Sunday, October 18, 2015

It's Not Me, It's You

The internet is abuzz with Lenny Letters and Jennifer Lawrence’s incredibly relatable account of her wholly unrelatable problem of making several million dollars fewer than her male co-stars.  As a female partner at a Venture Capital fund in the midst of both investing in tech start ups and fundraising, I share her hesitation to join a “trending” conversation where voicing your opinion and sharing your experience could piss some people off.  We all want to be liked.

 However, her essay struck a chord for me, as it was just as hypocritical as it was refreshing (don’t worry, Jennifer, I still like you!) She says, “When the Sony hack happened and I found out how much less I was being paid than the lucky people with dicks, I didn’t get mad at Sony. I got mad at myself. I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early.”
It is shocking that even the incredibly badass Jennifer Lawrence is falling into a trap that women have been falling into for thousands of years. It’s a trap called: “It’s not you, it’s me.” When we are faced with resistance or rejection, no matter how awesome we are, we automatically assume it is our fault. No matter how complex the challenge, we can’t help but wonder, “What did I do wrong? Why am I not good enough?”
This phenomenon is so deeply ingrained within us, we don’t even realize we are doing it. In fact, once we realize we’re doing it, we raise the issue, but somehow still make it our fault. This is frighteningly prevalent in both our personal and professional lives. While it makes us stronger in many respects, it holds us back in countless others. First, let me start with the personal (even though, as women, we’re really not supposed to do that since it means people may take us less seriously. Fuck that.) I recently spent some time with a pretty attractive man. He was tall, good looking, smart, philosophical, driven, and well educated. While these things were initially compelling, the more time I spent with him, the more I thought he seemed to be controlling, manipulative, and passive aggressive. Any time he felt insecure, he would dole out reverse compliments that would sound like they were nice, but were actually just quietly insulting enough to make me question myself. Luckily, I saw through many of his tactics, but for whatever reason, I played along instead of speaking up. I guess I just wanted to be liked. I also happen to be quite charming myself, so I wasn’t totally surprised when he expressed his interest in dating me. However, when I didn’t reciprocate his affection or enthusiasm, he responded by telling me that he thought I was great, and he knew we could be really great together, but clearly I’m “not emotionally available.” He said that things were unlikely to work, because I was “unwilling to open up.” The idea that something may be suboptimal about him or his behavior never occurred to him. Instead, my apparent lack of interest was obviously a result of my inadequacy. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this speech, either. I’ve been dating men for years who insist that if things are working, it’s somehow my fault. I was not being loving enough, giving enough, forgiving enough, available enough. And you know what? I have believed them. It’s only now that I’m now realizing that this is simply the classic male philosophy called “It’s not me, it’s you.” In many ways, the professional world is even worse at this game. I recently spent a week in New York catching up with various members of the startup and VC community. Given how much of a topic women in VC and startups are these days (only 8% of VC fund managers are women), many of my conversations revolved around the fact that whether you are an entrepreneur or an investor, being a woman makes you less likely to get funded. End of story. Numbers don’t lie. Many of the conversations I had about this topic, most of which were with other women, revolved around, “What can we do differently? How can we be more confident? How can we be better negotiators? How can we speak our minds more openly?” Now, I have dedicated the better part of the last year to raising an early stage fund and, while we have found some fantastic investors so far, it’s fucking hard. But it’s worth saying that it has been especially hard as a young woman in a field dominated by men (92% of my counterparts are male). I have been l but dismissed from meetings under the assumption I was the secretary. I have spent an entire hour pitching to someone who refuses to make eye contact with me but instead only directs conversation to my male partner. When my boyfriend (at the time) proposed and I showed up to a meeting with a diamond ring on, a prospective investor asked me, “But, you’re engaged, how will you run a fund? Won’t you be busy planning your wedding?” And how have I responded? I couldn’t help but think, “It’s not them, it’s me.” I got mad at myself. I starting wearing glasses to look more serious. I have worked hard on how I speak to avoid sounding too young, too soft, too female. I dress up. I wear heels, but make sure they’re not too tall. I bring male colleagues to meetings with me. I turn off video on virtual meetings so that they can’t see what I look like. I overemphasize my education and my accomplishments. I refuse to tell people how old I am. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t. I’m still fundraising. Don’t get me wrong, I embrace the struggle. I’m crazy like that. And what we do is certainly not a fit for every investor I pitch. The point is, however, that when things aren’t working, my natural reaction is to get mad at myself and wonder, “What am I doing wrong?” When Jennifer said, “When the Sony hack happened and I found out how much less I was being paid than the lucky people with dicks, I didn’t get mad at Sony. I got mad at myself. I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early,” I could completely relate. Contrast this with a male VC I met with in New York last week. Given we are both early in our careers as investors, we were commiserating about the state of fundraising. When he said how difficult it has been to find investors, I said, “It’s fucking hard, isn’t it?” To which he replied, “I know! And it really shouldn’t be!” His fundamental assumption was, “If people don’t want to invest in my fund, it’s not me, it’s them!” Now, what’s fucked up about this whole situation, is that by bringing this up, I’m essentially falling into the same trap. I’m saying, “It’s our fault for making it our fault!” Actually, blaming ourselves is pretty liberating, because it means we are at least theoretically in control of the situation. By taking responsibility for the ways we contribute to the glaring injustices and inequalities for women in the business world, we have hope of changing it. Plus, it makes us look thoughtful, insightful, responsible, and definitely not like whiny bitches at all. However, today, I want to embrace that sometimes, it’s not us. It’s not our fault at all. This is an uphill battle in every way. As Jennifer so adeptly put it, “I’m over trying to find the “adorable” way to state my opinion and still be likable! Fuck that.” Hey, guy who has a nice CV but is kind of an asshole. It’s NOT me, it’s YOU. I’m perfectly willing to be available to someone who actually thinks and treats me like I am awesome, not someone who secretly thinks they are better than me. Hey, investors, startups, I run a venture fund and I am a woman. I don’t need to be any less soft spoken, any more dressed up, any more serious, or any other way to get you to take me seriously or invest with me. So there, I said it. Let’s break the cycle and stop taking the blame for something that isn’t our fault. Sure, there are things we can do to change it, but it won’t hurt to acknowledge that sometimes, it’s really not me, it’s you.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Teachers vs. Technology: An Ode to Mrs. Fritz

