Laurene Powell Jobs is on a quiet, but consistent, mission to improve American education, and she's uniquely positioned to get results. The 25th wealthiest American has a net worth that hovers around $21 billion, much of it from Apple and Disney holdings. She is the widow of Steve Jobs and her personal-trust holdings in Disney are the largest individual-shareholder stake in the entertainment behemoth.
She has professional connections to Jeb Bush, serving on the board of his Foundation for Excellence in Education from 2013 to mid-2014, and a long-standing friendship with, and history of political donations to, Hillary Clinton. Her Emerson Collective is a limited-liability corporation rather than a non-profit, so she and her colleagues can invest in start-ups, mostly education-related, without inviting public scrutiny of their numbers.
That bit about avoiding scrutiny is important for Powell Jobs, who prefers to do her work without fanfare. The New York Times wrote a profile of Powell Jobs in May 2013, in which it quoted a woman who went from high school in a poor part of Silicon Valley to college graduation thanks to Powell Jobs' face-to-face and email mentoring. She had no idea at the time that the women who met her regularly to talk about school was one of the richest women in the world.
Besides showing what a private person Powell Jobs is, the story illustrates what makes her such a powerful advocate for education and immigration reforms. She learns exactly what young people need to succeed by working with them, and listening to them.
Investments in education, college readiness, and technology for schools
College Track is the education nonprofit Powell Jobs co-founded in 1997 to support teens who hope to be the first college students in their families. Powell Jobs mentored teens for this group, and she remains chair of the board of directors.
The group started out in East Palo Alto, Calif.; today, College Track has programs in four Bay-area cities, as well as in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Aurora, Colo. The organization makes a decade-long commitment to each student who participates. It begins the summer before a student's freshman year of high school, and helps the student prepare for, attend, and graduate from college. More than 90% of the group's participants go on to college.
Emerson Collective is Powell Jobs' recent enterprise, founded in the early 2000s, which has invested capital in a number of education-related ventures, as well as in social justice projects in keeping with the group's goal of "opening doors to opportunity." Among the education ventures funded by Emerson Collective are:
- AltSchool, a San Francisco-based company that's raised more than $133 million from investors including Mark Zuckerberg and Andreessen Horowitz. AltSchool operates what it calls micro-schools for elementary and middle-grade students in its hometown, with locations in Brooklyn and Palo Alto opening this fall. Each campus has up to 150 students, and teachers create personalized learning plans that take children's individual needs and strengths into account. While small private schools have been doing this sort of thing individually all along, AltSchool's plan is to scale administrative resources and share classroom knowledge, while keeping the schools and classroom environments small and personal. Scholarships are available for students who would not otherwise be able to attend.
- Nearpod, a mobile platform that lets teachers develop, share, and download lessons that students can access on smartphones, tablets, and computers. As students work, teachers can get real-time feedback to assess their mastery of each lesson. The Menlo Park, Calif.-based company was started in 2012, and is already being used by nearly 2 million students. Nearpod partners with Common Sense Education, TIME for Kids, and other outlets to provide custom-built lessons and content for students.
- FreshGrade, a developer of tools for collaboration among students, parents, teachers, and administrators, founded by the man behind Club Penguin, the popular online gaming community for kids. FreshGrade, which has been compared to online communication tool Slack, offers a secure way for teachers to share projects and class presentations, create student portfolios, record grades, and track test scores.
Transforming and improving the school experience
There are, no doubt, other education ventures into which Powell Jobs has put money, but we may never know about them because of her preference for anonymous giving. The ones we do know of hold the promise of modernizing our schools' communication methods, harnessing the wisdom of the teacher crowd to deliver great lessons, and maintaining economies of scale, while scaling the classroom experience down to the ideal size for children. All of those improvements can open more doors of opportunity to more kids.