For the education space, technology is an equalizer. It allows teachers, students, and parents to access resources they otherwise might not have access to. Michelle Brown and Sarah Robertson, founders of CommonLit, saw how badly some schools want for resources firsthand while teaching at low-income schools. This inspired them to build CommonLit, an online reading program that educators and families can access from anywhere, for free. “When children have access to high-quality resources and tools, it can transform their trajectory,” explains Robertson.
Education technology (edtech) startups like CommonLit need an equalizer, too. Startups are responsible for some of the most innovative work in this area. But early-stage startups are often passed over by investors, particularly if a female and/or minority founder runs them, or if they are located somewhere other than a “tech hub” like San Francisco or New York.
That is why the AT&T created the AT&T Aspire Accelerator-to support and mentor the country’s most promising edtech startups, especially those run by diverse founders. Robertson says that CommonLit’s participation in the Accelerator has been critical to its growth. When it joined in 2016, it had 3,400 registered users. Today, it has 7.8 million. Sarah attributes that growth, in large part, to AT&T’s early investment.
The AT&T Aspire Accelerator aims “to take organizations from good to great by connecting them with the best of what AT&T has to offer,” explains Anne Wintroub, director, social innovation, AT&T.
The program runs for four to six months and is customized to suit the needs of each participant. AT&T invests $100,000 in every Accelerator member and covers costs associated with the program. Founders set goals and are then paired with AT&T executives and members of the company’s extensive edtech network to achieve them. These goals can range from launching a new website to creating a fundraising strategy.
AT&T Aspire’s program does not require participants to relocate. “Many of the entrepreneurs we support are parents or teachers themselves and they can’t just get up and move,” explains Wintroub. Participants meet in person every four to six weeks, often at an industry event, but much of the work is done virtually.
Each cohort also travels to AT&T’s Dallas headquarters, where they are afforded the opportunity to “pitch” their business model to officers of the company who provide direct and candid feedback. Laurent Therivel, senior vice president of finance at AT&T, has been on the receiving end of these pitches and is an advisor to the program.
“The leaders of these companies, without exception, possess an extraordinarily high level of enthusiasm and passion for their work,” says Therivel. “That will take you a long way as a start-up.”
What AT&T’s business leaders provide these companies, he added, is a better understanding of what it will take to scale their operations. AT&T leaders also get something out of it.
“AT&T’s networks connect today’s students to education opportunities,” says Therivel. “It’s fascinating to see the creative, real-world solutions Accelerator companies are using to innovate education, many of which utilize our services.”
Wintroub believes the program’s design is key to its ability to deliver on its commitment to diversity. Almost half of all participating entrepreneurs are people of color, and 63 percent are women. To ensure a diverse applicant pool, AT&T reaches out to its connections in communities across the country and asks them to recommend potential candidates who might be off other people’s radar.
Charles Best, founder and CEO of DonorsChoose.org and a member of the AT&T Aspire Accelerator Board of Advisors is inspired by program participants’ diverse backgrounds and impressive ideas. “These startups represent some of the most innovative and thoughtful minds in edtech,” he says.
The Selection Process
This year, the AT&T Aspire Accelerator received more than 350 applications. Whittling it down to eight companies wasn’t easy. Wintroub observes that the companies most likely to succeed are run by founders who either have firsthand experience with the challenge they are trying to solve, or they have surrounded themselves with people who do. Thus, she and her team look for these “empathetic founders” when reviewing applications.
They also consider the program’s diversity goals, and how companies would complement one another. Unlike most accelerators, the AT&T Aspire Accelerator is open to both non-profit and for-profit businesses, providing a unique opportunity for these organizations to learn from one another. Program alumni include the non-profit CommonLit and Bitsbox, a for-profit business in Boulder, Colorado, that provides a monthly subscription for coding projects for grade-schoolers.
Beyond the Accelerator
So far, 27 startups have completed the program, including the October 2018 graduating class of eight. The 19 participating startups from the first three classes have reached more than 12.2 million students and gone on to raise more than $20 million in investments. Wintroub proudly adds that all of these organizations are still in business, which is quite remarkable when 50 percent of companies fail within the first five years, according to the Small Business Association.
Wintroub and her team are building something bigger than cohorts-;they are building a community. Graduation is just the beginning. “AT&T continues to support Accelerator companies in as many ways as possible, from consulting with them to bringing them industry opportunities,” she says. “That is a commitment not just from me and my team, but from all of AT&T.”
It is exciting to see founders achieve the goals they set at the onset of the program, but as exciting for Wintroub is the growth she sees afterward, as these organizations grow from good to great, in turn improving the lives of the children, parents, and teachers who use their innovative solutions.