As an ed tech investor, I am often asked if I think technology can ever replace teachers.  Indeed, many wonder aloud how technology fits into the classroom while silently fearing that teachers will lose their jobs if computers and online learning platforms get too good at what they do.  Now, I could be controversial and tell you that this is one of the most absurd questions I have ever heard.  I could be controversial and declare that refusing to use or invest in technology due to a fear of obviation of teachers is not only a gross disservice to students, but also a blatant misunderstanding of what 'an education' really is.  But, I won’t.

In some parts of the world, it is Teacher Appreciation Week.  Now, I could be controversial and state how ridiculous it is to choose one week to acknowledge teachers.  I could be controversial and highlight how counterproductive it is to make people believe that it’s ok to say thank you only one time per year to the people that are playing the most active role in shaping our lives, our identities, our futures.

However, that would not be very productive.  Nor would it make my teachers proud.  So, instead of being controversial, I’d like to share a story about a teacher who changed my life.  I’ve acknowledged her in the past, but it isn’t until recently that I’ve come to fully understand just how powerful a force she has been in my life, and now seems as good a time as any to call her out for it.  This is the story of a teacher who educated me in a way that no textbook or online module ever could.  She did something neither content nor product can do.  She believed in me. 

Her name was Barb Fritz.  Mrs. Fritz was my second grade teacher and calling her a remarkable person is an offensive and drastic understatement. 

To provide some context, I grew up attending a public grade school in Illinois, where I was most certainly not part of the “cool crowd”.  In fact, I was what some may describe as a big nerd.  I loved homework, I cared more about how I organised my pens than how I organised my friends. I wrote and illustrated books about fictional aardvarks named Dixie. I was so scared of getting sick I would wash my hands until my knuckles cracked and bled.  Needless to say, socially, this didn’t play out too well for me, and I soon learned to keep my excitement and my ambition to myself.  Academically, it meant I was in a position to go far, but given I didn’t fit in with the rest of the students in my classes, even my teachers often found my enthusiasm to be a nuisance.  Honestly, who could blame them? They were struggling to get most of the class to even start their homework, what could be more annoying than me asking for more and more and more?

