BWP Ep. 5: PresenceLearning w/ Kate Eberle Walker
Kate has been a long-time leader in the education space — We talk about navigating K-12, the changes in delivering online education, the convergence of B2B and B2C in EdTech, and more!
Kate Eberle Walker has had a pretty incredible career journey in education, both with startups and more traditional companies in the space. Here’s a quick snapshot:
- Currently the CEO of PresenceLearning
- Author of The Good Boss: Nine Ways Every Manager Can Support Women at Work
- Board Chair, Prospect Schools and Board Member, Testing Mom and International School of Brooklyn
- Former Board Member, Rosetta Stone
- Former CEO of The Princeton Review and CFO/Chief Strategy Officer previously
- Formerly SVP of Strategy & Corporate Development, Tutor.com
- Formerly VP of Corporate Strategy & Investments, Kaplan
She is certainly a thought leader in the space, and also a female leader in EdTech that many look up to (including myself!). Needless to say, I loved catching up with her on the future of education and her role at PresenceLearning. I’m certain you’ll learn a lot by hearing more about her story and thoughts on the massive opportunity that exists for supporting more students and providers in education today..
A Conversation with Kate Eberle Walker, CEO of PresenceLearning
First start with telling me about your mission, and how your team at PresenceLearning is building with purpose everyday.
We have two equally important missions.
- The first is to make sure that every child in the public education system who has a special education need receives the services and support they require to succeed in school. We exist to help school districts provide therapy and assessment services to these kids and make sure there’s always a therapist available to serve each child.
- The second mission is to support the workforce of therapists: Speech-language Pathologists, Occupational Therapists, and School Psychologists who are working with all of these children with special needs and who are highly committed to the children in their care. These professionals are very important, and the vast majority are women. Many of them start by working full-time on-site in schools, but as their own lives change (ie: having their own children), they often need more flexibility in both location and scheduling. PresenceLearning creates a new, flexible way for therapists to keep working with kids in school, versus stepping away from the workforce or perhaps switching into private practice, clinics, or working with adults where there traditionally might be more flexibility. In addition, the PresenceLearning platform is uniquely built, by clinicians for clinicians, and the processes needed for this profession.
You moved PresenceLearning’s HQ from SF to NYC when you joined the team — what were the driving forces behind that decision? Why New York?
When I joined the company in January of 2019, PresenceLearning was about ten years old and had always had an SF headquarters, but as a company we had become, like a lot of companies, less geography-specific and more open to finding the right talent wherever it is. Both our clinical network and many of our staff members are fully remote. But I felt we needed a center of gravity in the form of a headquarters, and as a growth company, New York made the most sense at this stage because that’s where we found these big concentrations of talent and experience, including many members of our new leadership team.
The other big reason is that our investors are here. So from that perspective, there’s a lot of great funding to tap into for these education opportunities.
In all of the previous BWP interviews, a common theme has been that NYC is such a great hub for talent. What are some of those areas where NY is particularly strong from a hiring perspective?
We’ve hired so much marketing, finance, technology, and operations talent — it really is widespread. There are also a lot of big education companies that have large offices here in NYC (i.e.: Kaplan, education publishers, etc.). There’s this ecosystem of people that have worked in education for a long time. One of the things that I like about our industry is that people who work in education tend to stick with it from company to company across their careers — you don’t see a lot of people wanting to leave our industry after they join. That helps companies like us hire talent who have both experience and dedicated commitment to the industry.
There have been 2.5M therapy sessions held on PresenceLearning’s platform — now that’s impact. How has the delivery of education on your platform evolved over time?
The biggest change has been that now everyone in public education is thinking about online delivery models in whole new way and a much bigger way since COVID-19. They are thinking this way both out of necessity and because they have experienced a number of clear, compelling benefits. Starting this past March, we started licensing the platform itself and doing training for school employees/school-based teams on adapting their services for online delivery based on our 11 years of experience. That part of our business has been growing incredibly fast — it’s now our second largest business line.
We’ve now trained thousands of clinicians, and it’s helped shift our perspective to thinking a lot more about the technology itself — i.e.: what are the features and functionality that will make the work of a speech language pathologist as efficient as it can be and as effective as it can be for the students they serve in this environment. The majority of people are embracing doing their work online, and it’s attracting new investment into our sector because you can have even more impact on a larger scale. You have a lot more people who are not just interested in technology, but urgently needing technology tools to do their work.
What’s your perspective on selling into K-12? What’s the most difficult aspect and what do schools find important? You’ve spent a large part of your career in this arena, so would love your take on this.
It’s very different selling into K 12 schools vs. higher ed. When you’re working directly with K-12 schools, you have to always remember that you’re there to help the school administrators do what they need to do / help them do their jobs as efficiently as possible. We constantly ask ourselves, “what’s the easiest way for the school’s Special Education Director to coordinate with us and make sure that this therapy session happens?” And of course the question that drives our work and the school’s work forward is how to make therapy sessions great for the student experience.
