A human being’s identity in today’s world, is defined by either: the school they studied at, and/or where they work. Many, including me, believe that this is not a fair determinant of a person’s talent and potential. Yet, since the perception is inescapable, perhaps the best we can do is to try and redefine the determinants as: what you learn, instead of where you learnt it; and what work you do, instead of where you do it.
An outdated education system > a disengaged workforce
Both Salman Khan (Khan Academy) and Sugata Mitra (Hole in the Wall) identified, decades ago, that we could achieve astonishing student outcomes if only we ensured everyone had access to the right knowledge. The 3 primary challenges facing education today are accessibility, affordability and relevance.
Education is a fundamental right for all citizens in many countries; and yet not everybody attends school nor is taught by the best teachers. While there is certainly a high quality of education being delivered in the best schools across the globe, these institutions have also simultaneously found it convenient to grant admission only to those who either come from ‘legacy’ or can afford it.
According to a 2016 study, 40% of students “who declined their dream school cited price-related concerns as the reason.” Most strikingly, this finding was consistent across income levels, minority status and SAT scores. Those that gather the courage to pursue higher education are laden with student loans. In the US alone, there is upwards of $1.6T in student debt; up 157% since 2008, the fastest growing segment of US household debt.
Globally, we spent $6T on education in 2018 and the amount is expected to double by 2030. Less than 3% of the expenditure in 2018 was towards technology.
Compounding the problem further is the education system’s glacial pace of change – whether that’s adopting technology or reforming curriculum. In large swathes of the world, students still revere rote learning and are likely never exposed to project-based learning which should be the preferred method of preparing young adults for the workforce of tomorrow. Across the globe, declining student engagement has set off klaxon alarms among educators that care.
The present education system, along with its inherent challenges, is producing a workforce that is neither up-to-date on industry best practices, nor sufficiently equipped with the soft skills needed for success in careers today. We need our schools and colleges to do a better job of preparing their graduates for the real world. Our workplaces are also a let down. Young adults come from an open collaborative environment at school to a siloed corporate (still employs more than half the working population, per census data) or the chaotic startup.
Millennials are rising to managerial positions; yet, according to a recent study, 58% of managers didn’t receive any training on how to be a good manager.
Is it any surprise then that people today feel disenfranchised at work and are disengaged? Where the previous generation may have worked for 1 or 2 companies in all, 30% of today’s workforce are likely to change their job every 12 months with the result that most will work 7-9 jobs in their lifetime. The numbers of entrepreneurs, freelancers and consultants/contractors is only increasing with every day.
In addition, while the rising gig economy may have provided flexibility and a way to optimize underutilized resources, it is plagued by issues of safety and security for the workers. Fueled by the media, most people are now scared of the next shift in job markets – the advent of artificial intelligence and automation. While that is certainly coming, most AI today is basically just a front for cheap invisible human labor, a monstrous phenomenon known as ghost work.
Technology to engage and augment
27V invests in technology that, instead of replacing humans, augments their capabilities, makes them happier and more productive at work. These could be team collaboration tools (Slack, Notion), platforms to automate menial data entry or collection (Affinity, Otter.ai), prosumer tools to boost productivity (Superhuman, Clara), solutions for managing payroll and benefits (Zenefits, Gusto), coaching for everyone on the team including new managers (BetterUp, Bravely), teams helping retrain the workforce for higher-value jobs (Lambda School, SV Academy), robotics & hardware to make work safer and more efficient (Upskill, StrongArm).
This revolution in work is also driving an upstream change in education. At universities, study units such as placements and internships are being reinvented, with a stronger focus on pathways to productive employment (WayUp). In school, students are using robotics to learn technology (Wonder Workshop, Reach Robotics), even math (MakeBlock). Founders are building tools to provide students with access to the best educational resources from across the world (VIPTutor, Openstax). Institutions, including schools and publishers, across the board are enthusiastically implementing tools that help educators deliver on better student outcomes (Brightwheel, Parchment).
Our aim – learn from & work with the smartest people
Twenty Seven Ventures supports the next leaders in the EdTech and Future of Work sectors, at the earliest stages. Willing to take early bets, we are among the first investors in young startups, helping them think through and ‘productize’ all aspects of their businesses to ensure sustainability and success. Leveraging our network with schools, universities, employers and the broader industry, we help our portfolio companies better understand and pre-empt the rapidly changing landscape that is education and work today.
The Fund is managed by sole General Partner – Atin Batra, me. There’s a saying that ‘building a company is a marathon, not a sprint’. Well, I run ultra-marathon trail races and know exactly what it takes to persevere and befriend dissonance. An ex-entrepreneur myself, I am able to leverage my experiences, passion for helping others succeed and an overpowering thirst for knowledge to support founders as an investor. Most recently, I was the Principal at a global VC investing in deep tech and connected hardware startups and led Hong Kong’s best-known corporate accelerator prior to that.
27V’s superpower is the concerted effort to build a family of portfolio founders and advisors. I speak to the founders, on average, once every fortnight – helping them create financial projections, review board meeting materials, make introductions to investors/partners/talent. In March 2020, we are hosting the first 27V Retreat for all of the portfolio founders, advisors and a select group of co-investors for 3 days of lightning talks, workshops & lots of hiking.
The Fund’s Portfolio Advisory Board consists of successful entrepreneurs: a founder who sold his company for $100M+ in 2012 and has since invested in multiple unicorns; another went through YC and then sold his logistics startup; one of the founders is an ex-professor of data analytics & the smartest person I know in the machine learning space; yet another built his first company’s platform to $100B in monthly trading volume and is now back to building a revolutionary fintech product. All of these accomplished operators stand by to help the portfolio founders through any and all troughs they head into.