How I Became an EdTech VC

Michelle Dervan, Principal at ReThink Education

Being on the front lines of the startup world, I am frequently asked the same question in several different forms; but they are all essentially a derivative of the overarching theme: how did you become a venture capitalist? As I near my one-year anniversary of joining ReThink Education as Principal tasked with discovering and vetting new investment opportunities, I wanted to take a moment to discuss how I got here. There is no singular, direct path to joining a venture firm, and my story is unique, just as the case would be for most VCs you may encounter.

First and foremost, I have always been passionate about the mission of education, even if I did not know it would ultimately drive my career. It cannot be understated just how crucial access to quality education and defined learning outcomes is to personal and societal betterment. One of the first essays I wrote in college was about whether the education system is a meritocracy, and the conclusions drawn from this paper have helped guide my thinking ever since. My passion, as is true of many, largely stems from my parents. While neither my mother nor my father pursued college after high school, my dad spent many years during my childhood studying for a degree at night and ultimately earned an MBA from the Open University, a highly regarded correspondence university based in the UK. He now works as a lecturer at the Institute of Technology Blanchardstown, having found his true vocation in life. He was and continues to be an inspiration to my own endeavors.

I was born and raised in Ireland, where I pursued a liberal arts education. At Trinity College Dublin, I completed BA in European Studies while studying both French and Russian, as well as history and politics. I ultimately chose to major in Russian and spent a year at the Diplomatic Academy in Moscow. While there I also interned in the mailroom at Ernst & Young, which, though seemingly lacking in glamour, was a terrific learning experience.

I graduated from Trinity in 2006 and went to work for an Irish startup company called i-conX, which develops software for the telecommunications industry. In my capacity with the startup, I worked with existing customers and helped to grow the business — particularly in Russian-speaking markets. I wound up spending many months working on-site with the largest mobile operator in Georgia (the country, not the state) where being a venture capitalist in New York City was not particularly at the forefront of my mind.

In 2008 I joined Enterprise Ireland, a state agency charged with helping Irish startup companies to grow their business and enter international markets. I served as the Senior Market Advisor for Russia for two years, helping a range of Irish companies to export to Russian markets. I worked with businesses of all kinds; from retail to software to agricultural machinery. During this period, I introduced Irish companies to potential Russian customers including translating at meetings between them (I now have particularly good Russian farm vocabulary, a skill that unfortunately is yet to surface in my work within the American EdTech space… but there is still time!)

In 2010, the Irish government was launching a new initiative called Education in Ireland. This was essentially a push to bring together all of Ireland’s universities and colleges under one brand with the joint goal of attracting more international students to Ireland. The US was a key market, and I was selected to move to New York to run this program here.

I moved to New York in 2010 having never previously visited the United States.

I ran Education in Ireland in the US for four years. This involved creating a community of counselors at high schools and universities who advised students on college options within Ireland. I ran informational events online and on campuses in seven states. This experience gave me insight into the mechanics of both K-12 and Higher Ed here in the US, as well as the unique traits of the American and the European educational systems.

During my time with Education in Ireland, I started getting contacted by Irish EdTech companies looking to permeate the US market. These entrepreneurs were seeking a host of information: advice on selling into K-12, how to go about setting up office space in the US, good initial contacts to make within districts and university systems, general understanding of the existing market, and more. Serving in this supportive capacity, I was able to both better scope the EdTech scene and understand that this space was where my true passion lies. Simultaneous to this experience, I also completed my MBA through an executive program at Columbia University.

As part of my learning experience to integrate myself more deeply into the world of EdTech, I began attending the New York EdTech Meet-ups, which exposed me to a wealth of ideas and individuals working across the marketplace: businesses, teachers, and techies alike. I would ultimately become one of the co-organizers of the meet-up, putting together panels on such topics as teacherpreneuers, the state of coding education, community colleges, and classroom tech tools on the rise. This experience proved to be crucial in developing my network, as well as my knowledge of the space. It also introduced me to ReThink Education, at the time a recently-founded Venture Capital firm operating in New York and focusing exclusively on EdTech solutions.

While pursuing my MBA, I wound up joining on as the fund’s first fellow (I now run our fellowship program, where we take on several MBA/EDU grad students each semester to help drive various research projects). My work with the fund involved creating a map of the EdTech startup ecosystem and sitting in on team meetings and investment pitches on a part-time basis. In addition to gaining exposure to the mechanics of deal-making in the venture world, I was also able to showcase my own knowledge and skillset to the Rethink team.

As I was finishing up my degree at Columbia, I received a call from a gentleman whom I had hosted on a judging panel at the Irish embassy and with whom I had kept in touch. He had just been hired by Pearson to run its education partnerships team. This opportunity resided right in my sweet spot of interests, and I jumped at the chance to work on building strategic software partnerships for a major public corporation.

At Pearson, I focused on sourcing and negotiating partnership deals with EdTech companies. I worked on several high-profile partnerships, including one with IBM Watson to co-develop a cognitive tutor to help students with areas that they are struggling while completing their homework.

A couple years later, when ReThink had raised its second fund and was looking to add a new investment team resource, the partners reached out to me. I accepted and I now serve as a Principal of the firm, conducting due diligence on all prospective investments and managing the new seed fund.

I did not know I would end up at a venture firm. From the outset, I pursued my passions, leveraged my skills, and took opportunities to expose myself to new ideas and new surroundings. My path to VC cannot be replicated; it is wholly unique to my life. And yet the factors that drove my career are there for the taking. Be creative, be opportunistic, volunteer your time, showcase your energy, follow your instincts. Seek out people whom you respect, learn from them, and give them a reason to respect you back.

I now find myself in a job I love within an industry that excites me. There is nothing so motivating as surrounding yourself with good people pursuing a common goal.

If you have any questions about my experience or your own, please feel free to reach out! And if you have any interest in our fellowship program, the same one that initially got me involved with the fund, drop us a message at careers@rteducation.com.