Accelerating Diversity

Update (2/18/12)- You can find an extended version of this post on Women 2.0.

Demo Days can be pretty exhausting experiences of information overload as you try to capture the energy of the various pitches & teams (YC has 65 this round) while chatting with old and new connections. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the StartX event last night, which began with quick pitches from their 9 startups followed by dinner and plenty of time to speak with the teams and others in the room directly.

For me, the most impressive aspect of the event was the diversity in the room, from the teams to the investors to alumni. More than enough has been said about ethnic and gender diversity in Silicon Valley, and I don’t wish to add to any of the complaints. I’d much rather focus on the solution and I believe that StartX exemplifies some of the progress that we need by selecting, supporting and launching a diverse group of energetic and brilliant entrepreneurs. Almost 50% (4 of the 9 teams) had female co-founders, as well as representation from several degree programs (not just CS) and age groups. With a mission focused on developing founders through experiential education, I believe recruiting a diverse cohort deeply improves the StartX experience for all and hopefully inspires increasingly diverse applicants in the future. In furthering that inspiration, I spoke with several of the female entrepreneurs about presenting to and mentoring programs that help encourage young girls to explore STEM fields and opportunities, such as the Technovation Challenge.

For anyone trying something new it is vitally important and deeply motivating to see people like you creating opportunities and success for themselves. (This is definitely true for first-generation college bound students and I imagine it’s the same for first-time entrepreneurs –it helps if someone is blazing the trail with you.) I’m thrilled with the role StartX is playing and am anxious to see how they will scale this to other universities and communities in the years to come. Just Start It!

Conferences/Events Entrepreneurship

NSVF- Planting the seed

Last night I had the opportunity to attend the launch event for New Schools Venture Fund SeedFund, the most recent endeavor of dynamic duo Wayee Chu and Jennifer Carolan, who also spearheaded the EdTech Lab at Stanford this time last year. With the team at NSVF, these two have spent years encouraging and investing in entrepreneurs passionate about building tools and systems to help all kids have access to a high quality public education. Jennifer’s most recent blog post shares the thought process behind creating this seed stage funding opportunity and how supporting these entrepreneurs early on has the real potential to improve the struggling K-12 education system. The event attracted an impressive audience of VCs, angels, entrepreneurs and members of the community that have devoted their lives to improving education outcomes for all kids.  The highlight for me was Jennifer and Alan Louie, from Imagine K-12, kicking off the event with some compelling reasons why the timing is right to truly change education now. The stars have aligned in the following ways:

  • Technology: Current infrastructure (ie. AWS, Rackspace) makes it easier than ever to build a startup and pc/tablet penetration is increasing ( there is a 3:1 ratio of kids to computers (on avg))
  • Talent: 40% of teachers are under 30 years old and feel very comfortable using technology in the classroom
  • Common Core is laying the framework to consolidate learning goals/standards across the country (adopted by 43 states already)
  • Budget constraints: strapped districts, now more than ever, are looking for tools/systems to help them do more with less

I think another big point related to technology that was not mentioned is the availability and ability to use data in a meaningful and actionable way to drive personalized, self-paced learning to meet kids where they are and help each of them succeed on their own timeline.

Overall, I love the optimism and forward-looking tone of the evening, especially when it’s so easy to get dragged down by the history of education reform and all the strategies that have been unsuccessful in the past. The night continued with presentations from the first three companies in the SeedFund; Goalbook, Engrade and LearnZillion.

Efforts like these, that are seeking to improve education outcomes for kids and communities that need it the most, are what fuel my own passion for this work. They push us all to rethink the role of schools, what teaching and learning can and should look like in a student-centered world. We can get there, together, and NSVF is helping to plant those seeds.


