The Secret to Catalyzing a Community

Straight talk with the former Massachusetts Gov, venture capitalist, CEO, and now—head of LearnLaunch.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Jane Swift is the President and Executive Director of LearnLaunch in Boston, Massachusetts. She served for 15 years in state government, holding the offices of Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and State Senator—and was the first woman in U.S. history to give birth (to twins) while serving as Governor. She was a strong advocate for the policies and funding priorities that catapulted Massachusetts to become the nation’s top-ranked state in educational performance. She serves on a number of boards, including Academic Programs International, a privately held study abroad company. She was previously CEO of Middlebury Interactive Languages. Jane taught leadership studies at Williams College and is a sought after speaker on the issue of work-family integration. She has dedicated her personal and professional life to the belief that access to a high-quality education is critical to the ideals of democracy. She received her bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Jane and her husband, Chuck, live on the family farm where he was raised in Williamstown, Massachusetts with their three daughters.

Victor: Congratulations on your new role, which I think suits you very well. There couldn’t be a better person for it. Not just having been governor but all your activity in education policy, consumer affairs, business regulation, you’re an advisor to entrepreneurial education companies—and you have your venture capital experience and your leadership of mission driven organizations—including your family. So I was just wondering: what pieces from your past click into the puzzle of today’s challenges with LearnLaunch? And maybe you could provide a bigger picture perspective. You’re just starting on this thing, so—any thoughts on all that?

Jane: I was really driven to get involved in politics because of my belief in and the need to have access to a high quality education for all students. I grew up in a very blue-collar town in North Adams, Massachusetts and was really lucky to go to a great liberal arts institution where I discovered that there were kids who had gone to some of the best prep schools in the country who’d had a very different preparation for college than I did.

And really that passion to ensure that our public education system and access to a high quality education is something that every student is able to take advantage of, has driven all of my professional and many of my personal choices for the last three decades.

And there are many ways to drive improvement and to drive access to excellence in education. There’s an important role for policy leaders at the local, state and federal role.

I’ve been lucky enough to both play some of those roles and to work with really talented individuals who have dedicated their careers to doing that.

And then I also, as you noted, worked in the private sector, both from the investor perspective from the operational and leadership perspective leading Middlebury Interactive, as well as from a board perspective and saw the real passion that many innovators and entrepreneurs had for their role in bringing excellence into classrooms.

And one of the things that I think is somewhat misunderstood is that folks who have that entrepreneurial or innovation bug, if their motivation is solely profit, they will go into a sector other than education. The folks that I’ve met who decide to bring their entrepreneurial spirit or their innovation inclination to the education sector, often have the same motivating factor that has led me throughout my life—which is this deep-seated belief in the power that education has to transform life.

The folks that I’ve met who decide to bring their entrepreneurial spirit or their innovation inclination to the education sector, often have the same motivating factor that has led me throughout my life—which is this deep-seated belief in the power that education has to transform life.

And so, having worn all these different hats, I’ve also seen these pervasive disconnects in the ecosystem. And so really great products—that I know there is both a policy and an educational need for, but for reasons that have to do with the structure of our education system and the local nature of decision making, and lots of other historical trends and education product delivery—just never get traction.

And then similarly, sometimes really bad products that have some commercial advantages make their way into a classroom and really are a disservice to students, teachers, and frankly, all the other good entrepreneurs who are working really hard for the right reasons.

I’ve joked, over the last 15 years in the private sector, both in nonprofit and pro-profit roles, that I have become an “English-to-English translator” – trying to help folks in the private and nonprofit sector who have either great products or services and the right inclination to help understand how to best impact in an effective way and work with educators, policy leaders. Because, sometimes there is a level of misunderstanding and even arrogance that folks have toward our public education system. And it’s born more of just the I think we all have been to school; we’ve all sent our children to school but we also all drive cars but don’t believe somehow that we could design a car.

But somehow there are folks who believe, at times, because they sent their children to school that they understand education as well as teachers or superintendents and don’t listen to the field as closely as they should.

And so, trying to bridge some of those gaps is something that I have found has been really effective in hastening and accelerating our path of connecting people who can help every student have access to excellence, and that takes a different path for different students.

Victor: Well, very good. I love that English-to-English translator that you mentioned. That’s a great concept. You know, you exude this realness, this effectiveness and a real authenticity that I really love to hear coming from a fellow New Englander; you get down and dirty with the issues, it’s a smaller town feel—but you’re making big effects.

And we’ll talk about that a little bit later in this interview, the big effects that you can have beyond New England, but I wanted to get into some of the framing of the issues and the challenges ahead with LearnLaunch in particular.

