Good Work: Edupreneurs Making a Difference

Kim Smith
“You know something is different when all the smart kids want to work in education.”  A reporter called me this week to talk about social entrepreneurship in education.  I told her the story starts with Teach for America (TFA) and charter schools two decades ago.Wendy Kopp started TFA to recruit smart kids into teaching. The fact that twenty years later 12% of Ivy League seniors apply to TFA indicates that Wendy achieved her objective.  In addition to great teachers, the 24,000 TFA alumni has proved to be an amazing group of social entrepreneurs and impact investors and, more recently, political leaders.  TFAers run foundations, big nonprofits, and increasingly for-profit companies with a social mission.Kim Smith launched New Schools Venture Fund in 1998 believing that “education entrepreneurs could similarly bring about much-needed change in public education if they had access to both early-stage capital and strategic, hands-on support to start and grow their organizations.”  With backing from big foundations and venture capitalists, Kim supported most of the name-brand charter management organizations formed early in the last decade.Education is the most vital social enterprise.  For generations there have been entrepreneurial teachers and school and system heads innovating inside the system.  Wendy Kopp and Kim Smith are the godmothers of eduprenership–building organizations outside the system with a mission to make the public delivery of education better and more equitable (at least in modern times).
Kim was also one of the first impact investor–investing in for-profit companies seeking a social benefit as well as return.  The dramatic increase in the number and quality of education start ups has made it easier to set a high bar for impact as well as return. Philanthropist Mitch Kapor (who brought you Lotus 123 and Lotus Notes) sponsored lots of great programs with grants but is now making an even bigger impact as an angel investor (including co-investing in several companies with Learn Capital where I am a partner).
Wendy and Kim created new pathways to teaching and to building school networks.  But what’s new and exciting is that a growing percentage of students graduating from elite institution want to start companies and they want to do it in education.
Opportunity mitigation in banking is clearly part of the equation, but never been easier to build a business and make a difference in education.  New application development platforms, the mobile inflection, and viral adoption (an alternative to the district sales slog) have made it possible for a team to gain traction with a $500,000 investment instead of $5 million.
Emblematic of this new era, before graduating from Stanford Business School, Clay Whitehead and Jack Lynch surveyed the landscape of possibilities and picked special education as a category ripe for innovation.  After graduating they launched an online speech therapy provider, Presence Learning.  They were able to quickly and relatively inexpensively demonstrate a better, faster, and cheaper approach.  That’s the new opportunity to make a difference–innovation that delivers great value powered by a scalable organization.
Education is experiencing a phase change from batch-print to personal digital and that creates new opportunities for good work. It’s a great time to be an edupreneur.
Good Work is a Sunday series about finding and doing mission-driven work.  We’d love to hear your story. 

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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