Edtech startups and VCs rally around a memo of their own

Outschool founder Amir Nathoo has a message to the edtech sector, which recently found itself under a spotlight thanks to the pandemic: Add your voice, and don’t try to always appear neutral.

The founder of the unicorn business penned a statement, co-signed by other edtech leaders, promoting the continuance of teachers being allowed to teach critical race theory in classrooms across the country. The learning framework, which has been the subject of recent legislative debate, covers the acknowledgement of institutional, and systemic racism in the United States. Critics of critical race theory say that CTR can add more divisiveness to an already polarized world, while supporters see the framework as key to understanding the role that racism plays in society and how current systems perpetuate inequality.

“As a nation, we must take a stand that teaching the wrongs of racism is not ‘divisive’; it is imperative,” the statement reads. “Many of these new laws will require teaching ‘both sides’ of a lesson about race or current events, if permitted at all,” a nuance that would make it difficult for teachers to condemn history like lynching or Jim Crow’s legacy.

It goes on to pledge that, “as CEOs and Board Members of education technology companies, we are taking a stand to say that any new law that restricts teaching racism in a lesson is unacceptable.”

We stand with the thousands of teachers who have come together to protest these laws restricting racism lessons.
We stand with the millions of learners they will impact.
We are signing this letter today so that teachers and students can openly discuss the experiences of Black youth today in the context of the George Floyd protests of 2020.
Above all, we are signing this letter today to say racism is wrong and that hatred based on the color of someone’s skin, religious beliefs, gender, or sexual orientation is wrong, unequivocally wrong.

Signatures on the statement include a number of notable founders and investors in edtech, giving weight to the statement: 

Atin Batra, General Partner, 27V (Twenty Seven Ventures)
Michael Ke Zhang, CEO and Co-Founder of AI Camp
Joanna Smith, CEO and Founder of AllHere
Ilana Nankin, Ph.D. Founder & CEO of Breathe For Change
John Danner, Managing Partner, Dunce Capital
Erika Hairston, CEO and Co-Founder of Edlyft
Michael Haddix, Founder, Elevate
Alex Taussig, Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners
Brian Swartz – CEO & Co-Founder Neighbor Schools
Bridget Garsh – COO & Co-Founder Neighbor Schools
Cedric McDougal – CTO & Co-Founder Neighbor Schools
Sabari Raja, CEO and Cofounder, Nepris
Sabari Raja, CEO and Co-Founder, Nepris
Amir Nathoo, CEO and Co-Founder of Outschool
Rita Rosa Ruesga, Co-Founder Pikitin Learning Projects
Garrett Smiley, CEO and Co-Founder of Sora Schools
Rethink Education III Team
Rebecca Kaden, Managing Partner, Union Square Ventures
Sara Mauskopf, CEO and Co-Founder of Winnie
Jo Boaler, The Nominelli-Olivier Professor of Education, Stanford University, Co-Founder of youcubed

Mission-oriented politics

There is a growing perspective in Silicon Valley that companies should only get involved in politics when it is related to their mission and can impact their business.

The conversation began with Coinbase’s Brian Armstrong publishing a memo that banned the debate of causes and politics internally that are unrelated to work. Coinbase has since been joined by Basecamp, and there’s a pseudonymous Twitter account, Mission Protocol, dedicated to helping other startups adopt a code of conduct that “follows in Brian Armstrong’s footsteps.”

“We started this project because existing codes of conduct and conversations around social responsibility didn’t have a voice for what is most important: staying focused on the good we actually deliver for society through our missions,” a tweet from the account reads.

In an interview, Nathoo said that critical race theory “is clearly related” to its mission, but that his company is also taking an “expansive view of how our community can be impacted.” The company says it intends to engage, and add their voice, to issues around race and inequality.

“Ideally, companies would stay out of politics but that’s not the reality that we live in,” he said. “We think it’s an abdication of corporate responsibility to try and pretend that there’s both sides to every argument. I don’t think that’s right, and we intend to take a different path on corporate responsibility than other startups might have taken.”

AllHere CEO Joanna Smith, who signed the statement, told TechCrunch that the statement is tied heavily to her mission. Her company developed a 24/7 chatbot to help families and kids that have issues with absenteeism at schools. The company focuses on supporting families, through two-way text and in-person intervention, to get better outcomes and lessen learning gaps.

“I think every startup has to be aware of the environment within which they operate,” she said. “I think specifically in education technologies, it would be very difficult to scale a company that’s directly interfacing and interacting with families and kids, if the company itself is not aware of, or reflective of the needs and priorities of those who they are attempting to serve.

“We don’t have the luxury of putting on blinders to the realities that families and kids live in, which, for AllHere, includes transportation, health care, absenteeism, mental health and, of course, how families see the world,” she added.

The debate is more complex than pro-Coinbase and anti-Coinbase. For example, both companies present an alternative to how startups should address politics: Tie it to the mission, and view the mission as wide-ranging and inclusive.

Nathoo said that a small number of edtech leaders were invited to sign the edtech statement to start. Of those who didn’t sign, the main reasons were disagreement with messaging, or worry about getting involved in politics.

Edtech startups are in a unique spot to address racism because of the content and mission that many have. Quizlet has a number of free, downloadable lessons for educators to address topics like mass incarceration and policing, the fight for women’s suffrage, and the coronavirus in Black America, for example. Outschool has a number of classes offered about anti-racism, including an $11 one-time class for kids ages 4-6. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

Nathoo expects that Outschool’s business, which was recently valued at over $1 billion, will benefit from this choice because of “greater trust and connection” with the community and staff. Medium, for example, recently lost more employees after CEO Ev Williams published a culture memo, in the wake of a failed unionization attempt.

Even with this perspective, Nathoo admits that the company “is not where it wants to be” on diversity, and thinks that there is work left to be done. It’s up to future employees on if today’s effort, rallying against the diminishment of critical race theory and for more conversations of racism, will either be an attractive, or dissuasive, reason to join the team.