Solving Problems Kim Lachance Shandrow  | October 13, 2018

How This Startup Uses Tech to Teach Students Real-World Life Skills

When Jon Chapman and his college buddies bootstrapped their edtech startup Everfi, they didn’t start by rolling out a flashy new app and crossing their fingers it would go viral. They headed for the open road with open minds.

“We piled into a really smelly, old Winnebago RV and we drove across country,” the education software expert told Free Enterprise. “We met with teachers, students, families and community members and leaders. Starting in Trenton, New Jersey, and eventually ending up in Los Angeles, California, we motored from town to town, from coast to coast, listening to people talk about the things that they really needed and wanted to be taught in schools — life skills with real-life applications.”

Things like how to save money for college and build good credit, how to protect your privacy online and how to not fall prey to the pressure to drink or do drugs in high school and college, and other sensitive “real-world, real-life” topics that aren’t traditionally addressed in most schools.

“Talking to folks first-hand on that transformative trip helped us to see those big gaps in education,” said Chapman. “We also saw opportunities for us to provide dynamic digital classroom content that would equip students with the real-world skills they were telling us they needed to succeed, not only at school but outside of school, too. We saw we could do it through technology, a medium that’s a language kids already know and speak.”

That eye-opening cross-country RV trek took place eight years ago. Today, Everfi delivers online classes on a variety of “life skills and touchy subject matter” that many people never pick up in school. To date, the Washington, D.C.-based company partners with more than 4,300 companies and organizations to reach in excess of 16 million students across all 50 U.S. states and Canada.

The fast-growing enterprise — now flush with $250 million in venture capital from the likes of U2 lead singer Bono, Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Twitter founder Evan Williams and Google chairman Eric Schmidt — also works with more than 1,900 corporations and municipalities to provide corporate social responsibility training. These customizable classes teach employees important skills relating to diversity, culture, cybersecurity and beyond.

Some of Everfi’s corporate customers include major financial legacy brands, such as American Express, Bank of America, Charles Schwab, Mastercard, Morgan Stanley and John Hancock, to name a few.

We chatted with Chapman recently to find out how Everfi is revolutionizing education through technology today, and how it plans to in the future. Here’s what we learned:

What was the entrepreneurial ah-ha moment that led to the launch Everfi?

“The moment was really built up over time, as opposed to one lightbulb-going-off type of moment. My fellow co-founders, Tom Davidson, our CEO, and Ray Martinez, our president of financial education, went to Bowdoin College together in Maine many years before we started the business. We’ve known each other for about 25 years now.

After college, Tom went on to serve in the Maine House of Representatives for three consecutive terms. He was one of the youngest committee chairs as Chairman of the Utilities and Energy Committee. While there, he saw some of the issues that go on with how school districts and school boards receive their funding, particularly around how schools use technology. He ended up co-sponsoring a successful bill that then-governor, now senator, Angus King, proposed in 2000 to provide a laptop to every middle school student and teacher in the state of Maine. It was the first initiative of its kind in the U.S.

Ray and I came from an operating perspective. We’d both worked for Kaplan, Inc., for about a decade of perspective before we started Everfi. How that entrepreneurial ah-ha moment evolved for us stemmed from each of the co-founders seeing first-hand how the students, teachers and families in Maine reacted to the laptop initiative.

Then, back in 2008, when we were entering into the Great Recession, and we saw so many students leaving high school ill-informed about finances. They were poorly positioned to cope in the economy. At the same time, schools were less and less focused on teaching financial literacy and these types of life-success topics.

That’s when we knew we had to bring financial literacy education back into schools. We saw technology as a catalyst to scale and democratize this important information, and to get it out to the masses.”

Apart from teaching financial literacy, what other life skills does EverFi equip young learners acquire and how?

“In addition to financial know-how, we teach learners the critical skills needed to succeed in the world — skills like career readiness, character development, entrepreneurship and so much more. Schools put a lot of pressure in some cases on communities and on industry when it comes to things like STEM careers and trying to fill that skills gap, that job gap in those types of careers.

How we prepare students for success in life and in their careers is by using our learning platform to reach them. Think of it as a next-generation learning and gaming experience where we try to trick out a very immersive environment in which students can explore these life- and career-readiness topics, and the students use our tools in the classroom during the school day.

We have a whole staff of colleagues who live and work all across North America, within the 20,000 schools we reach, to help teachers use that learning platform. What they help us do is to have our technology used in a way that gets these critical learning topics addressed, and this process has been proven out.”

Can you share a bit about how you work with companies to provide your life-skills education to students? Where does private industry factor into this unique platform used in many public school districts?

“This question goes to the heart of our business model. What we’re practicing together with our partner companies when we bring our education software to bear in communities is effectively public-private sector partnerships. A private sector organization licenses our technology on behalf of schools that they care about, that are within communities where they operate, do business or have other reasons that they want to support those communities.

In other words, we’re really working with the private sector to help cover the cost that public school districts would have to otherwise cover themselves. Many school districts, as you can imagine, are very appreciative of that.

