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"The only way to cause a systemic change was to use technology to personalize learning"
Claudio Sassaki was a successful banker until one day he realized he wasn’t living the life he wanted. He decides to tackle one of Brazil’s biggest challenges: education. He develops a personalized learning platform to adapt to students’ learning needs. Building the product is hard. Getting it into the schools is even harder.
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Education is super important. It plays a critical role in helping people fulfill their potential and to lead happy and productive lives. Education is especially important in developing countries, where historically the quality and availability of education has been very low.
Technology obviously has the potential to dramatically improve education. Over the last decade, education technology - or edtech - has been booming. The rise of cloud computing, machine learning, artificial intelligence, mobile devices, and the falling cost of components has created lots of opportunities for edtech.
The first episode of Revolution of Necessity tells the story of an edtech pioneer, Claudio Sassaki. Sassaki is the CEO and Co-Founder of Geekie, a São Paulo based edtech company that has been revolutionizing education in Brazil. Improving education is one of the major challenges facing Brazil, a country with extremely high levels of inequality. Right now about half of all high school students drop out before graduating.
Geekie is trying to fix this problem. It has a range of web and mobile applications that use machine learning to adapt to the learning needs of individual students. Geekie’s major product, “Geekie Lab”, integrates with the school curriculum and provides teachers with digital lessons that identify students’ gaps in learning in real time. Geekie Lab then recommends interventions and extra activities for each student. Geekie is currently in over 5000 schools in Brazil and has served over 12 million students.
This interview explores how Sassaki came to start Geekie and how the company got to where it is today. It’s an incredible tale. Sassaki’s personal story is very powerful. His grandparents were indentured labourers who were trafficked from Japan to work on Brazil’s coffee and pepper plantations. His Dad was the youngest of 15 children and one of the only kids to make it to college. So Sassaki grows up with a deep understanding of the importance of education. However, he gets seduced by banking and spends almost a decade in finance before realizing how unhappy he is.
"I was miserable with the life I had. I was not using my time and my talents for something that I truly believed and I was doing that for people that I respected as business people but I did not respect, from a personal perspective. Everyone talked about legacy but none of them were happy with what they’ve built. I didn't want that for me."
Together with another disillusioned banker, Eduardo Bontempo, he decides to do something that really matters. However, neither Sassaki or Bontempo are educators or technologists so getting Geekie going and making it a success is an epic journey.
1. Do something you believe in
Life is short and it’s easy to get stuck on a particular path, especially if it’s something with lots of status or money (like banking). Building Geekie has been very hard, but Sassaki says
"There's not a day that I regret because to work with something that you truly believe with people that you respect and admire, to be able to choose who you work with, and how you spend your time - there's no financial reward that could pay for that."
2. Getting your first users
To develop something that people will use - and pay for - it can be helpful to have some initial users that you can work with closely. Their feedback can be used to improve the product. Who in your network already knows and trusts you? For Geekie, this is the high school that Sassaki attended.
"I talked to the school owner, and he remembered me. He said “I don't know what you guys are building, but I want to be close to you” so that trust was what helped us get our first client. Even though the product was far from being good!"
3. Human centered design
Geekie’s first product is a disaster, but they embrace design thinking to figure out how to build something that will work. They spend a lot of time in classrooms getting feedback from users.
"Our DNA at Geekie is, we don't think we have all the answers. We were very good listeners. It’s a lot of time at the schools, listening, learning, receiving criticisms, which is not easy. It's much more comfortable to stay, you know, in your office, trying to think about new ideas."
4. Growth Hacking
How can you exponentially increase your users? By the end of its first year, Geekie has a few schools using its product. However, to get the funding that it desperately needs, Geekie needs to show that its product can work at scale. They come up with a growth hack. They forge a partnership with a media company that will promote a free tool that will help students predict their score in the all-important national exam. It’s a big success.
"They [the newspaper] were interested in reaching teenagers and so it was good for them, it was great for us because through their advertisements we were able to start to become a national brand in Brazil - for free. And not only that, we were able to get data from thousands of students who helped us improve our algorithms as well. So it was like a win-win-win for all of us."
5. Strategic Partnerships
A critical question for startups is how to scale. Strategic partnerships can be useful. Geekie has recently signed a deal with a big Brazilian education company, SAS. This is important because SAS publishes lots of Brazil’s textbooks. Now, rather than being a “bolt on” to the “traditional” classroom materials, Geekie has a chance to become an integrated part of the core classroom materials throughout the country.
"This is a huge deal for us, because we are part of the core experience of the school. Right now, they can have the data in real time, they can make interventions in real time, they can help students succeed before the student fails on an exam because you know in real time whether the student is learning or not. So that changes dramatically how schools operate."
This interview also gives some insights into some of the challenges of edtech, especially in developing countries. The Brazilian government gets excited about Geekie, but its procurement systems aren’t setup for companies offering technology solutions. How do you survive financially when most students are in the public education system, but that system is already underfunded? What happens when governments change?
Geekie cares deeply about improving educational opportunities for all, so it’s come up with some creative ways to tackle these issues. These include:
Giving a public school a license for its Lab product for every private school that buys one
Working with companies and philanthropies to cover the costs of serving public schools
Making a free version of its product available to anyone
Sassaki recognizes that, to some extent, these are all just hacks and education systems require more fundamental reform to really harness the potential of technology and help all students fulfill their potential. It’s a task that he’s still working on.
My Favorite Part
So many! I loved interviewing Sassaki. He wears his heart on his sleeve and was incredibly candid. I especially enjoyed him talking about how they survived their growth hacking experiment. The response is so great that their servers keep falling over. Sassaki doesn’t even remember how they made it through.
"That week was one of the worst weeks in my life because we barely slept, it was a lot of pressure, the system fell a few times….Three times during that week and we were able to go back quickly, I don't know who, I don’t know how, I mean to tell you the truth and it was just …. I don't know. We had to, we got help from someone."
I’ve been in similar situations and it’s true - somehow you just make it work.
On the Cutting Room Floor
For each episode of Revolution of Necessity we’ve taken a really long interview (often 2-3 hours) and edited it down to less than 40 minutes. Unfortunately, this often means leaving good bits in the editing suite. At the end of the interview, I asked Sasaki if there is a song that captures the Geekie story. His answer shows what a tough journey Geekie has been, but also how determined Sassaki has been:
I hope you enjoy this first episode of Revolution of Necessity. You can listen to it here.
You can also listen to this episode on your favorite podcast platform, including iTunes, Soundcloud, Stitcher, Google Play or grab the RSS. Don’t forget to subscribe and to check out the other episodes. We’d also love your feedback — give us a rating or a review or get in touch.
To read the transcript of this interview click here.
Big thanks to our sponsor: Omidyar Network. Omidyar Network is a philanthropic investment firm set up by the founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam.