ASU GSV embraces ABCs and 123s: The latest trend in education is early

This year, ASU GSV, the largest conference focused on education innovation, pulled out all the stops to celebrate its 10th anniversary. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, Rapper Common, tennis star Andre Aggasi, and philanthropist Priscilla Chan were just a few to bring star power to the main stage. Still, it was a live appearance from Elmo, the furry red monster from Sesame Street, that drew the most smartphone cameras out of participants’ pockets as he promoted the conference’s first-ever track dedicated exclusively to early childhood education and development.

Steve Youngwood, Sesame Workshop and Elmo take the stage at ASU GSV X, drawing in audiences around early childhood education and development

Deborah Quazzo, managing partner of GSV AcceleraTE Fund and visionary behind the Summit, kicked off the Early Futures Early Childhood Pop Up, co-hosted by us (Promise Venture Studio), Omidyar Network, and Sesame Workshop, to a standing-room-only crowd of 200+ participants with lines outside the door 100-deep waiting to get in.

“Early childhood is the best investment you can make any time in somebody’s life,” she said.
Standing room only and lines out the door for ASU GSV’s first-ever dedicated track to early childhood education and development

Promise Venture Studio Founder, Matt Glickman, shed light into the burgeoning momentum around social entrepreneurship in early childhood.

“The science is convincing. The social return on investment is unmatched. Technology is pervasive. Investment of all kinds — private, philanthropic, and governmental — is growing. And social entrepreneurs are playing a catalytic role.”

Marquita Davis, deputy director of Early Learning at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, put an exclamation point on the early childhood investment case by asserting, to applause, “It’s just the right thing to do.”

Robust discussion on shared challenges in the field fueled a sense of urgency to act now. Isabelle Hau, investment partner at Omidyar Network (ON), framed her panel discussion around the U.S.’s lag in early childhood investments.

“Demand and supply are increasing, but there is still a ways to go. The U.S. spends only 0.4% of GDP on early childhood education, the lowest among all the developed countries, and half of the average of 0.8%.”
“The Investor’s Perspective: Why Early Childhood and Why Now” with Wayee Chu, Reach Capital; Charles Birnbaum, Bessemer Venture Partners; Marquita Davis, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Isabelle Hau, Omidyar Network; and Rob Hutter, Learn Capital (from left to right)

Isabelle pushed beyond the case for increased investments to an even more pressing issue: equity. In an audience acutely aware that half of children from low SES families arrive at kindergarten unprepared, she pressed her diverse panel of investors: “Isn’t it possible we can make all of these investments, and disparities only get worse?”

Rob Hutter, founder and managing partner of Learn Capital, concurred. While his venture firm does not currently use social impact or equity as formal criteria for investment decisions, he urged, “We have to ask ourselves: are all of these products, services, and interventions gap-increasing or gap-reducing?”

Free from the constraints of financial returns required in for-profit investing, Marquita Davis offered up The Gates Foundation’s four-question framework for evaluating investment opportunities in early childhood: 1. Is it developmentally appropriate?, 2. Is it culturally sensitive?, 3. Is it research informed?, and 4. Is it innovative in a way that leads to better and more equitable outcomes?

Steve Youngwood, president and COO of Sesame Workshop, reiterated that it was these same values that led to Sesame Street’s pioneering of public access television programming 50 years ago. And while Sesame Street has positively impacted the lives of millions of underprivileged children, he acknowledged there is still so much work to do.

“Fifty years in, we don’t have regrets, just unfinished business. We started Sesame Street to eliminate the kindergarten readiness gap. We’ve impacted countless children and families, but the gap still exists.”

Steve also offered some insight into Sesame’s secret to surviving — and thriving — as one of the country’s first social enterprises in the early childhood field. He emphasized Sesame Workshop’s nonprofit organizational structure, culture, and talent as unique assets.

“If we had been a for-profit company, we would have been acquired along the way and never would have reached the scale we’ve achieved. It has allowed us to keep the mission of Sesame at the forefront of all major decisions,” he said.

He continued, “I remind our staff all the time: if you can’t reach, you can’t teach. We succeed at Sesame by recruiting talent that is commercially driven but mission centered.”

Anya Kamenetz, education correspondent for NPR and author of the new book, The Art of Screen Time, echoed that message, stating, “We need business models that don’t exploit children.”

The aspiration to emulate and eclipse the example of impact that Sesame set for the field was punctuated by a panel of current social entrepreneurs moderated by Kris Perry, deputy secretary and senior advisor to the Governor, California Health & Human Services Agency.

Kris reinforced the critical and unique role that the public sector plays in closing achievement and equity gaps.

“We are not born equal, but are made equal by laws and policies.”

She also acknowledged that social entrepreneurs can be catalysts to addressing these population-level inequities: “It’s these kinds of innovations that create new opportunities to achieve that equality.”

Kris, who has been newly appointed to lead the strategy of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s proposed $1.8 billion in early childhood development, challenged the panelists to be open and honest about current policies and regulations that prevent them from achieving population-level impact — and what they would do if they had a magic wand to change things. The entrepreneurs were flush with ideas.

Kris Perry, California Health & Human Services Agency, explores the challenges and opportunities of public and private collaboration to achieve impact at scale

Tammy Kwan, co-founder and CEO of Cognitive Toybox, a digital early childhood screening and assessment tool, pointed out that technology like hers could help Head Start and preschool teachers by both improving the accuracy of their developmental assessments and saving them countless hours they currently spend on the tool mandated and protected by law.

Meredith Liu, co-founder and chief design officer of The Primary School, a pilot model that serves low income families by integrating preschool, health care, and parent engagement, lamented the inability of government data systems in education, health, and social services to connect and inform coordinated care.

Chris Bennett, co-founder and CEO of Wonderschool, a digital platform improving the startup and administrative processes for home childcare providers, recently raised $20MM led by Andressen Horowitz. He shared an example of the kind of dilemma Isabelle Hau warned of earlier where innovation — in the absence of government partnership — could lead to greater inequity.

“Among the hundreds of users on our platform, we have heard numerous reports of providers who were willing to accept lower enrollment rates from parents who can pay directly, over families with children covered by government subsidy, because the regulations surrounding collection of those subsidies is so onerous.”

Henry Wilde, co-founder and CEO of Acelero Learning, the country’s leading network of high-impact Head Start and Early Head Start preschools, also highlighted complications with a fragmented government funding and regulatory landscape.

“Across the four states in which we operate schools, we deal with 25 different government entities to secure funding and comply with regulations. If outcomes are consistent, it would help organizations achieve scale if they could earn their way out with quality.”

Despite a clear-eyed description of some of the obstacles in the way of entrepreneurs and policy-makers alike, Kris concluded with an optimistic sentiment that resonated for all.

“It’s exciting to hear you (social entrepreneurs) have the same goal as us but are using a different path. I’m glad we have each other.”

At Promise Venture Studio, it is at the heart of our mission to attract, support, and connect more and more diverse talent in the field of Early Childhood Development. The energy at ASU GSV confirmed that the momentum is building to create impact for all children in the most critical time of their lives — and that the various stakeholders across the field are eager to work with and learn from one another.

written by Gabe Hakim, entrepreneur in residence, Promise Venture Studio