So, though technology is a vital component, LearnLaunch isn’t really focused necessarily on technology. More central is innovation, support for innovators, and LearnLaunch catalyzes a community that drives innovation to transform learning.

As a leader who makes choices of what to lead and who to lead, you’ve chosen to lead a group now representing more than 25,000 people strong: founders, innovators, leaders in one of the most important fields of human endeavor that really underlies all others, and that’s education. And, of course, leveraging technology to innovate and transform this area at a faster clip—is essential.

So: what issues and challenges do you see just ahead? And how will you tackle them? How would you like to frame that?

Jane: There has been a lack of a cohesive and loud voice out of New England and frankly, the East Coast on some of these educational transformation and excellence issues, which I think is really missing and unfortunate because arguably, we do approach certain education issues differently and have had a fair amount of success. We also have in the Northeast, abundant resources in terms of companies and higher education institutions that are leaders in the innovation sector.

But we haven’t always translated how that can have an effect on our education system as comprehensively, perhaps as folks have thought through in the Silicon Valley, on the West Coast. And I think that, that is a missing piece of the national picture. And there is a lot of excellence happening, there are SNHU and we have someone from SNHU on our board, is doing things in a way that’s different perhaps than ASU is doing an online learning.

And those lessons will be applicable to some traditional colleges and universities who are trying to meet some of the challenges that post secondary institutions face today. And the SNHU model may be a lot more relevant or pieces of it to, folks who are struggling than the ASU model perhaps. Some of the things that are happening from Match, which grew from its charter school roots into really a lab for innovation and trying different things. Some of those lessons may be applicable for schools who are looking at personalized learning in new ways or how really technology as a tool, not an end in and of itself.

So I think we have been, there are more I’m sure, that I don’t even know about phone companies, not-for-profit institutions who have developed pockets of excellence. But unlike the West Coast, and the Silicon Valley, we haven’t had the loud voice and the unifying brand to really communicate and share those best practices so that they can be scaled and replicated to help more students. And while there’s been lots of progress in education over the last decade or two, frankly, I still have days where I’m more than a little frustrated that the number of challenges that we face are still pretty significant.

There are still too many first-generation going-to-college students who are disconnected from the resources they need to both be prepared to access a high quality education, and to know the resources that are available to help them succeed and understand the right path. For them, post high school, there are still too many students struggling in middle school with math, even though there are a lot of really good solutions to help reinforce and improve skills for students who learn in a variety of different ways.

There are still too many first-generation going-to-college students who are disconnected from the resources they need to both be prepared to access a high quality education, and to know the resources that are available to help them succeed and understand the right path.

And those just aren’t well understood as broadly as they should be. And frankly, as the mother of a daughter who is studying to be a secondary school math teacher, I’m also shocked at the degree to which our training of teachers is still pretty much the same as it was probably two decades ago. And the way that we don’t suffuse students, with, students learning to teach, with more information about the tools and the new learning science that has emerged at some of the best colleges and universities in the country, to help them be even better at the really challenging profession that I’m proud my daughter is choosing and so many students continue to embrace.

Victor: Very good, and a rich example you get to draw from, a real-life case study you can tap on a regular basis. Let’s talk about the opportunities before us, as a sector, as a nominal sector, like a name such as, fintech, you know, financial technology or govtech. There is edtech, which has seen, I would say a straight up growth, an explosive growth in the last five years.

How would you characterize the opportunity that lies before all those that are peopling up these companies—the teams, really—that are choosing various components of education and learning and wanting to move them forward—to move teachers forward, or to move learning math forward—all these different components? How would you characterize the opportunity that lies before all these people that are eager to help, and some of them have already really made a mark for themselves in this area of edtech?

Jane: I think that we’re still at the early days of investment in edtech. We’re just starting to see the unicorns and, some of the very significant financial successes. The other piece that I hope to bring attention to is the implications for accelerating student learning, which hopefully will attract more talent into the industry. So I think we still struggle to get some of the best and brightest technologists into the edtech sector.

And we want to both convince those individuals that this is both a fulfilling and a satisfying upwardly mobile career trajectory. But frankly, we continue to want people who will enter the profession, motivated by a passion for student success and not just financial success. And so, it may strike a little bit different tune than some of the financial investors. I think they’re finding very significant success and I want them to find that success.

My hope is that they can populate companies that are financially successful with individuals who are working there because they want both pieces of the double bottom line, both the financial success but also financial success that drives student success in an accelerated pace of expanding that success to more students at a quicker pace.

Victor: Wow, love that sense of purpose because the other way, if you go into solely the financial track, it becomes a bit hollow and then the purpose falls out, and it’s not as workable as it could be.

