At Omidyar Network, we believe there are few more direct pathways to opportunity than education. High-quality education can have a greater impact on a young person’s development, livelihood, economic possibilities, and well-being than almost any other intervention. That’s true for a preschooler in Mumbai, an eighth grader in Gauteng, South Africa, a high-schooler in Oakland, California, and a first-time job seeker in Manila.
For too many people, however, quality education is out of reach. The UN estimates that 250 million children globally cannot read, write, or count well, and one out of five young people has never completed primary school and lacks the skills for work. At the same time, the number of global employers reporting talent shortages in 2015 peaked at a seven-year high; 61 percent of employers in Brazil, 58 percent in India, and 38 percent in the United States reported difficulty filling jobs with qualified talent. The tens of millions of learners who are getting left behind deserve the chance to prosper, and our economies need them to be productive.
Our education investments are driven by our aspiration to create equitable, world-class learning approaches around the world. To unlock opportunity for more students, we invest in new approaches to empower millions of learners in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the United States.
Although it is one of Omidyar Network’s newest initiatives, education is a natural fit for our approach to problem solving. We take a “problem first, tool second” approach to our world’s most complex social issues. We focus on building and growing a collaborative education ecosystem through investments in the right changemakers, whether for-profit or nonprofit. Our work in other areas such as financial inclusion is teaching us that truly moving the needle takes a combination of drivers. We call it a sector-level approach. Sure, we could support a single education solution that reaches a particular community of learners. But how can we truly change the game — innovate beyond the current solutions and bring high-quality education to millions, if not hundreds of millions, of learners? That’s the question that drives our team every day.
Omidyar Network has a unique hybrid structure, which enables us to support both for-profit and nonprofit entrepreneurs. In the case of for-profit organizations, we provide early stage venture capital — typically making Series A investments. For nonprofits, we provide grants. As we select where to deploy our capital, we look for disruptive innovation that creates sustainable and scalable impact — regardless of tax status. We call this flexible capital.
While no two investments are identical, there are several key elements we seek across our portfolio. One key element is leveraging the role of technology for massive scale and cost-effectiveness. Many of the education companies we support have technology at the core of their operations — such as using a cloud-based curriculum; delivering online professional development to teachers; and providing learners access to blended, adaptive, and distance learning.
We invest in promising early stage innovations that can help make “the future of learning” much more widely accessible. Take Geekie in Brazil, an educational software company that has delivered a proprietary adaptive learning platform to millions of low- and middle-income students. Investees like Geekie and many others — including Bridge International Academies in Africa and India; Siyavula in South Africa; Ellevation, LearnZillion, Code.org, and Altschool in the United States; and Lively Minds in Ghana, just to name a few — are making higher-quality education much more widely available at various age levels.
We are at the tip of the iceberg for the impact that technology will have on educational opportunities, but investing in the development of technology alone is not enough to address global education needs. We recognize that schools are not the only places where motivated learners develop, and so we are also supporting promising out-of-school approaches offered by organizations like IkamvaYouth in South Africa. Other investments attempt to address the talent gap in a way that benefits learners and employers alike. For example, the African Leadership University is ensuring tertiary students have the entrepreneurial skills and ethics for sustained employability. Similarly, Andela aims to bridge the global skills gap by identifying some of the brightest and hardest-working people in Africa, training them to be world-class programmers, and then matching them with Fortune 500 companies and top employers around the world.
We are also committed to advancing “the last human mile,” recognizing that learning is fundamentally a human process. It begins with early childhood education, which is why we’ve made investments in providers such as Innovation Edge, an innovative early childhood development incubator program in South Africa and Tinkergarten, a company innovating on a flexible workforce model that attracts entrepreneurial people, trains and empowers them as leaders to deliver positive outcomes for children and families. With many of our investments, we support learner-centric models and educators or entrepreneurs who are developing products based on a scientific understanding of how people learn. This often includes an acknowledgement that disadvantaged learners in particular need supportive educators that are well-equipped to help them fulfill their economic potential.
With an eye to innovation, we’ve made initial investments like those above to see how we can best address key challenges facing the global education field today.
And to bring promising solutions to life, demand for change is critical. We support organizations that increase access to information and help drive accountability and action with stakeholders. Greater transparency on the performance of education providers can lead to better-informed citizens and consumers, increasing the pressure on both government and market-based providers to improve educational offerings. For example, Akshara Foundation in India, Mejora Tu Escuela in Mexico, and EdSurge in the United States are helping increase the availability of relevant research and data on education quality so people and schools can not only be better informed, but take action.
Great changes require great leaders. The limited availability and capacity of teachers, school leaders, and education advocates are critical issues for many underserved communities. Supporting leadership initiatives such as Teach for All and Teach for India, which aim to create the next generation of education changemakers, is vital.
Finally, for promising education solutions to thrive, there must be effective regulatory oversight to ensure quality and equity, and a policy environment that encourages participation from all actors that want to contribute. That’s why we support organizations such as Innovations for Poverty Action and The Education Partnership Group incubated by Ark to help build an environment that allows government-funded and regulated but privately delivered models and other evidence-based reforms to flourish.
Admittedly, we are in early-stages and learning more every day. Given the size and range of complexities in global education, we know there is no universal global education panacea. But by putting the shared goal of improving student outcomes at the center, we can begin to address some of the greatest, longest-standing unmet needs in education around the world. We look forward to working with many partners on this journey to support the development of educated and productive citizens that are integral to thriving communities.
Amy Klement is a partner at Omidyar Network and leads the organization’s global education work.