From the first day I sat in Mrs. Fritz’s class, she made it clear that she valued my curiosity and that my hunger for learning was a good thing.  She asked me to be respectful of others while she created new opportunities for me to be creative, take initiative, and explore the unknown.  She encouraged me to write more books through her “Writing Workshop”, she gave me extra projects to work on outside of class, she encouraged my questions but also delicately let me know when I was crossing a line.  She believed in me, she told me I was capable of anything, and when she looked at me with encouragement, I felt like I was okay just the way I was -  no more, no less.

Of course, life went on, I went on to Middle School, Mrs. Fritz kept teaching and inspiring.  After I had graduated from Harvard, I reconnected with her through the wonders of Facebook.  We met up at her home in Evanston and sure enough, she was the same old Mrs. Fritz - so kind and loving, curious, open-minded, and generous in spirit.  Back in second grade, I had declared to her my aspirations to be a writer, an astronaut, and a geologist.  She told me I could do anything.  When I told her that I graduated from college and decided to go work at an investment bank - a decision for which I was more than mildly self conscious - I was scared she’d be disappointed.  But she smiled and let me know that that was okay, too.  

By the time we reconnected in 2010, however, she was battling cancer.  Only one year later, she lost.  I distinctly remember where I was when my mom shared the news of her passing.  It threw me for a tailspin and once again caused me to question — what am I doing with my life?  It wasn’t a question of whether or not I was making her proud, it was a question of if I was doing enough to share her spirit.  Mrs. Fritz had given me such a gift, how could I pay that forward?  What was it about her that was so special, that I needed to emulate in order to live a fulfilling and worthwhile life?

This was just one of the many factors that led me to jump ship from Wall Street and dive into the entrepreneurial world, which ended up taking me to places I couldn’t have ever known.  Even from her grave, Mrs. Fritz empowered me to do whatever I wanted.  She was still telling me that I was okay, just the way I was, and that it was good to be curious.  Good to question things.  Good to always be learning.  Who knows where I would be today if it weren’t for her.

So now, instead of being controversial, I’m taking this opportunity to not only say thank you, but also to shine a light on the power of teachers.  In so many ways, teachers are our education.  Technology can never, and should never, replace them.  It can, however, make their lives easier and more efficient so they can spend more time actually teaching. Technology can relieve teachers of unnecessary and tedious work, allow them to streamline their workflow, feed them with valuable data about what students need help, when they need it, and how.  Who knows how many more lives Mrs. Fritz could have changed if she didn’t have to waste time grading papers, dealing with administrative work, sitting in unnecessary training sessions.  Technology simply empowers teachers to scale their time and their impact.

No matter who you are, where you live, whether or not you had a formal education, surely there is one person who has impacted your life as deeply as Mrs. Fritz has impacted mine. Whether you acknowledge it this week, or every week, there is no question that the power of another human being looking you straight in the eye and telling you that they believe in you is completely irreplaceable.  The goal is simply to empower those individuals to look as many people in the eye as possible.  Now that’s what I call scalability. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Impressionism of India - Part Two: Feeling Connected

In Part One of my trip through India, there was a sincere feeling of being an outsider.  I had to acknowledge and embrace that I knew nothing of the customs, none of the languages(s), nor anything of the experience that was in store for me.  It was resoundingly apparent that I was different.  Yet, as soon as I had comfortably settled into my own peculiarity, I found myself feeling a serious sense of connection with all of those around me.  Perhaps it was simply the fact that accepting ourselves is what opens us up to these types of connections, but it still felt profoundly unique.

The last post was in the form of “Lessons Learned” because that’s what happens when you feel different.  You are taught.  However, feeling connected is much more of an egalitarian task.  It’s less about someone teaching you and more about discovering for yourself.  It is for that reason that this section consists of four key discoveries from my time in India.

Discovery #1:  What it means to be taken care of

From the moment we arrived, we were attended to, shepherded, and guided in the most wonderful of ways.  Upon stepping off the plane in Chennai, I was mildly concerned about finding my way. This feeling quickly devolved into a state of panic as I thought, “Oh my God, where am I and where do I go and how do I know if I am safe?”  But only a few minutes into my own downward spiral did I discover someone waiting for me with a sign saying “Rasanath and Hari Welcome You!”  After arriving to the hotel late at night, we were awoken in the morning with a gentle knock and a warm cup of coffee by the groom’s sister.  When I arrived at the wedding venue hopelessly wrapped in an unattractive swath of saree fabric, two girls who spoke absolutely no English overcame their seemingly paralysing shyness by helping me pin my saree into a stunning display of color and sequins.

The groom’s cousin quickly befriended us by explaining what the hell was going on, taking us shopping for the right type of Indian clothes, and arguing with the auto rickshaw driver to make sure he didn’t rip us off (even going so far as to take a picture of his license plate to ensure he didn’t pull a fast one after we left).  He allowed us to hotspot our phones from his to maintain some semblance of connection with the outside world.  He even invited into his family's home, fed us delicious fruit and nuts and Sprite, and shared his (only mildly embarrassing) childhood photos.  Thanks Aswhinn :)

There was something so beautiful, unselfish, and unconditional about this hospitality and generosity of spirit.  In every moment in which we interacted with a host or hostess of some kind, it did not feel like an obligation or an imposition.  Instead, it felt like an authentic desire to share in the experience with us.   There was a two way connection; one in which we got to feel included and aware, and our hosts got to rejoice in relegating this experience to more than just a ritual.  Indeed, for all of us… it was reminder of the meaning behind it all.

Discovery #2:  Indian Humble Pride

When I travel, I always find it fascinating (and telling) to observe how natives perceive and communicate their own culture.  There is a sliding scale between those who love their own culture and believe it to be superior to all others, and those who hate their own culture and assume that as an outsider, you are lucky to have come from somewhere else.  India falls somewhere in between. 

My first experience living outside of the United States was in France.  Living with a Parisian family in Paris was enthralling, rich, and complex.  It did not take long to realise that the French genuinely believe that French culture is the absolute best.  They see themselves as every bit as intelligent, enigmatic, and alluring as popular culture depicts (and frankly, they are!).  This unquestionable pride in their own culture is enthralling and inspiring, but also offputting because you know that no matter what, the assumption is that you, as an outsider, are inherently inferior. 

Contrast that with my current reality, living in Hong Kong.  Whenever I meet someone from Hong Kong, they ask me, “How do you like Hong Kong?” to which I reply enthusiastically: “I love Hong Kong!”  Without fail, this results in a look of disgust, surprise, and confusion, “Really?!”  Amongst the local community, there is often a confusing disdain for Hong Kong/Chinese culture.  This humility is charming in its own way, but also leaves me feeling a bit sad.  Yes, there are elements of Hong Kong and China which are dirty, crowded, loud, and inconvenient, but that does not mean it isn’t a wonderful place to live or to come from.

India was a melange of these two sentiments.  Upon being greeted, we were frequently asked with an engaging enthusiasm, “Is this your first time to India?” — to which I replied, “Yes” and the unequivocal response was, “Aren’t you LOVING It!?”  Without hesitation, without arrogance, it was simply a given that I would love this place.  Yet, there was also an open acceptance of its negatives.  Everyone acknowledged that, “You must be careful.  There are good people in India, and there are also many bad people,” or “It is very dirty and hot.”  But these were simply facts of life, they did not mean anything about the inherent value and reverence for Indian culture. 

Discovery # 3:  Food is Important

During each day of the wedding, we were served three meals of traditional South Indian food, or rather “prasad”, meaning it had been deliberatively and lovingly prepared and blessed for our consumption.  Served by a crew of men wearing really funny chef hats, the prasad was lovingly plopped upon our moistened banana leaves, and eagerly consumed by our carefully cupped right hand.  It was not only a spectacular delight for the senses, but also somewhat of a cultural artifact as there was significant meaning behind each ingredient and spice.  

I quickly learned that even if you don’t want more, or if you even try to think about being full... You. Are. Wrong.  Continuing to eat brought such unfettered delight to whomever was serving me, I felt obligated to stuff my face five times over.  When I tried to deny a second helping, the servers would wait a beat until I turned my head or looked away, and then sneak a bit extra on my plate… only to turn back as they moved onto the next banana leaf with a knowing grin as if to say, “Yeah, you’re welcome….” 

