November 5, 2018

Relentless: How One Guy Brought the Internet to America’s Schools

by Without Fail

When you run a company, you hear two pieces of advice over and over again. One is that you must persevere at all costs. And the other is that you have to be ready to pivot on a dime. To persevere or pivot: it can be hard to tell which is right. But when Evan Marwell set out to tackle a huge national problem seven years ago, he didn’t really have to choose. Persistence is his default. Evan tells Alex the crazy story of how he helped to bring high speed Internet to American school children — thanks to a bit of luck and a lot of perseverance.

Without Fail is hosted by Alex Blumberg. It is produced by Sarah Platt and edited by Alex Blumberg, Devon Taylor and Nazanin Rafsanjani. 


Jarrett Floyd mixed the episode. Theme and ad music by Bobby Lord. Additional music by Jupyter.

Transcript

From Gimlet Media, I’m Alex Blumberg. This is Without Fail, the show where I talk with athletes, artists, entrepreneurs, visionaries of all kinds… about their successes...and their failures. And what they’ve learned from both. 


<<MUSIC>>


When you find yourself at the head of a company that you started four years ago, a thing you find yourself doing -- actually I’m going to drop the you, because I’m talking about myself. The thing I found myself doing was reading lots and lots of books and articles about leadership. And when you read these books and articles about leadership, there’s a couple things that come up over and over. Two pillars of advice that you tend to get. One, you have to be persistent. And two, you have to be willing to pivot. 


So persistence, you have to focus. Focus on the thing that you and you alone know how to do best. You have to just keep on doggedly pursuing it until you finally get it to the place where it’s actually working. No company has been built without persistence.


And then there’s pivoting. You have to just make something, and see if it resonates, and if it doesn’t you have to change something and see if that resonates. And lots and lots of huge companies have been built by pivoting as well. 


But those two lessons are sort of at odds with each other, right? Pivoting is in many ways the opposite of persistence. And persistence is in fact the absence of pivoting. You can’t persist and pivot at the same time. You sort of have to choose. 


And it’s hard. Because I would definitely put myself in the persistent camp. I have this personality where I can get lost in something, I zone everything out. People will be saying my name and I don’t hear them. And that’s sort of what I took as the rule for how to succeed. Persistence is the key to succeeding.


But then you know starting Gimlet, there were lots of things I persisted at that didn’t work. We spent years making certain shows that we ended up having to cancel. And that happens a couple times, and you read a couple books about pivoting and I started to wonder like is this thing that worked for me, is it now going to work against me? 


So I’m thinking about all this stuff, and a while ago I was at this conference and I saw this guy talk. His name is Evan Marwell. He told a story that was a very clear endorsement of the philosophy of persistence. And I found it first of all fascinating, and second of all really helpful to understand okay here’s the strategy of persistence, and here’s what it looks broken down like over time. 


His story begins about 7 years ago. And just a little bit of background on Evan. He’s one of these serial entrepreneurs. He started companies in a bunch of different industries: finance, telecommunications, software, consumer retailing. He’d sold most of them for a nice pile of cash. And he was at the point in his life where he was looking for his next challenge. But he didn’t want to it to just be another company that he was starting, make a bunch more money. He wanted to do something that would make a difference in the world. But what exactly would that be. He didn’t know.  And then, he came across this book. 


Evan:  I read a book by a guy named Felix Rohatyn, one of the lions of Wall Street. The guy who saved New York City from bankruptcy back in the 70s. He wrote this book called Bold Endeavors and the book was a call for the US to set up an infrastructure bank. And his idea was that only government was big enough to really do infrastructure, at scale, and that infrastructure was game changing for the country. And the book consisted of 10 vignettes. Things like the Erie Canal, the Transcontinental Railroad, rural electrification. And the interesting thing was what I took away from this, in addition to his conclusion that you know government was really the only ones who could get things to scale, each one of these things happened because there was one person who had the crazy vision to do one of these big infrastructure projects and sort of kept at it and kept at it and kept at it until the government showed up with the money. 


