How does Mark Zuckerberg want to be remembered?
He founded one of the largest companies of the 2000’s and he’s worth tens of billions. He’s also still only 32.
Since making his social network fortune, Zuckerberg has added educational legacy building to his portfolio.
In a December 2015 open letter to their newborn daughter, Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced the formation of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
Though it was billed as philanthropic move—Zuckerberg and Chan said they would invest 99 percent of their Facebook stock in promoting health, education, and equality—the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) is actually organized as a limited liability corporation.
In subsequent interviews, Zuckerberg explained that organizing his charitable giving under a for-profit organization would allow for more flexibility to make traditional noncommercial gifts while also investing in companies that align with his mission.
The startup’s product is meant to digitize parent-teacher communication and childcare administration. The platform also has a customizable assessment component that allows teachers to check-off student progress from a phone or tablet and then share results with parents.
Brightwheel, which was featured on the TV show “Shark Tank,” also received support from billionaire investor Mark Cuban and venture capital firm GGV, an early backer of Alibaba.
In a telephone interview with InsideSources, Brightwheel founder Dave Vasen said that it was important to him to have investors that are “philosophically aligned with what we are trying to do in this industry.”
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative fit that bill for Vasen, in part because of CZI’s overt mission on improving educational outcomes.
Currently, Brightwheel is structured like a regular for-profit company, though Vasen said he would like to turn it into a “B” or “Benefit” corporation. This would allow management to selectively pursue philanthropic goals over strictly focusing on their bottom line.
As positive of an impact as a company like Brightwheel could conceivably have on education, Zuckerberg’s decision to mix for-profit investments with charitable donations has raised some eyebrows in the philanthropic community. Zuckerberg has said that he will work to ensure the Initiative’s activities are open and transparent.
Vasen said the couple should be lauded for being “open to new models” in how they effect change.
Thursday’s news is far from Zuckerberg’s first venture into reforming education.
In 2010, he announced a $100 million gift to Newark N.J.’s beleaguered school system in partnership with then-mayor Democrat Cory Booker. That attempt at a top-down overhaul broke down over negotiations with teacher’s unions and was widely panned as a failure.
The launch of CZI marked a reboot of the tech entrepreneur’s efforts in the education space. Specifically, Zuckerberg decided to pivot toward supporting personalized learning, or the use of education technology to tailor instruction to each student’s individual learning needs.
In a 2016 Facebook Live video, Chan and Zuckerberg announced that former Obama administration Deputy Education Sec. Jim Shelton was being hired to lead CZI’s educational efforts.
The young billionaire also used the occasion to articulate his belief in personalized learning’s promise. He said he wants to get schools “to the point where every student in every classroom can have the same kind of education that you would have if you were working with a one-on-one tutor.”
To date, Zuckerberg has invested millions in ed tech companies and schools like Mastery Connect, Newsela, Altschool, and Bridge International Academy.
In terms of more traditional giving, Zuckerberg has announced the donation of another $120 million in San Francisco Bay-area public school districts, tens of millions to increasing school connectivity through the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway, and a slew of other charter school and teacher development grant programs.
Separate from CZI, Zuckerberg has also directed members of his Facebook team to work on developing a personalized learning platform for a network of charter schools.
And his wife, Chan, a former teacher turned pediatrician, was the motive force behind the creation of The Primary School, a tuition-free private school in East Palo Alto that starts students as young as three in full-time enrollment.
Vasen said he looks forward to being a player in the early-childhood portion of CZI’s educational apparatus. He also encouraged other politicians, philanthropists and thought leaders to pay more attention to pre-elementary education.
In addition to having “a massive impact on the individual,” Vasen cited a study that found there is a $17 dollar return to society for every dollar spent on early childhood education.
With this latest investment in Brightwheel, and his larger pivot to personalized learning, Zuckerberg is staking a portion of his legacy on ed-tech’s promise to deliver along those high margins.