By Nathaniel Nelson
Occupation: EdTech Entrepreneur and Market Analyst
Hometown: Boston, MA
Current City: New York, NY
College: New York University
The daughter of Indian immigrant parents and a first-generation college student, Reshma Chabria had a unique path to becoming the upstart entrepreneur she is today. A new face in the world of education technologies (popularly known as “EdTech” in tech and education circles), she began her career—after graduating from NYU with a boatload of tutoring hours under her belt—working for Noodle, a tutoring and learning tool company, and building ThinkSkills, an app that curates news articles from around the web, at the same time. She was also teaching SAT, GRE, and LSAT vocabulary. In addition to all this, she writes about EdTech on her blog. I sat down with the hardworking upstart about the emerging industry of EdTech, her place within it, and her major upcoming platform for tutoring and learning materials, a sort of marriage of Wyzant and Khan Academy called T3.
What is EdTech?
EdTech is the combination of education and technology. Now that so much of our life is technology-based, you see it being implemented in classrooms and schools all around the world. Education technology takes things we grew up with—books and curricula—and basically creates a tech version of that, platforms that are online-based to help even out the playing field in education.
How does one break into the world of EdTech, or, rather, how did you?
I transferred to NYU (my parents had no idea I was doing this), and I moved to New York, which was a dream of mine, with no idea what it was like,. But when I made the decision my parents were like, “We can’t support you financially, it’s expensive,” so I got into tutoring, and when I was a sophomore I was tutoring a lot, and I built a small business from it. Through tutoring I discovered a lot of the inconsistencies students were facing in learning, and I thought it’d be a good idea to build a platform to help them learn. I wanted to take the skills I learned growing up—with Kumon, and at the Russian School of Math—and integrate them into a platform for students. So I taught myself how to code in different programming languages, and kind of got into it that way. But that slowed down a bit and I started working for different education companies, while still pursuing my passion for EdTech on the side.
As a child of immigrants and a first-generation college student, did you pick up any wisdom you’d impart on young people of similar backgrounds to yours?
I would say it’s very easy when you grow up with immigrant parents to think that everything they’re saying and doing is incorrect, because you’re exposed to so many things that they didn’t grow up being exposed to. But what I will say now, in my 20s, is that [with] almost everything my parents have taught me, they’ve always been right. So my advice would be to just always listen to your parents and really embrace your background. It’s insane, it’s a very different experience, being exposed to two cultures at once, but it builds a lot of character.
What does the EdTech industry look like from the inside?
You definitely have thought leaders in the industry, and then you see entrepreneurs who have experienced certain issues firsthand, and are trying to solve those issues with education technologies. But EdTech is a tough space because not every student, not every school has access to Internet, or laptops, for example. Not every school can afford one-on-one learning, or has the funds to implement any type of technology. So that’s the biggest issue I see, being in the industry. And there’s so much out there at this point that it’s difficult for school districts and schools to understand what the best technology is for them. Even for parents, who are using technologies as tools to help their kids at home, there’s just so much out there. It’s a growing market with so much innovation, so it’s difficult to figure out which technologies are of quality.
What do you see this industry looking like moving into the future?
I’m hoping in 20 years most schools have the funds to afford MacBooks and Chromebooks, and I hope there’s more transparency in the industry. The issue with dealing with schools and school districts is that there’s a lot of red tape, and you’ll have one person who’s making a decision to buy a type of product without really knowing what’s going on in the classroom. So I’m hoping in 20 years that there’s just far more transparency, and more data to back up what schools and parents should be purchasing.
Where do you see yourself in EdTech 10 or 20 years down the line?
I hope to be creating really great products in education. I’ve built out a few things now—they’re small but I’m slowly vetting the market and trying to understand it in-depth. So I’m hoping that I can build out really great platforms that’ll help students in the classroom and at home. Having been a tutor, I think there’s a huge discrepancy between how students learn inside and outside the classroom, with regard to what materials they’re exposed to, and I’d love to just bridge that gap.
What current business ventures are you involved with?
I’m currently building a tutoring platform that connects parents with tutors, and also gives tutors the autonomy to make worksheets and videos, to teach on their own. Every student learns a different way, so I’m hoping that by giving my tutors autonomy to create things they want to create, schools and parents and students can go into this platform and find materials to help them learn and understand concepts. Each tutor will be able to teach certain subjects differently, so it’ll just be a great tool to learn. It’s a hybrid between Khan Academy and Wyzant.
What’s unique about your platform?
Every student learns a different way, and that’s important. I think people forget that in EdTech, there’s no one answer. Entrepreneurs and thought leaders in the industry are creating products to promote this idea of individuality, that they think are adaptive to certain students learning the way that they each learn. What’s unique about this platform is that as a student, or as a parent, you’re able to find worksheets, and a tutor who’s best for you, and you can hire though the platform. Or you can just go on the site and watch videos, and take advantage of curricula our tutors created.
How would you argue for the importance of EdTech, to somebody skeptical to the idea of it?
There are a lot of platforms in EdTech that really measure students’ understanding and performance, like adaptive learning platforms, and having that in the classroom means that the child who’s struggling with math, or doesn’t understand a certain concept—instead of just giving them that C you’re really able to understand that, OK, this student doesn’t understand ratios, they don’t understand percentages. So it’s about being able to zero in on that before it’s too late. We know those fundamental concepts matter—if you don’t understand ratios you’re going to have a harder time as you go into higher levels of math. I think that would be my case [for EdTech]—especially in a time where the teacher-student ratio can be 1 to 45—that you’re able to keep track of students who are not doing well, or not understanding certain concepts, without having to hire another teacher. And everything is documented, and it gives a new and more detailed perspective into a student’s understanding of a topic.
What sort of qualities, in your view, lead to success (or failure) for entrepreneurs and startups, especially in the world of EdTech? Do you have any advice to impart unto those looking to enter the industry?
Understand the product you want to build—really understand it before you start building it. When you hire a team, trust your team, lead from behind and promote innovation and collaboration, and listen. As leaders we come in with one perspective, because if you have researched the product really well you are mentally prepared that this is the product you want to build out. But the purpose of hiring a team is to get their perspectives, and build out an even better product. So I think those are some of the issues I see—founders don’t listen, or founders haven’t researched their products, or are pivoting too many times. Also make sure you do thorough market research—make sure you understand the people you want to sell your product to, make sure you really understand your users and their behaviors.
Nathaniel Nelson (N8) is a filmmaker and writer.
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