Discovery #4:  The Head Bob

As it is the most notorious and well known idiosyncrasy of Indian culture, I had been fully debriefed and prepped for the head bob.  Yes, I know, when someone bobs their head side to side - it looks like “No” but it really means “Yes”.  They will even say the word “Yes” while shaking their head saying ‘No’.  It will be confusing, but I was prepared.  Or so I thought.

Regardless of how much I thought about this, I was still confused when it happened to me.  I couldn’t help but open my eyes wide, pause, and say, “Wait, what?”  Though I understood it intellectually, I still could not physically keep up with what was happening before my eyes.  And yet, somehow, at some point several days into the trip, I found that I started making this gesture myself.  Without even realising it, I would bob my head side to side as to say, “Right, sure, whatever you say.”  This continued well into the following weeks once I had returned to Hong Kong.  Mid-conversation, my fiance would lovingly whack me on the arm saying, “You’re doing it again.”  It’s silly, of course, but I can’t help but interpret this as a subconscious connection that continued beyond the point where I had physically left the country.   

Indeed, what started as painful recognition of my “otherness” unexpectedly gave way to a profound feeling of connectedness.  As the trip wore on, this continued to evolve into what can only be described as a feeling of ultimately being the same.  To be continued in Part Three….

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Impressionism of India - Part One: Feeling Different

I recently traveled to India for the first time and had some of the most fascinating, fulfilling, remarkable, and unique experiences of my entire life.  I always find it scary to write about my traveling experiences because, as a rule, I hate speaking with any semblance of authority about things I don’t fully understand.  Given I am not Indian by heritage, I have never lived there, and all I have to go on are my recent ten days in this massive, diverse place, I fear that sharing my thoughts will be nothing short of superficial.  Be that as it may, I call this post “Impressionism” because, just like the painters of the Impressionist era, I am not seeking to accurately represent the reality of India.  I fully acknowledge that would be impossible, as there is so much I do not know and can never understand.  I can only share my perception of the special moments I experienced there.  So, this is my attempt to capture the vivid yet constantly shifting lights, colors, sounds, and feelings of India.  

Part One: Feeling Different

Once I decided to travel to India, I quickly found that whether they have been there or not, everyone has a lot to say about India.  Consequently, I couldn't avoid a flood of prejudices before embarking on my trip there.  It seems that people fall into three camps when it comes to India:

  1. The Cynics: They told me that India is crowded, polluted, dirty  and smelly.  That everyone would try to take advantage of my white skin.  To keep my possesions close and not trust anyone who was being too nice.  To avoid any food that is not securely packaged or else contract the dreaded 'Delhi Belly’.
  2. The Pragmatists:  These people warned me that India is not quite enjoyable, but there is a certain beauty in the chaos.   They said it is an exciting, exotic, and different, place but just “not for them”.  They acknowledge that it is evolving at a rapid pace, both economically and culturally, and that we should all take note or be left behind.
  3. The Idealists:  According to this camp, India is a mystical and enchanting place.  Life in India is in technicolor, a delight for all of the senses.  The spices, the music, the laughter... it would be nothing short of a magical experience.  They emphasized how unique it is in its unbelievable diversity (over 780 languages are spoken among its 1.25 billion people), and yet still a loving and accepting country.  I should embrace the opportunity to take part of it.  
And so, both confused and curious, I eagerly set off for my journey through India.  I was at once determined to be devoid of preconceived notions and relieved by the fact that given so many contradictory heedances, it was already impossible to know what to expect.  All I knew is that, no matter what, I would surely learn a lot.

Lesson One:  Embrace that you know nothing

I arrived in Chennai late on a Tuesday evening.  The airport was surprisingly large, as it should be given Chennai is one of the largest cities in South India, a capital of its state Tamil Nadu, and it has nearly 5 million inhabitants.  Upon exiting the airport, I was immediateely bombarded by hundreds of men offering taxi services, and I felt my first wave of panic as I remembered the warnings I had received about being a prime target for deception and crime.  My fears were quickly allayed, however, as I quickly located the driver that our kind hosts had arranged.  I was still on high alert, given I was traveling alone, but the sign saying, "Rasanath Welcomes You!" followed by my name certainly made me feel safer.

