Region: Africa & Asia
Venture: Bridge International Academies (Interview 1 of 2)
Can you tell me something about yourself how you grew up?
I grew up in New York within a family of folks, not necessarily an entrepreneurial family. My family has a lot of doctors and lawyers in the family. So they always thought that what I was doing was a bit crazy, but very supportive of that craziness. I’ve always been very focused on looking at things a little bit differently than others and how you could build things, whether that be physically or otherwise. And essentially really creating value and disrupting the status quo has been, I guess, a theme for me and my life. Both in my professional life and my personal life.
Have you done anything entrepreneurial already when you were a kid?
Yes, when I was a kid I actually spent a lot of time building little machines and taking things apart and putting them back together and I was also involved with businesses early on. I was a performing magician and a performing clown when I was both in middle school and high school and beyond which was both a business for me but also an opportunity to create. I also started a few businesses when I was very little and in primary school. So I was selling needed items to my classmates. I started a few newspapers when I was in 2nd and 3rd grade, for the school and for the class. So it’s been a theme throughout my whole life.
So while other kids were climbing up trees, you went out and started your own businesses?
Yes, that’s right. But it was less about climbing up trees versus starting something and more about, hey why does something not exist and what can we do about that? But I was still interacting a lot with my classmates. For the newspaper, for example, I “hired” a bunch of them to write stories for it and it blossomed into something bigger than that.
And then what did you study, what was the next part of your life?
I studied computer science and electrical engineering. After leaving Harvard, I moved out to Silicon Valley to start up a company. It was an educational software company called Edusoft – my first company that I started in San Francisco – which helped educational institutions make data-driven decisions when it comes to the education of their students.
Do you identify yourself with being an entrepreneur? And if yes what are the things that you as an entrepreneur do that you might identify with?
I do identify with being an entrepreneur. I’d say the qualities I identify with are creating value, seeing opportunity, disrupting the status quo.
Why do you refrain from calling yourself a social entrepreneur for example?
There are different ways of looking at entrepreneurial success, and one is evidently “social impact”. I think that it is not right to call yourself a social entrepreneur or not. It is not a “job title”, but rather the outcome of entrepreneurial activities. For example, there are many entrepreneurs who call themselves “social entrepreneur”, but actually have quite little social impact. Others again might not even think about the social impact of their actions, but actually have a huge social impact, in which case you would call them a social entrepreneur.
So would you say that the definition of social entrepreneurship as such lies in the outcome and not in a personal definition?
Correct. I personally don’t spend too much time thinking about the classifications, to be honest, but I would say an entrepreneur is someone who creates value, and who disrupts the status quo. And you know there are lots of potential outcomes to that, failure is of course one, success is another, but success in what way? You might build an organisation or company that makes a lot of money and at the same time impacts a lot of people’s lives.
What were the circumstances in your life that led you to dedicate your life to Bridge? And how did it happen that you founded it?
10 years ago I sold my company Edusoft. I then spent lots of time with my co-founder and wife Shannon, traveling and living in and researching all parts of the developing world, trying to understand the challenges and opportunities of those markets. We specifically tried to understand how we could have a massive impact on the quality of life for people who lived at the bottom of the pyramid, looking at things such as access to finance, agricultural productivity, education, etc.
The genesis for Bridge happened, when Shannon and I were living in a small rural farming village in the mountains of north-eastern China, called Guongbaiyu. Shannon was doing her PhD work, and I was sort of doing less formal research. Most people in the village lived on about 70 cents a day. It was about -40°C during winter and the people we were staying with had no running water and no heating. By walking through the streets and looking at the houses and the way they were constructed, one could tell who had a primary school education and who didn’t. It was that sort of deterministic. We then realized that if people get access to basic primary education – reading, math, problem solving skills, etc. – that their quality of lives would fundamentally improve.
Let me give you an example of how important primary education can be. One of our neighbours was 75-year-old cashmere goat herder. Due to his age, he was not able to take his goats up the mountain anymore. He luckily had good primary school education and we could watch him fundamentally change his life by buying and reading a book on how to raise foxes for their pelts. The advantage of foxes was that they could stay in your yard and you wouldn’t have to walk them up the mountain. So that’s what he did. He figured out the price for which he could sell his goat herd, how many foxes he could buy with that money and how much he could make with these foxes.
He was lucky. But many families do not have that much luck and lack exactly that type of primary education. So we started to look into this in greater detail and identified what later became the Bridge International Academies business.
But it was quite evident to us that we could only succeed with this if we come up with a business that is scalable, in order to give millions of individuals access to education.