Jane: This is always going to be a sector that has a large public element. And they’re in the criticism that is often unfair, that, ‘any company that has a profit motive has to have bad motives’. That’s not correct. But I think a company that is only driven by profit and defines themselves only by profit is going to be unsuccessful and hurt the rest of the sector in edtech.

Victor: Well put. I wanted to get back a little bit to the sense of place, and New England as a unique leader. Greater Boston, New England really, is the seat of so many of the world’s top institutions of learning. And with, say, MIT and other innovative organizations and LearnLaunch included—there’s a certain mindset of innovation that you might not even notice if you don’t ever jump out and look at it from an overview.

So like nowhere else on earth, there’s the word, catalyst—that’s a great word for what might be possible with the edtech alloy, the powerful strong combination of education and technology. So there are so many pockets of potential. These tech corridors, the Silicon Valley-like areas around the country and the world. How is New England uniquely poised for success? And do you see this success as replicable beyond the sense of place that people enjoy in New England?

Jane: First of all, the venture fund that I joined when I first left office, Arcadia Partners, which was the first or among the first funds, focused solely on education investing, chose to be in Boston, because you have such a fertile cross section among educational excellence and venture investing. And so I think it’s a natural place for education excellence driven by technology innovation. Obviously you have some of the best education institutions, but also education schools.

So you have the innovation that happens at MIT but also the Harvard Education School is phenomenal. I would remind everyone that Horace Mann was really the first father of public education, and public education really was born in Massachusetts, and Horace Mann was a Massachusetts native and was educated in New England at Brown University. Our roots are historic and deep in both education, in education investing, and in the intersection of education technology, as well as educational innovation.

And not to over-brag, but most of the states to have made the most progress in demonstrating significant success (measured by NAEP scores), and fourth and eighth grade—are in the Northeast. Massachusetts has performed among the best—and often the best in the nation—with its reforms on math and English for over a decade. We have a lot more work to do. And I don’t think we can rest on our laurels.

And I think the way that we have approached our educational excellence and incorporating technology where we’ve done it has been different, perhaps quieter; more focused on implementation and sustainability. And perhaps those lessons are ones that need to be given more attention, but also acceleration to become more of a national model.

Victor: Let’s talk a little bit about professional learning and professional learning as an important activity beyond K12 learning, beyond higher education. This is something that LearnLaunch provides to so many companies in so many ways.

And so here’s an organization that deals with innovative companies that improve learning but LearnLaunch itself is an organization where learning companies come together to learn. So there’s this sort of doubling down on the learning factor, if you see what I mean?

Let’s talk about learning in this day and age and the power of coming together, hashing it out, pounding the anvil and hammering out an effective way forward; how is LearnLaunch itself innovative, learning-minded, and setting an example for other groups like those found in other U.S. regions?

Jane: This is a real area of opportunity. We’ve done an extraordinary job and founders Eileen Rudden, Jean Hammond, Mark Miller have laid a fantastic platform, launching path, if you will, pun intended. And having an ecosystem and programs—over 40 a year—where we do have these professional learning communities, where we are providing really valuable professional development and learning programs as well as just networking opportunities, as well as our really well received and well respected, curated conference in the winter.

Today, all of those have been largely in-person, at our campus or at sites in collaboration with some of our post secondary partners like MIT. One of the things that I think we need to take a really hard strategic view of is how we better incorporate learning technologies to extend the reach of those great learning activities and extend those learning opportunities through technology to a broader audience.

I don’t officially start until July 1st, [2019, just this past week] so it’s a very early nascent thought that I have in my head and we need to do a little more, I need to do some more meeting and talking and probably find some partners and others to flush this out a little.

But it strikes me that the next horizon for us as a professional learning community, is to better leverage the learning technologies that we are so good at embracing and use them to amplify our reach. So to really take that launching pad of learning and bring it to the next level through technology.

The next horizon for us as a professional learning community, is to better leverage the learning technologies that we are so good at embracing and use them to amplify our reach. So to really take that launching pad of learning and bring it to the next level through technology.

Victor: Any words of wisdom, advice for someone not in edtech or just barely getting into edtech – and they’re having a look into the area, perhaps they have a lot of education experience, because don’t we all! like you said before—and they have a passion for workable technologies or innovative ideas, like so many talented people in the Boston area, and they’re looking into what they might contribute. So what words of wisdom might you offer them—and I know you haven’t even gotten to day one yet, but you’re going to be dealing with this sort of thing, probably for the next few years at least, right?

Jane: Yes. So first I would just really encourage folks, I think, to focus on who’s your customer, which is usually either a student, a teacher, a parent, a school district, I have found in my many hats and roles, that, that has been a shortcoming of so many education innovators. And it has not always been purposeful because often times it is not. There isn’t a single customer; your buyer isn’t always the ultimate consumer.

