We launched Rethink Education in July 2012. We were a new platform, but we were not newcomers to the education sector. My co-founder, Rick Segal, began investing in education technology companies in the nineties, and I followed in 2003.
But Rick and I were thinking about how education needed to change long before we made our first investments in the sector. One of Rick’s sisters was born with severe mental and physical disabilities, and Rick’s family had to reinvent itself. Rick’s mother and two of his other sisters got doctorates and became academic child development experts. Rick’s mother, Marilyn Mailman Segal, co-authored and co-edited over a dozen books on child development, some of them in collaboration with one of Rick’s sisters, Betty Bardige. One of Betty’s books, At A Loss For Words, is about the vocabulary gap between rich toddlers and poor ones. Rick’s entire family has been on a decades-long crusade to make education more compassionate, more personalized, and more inclusive. Together, the family started Broward County’s first Head Start program and its first preschool to include children with special needs. Rick also taught high school English before starting his business career.
Like me, Rick became an investor in education technology businesses through a series of accidents. When Rick first met Larry Berger, co-founder of Wireless Generation, it was not business that brought them together: Larry, who was still a Yale undergraduate, was working at Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for terminally ill children. Rick had a niece at the camp.
I also come from a family of educators. My mother taught English at two urban high schools, reviewed poetry, edited a textbook for use in urban schools, and briefly dated Albert Shanker (don’t tell her I mentioned this!). My father’s brother and sister and their spouses all taught, as did my mother’s older sister. Of my seven first cousins, four are teachers. One of them is a tenured professor of sociology at Stanford who works on immigration and inter-ethnic marriage. Another teaches children with special needs—when she spoke of her work with one child with cerebral palsy who could not speak or walk, I was struck by her cheerfulness and quiet determination.
I myself spent six years finishing my Ph.D. at Yale and then taught full-time at the college level for a decade, most recently in the City University of New York System. CUNY is a tremendous engine of social mobility and one of the most dazzling achievements of American democracy. I had the privilege of teaching first-generation college students from all over the world, and I also taught undergraduate teacher preparation classes and graduate classes for current New York City teachers. Like Rick, I understood the unmet needs of students and teachers well before I ever began to think there might be technological tools that would meet those needs. Like Rick, I was driven to start investing in education technology by a mix of sorrow, anger, and hope.
After the acquisitions of Wireless Generation and SchoolNet in 2010 and 2011, Rick and I started looking more proactively for other interesting education technology companies. We saw the beginning of a Cambrian explosion of education innovation, a massive influx of talent and a proliferation of new approaches and new business models. Starting an internet business used to require millions of dollars just to buy the servers. Today, with cloud computing services, APIs, programming frameworks, social network marketing, and SaaS tools for managing small businesses, a few hundred thousand dollars of seed funding often suffice to get a product into the hands of paying customers. Those customers are also multiplying. Educators are increasingly committed to using technological tools. Rick and I could see that this is a very good time to invest in education businesses.
We also had another insight. We realized that many venture capitalists were approaching education technology companies in a peculiar manner. Many investors were unconcerned about the research on how people learn. Some invested in hot companies without ever talking to a single customer. Many believed that the only education businesses worth funding were those that targeted consumers. And they were convinced that school districts in particular made terrible customers. Having invested in two companies (Wireless Generation and SchoolNet) that sold to school districts, we felt differently.
Many venture capitalists also fell prey to techno-utopianism. They thought, for example, that MOOCs were going to replace universities. Venture capitalists also poured a lot of money into textbook technology platforms that were obsolete before they were funded. And there were many other pedagogically shaky education technology companies that received enormous amounts of funding. Some venture capitalists seemed not to care about either educational efficacy or business fundamentals. Meanwhile, the companies with missions that seemed important to us often had great difficulty raising money. Rick and I realized that the education technology sector needed us—needed us as an institutional venture firm and not just as angels. Many of the investors focused on education were tourists, ready to flee at the first sign of frost, just as they had fled clean tech. We are not tourists. We are here for as long as we are needed.