute later tomorrow.  The days are finally getting longer again.
We also turned the corner on the Great Recession; at least the leading indicators look that way. That is little reassurance to the 20% of the workforce that is unemployed or underemployed as we close the year.
Federal stimulus spending saved a reported 640,329 jobs with 250,000 of them in education—nearly all in school districts.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that we saw little evidence of leaders taking advantage of the crisis to rethink the basic cost model and organization of school districts.
With little or no bank credit and less venture investment, entrepreneurs have been hanging on for dear life.  With no help from the feds, it’s small business growth that will be largely responsible for lifting us out of the recession.
I get a steady stream of hate mail, the ‘greedy bastard’ file, for promoting education entrepreneurship.  It’s a different bargain than working for a school district and for some educators it’s a good choice.
Let me tell you Jeff’s story.  His wife, a teacher, inspired the development of a learning tool.  Jeff worked on it weekends and evenings for a year and then quit his day job to pursue development full time.  He worked for two years without a salary and spent most of their savings developing the product.  He gave the product away for free and a lot of teachers started using it.  Another company noticed the traction his product was gaining and acquired Jeff’s company and put him on the payroll.  Jeff received a 15% stake in the larger enterprise and someday that may be enough to retire on, but on the other hand it may be worth nothing.  Jeff took a different path than his teacher friends.  He’s walking a high wire with no safety net.  He’s in a different retirement plan than his wife.  They are both dedicated educators.
The company that Jeff joined employs about a dozen people, all hired during the recession, because an investor believes that someday the company will make money and provide a return.  Jeff and his investor also believe that we can invent better ways to help kids learn.
It’s folks like Jeff and his backers that will lift us out of this recession.  It’s educators like Jeff and his wife that will help expand excellence and equity in learning.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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