Was there never a bit of a fear or respect from taking on the problem on such a scale?
I think it is quite normal that people tell themselves “Oh that’s too hard” or “It can’t be done because so many have tried it before” or “No one has tried it before because it probably can’t be done”. I think that’s probably sort of what distinguishes those who actually go ahead to tackle these challenges versus those who don’t. I always like to think about the analogy of when we landed a man on the moon. Just 10 years earlier, when someone said “we’re going to land a man on the moon”, no one knew how to do it. There wasn’t even a feasible plan of all the steps needed to get there. That was an important enough goal and that was the challenge and a very large group of people said “We’re going to make that happen because it’s important”. That is the way how these types of large challenges get tackled, whether they succeed or fail.
What is it then that drives you and inspires you from day to day to keep going?
I think it’s the impact that we have. Obviously, what we do is incredibly challenging. And at times you know very daunting, at times frightening, at times angering. But at the end of the day, you know today there are 100’000 children from families who live from less than 2$ a day who are sitting in classrooms getting a world-class quality education that they weren’t able to afford before. And physically even going and visiting our academies and seeing what all of this work is for is enough to get me back on track, even in the most challenging of times.
We are very customer-oriented. I think that’s necessary and part of our success story. We serve families who live on less than 2$ per person, per day; who know that the current options they have for education for their children are not sufficient. They know that the biggest opportunity for their families to get out of poverty is by making sure that their children have access to high quality basic education. However, how can you ensure this in a system where teachers oftentimes don’t show up in the morning or where children don’t learn to read even if the teachers are there, because no one is actually focused or concerned about the performance of the children. We serve exactly these families by giving them an option of affordable high quality education.
So you found a way of combining the social good with an actual business!
Yes, and I would argue that most really great businesses are the same. They may serve a different target customer, they may not be education customers, but great businesses help people with a real need by providing them a clearly value-adding solution at an affordable price. I believe it is all about value creation.
You’ve been hiring a lot of new people. What do you look for in your employees?
We’ve been growing from 2 people to 4200 people in the last 5 years. Obviously we are a people-driven business. The core belief of our people is that it’s possible. Also, it is important that they’re data-driven, because the scale we’re working at is simply too much without proper data analysis. Everything we do is about gathering information and data and making decisions based on that. It is important for us to develop a really good understanding for our markets and clients.
Our people also need to be able to handle the stress associated with the scope, scale and speed of our activities. The combination of operating at that intersection of scale, speed, and scope of work, is overwhelming for a lot of people. With regards to scope: We work everywhere from construction and research to curriculum development training and call centres and field teams, and finance and software development. With regards to speed & scale: We’re opening up a new school in Kenia every 2.5 days! We are currently also the largest chain of retail outlets of any kind in Kenia, whether we are a bank or dry cleaner or school. We’re the largest chain of private schools in Africa and we’re soon going to be the largest chain of private schools globally at any price point. When we find those folks they are awesomely successful and incredibly excited about the work we do.
I imagine that your previous experience in the computer/education industry has been a major advantage for you to set up Bridge in the first place?
I think the biggest leverage from my experience at Edusoft is actually less the technology, and more about data-driven decisions. Edusoft focused on enabling data-driven decision-making in schools. At Bridge, we really understand our business based on the data we have. We understand our market, we understand our customers, we understand the academic interventions we’re making from a data perspective.
When we first started Bridge it actually had very little technology from an IT perspective. It had a lot of technology for processes and systems. We see technology as a means to an end. We use a lot of technology today as the backbone of our business, such as tablets for teachers, smartphones for every academy manager, or data feedback loops that give us a quarter of a million test scores every 10 days.
Your investors are equity investors. How did you attract them? What was the process of getting them into this very daring venture?
I think all great investors are always looking for big ideas. Obviously what we do is very unique. When we’ve gone out to talk to potential investors, we pretty much always started the conversation by saying that this is probably the weirdest story and idea they’re going to hear this year. But great investors see the opportunity just like great entrepreneurs. There’s a 51 billion $ market of customers who are desperately looking for a service that they need where there are very few people providing, if any, those services in any quality, scalable or in an affordable way. We figured out a way to deliver that service at a high quality at an affordable price while making it profitable.
So if you abstract away the fact that our customers are the poorest families on the planet, if you abstract away that we work in communities that very few businesses invest in, if you abstract away the types of challenges of working in emerging markets, the fundamental business is about providing an incredibly important service that is highly valued by 700 million customers. So when investors are able to really understand that, you can be certain that they will see it as an exciting investment opportunity. Many of them also see the amazing combination that makes Bridge so magical: Combining the investment with doing good by providing education for the 700 million families who live on less than 2$ a day. That’s incredible.
It wasn’t easy at first. People thought we were crazy when we first started it. Most people laughed at us in the beginning when we said that we will provide high quality education to the very poor families, charge an affordable fee for it and still be able to earn a profit
Can you remember what it was like when the first Academy stood and the first students came in to learn?
It was amazing. Someone actually just showed me a photo of me carrying one of the desks into the classroom minutes before the bell was going to ring. Nerve racking, exciting. But in many ways we built and operated our fist school as if it was school 100 or school 1000, which at the time seemed absurd to most people. For example, we asked our first academy manager to use the backend communication system to interact with the “Headquarter”, instead of using another way, because we wanted to put the system in place and test it for scale. Even though it was abstract to do at that time, with just one operating school, but we had to get the system running for a network of schools. So I remember both the sort of idiosyncratic challenges of school number 1, but at the same time I remember most that we were thinking about how this is going to work for a hundred schools.
What is your main goal for Bridge and how successful have you been so far at implementing this goal?
We want to provide high quality affordable education to 10 million children who live on less than 2$ a day. If we can do that, we’re fundamentally transforming those communities, those countries, those continents. Obviously there is a lot of risk to get into that scale. After just 5 years, we today educate 100’000 children in 300 schools across 45 counties in Kenia. Next year we will open up operations in 2 new countries, and in the following years start on multiple continents.
Did you ever perceive a clash between your social and economic goals and if yes, how were you resolving these?
No! I mean we set it up from the beginning so that those two things cannot come into conflict. For every time that we educate a child and provide a high quality service, we get paid. If we don’t provide high quality education, they do not pay us. Our customers are extremely picky and demanding. So when we increase the number of students and schools, we increase our revenues. That money is used to invest in new approaches to educate and operate our system, to grow the network and reach more students. So it’s in many ways a very clean set of goals.
Did you encounter failures along the way and if yes, how did it bring you forward?
Yeah, I mean hundreds and thousands of failures. We set them up on purpose in some ways as experiments. Everything we do, we test. We test different approaches to our lessons in the classroom. We test different approaches to marketing, we test different approaches to market research and construction. And we set them up as tests, we measure them, we evaluate the failures, we learn from them, we obviously learn from the successes as well. For us it’s all about using data to drive those learnings. We then try again and again until it works.
Would you consider yourself a for-profit or a not-for-profit entrepreneur?
We are a for-profit company.
How did the collaboration with the governments work? Coming in and trying to revolutionise an educational system in an African country must be a bit of a scary thing. What were your experiences?
I think it’s hard to use the word government in a single context. A government is comprised of local government, county governments, national government. It’s also comprised of lots of different ministries. And within any of those are lots of different people who have lots of different opinions on things. So evidently, we have supporters and those who are less supportive. We focus a lot on the communication of our results.
For us there is nothing ideological about what we do other than we need to give options to parents who don’t have them. We’re not ideological about whether it should cost money or be free, we’re not ideological about our approach to pedagogy. We’re ideological about succeeding and providing successful options for our parents and about measuring that and knowing when it works and doesn’t work. So in many ways we have been successful to – although it’s always a work in progress - communicate that to everyone and get them involved. In essence, we share the same goals with anyone well-intentioned within the government which is to provide high quality education to the population. And since we’re not ideological about it we’re just about the results, which helps to make that conversation a lot more fruitful.
You take individuals, who themselves have relatively poor education, out of the communities and hire them as teachers. How does that work?
That’s correct. It was part of the model from day one because our main constraint for a scalable approach was the availability of teachers. One evident solution for us was to look at talents inside the communities that don’t have any opportunities and who lack formal education and training. Our goal was to make it possible to have these individuals as teachers, because we could then reach out to a large amount of talents in each community. We created a model for educating teachers and students at the same time.
And the teachers themselves are really excited that this is happening and see it as an opportunity for themselves, too.
Absolutely. 90% of our academy staff have never taught before, but 90% of them have also never had a professional job before. What we do is to empower them to help others and themselves at the same time. Those who are really motivated, can do great things with this.
Do you have a selection process for teachers?
Yes and no. We fundamentally believe that great teachers are not born but made. We provide the training and monitoring system and so far it has worked out pretty well.
My final question, is a bit of a funny one, if you could set up any venture, which problem would you tackle?
I guess that’s an easy one. It would look like Bridge International.
So you are basically doing what you are dreaming of?
Is there anything you’d like to add.
No, this was great. Good luck with writing it all up and we look forward to seeing it.