As for ‘What does the private sector get out of this, and why do they do it?’ I think it harkens back to a very early decision we made to private-label our offering and learning platform. When it existed in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, teaching financial literacy with BB&T Bank, one of our first and longest-tenured customers, we delivered learning for that particular curriculum through the BB&T financial scholars literacy program. Our learning platform came wrapped in branding that feels like it’s coming from BB&T, and we’re just powering the technology and our staff is helping to support the implementation.

We really take those private sector partners and we put them in the game of delivering innovative education technology to communities they care about. That can have a lot of different benefits, from a positive halo effect on their brand, to enabling them to reach certain other corporate social responsibility objectives, whether they be government affairs objectives, or community affairs objectives and communications objectives. We’ve been able to deliver on all of that for a really diverse set of customers across the board.”

Everfi also serves professional sports leagues in the U.S. What do those partnerships look like and what are students learning through these unique initiatives?

“We now power school community programs for all four major professional sports leagues in America — the National Hockey League (NHL), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB).

Each sports league has a unique learning topic that they support. The NHL’s content area is using the game of hockey to inspire students to learn more about STEM and STEM careers. The NFL’s program is called ‘Character Playbook,’ and it’s about supporting building good character and supporting cultivating and maintaining healthy relationships during those critical middle school years.

The MLB’s program with us focuses on reducing summer learning loss. Called ‘Summer Sluggers,’ it helps to reinforce math and literacy skills for elementary students, particularly those in socioeconomic neighborhoods where the summer education slide is most acute. We also have a long partnership with the NBA that focuses on African American history education, and we deliver a program for the league as part of their Black History Month programming in February.

We’ve also worked with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on a program called ‘Achieving Tomorrow.’ It’s a STEM scholars initiative that focuses on students in grades eight through 10, and it’s our core STEM education program, where we really focus on using gaming and simulations to take students through different STEM careers. So, it could be how to work in advanced manufacturing, or how to do things that involve 3-D printing of the Internet of Things (IoT), and a lot of the cutting-edge, next-generation occupations that are in the STEM field.

This partnership is really exciting, in that those students are in very formative years and they can be inspired to study math and science more deeply and maybe even pursue that at a higher level as they graduate and get into their careers.

Alongside the Chamber, we work with students in Tennessee, Michigan and Texas. Each partner organization that we work with at Everfi, like the Chamber, identifies communities that they want to support, and we help them do that.”

How do you feel about the importance and the gravity of the work that you’re doing, which is essentially helping young students have a better chance at succeeding in life overall, correct?

“It’s extraordinarily gratifying to know that we built a business and a company that is not only successful, but it’s also having a profound impact on some of the most intractable and tough issues of our day. It’s awesome — it’s tough work — but knowing that we can go out and help not only K through 12 students, but also college and university students, to help curb things like sexual assault and helping students be responsible with alcohol and steer clear of drug and other critical campus life issues … knowing we’re making a big impact there really fuels our mission.

For me, my favorite part of doing this important work with Everfi is when I visit schools or I go to certification ceremonies, which oftentimes happen in school auditoriums, and you recognize a group of students that got certified in financial literacy or another essential life-skill. You’ll hear a testimonial on what they learned going through the course and how they’re applying it to their own lives. Whether it be being better equipped to apply for college or better understanding student loans, or why their credit score is so important, it’s very validating that we’re making a difference.”

How do you measure the impact of what Everfi teaches students?

“How we track and measure the impact of what we’re doing is actually a huge differentiator for us. We are able to capture metrics on what students are really learning, how their attitudes and behaviors are being impacted in a positive way, and we roll all that data up for school districts. What that data does is give us interesting snapshots of success that we can provide to school district superintendents and to elected officials in the community, showing them that all these student were educated in these key subject areas, and here is how and where the lessons they learned played out.

As the network of schools we serve has expanded — and we’re basically in one in seven schools across the U.S. at this point — it’s a multiplying effect of an impact, which is really cool.”

What’s next for Everfi?

“We’re really excited to roll out our new prescription drug abuse prevention network. We’ll be announcing it this Fall in response to the massive nationwide public health crisis that is impacting millions around the abuse of opioid prescription based medications. The program is designed to be a very preventative public health approach, where we are delivering the platform out to high schools.

So much of the effort around this crisis is around treatment after the problem has occurred, and after you’re dealing with the ramifications. What our program does, however, is try to get ahead of the problem, and be preventative with this course and to help students realize that opioid abuse is not a path to pursue. At the same time, we want to give them solutions to equip them to be responsible in the future, to use prescriptions responsibly and to make good decisions around medication use in general.”

In partnership with education technology leader, Everfi, the U.S. Chamber Foundation joined the Prescription Drug Safety Network. As a partner in this network, the U.S. Chamber Foundation will help provide high schools in key locations Everfi’s digital prevention education platform. Teachers in these schools will be able to provide the curriculum to their students at no cost. Learn more about this partnership here, and read what the business community is doing to combat the substance abuse epidemic here.