The next day was the first day of wedding festivities for our friends Rasanath and Anuradha.  I don’t even know where to begin.  I had heard stories about the boozy, loud, late night Bollywood-style festivities of many Indian weddings, but somehow that didn't seem to fit the bride and groom, both of whom are extremely joyful but also devoted to their spirituality.  My first lesson in the grand diversity of India was that these raucous affairs most think of as "Indian weddings" are actually "North Indian weddings".  These festivities involve lots of drinking and dancing and elephants and can last for days on end.  They typically take place late in the night, leaving guests partying into the wee hours of the morning.  South Indian weddings, like that of Rasanath and Anuradha, are much more traditional and subdued affairs.  They typically last two to three days, are devoid of alcohol and dancing, and focus much more on family, tradition, and faith.  The marriage itself occurs early in the morning, around 11am and each day the ceremonies are concluded with a deliciously and lovingly prepared serving of prasad, blessed food served on giant banana leafs that is to be eaten exclusively with the hands (oh yeah!)

Lesson Two:  Accept that you have no idea what is going on

The wedding itself was two days long and consisted of no alcohol, a LOT of food, a steady stream of fragrant incense, and countless rituals which made absolutely no sense to me.  The entire ceremony was in Tamil, so I couldn't understand its significance, but there was a lot of bowing and touching of nose then ear then nose then ear then bowing again.  It was festively accompanied by a band of men playing drums and the Indian version of trombones, who were unable (or unwilling) to gauge the strength of their own sound.  Their music had seemingly little correlation with what was actually happening on stage.  

Especially with no musical cues, it was challenging to figure out where we were in the general program of things.  There was no marked schedule of events, and starting times turned out to merely be suggestions.  The majority of the ceremonies were performed on a stage, which was brightly lit by studio lights and every moment captured by a clunky video camera plopped directly in front of the attendees.  The expectant audience was arranged into careful rows that quickly devolved in clusters as family members and friends scooted around catching up with each other, paying very little attention to ceremony itself.  The stories of chaos I had heard from the Pragmatist camp were starting to make sense.

Lesson Three:  Acknowledge you are not like the others 

Outside of the wedding, I did not see a single other Western tourist.  Walking through the streets, we were the only people who looked like us, and we drew quite a few stares.  Children and adults alike had no shame in putting down their newpsapers or pausing their conversations simply to watch us walk by.  My saree and Michael's kurta were the source of endless amusement for them, and packs of kids on their way home from school would follow us for blocks.  The wary cynic within me figured it was because they wanted money, or to pickpocket us, but it was nothing of the sort.  They were simply curious, eager to watch and listen to our silly accents. 

Because we were somewhat of a novelty, there were quite a few people at the wedding that wanted to tell us about the other white person that they once knew.  I was chatting with another Westerner (we were two of the four at the wedding), and an older Indian gentleman came up to us with an excited sense of urgency as if he had something very important to tell us.  He opened, “I interviewed for a jobs in Mumbai in 1958.  The interview committee… the interview committee.. do you know who was on the interview committee, Sir?”  We didn’t even have time to respond before he waved and twisted his hand in the air for effect and proclaimed, “A man from Canada, Robert Thompson!” and then walked away triumphantly.  He returned only a second later to check in to see whether we were fully appreciating the gravity of what he had just shared.  Naturally we were confused, but feigned excitement to make him feel welcomed.  He was visibly disappointed that his anecdote was not seeming to have its intended effect, so we attempted to distract him by asking, “Did you get the job?”  Well, yes he did, he told us.  “I worked there for 34 years, and I have been receiving my pension since 21 years.  Now, I just roam around.”  All I can do is smile and delight in the beauty of this preciously absurd moment.  Though there was clearly much lost in translation, I can’t help but feel warm inside knowing that this person was so eager to relate to us.  

Lesson Four:  Ladies, step aside

The culture in Chennai was much more conservative than I  expected.  I did not feel comfortable walking around in shorts or sleeveless shirts — even in a longer skirt and a t-shirt, I still felt compelled to cover my top with a scarf so that you couldn’t see too much of my shape.  I was embarrassed to find that as a foreigner, I had somehow accidentally managed to even make my saree look slutty by not adequaletly covering the outline of my chest.  I never understood how sarees were so conservative given they leave your entire abdomen exposed, and in Western culture, showing skin can be risque.  However, it seemed the point is much more about covering your shape than your skin. 