Acknowledging one’s contribution

During my current soul-searching-career-exploration phase I’ve been thinking a lot about the purpose of my life and how I can best focus my energy and efforts to help the world, particularly through education. As I listened to the inspiring speakers at today’s TEDxBay Area- Global Women Entrepreneurs Event one of the themes that came up early and was woven throughout the day was this notion of acknowledgement. Kimberly Dillon, founder of House of Mikko, introduced this topic during her presentation entitled Acknowledgment- The Killer Business Strategy, and it really got me thinking about what it means to be acknowledged? Kimberly shared how acknowledging her users and really paying attention to their feedback has helped drive her success. This truly is the essence of user-centered design. She also shared how Pinterest experienced tremendous growth by acknowledging pinners and allowing people to share repins. For me, this concept tied into the broader purpose of today’s event, to acknowledge the contribution that women make to the world and encourage deeper, broader participation.

The day was full of amazing speakers and conversations (I’ll tweet the link to the video library) but a few more of my favorites were:

  • Anat Bar- Gera sharing her work with 4GAfrica on improving broadband access is Sub-Saharan Africa and we chatted about bringing online education content, like Khan Academy, to children and adults in those communities.
  • Ana Gabriela Pessoa describing how she launched EZLearn, an education platform in Brazil, and how she faced the challenge of being one of the first female entrepreneurs in Rio.
  • While it was hard to choose, my favorite speaker of the day was Kara Swisher from All Things D. I’ve been following Kara’s witty coverage of the valley’s tech scene for a while but it was incredibly entertaining to see her in person and I was really impressed by how she shared her recent experience of having a stroke in an honest and charming manner.

I had a wonderful and thought-provoking experience at my first TEDx (#TEDxBAW) event and am so energized to be part of a community of people, both women and men, who are asking themselves— What is my contribution to the world?

Tech in the classroom

Just ask your teacher!

All good entrepreneurs know that the best way to improve their product is with a user-centered design approach, collecting and incorporating feedback from their target users on an on-going basis. However, when those target users are teachers, there are many challenges to getting some of their precious time and attention. A recent guest post on EdWeek from Roxanna Elden articulately captures the complicated relationship between teachers and education technology.

Enter, What started out as Jennie Dougherty’s simple blog to share her experiences testing new edtech tools in her classroom has blossomed into a platform for teachers around the world to beta test various products and share/review feedback from other teachers in the network. Beta Classroom connects edtech entrepreneurs with teachers who are excited to try out new products to see what will help them manage their time and classrooms more effectively. I encourage you all to check it out and more importantly invite any teachers you know who would be interested in participating in this community. Keep in mind that it is in it’s early stages, so like any new product, I’m sure your feedback is welcome!


Classroom Experiments in Entrepreneurship

Short and inspiring video from Tina Seelig, Executive Director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP), sharing a story about her classroom project on entrepreneurship. Great lesson for all entrepreneurs to think about how you’re framing the problem/pain you’re trying to address and the resources you have available to help you achieve your goals. I especially like the point that seed money itself can be limiting and that people often undervalue their own skills.


Culture of Learning- The Real Disruption


Mitch Kapor gave a great keynote at the closing day of Startup Weekend EDU in Seattle this evening with a key theme being that we need to create a ‘culture of learning,’ and not just tools to really ‘fix’ the challenges in education. He shared some insights into his experience investing in edtech startups, and how at first he never invested in companies selling to districts/schools but has changed his stance on that a bit. He started off highlighting the work he and his wife, Freada, have been doing with The Summer Science Program, an intense six-week STEM-focused summer program for intellectually talented high school students from low income (SES) communities.

I especially appreciated his thoughts on social vs. tech entrepreneurs and how they can learn from each other’s perspective to maximize results. The sweet spot is where you build awesome (and useful) products with a sustainable business model.

His closing thoughts on startups today was most applicable to a Startup Weekend-type event —  Often entrepreneurs “confuse how far you can get in your first day of travel with how long it will take to get to the top of the mountain.” This captures the current environment where it’s so easy to get started, but it’s still very difficult to get past the early adopters, especially when hoping to sell to schools and districts, which have long and complicated sales timelines. Overall his message was positive and encouraged all edupreneurs to keep fighting the good fight, but just make sure you can make money!

Check out the feedback on Twitter- #swseaedu, @swseaedu


Just StartX It!