And so thinking through really carefully, who benefits? How do I serve that person? and really listening attentively to their needs and their pressures, will set you apart from many in this industry and set you up for success. And that’s something that I tell many folks who are new to the industry.

Secondly, understand that things do change slowly in education, but that should not lessen your drive for excellence. So there are reasons that, you know, that the United States Senate is designed to move slowly. And there are both good and bad things about systems that are designed to move slowly.

So understand the ways in which schools can and should move quickly and the ways in which they can and won’t move quickly. And just be realistic.

On that point, I always make this joke with folks—my family and I have lived for most of our life except for our stint in Teton County, on a farm that my husband grew up on. I would say, we still follow an agrarian calendar in education—that’s important for folks to realize, and most folks don’t live on a farm and even folks like us that do – our kids only get in the way, not picking crops.

So be cognizant, but not overly dismayed or waylaid by that fact. Be aware of the pace but not impeded by it; listen and understand who your audience is.

And then lastly, realize that the impact that you can make in this sector has rewards far beyond what I think you can receive in almost any other line of work. Helping students to achieve success has impact that really can’t be overstated.

“Realize that the impact that you can make in this sector has rewards far beyond what I think you can receive in almost any other line of work. Helping students to achieve success has impact that really can’t be overstated.”

Victor: Your thoughts on state of education today?

Jane: We’ve made significant progress for some but an appalling lack of progress for too many.

Victor: What makes you say that?

Jane: Let’s just talk about Massachusetts. It’s undeniable that more students are getting a better education, but the achievement gaps particularly for lower income and minority students are still persistent. And that has been the case for some time. And so the role for technology is really the role for any type of innovation: it is to find those areas of persistent need, and to accelerate the pace at which we can solve problems that have heretofore seemed impossible to solve.

Victor: What further role should technology play in education?

Jane: You probably know that one of the founders of LearnLaunch, Jean Hammond, was an early investor in Zipcar, one of the early innovations that transformed how we utilize cars today, right? So we have a completely different relationship with vehicles, whether Zipcar, or rental car ride sharing today.

When we look at technology and learning, we need to have some transformational breakthroughs in how we connect students to learning resources—whether those are technological, or they are tech-enabled pathways—that give every kid the ability to be successful in a economy that demands that their skills continually improve.

[For] every student, every learner, every adult, technology and innovation are the only way to get there. We’ve seen pockets of excellence, but we haven’t seen the transformative behaviors that spread that excellence and that opportunity broadly yet—and that’s where I would like to see technology and innovation boring our learning and education system in my lifetime. And as we start at the beginning, I’m not getting any younger.

Victor: So true of us all! Where do you see LearnLaunch in the next few years? What great things do you want to have accomplished with this organization? And why is it so important that it succeeds?

Jane: Our convening role is really important. We have been great at convening and professional learning. We need to focus on a couple aspects of what we’ve done well to really elevate our role as a convener. And that may come in being a louder voice and a louder advocate for the entire education ecosystem in New England, because there’s lots of folks doing great work that I don’t think have gotten the same level of attention or accelerated their impact in the ways that some entities have done so well like New Schools or GSV, or even Emerson and others have done on the West Coast.

And so I would love for us to play that kind of role that really takes what many others have done so well and make sure that their impact is felt more broadly to benefit students. So that broad convening role—but really in a much more significant advocacy way— for the Massachusetts and New England region.

I also think there are some significant issues unique to the Northeast around declining population of students, that we are in a unique position as conveners to make a difference in helping folks to find successful strategies or replicate successful strategies.

And taking what we have done well, and figuring out more successful technologies and pathways to extend the impact of that, and I talked earlier about potentially that’s by leveraging technology more efficiently for our professional learning.

Victor: Anything else you care to add or emphasize, any message you’d like to really drive home regarding edtech, LearnLaunch or how the Red Sox are doing lately?

Jane: I am not going to talk about the Red Sox. I would just say this is a really exciting time, both for LearnLaunch and for the education innovation economy in the Northeast. And I’m just really honored that the board and the founders of LearnLaunch are giving me this opportunity to accelerate the impact of the organization and the entire ecosystem in the region. And I am thrilled it’s coming at a time when I’m about to have an empty nest with my youngest twins going off to college in the fall.

So that I can really, hopefully help to make a significant impact that benefits students not just in the Northeast—but by better articulating and demonstrating some of the successes and amplifying those students across the country.

“This is a really exciting time, both for LearnLaunch and for the education innovation economy…”

Victor: Well you have a such a fascinating and remarkable track in service to others, and in leadership. It’s been cool talking with you. I’m really appreciative of all the time you spent on this, and look forward to working with you in the future on various issues.

Jane: Absolutely.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]


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