In the cover story for the Jan/Feb 2011 issue, you met Doug Lynch, the Penn Graduate School of Education vice dean who’s looking for ways to turn Penn into a hotbed of education entrepreneurship. In a recent article in Inside Higher Ed magazine, he said his goal is for Philadelphia and Penn to be for education what Silicon Valley and Stanford are for technology.
The Milken-Penn GSE Business Plan Competition is one piece of that puzzle, and just a few weeks ago this year’s winners were announced. First place, and a cool $50,000, went to Alexandre Scialom for creating theCourseBook, a catalog of adult education courses that he calls “the Yelp, for lifelong learning.”
“The adult education market is very inefficient,” he says, and he created theCourseBook as an easily searchable, centralized way for curious adults to find (and rate) local classes that are a good fit (right now, the site lists about 2,000 courses in the San Francisco Bay Area). The idea is just a couple years old, and up to now Scialom has been paying all the bills himself, his only employee a lone intern. With this infusion of cash, he says, he plans to quickly roll out theCourseBook to other high-density cities on both coasts, starting with L.A. and New York.
For a lone educational entrepreneur in the wilderness like Scialom, the Milken-GSE prize isn’t just about the money. “It helps me gain credibility,” he says. “And it shows me that what I’ve built so far can be in the mainstream of the education field.” The money just allows him to keep his foot on the gas pedal. Now that he’s not working out of his own bank account, he says, “I can work faster than I was before.”
In other words, Scialom sounds a lot like the sort of person Doug Lynch wants inhabiting the Silicon Valley of educational entrepreneurship he hopes to build at Penn. Unlike the Wharton Business Plan competition, Lynch notes, the GSE competition is open to anyone in the world—not just Penn students. “It’s really focused on improving education globally,” says Lynch. “We had over 200 submissions.”
The competition may be over for this year, but Lynch is busy working on other ways to keep the entrepreneurial momentum going. He just finished the treatment for a TV series he hopes to launch soon on a major network (he’s in negotiations, and asked the network not be named before a deal is announced). Picture it, he says, “like Inside the Actor’s Studio but for education entrepreneurs.” In place of the gruff, portly figure of James Lipton, he envisions a GSE professor. In front of a live student audience, the professor/host would interview various entrepreneurs in the field of education.
In fitting together all these pieces of the puzzle, Lynch says, “we’re agnostic about for-profit, or not-for-profit.” What it comes down to is simply that “we think education is really important.” And “when it’s done right, you change people’s lives: housing values go up, companies’ bottom lines improve, trade improves, people don’t get sick, they don’t go to jail…” he tails off. Then summarizes:
“It’s a good thing.”