StartX, aiming to establish themselves as the “YCombinator of Stanford,” hosted a successful demo day today, leaving standing room only at Annenberg Auditorium. The teams, consisting mainly of Stanford undergrads, grad students and alumni, were chosen out of hundreds of applications and were full of praise for the accelerator program that introduced them to the lingo, mentorship and relationships necessary to launch their startups. The event started with a quick message from Board Member and long time supporter, George Zachary, from Charles River Ventures.

Half of the companies in their portfolio pitched today (see below for a list) and did a great job conveying their energy and enthusiasm. While the teams and product ideas were impressive, I was most excited by the program itself which is explicitly providing educational support to entrepreneurs, encouraging them to explore the unique opportunities available to them as part of the Stanford and Silicon Valley community. One of the speakers captured the theme of the day in their statement, “I know many of you could get a job with Google or Facebook tomorrow, but I highly encourage you to join one of the startups you see here, even as a side project.” I loved the positivity around the program and the overall message to explore entrepreneurship and take advantage of the resources right here in front of you (especially StartX.)

Applications for the next round are due this Wednesday, October 5th and they are aggressively recruiting for staff positions as well.

StartX companies that pitched today (in order of presentation):

  1. Morpheus: creating the first patient-specific airflow simulation software for medical applications.
  2. Kitchit: bridging private chefs and event planners to create personal, in-home fine dining experiences
  3. Modewalk: creating the most emotionally engaging shopping experience online for luxury goods
  4. 6Dot: developing a new portable, easy-to-use braille labeling device based on unique labeling technology
  5. Black Swan Solar: making solar energy cheaper than coal
  6. WifiSlam: enabling a technology for indoor positioning, location based tagging/check-ins in indoor spaces
  7. qWhisper: social search platform that will revolutionize the way people discover and find information from their social graph
  8. HungryTribe: meal planning and nutrition information targeted for corporations to save money on healthcare costs
  9. ClassOwl: online app for students/teachers to create personalized planners
  10. MotionMath: pioneering movement-based learning games for mobile devices
  11. Tactilize: creating the first publishing app for tablets
  12. diffbot: applies computer vision techniques to extract useful metadata from web docs.
  13. Loki Studios: utilizes GPS-enabled mobile devices to bring content-awareness to immersive social gaming
  14. FountainLoop: website and mobile application to help you find campus events and discover nearby friends.
  15. AiryLabs: creating the next generation of social learning games for kids
  16. Gameclosure: multiplatform. multiplayer. HTML5.
  17. Lark: enables the mobile phone to monitor, alert and improve sleep

Imagining a Better Way…

Imagine K-12 is quickly gaining exposure and recognition as the best education startup incubator around. All 10 companies from the first cohort got the chance to pitch at TechCrunch Disrupt earlier this month, and you can read more about them and watch the pitches here.


A visit to Blackbox Mansion

As a follow up to Startup Weekend, this evening I attended a casual networking event at Blackbox Mansion, hosted by Bjoern Lasse. Blackbox is one of the hottest seed accelerators in the valley and this evening’s event was a great continuation of conversations around the newest startups on the scene. Over the past few days I’ve also learned about the Startup Genome Project, which is a research based process for benchmarking startups and identifying which stage they are at to understand how best they should grow/move forward to be successful. While it’s potentially enlightening to have a classification system to help see patterns and trends (especially given the proliferation of startups over the past several years) it is also a bit controversial to use this labeling system. I see startups as living organizations, continuously evolving and adjusting to their environments, so I bet they move back and forth between different stages throughout their growth process.

Given that “More than 90% of startups fail, due primarily to self-destruction rather than competition,” my take is that more data is better to help determine and prevent those self-destructive tendencies. Overall, TONS of great information and cool infographics on their site- check it out and maybe you can learn more about your startup.

Bjoren Lasse also has an interesting blog post from Oct 2010 discussing some of his thoughts on traditional vs. disruptive technologies around education. He ends with a key point stating, “if you want to empower and accelerate this process then you need to anticipate a completely new education ecosystem and value chain.”

I’m anxious for us to discover this new education ecosystem…