By Zara Stone
Ozy, March 6, 2018 —
Diversity-driven education enables a bias-free future.
When Brandon Byrd applied for a job at ThinkCERCA, a Chicago-based educational technology startup for critical thinking and literacy, he was put through the usual gamut of interviews and creating lesson plans. One lesson involved assessing documents related to the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first race ethnicity law in America. They were asked to question how this related to today — the phrasing was roughly “what impact do we find this has … etc.” Byrd pushed back on this. Growing up in poverty in Missouri, he hadn’t always felt part of the mainstream “we,” and so he argued that the word choice was divisive. Reframing this would allow people to share different experiences.
Founder and CEO Eileen Murphy Buckley was so impressed by Byrd’s argument — she called it perfect — that she had him repeat it on video, and attached it to ThinkCERCA’s writers guidelines. Diversity is a big deal to Murphy Buckley; currently more than 25 percent of her staff are people of color, including Latinos, Asians and African-Americans. “We know we will be a better team if we include multiple perspectives on our problems and value racial and gender diversity,” she says.
INVESTORS WANT TO HAVE A SOCIAL IMPACT WHEN THEY’RE MAKING MONEY.
— Steven Hodas, EDTECH FUND, an EdTech investment firm
That may sound like a no-brainer to some, but it isn’t a view that resonates in every industry. Where it definitely does, though, is in the edtech space, and increasingly so. Only two Asians — and no African-Americans — are among the CEOs of the Forbes top 10 fintech companies for 2017. PitchBook’s top 10 best-funded edtech companies flips this script, with 70 percent of CEOs people of color, and 30 percent white. And it doesn’t stop with CEOs. Half of the board of Age of Learning, which won $150 million in funding in 2016, are people of color. Then there’s online learning platform Udemy, valued at $710 million, founded by a Turkish immigrant and an Indian-American in 2010. ClassDojo, valued at $100 million, is founded by Sam Chaudhary (Indian) and Liam Don (Caucasian).
For Steven Hodas, advisor at the EdTech Fund, an edtech investment firm, one reason for the high numbers of people of color in edtech is people’s motivations. “People don’t invest in edtech to make a lot of money,” Hodas says. “The bottom line is that the investors want to have a social impact when they’re making money. If they didn’t care, they’d put [their dollars] in drones or agtech.”
So that accounts for the cash flow, but what about the entrepreneur side? Hodas suggests this begins with the numbers — currently around 76 percent of teachers in America are women, and he says many immigrant people of color view teaching as a stable, well-paid career choice that offers a path to “the middle class.” Most startups are born out of problem solving, and with so many minority teachers, this creates a diverse starting point.
Precise numbers are hard to define, but it’s estimated that around 40 to 50 percent of all edtech startups have at least one person of color as co-founder. Compare that to bro industries like fintech, where women make up an estimated 8 percent of leadership roles. “Fintech is one of the most stereotypically white [industries],” says Hodas. “It doesn’t surprise me whatsoever that a comparison is [that] dramatic.”
But an emphasis on education among African-American, Hispanic and Asian families is also an important part of the puzzle.
For Carlos Uranga, a Silicon Valley investor and entrepreneur, that’s key to his involvement in education; prior jobs include robotic projects for children and working for Singularity University as director of its Innovation Lab. As a first-generation American, Uranga remembers his father, a Mexican immigrant, telling him over and over, “Your job is to study” — and constantly iterating how education would enable success as an adult. This hyperfocus on education is common with immigrant families, he says, and translates into the startup space. “[People of color are] trying to leverage tech to make a better world,” says Uranga. “If you want economic progress for anyone, you need education.”
Then there’s the social good aspect: Minorities who succeed often have to push harder than their white peers, and want to level that playing field. Take Luis von Ahn, co-founder of Duolingo, a language startup currently valued at $700 million. He grew up in Guatemala, where he says quality education was a preserve of the wealthy. To von Ahn, democratizing access to language learning is a way to help people out of poverty.
Murphy Buckley knows there’s a long way to go before education rights itself, but she believes that this is the starting point for creating bias- and racism-free minds. “The skill we have is teaching people to value alternatives and other viewpoints — [to] appreciate them and not just tolerate them,” she says. Amen.
It’s possible that some aspiring POC entrepreneurs see edtech as an easier entry point than other tech fields, but Murphy Buckley strongly disagrees with that thought. “It’s incredibly difficult to build a business in edtech, and it’s hard to get funding,” she says. Plus, there’s a monopoly by established companies. And even once you’re in the field, she says you need to stay self-aware. “People in public education take diversity for granted,” she says, “[but you] need to have other people check you.” At a recent education conference she went to, Bill Gates gave a speech to a room composed of mostly African-American and Latino attendees. “That’s the world of urban public education, and [it’s rare] those two worlds meet,” she says. “White male investors didn’t go to those schools — they have no idea.”