Last December, Shannon May found herself managing a crisis not typical for an entrepreneur: Eight staff members in Uganda had been arrested on the baseless suspicion that they were involved in the murder of a Shia Muslim cleric. Bridge International Academies, May's for-profit attempt to alleviate developing-world poverty through education, had already built 412 schools in Kenya in six years. Now it was launching in its first new market, an effort that was briefly interrupted when the Ugandan military swept up the freshly recruited teachers. "They were clearly under pressure to deliver suspects," says May, who seems impossible to ruffle. "We had to work hard with our legal team to establish their innocence and get them out."
May, who co-founded Bridge with her husband, Jay Kimmelman, is no stranger to the unexpected and the controversial. Bridge is a promising and polarizing attempt to educate 10 million children throughout the developing world. Since launching in a Nairobi slum in 2009, it has scaled low-cost nursery and primary schools at a torrid pace. Today, roughly 100,000 African students get a Bridge education. May is backed by $100 million from a starry cadre of investors that includes Bill Gates, the Omidyar Network, and Mark Zuckerberg.
A Berkeley-and Harvard-trained anthropologist, May started focusing on education during postdoctoral work in rural China. There she observed children walking more than an hour to reach dark, freezing classrooms where often no teachers showed up. "It was like Charles Dickens's London," she says. The regulatory hurdles to opening schools in China were insurmountable, so she and Kimmelman turned to Africa.
May, 38, is an unusual amalgam of social reformer and rigorous systems thinker. As an anthropologist, she believed it was essential to live in Africa while building Bridge. "Just about every program that is designed for someone else, instead of with them, fails," says May, who's raising her two young daughters in Nairobi.
The Bridge formula, which Inc. first wrote about in May 2014, is designed to be replicable. Its 5,000 trained teachers read scripted lessons from e-reader tablets. Parents pay an average of $6 per pupil, and have access to a 24-hour hotline.
Bridge has its critics. Education International, the global federation of teachers unions, is opposed to low-cost private schools in poor regions and has managed to crimp Bridge's growth in Kenya, pushing back the company's profitability projections from 2016 to 2017. But May, who at presstime expected to launch in Nigeria in September and plans to be in India by early next year, isn't going to let detractors slow her down. "When we were starting, people doubted we could build 150 schools in a year," she says. "We did it. Now we have to prove we can move it to new countries."