Now, I have to admit that Indian English is not that easy to understand.  In the average conversation, I could make out ~60% of what was said, which lead to a lot of polite nods and head bobs and awkward bowing.  But one word that did punctuate every sentence which I could clearly understand is their frequent use of the word “Sir”.  By prolific, I mean that “Sir” makes its way into nearly every sentence, sometimes twice: “Excuse me Sir, but what are the timings, Sir?"

At first, I thought it was for effect.  Then, I thought it was simply a verbal tick.  Then, I thought perhaps they weren’t sure of my gender (had I covered up too much?).  Then, I realised that people were simply not addressing me.  If I was alone, they’d call me “Madame”, but if I was in the presence of a man (regardless of whether it was my fiance or another man), they would only address him directly.  I’m not in position to comment too deeply on women in Indian culture, but I did find this to be somewhat frustrating.  Who knew you could feel so different and so invisible at the same time?

Lesson Five.  Respect the Moustache

This deserves its own point because facial hair is generally amusing, and the ubiquity of the moustache in India is downright hilarious.  Where I come from, moustaches are a style generally reserved for hipsters, Tom Selleck, and Movember.  But in India, literally, every single member of the male species has a moustache.  And it's not ironic.  Some of the handlebar variety, which are particularly impressive, but really any kind will do.  Young men, old men, all of them seem to abide by an unspoken code that no matter what, thou shalt not shave thy upper lip.  

.... To be continued

Monday, January 12, 2015

Solving Problems, Not Drawing Lines

When it comes to education, there are a lot of arbitrary lines that are drawn.  Dividing neighbourhoods to determine who can go to which public school.  The difference between 3rd grade and 4th grade.  Income levels for receiving financial aid.  GPAs.  While I acknowledge that some of these delineations are necessary evils to create a system that scales, their often cruelly random nature can do more harm than good.  As a result, I am naturally wary of capricious classifications when people ask, “How do you qualify your education technology investments?  The problems in education are so complex, shouldn’t you narrow your focus to just K-12 products, or language learning, or educational gaming?”
I appreciate the need for focus and clarity in mission, but I prefer to work in the business of solving problems, not drawing lines.  That’s why we do not qualify education entrepreneurs by their end users (children, teachers, adults), their target markets (K-12, higher education, corporate), or their business models (enterprise, consumer, advertising, data analysis).  Instead, we remain driven by our mission of scaling  impact in education.  As a result, we classify edtech start ups based on the problem they are solving.  
To be clear, there are four key problem areas where we believe technology can meaningfully transform education.
1.  Limited access to content
In a world where over three billion people have access to the internet and there are almost as many cell phone subscriptions (6.8 billion) as there are people in the world (seven billion), the concept that high quality educational content is a scarce commodity no longer applies.1 
2.  Inefficient infrastructure
In the United States and other developed countries, it is estimated that teachers still spend over 50% of their day grading papers.  Given there are over 100 billion emails sent and received every day, any other business person how much of their day they spend handwriting letters and they will laugh you out the door.2 
3.  High dropout rates
Rigid pedagogy and a one size fits all system fails to account for different types and speeds of learning.  As a result, 30-40% of primary and secondary school students around the world drop out or fail to graduate on schedule.3  Higher and adult education similarly struggle with low engagement and completion rates.3  
4.  Lack of job relevant outcomes
In spite of the exclusivity and competitive nature of attending higher eduction, it is still largely not translating into job outcomes.  Youth unemployment is a global issue and yet 36% of employers worldwide struggle to find candidates with suitable skills.  This is even worse in Asia - 81% Japanese employers cite difficulty hiring4.  It won’t be getting any easier either.  The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 65% of school children will be employed in jobs that don’t yet exist.5 
Our analysis of edtech start ups then involves the exact same filters for people, product, capital efficiency, scalability that we use for other sectors.  We find that this approach is not only empowering to the entrepreneurs and their businesses, it also leaves room for truly innovative solutions to expand beyond their initial applications in classrooms.  It’s not surprising that these challenges exist in other environments, too, and the most exciting investment opportunities in education often involve businesses that can be applied in multiple verticals.   If we or our teams are arbitrarily forced classify their business as "K-12” or “hardware”, we’d be thinking way too small.  Drawing lines tends to do that, and we prefer to be in the business of thinking big.