There is also a need in this space and an opportunity to do B2C and to sell services directly to families; but for us, we’re really connected to the mission of helping students through the public education system. There’s a reason that there are federal mandates for schools to provide therapy to students with learning disabilities — we’re making sure that we can make it as easy as possible for the schools to do that. We think that the best outcome for students is to get those services through their schools, and not to feel like they need to go outside of their school to obtain high quality speech therapy.
I see this more and more nowadays, and am becoming a big believer that every B2C company eventually will start to develop (and need!) a B2B or partnership strategy. What are your thoughts on that?
I agree. I spent a lot of years in EdTech investing before moving over to the operations side, and that’s what I always thought even even back then! If a company started out in B2C, inevitably, they would move to or add an institutional or B2B component.
Parents really rely on schools as experts, and it’s really unusual to have a known /trusted consumer education brand that doesn’t have a school component and have that endorsement/validation that educators believe in the product as well.
Schools are at the heart of their communities, and parents and caregivers put a lot of trust in them when they send their child off to school every day. And they put a lot of trust, therefore, in the technology and resources the school experts use to support learning and services. That’s a unique aspect of education that that makes this notion more common and actually more effective for a lot of businesses to work with schools in order to reach mass consumer adoption.
You’ve seen many different aspects of the education industry across your career, from being on the board of Rosetta Stone, to serving as the CEO of The PrincetonReview/Tutor.com, and many other impressive roles. What is your view on what the future of education will and should look like?
There are a couple of big themes that I believe in for the future of education.
For all of the companies I’ve chosen to work with, one recurring theme has been that all of them use technology to facilitate a higher quality human connection. So I really believe in tech-enabled services in education and using technology to make things more affordable and accessible while optimizing getting the best expert with relevant experience. We’re all watching what’s happening now as the adoption of a lot of technology and education is accelerating even further. I think that the companies that will be very successful are the ones that still stay true to that mission. We want to use technology to facilitate educators but not replace them — the human connection is still incredibly important and has an immeasurable impact on a student’s life.
Another trend that has accelerated this year is the importance of having informed parents as stakeholders — that’s something most EdTech companies were already thinking about, but it has more urgency now. It’s really important to build out your parent communications, parent insights, and tools for them to really have a view into what’s happening with their child’s education. With everything that’s happened this year, by necessity parents are getting a lot more involved in their children’s education, and with more visibility into what’s happening during the school day.
We’re emerging from this year with a very different kind of informed parent who is asking a lot of questions, and wanting to be an active participant and supplement their child’s education beyond the classroom. So as an EdTech company, now it’s more important to engage with the parent, even if that parent is not your end customer.
Along those lines, I think you’ve also seen children becoming more active in choosing their learning paths and education — engaging students has become increasingly important in a virtual environment in my opinion.
That’s a great point — schools need to provide education that is engaging for students because online learning has to be captivating in order to keep their attention. I watch my daughter’s fourth grade zoom classes happening, and if what’s happening in the zoom is not interesting or engaging to your child, they can opt out since they’re not in the classroom. They can just look away or walk away from the camera! You don’t have the same kind of control over their attention as you would in a classroom. Children are not just going to be there because they have to be there, you’ve got to make them want to be there.
Any advice for an entrepreneur building something transformative in education? What would you like to see built?
Many entrepreneurs in EdTech have a lot of great ideas come out of their own experience with a child or family member who encounters a challenge, and those are some of the most compelling ideas. However, I always encourage people in that case to really make sure that they’re testing the product and adapting it to be broadly applicable. My advice would be to get your product to customers who don’t know you (vs. family, friends, alumni, etc.) as quickly as you can because education can be so different across markets and various experiences. I’ve seen a lot of early stage EdTech companies get a little too myopic by not expanding their thinking to make sure the product is going to have broad impact for kids who don’t look like their own kids.
As far as what I’d like to see built, I’d love to see someone try to make college admissions accessible by providing high quality admissions advice to everyone and therefore broadening access to higher education. And along those lines, when there becomes an accessibility problem for higher ed, everyone points their fingers back to K-12 education and inequities there. I’d also like to see someone level the technology playing field and figure out how to get great affordable, lightweight technology into the hands of all students. There are too many students right now who are trying to do distanced learning on a parent’s iPhone or something like that. I’d love to see a company that helps to get the right technology into the hands of all students— technology that fosters engaging and enriching learning experiences that help them to move their lives and their work forward.
A huge thank you to Kate for sharing her perspectives on the current state of education, K-12, and where the space is heading.
If you’re an entrepreneur building in NYC or in education, please shoot me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to learn more about what you’re building.
Keep an eye out for future editions of Building with Purpose, and in the meantime, let’s keep in touch on Twitter :) https://twitter.com/meaganloyst