Jennifer is in sixth grade. She has her own computer, educational software and high-speed internet. She attends a highly resourced school with computer science courses, well-trained teachers and one computing device per student.
Maria is also in the sixth grade. She shares one computer with her family of five, lacks home internet access and uses a smartphone to connect online. At school, there are no coding classes and just one set of computers to be shared across all students.
As the years pass, the gap between Jennifer’s and Maria’s access to technology widens: Jennifer has everything she needs at her fingertips, while Maria does not. Who do you think will be better prepared to pass standardized tests, get admitted into and graduate from college, and be equipped to secure a high-paying job?
I think we all know the answer.
But it’s not just Maria who is falling behind due to her lack of access to educational technology and resources. It’s a longstanding national crisis, often referred to as the “digital divide,” which at Kapor Capital we identify as one of the cumulative barriers across The Leaky Tech Pipeline.
In 2017, 53 percent of the students in the K-12 public education system in the United States were Black, Latinx, Asian/Pacific Islander, Indigenous or multiracial. Only 60 percent of these families had access to computers or broadband internet at home. According to the Code.org Advocacy Coalition, across 24 states, only 27 percent of schools serving low-income students offer computer science courses, compared to 41 percent of schools serving their high-income peers. As a result, white students take AP Computer Science in high school at nearly 2.4 times the rate of Black and Latinx students.
This is just a sample of evidence affirming that the current system reflects two American education systems: one afforded to wealthier households, and the other to less advantaged communities, primarily Black and Latinx families.
As an education technology investor working at a venture capital firm that focuses on closing gaps of access and opportunity, understanding these two American education systems is core to what I do. And it means funding companies and founders who are committed to closing the digital divide. After nine years of investing in gap-closing edtech companies, there are three actions that venture capitalists, foundations and other education funders should take to help close the digital divide.
1. Education funders must invest in gap-closing edtech solutions.
“Gap-closing” companies are those that focus on closing an achievement or opportunity gap as a central part of their mission. In these companies, social impact is not an afterthought and cannot be removed from the product in a down market or deprioritized to increase profit. For example, if an eyeglass company decides to donate a pair of glasses to someone in need for every 10 pairs it sells, that is a fundamentally different business model than providing free eye exams and low-cost eyeglasses to low-income or uninsured patients.
Another way to analyze whether a solution is gap-closing is to assess who pays for it. For example, if students or parents have to pay out of pocket for a solution, then that is insufficient to build true equity. Such a model generally widens the gap between those who can afford the product and those who cannot.
I am fortunate to work at a venture firm that prioritizes “gap-closing” as the primary ethos for our work. Startups in our portfolio, like Career Karma, match people who are career transitioners with coding bootcamps. SV Academy brings tech sales skills to non-technical professionals. Both companies give people from all walks of life the chance to break into the tech industry, without any cost to them. Revenue is earned from the bootcamps and employers, not the aspiring tech professionals. Inclusion and equity are built into the business model.
2. Education funders must ensure that these gap-closing edtech solutions are inclusive.
Equally as important as having a gap-closing thesis, edtech companies must ensure that the images and language used in their products reflect the diversity of the American public school system. And whether an edtech product’s content is inclusive is often directly correlated to whether the company’s leadership is diverse.
If your team does not look like the community you serve, chances are your tech solution won’t either. One way we support diversity in our portfolio companies is through our Founder’s Commitment, a pledge that our portfolio companies make to create goals and accountability structures to ensure diversity and inclusion is baked into the DNA of their workplace and product.
3. Education funders must ensure that leadership at their own organization is diverse.
As I shared in my article, “So You Want to Fund Black Founders,” diverse investors have access to diverse founders, who build products with diverse audiences in mind. The funders choose the founders, and the founders build the products.
If inclusive edtech solutions are the end goal, then inclusive funds must be the start. At our firm, 91 percent of investors are from underrepresented groups, and 59 percent of the founders we fund are from underrepresented groups. Our diversity is by design, our inclusion is intentional, and our founder’s products are gap-closing.