Kim Smith: Venturing Forth

May 22, 2000


In her two years as founding president of the New Schools Venture Fund, Kimberly Smith has learned a thing or two about what makes for a truly committed education investor.

New Schools is a venture philanthropy fund that gives both non-profit and for-profit groups the seed money they need to start education ventures, Smith said the people she works with who really “get it” are often those for whom education is a natural branch off the old family tree. “Many times they’ve had some really inspiring teacher in their life – a mother or grandmother – who made them realize how important education is,” the 32-year-old said. “They may not want tobe teachers themselves, but they want to make a difference.”

With a father who is a professor at Columbia University Teachers College in New York City, and a mother who works as a special education teacher for elementary students, Smith might as well be talking about herself. After getting her bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, Smith worked asa consultant for a firm that specialized in business-education partnerships, before becoming one of the founding members of Teach For America – a national teaching corps that recruits recent college graduates for teaching positions in under-served rural and urban schools.

Later, Smith founded and directed BAYAC (Bay Area Youth Agency Consortium) AmeriCorps, a partnership of nonprofit groups committed to working with young education leaders, before pursuing her M.B.A. at Stanford University. It was during her work as co-president of Stanford’s Entrepreneur Club that Smith met the founders of the New Schools Venture Fund, and was encouraged to come aboard. Today, she said, “We have built something that is at the intersection of business and education.”

Q: Why is it that business and political leaders are only now thinking of education in terms of a new market? Why not years ago?

The evolution of the high-tech knowledge industry has made education all the more important, and made the work that happens in education similar to the workplace. Everyone is learning all the time, and they know they have to work at it all the time. There’s a greater openness to technology and new ideas. There is also more capital and more opportunity to invest. Our donors are all very interested in making a difference, while some of the more traditional investment funds are treating education like any other investment. Generally speaking, the best education investor really believes that good education is good business. They feel that if you don’t get solid outcomes for kids, you won’t have a good business and you won’t be successful.

Q: How would you define the New Economy and how it relates to education and technology? What do education and political leaders need to know about this?

I think of the New Economy as a knowledge economy. The New Economy means that the fastest learner wins. That’s true at the corporate level and at the individual level. The fastest one to access information, process it and make something meaningful out of it, is the person who comes out ahead.

Making sure that kids have the opportunity to access that information and connect to each other is so important. While I was in AmeriCorps, I saw kids struggle to express themselves and to find an outlet for their creativity. They had an enormous capacity for creativity, and what people do with that creative side often depends on the tools they have available. If they don’t have the right tools right in front of them to express themselves, they can sometimes do it in destructive ways. I think of education and technology both as providing the tools and the opportunity to express creativity.

Educators and others need to know that we’ve got to prepare people to be learners. You can’t just create content experts. You have to get kids excited by the learning process.

Q: How do you see the future of education in terms of the impact that the New Economy will have on shaping it? How will technology enhance or improve education and the economy?

One of the things I think is going to happen as we incorporate more technology into our lives is that we’re going to end up with a greater appreciation for the human part of education. We’ll become more aware of the importance of human interaction because we’ll know when it’s missing.

It’s an art. You can transfer information through technology, but the face-to-face part of teaching is much trickier. How can I tell who is not understanding this lesson? What about this child’s emotional development? How can I inspire them to understand? We’ll have to schedule that kind of face-to-face experience in, work it in, rather than working technology into the face-to-face teaching model. And we’ll have a much greater appreciation for the people who do it well. The half-life of knowledge is seven years, so if you get a technology degree in three and a half years, half of what you learn is obsolete before you can use it. But learning is very critical and content is changing so quickly. That’s what is so exciting about technology – it’s incredibly convenient and incredibly fast, and it allows for human connections across geography. The faster [workers] learn, the less time they will ultimately need to devote to keeping up. Technology allows you to continue to learn without having to go back to school full-time.

Q: Part of the mission of New Schools is “Investing in 10 to 20 of the most promising,scalable education ventures in the country.” What is an example of a successful initiative in education and technology that your organization is supporting?

We’re working with Carnegie Learning Inc. [an educational technology company], which has an algebra program that allows students to learn for three days a week working with a computer program that is customized to adapt tostudents’ individual learning styles. It progresses differently for each student, based on where a student is with the material. So no one needs to be embarrassed by having to raise their hand and say they don’t understand, and the kids who naturally learn faster aren’t held back. Their motto is “learning by doing.” Then, for two days a week students work with a teacher. The teacher can direct his or her efforts more specifically to the students who need help. The program was designed based on what we know about how students learn. Carnegie is working really hard to understand the cognitive part of learning, how children learn, and not just compiling content. They put a lot of focus on working with teachers, training them so they feel invested in the program.

Q: What lessons have you learned in the course of your quest to create a nationwide network of education entrepreneurs, educators and New Economy leaders committed to improving public education?

The list of lessons is too long to name! I have learned that entrepreneurs are really important change agents. They are not constrained by the old rules. I have also learned that there is a language difference when you work with New Economy leaders and education leaders. You need to have a bilingual translator. They have very similar goals in that they want kids to be well served, and they want kids to be learners. But they bring different experiences and different languages to the table. Educators are more used to playing by the rules, and they’re more likely to say, “These are the constraints we’re operating under.” The entrepreneur is more likely to say, ‘This is what we’re trying to get to. Given the constraints, how can we get over or around them?” They’re pretty optimistic and tenacious. I have learned how important it is to combine very strong New Economy business practices, and a very strong and deep understanding of the educational process. You can’t have one without the other.