Can This VC Close Education's Achievement Gap at Last?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because our phones and tablets are incredibly powerful learning tools.
By Molly Fosco and Sean Culligan
Like many venture capital firms, Reach Capital is nestled in the heart of Silicon Valley in downtown Palo Alto, California. Its gray brick office building is unassuming from the outside but a very un–Silicon Valley tableau greets you as you enter the light-filled loft space. Scenes from children’s books are splashed across the walls, each with a choice quote teaching an important coming-of-age lesson. A scrawny, bespectacled Harry Potter in his wizard robes is painted in the largest conference room. Underneath are the wise words of Albus Dumbledore: “There will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.”
Shauntel Garvey’s firm is not here to fund the next killer delivery app. Reach is tackling the intractable problem of America’s education gap, investing in early-stage technology that aims to give kids from all backgrounds a shot at classroom success. To date, she has invested in several platforms that help teachers better manage their classrooms, software for English-language learners and educators, and artificial intelligence chatbots that improve the transition from high school to college, among many others. As ongoing teacher protests across the U.S. call attention to the severe lack of resources and infrastructure in our schools, Garvey is one of just a few venture capitalists leveraging Silicon Valley wealth to improve America’s embattled schools. And she’s making money too.
She immediately ran up against the “good old boys’ network” of VC. But Garvey was used to being “the only” — the only woman, the only Black person, the only person of color in the room.
Garvey, 34, begins our interview by turning the tables, quizzing me about OZY’s business strategy with pointed queries that resemble the thoughtful inquisition she gives founders. But she wasn’t always destined for the VC business. Raised in Denver, Garvey moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in ninth grade, when her mom accepted a job as a professor at Elon University. Despite Garvey having a transcript filled with A’s, her new high school tried to put her in remedial classes. Her mom refused. “I’m so fortunate I had her as a parent to really push for me, because I couldn’t advocate for myself at the time,” Garvey says. She graduated as valedictorian, “a great throw-it-back-in-your-face moment.”
Then it was off to MIT, where Garvey studied chemical engineering and thought she might be suited for a career in consumer products. But after a stint at Proctor & Gamble in Cincinnati, Garvey decided to go back to school. As a spare-time tutor and the daughter of a dedicated educator, she was drawn to Stanford’s dual Master of Business Administration–Master of Education program, with a new plan to become an entrepreneur who would reshape education. While at Stanford, Garvey took an Innovations in Teaching class taught by Jennifer Carolan, now a general partner at Reach. Carolan offered Garvey a job at her nonprofit venture fund NewSchools, and Garvey nearly turned her down. “I thought investors didn’t do anything but sit behind a desk and write checks,” Garvey says. Her mentors won her over.
NewSchools’ ed-tech success led Carolan and Garvey to branch off into a for-profit firm. In 2015, they launched Reach Capital, and Garvey quickly realized that she was not simply writing checks. “I get to help entrepreneurs with their strategy and product direction, and I really get that operating feel,” Garvey says. She immediately ran up against the “good old boys’ network” of VC. But Garvey was used to being “the only” — the only woman, the only Black person, the only person of color in the room. Navigating those worlds requires an extra focus on commonalities with those around her and a dose of self-confidence. “I remind myself that I deserve to be in that room, and I have a greater purpose to pave the way for others,” she says.
With entrepreneurs, Garvey is always on the lookout for personalized technology, such as Newsela, a platform that tailors news articles to every reading level. She was drawn to Holberton School, an alternative college for software engineers that has turned people with no experience into programmers at Facebook and Dropbox — without upfront tuition, thereby reducing the barrier for low-income students. Garvey also backed Nearpod, a platform that enables teachers to deliver interactive lessons and get immediate student feedback that’s now used in 3 out of every 5 U.S. school districts.
Carolan says Garvey’s judgment and analytical thinking stand out in her investment choices. “Shauntel can distill large amounts of data into the most important and highest-attribution takeaways,” she says.
But with more tech in the classroom comes a new set of concerns. After investing big in education, Google is facing blowback for how it is harvesting kids’ data and grooming the next generation of customers. More schools around the country are beginning to teach internet safety, but companies still carry a huge responsibility. A recent investigation into privacy and ed tech by the nonprofit Common Sense Media found “a lack of transparency in security practices, terms and conditions weren’t clearly defined, and many platforms didn’t support encryption,” says Brisa Ayub, the group’s director of educational programs.
Accessibility is another challenge. As many public schools struggle to afford books, supplies and building repairs, computers and tablets become a luxury. This is something Garvey thinks about a lot, and it’s why the technology she invests in is typically free for teachers, not confined to pricey Apple products, and mobile-friendly.
Garvey struggles with being an introvert in a job that requires an extrovert’s energy. On weekends you can find her hiking one of the Bay Area’s many scenic trails or taking a hip-hop dance class. “I have to do something where I’m not talking,” Garvey says, laughing. She also recently got married in California’s wine country and glows with newlywed bliss as she describes the vineyard resort ceremony.
When Garvey looks toward the future, she expresses genuine hope that tech can do what decades of government spending and reform plans have not: Close the achievement gap between rich and poor students. “I want to say that because of the products we invested in, people have better social mobility,” she says. As Dumbledore well knows, it won’t be easy.