Alex: This is a really interesting point. Most of us when we read books were like oh wow look at that person they're so different from me. And you saw you saw yourself in some of these people


Evan: Exactly, because I looked at that person and I said what is it about those people. They're very strategic, started in management consulting I did pretty well I think I’m pretty strategic. They're relentless and persistent. I thought I had some of that. And then finally and in some ways most importantly they were great salespeople. Right. They kept selling and selling and selling. And so you know I thought I was a pretty good sales person you have to be a good salesperson to be a successful entrepreneur. And so I said Huh that would be really exciting to do an infrastructure project and that would change the face of America. The problem was I had no idea what that was so I just sort of put that in the back of my head as I was going through my search for for the next thing that I was going to do. No.


Alex: Once you read this book and you start thinking that like describe how you're feeling


Evan: You know I'm feeling excited but sort of wandering in the wilderness right? Because I was like How am I going to possibly find an infrastructure project of this kind of scale to do. Like I wasn’t an infrastructure guy, I’d never built a road or a bridge or a school or anything like that. 


Alex: So you are literally walking around being like where am I going to find a gigantic problem that I can solve?


Evan: Yes sort of. I was wandering in the wilderness going it would be cool to do it an infrastructure project. But but honestly I had zero ideas.


One of the pleasures of talking to Evan, was how foreign his approach to everything is to me. This is a guy who literally went in search of a huge problem. The biggest problem he could find. I think I’m like most people in that this is not my approach to problems. I don’t go in search of them. If I’m honest, I sometimes hide from them. It’s not good, I’m trying to get over that. But anyway I definitely don’t go searching for them. Not like Evan. In the days and weeks after reading Bold Endeavors, he set his mind to finding something big and hard to fix. At one point he actually got an idea, at his daughter’s school. 


Evan: This was a K-8 private school in San Francisco


Alex: So a pretty good school  


Evan: Pretty good school, you know well resourced, great teachers and one teacher tells me a story and she says well you know I did this this assignment in my my class where I asked each of the kids to grab a laptop, go to the TED website, pick a TED talk, watch the TED talk and then create a PowerPoint presentation to present to the class. I said wow that's great. 

She said Yeah it was terrific for the first eight girls. Like what do you mean. Well by the time the ninth girl started watching her video the video started to slow down and by the time the tenth girl started watching they kind of stopped. And I had to stop the assignment. And I said Oh so what you're saying is you had lousy internet. Ok yeah that's what I'm saying. That's why it didn't work.  


Alex: Pedagogically it was fine it was just literally it was an infrastructure problem 


Evan: Exactly. So I went to the school and I said what do we have for Internet access. And it turned out we had a cable modem. So we had a cable modem for 500 people. I have a cable modem at home for five people and I get no end of complaints from my children about how slow it is. Right. So imagine for 500 people that was problem 1. Problem two we had a Wi-Fi network that was eight years old. It didn't reach all the classrooms and it was super slow and the ones that it did, I mean literally it was described to me once like sucking peanut butter through a straw. So I was like OK well we got to fix this. So we brought fiber optic connection to the school and we put in a new Wi-Fi network and suddenly it all worked. And then what started happening in the school was teachers were like oh I can trust the network now. So I'm going to start integrating technology into my classes. So that was sort of the next big sort of fortunate event was I had this interaction where I understood like oh Internet access in schools. This might be a problem


And if it was a problem at Evan’s daughter’s fancy private school in San Francisco, tech capital of the world, chances are it was a problem everywhere. 


Technology is becoming increasingly important in education today. Classroom learning isn’t just about writing papers and taking tests anymore. Students are using technology all the time to collaborate, to create, to present. Through technology, students have access to a huge, virtual libraries and research materials and YouTube tutorials, all sorts of things that they don’t have access to just in their regular libraries right. And with online programs, teachers can tailor lessons and assignments and track students progress... There’s just tons and tons of ways that technology can be a huge benefit in the classroom. Access to broadband internet can be the difference between a student getting ahead and a student falling behind.


And so to Evan this felt like oh this is a very important problem that I can set my mind to fixing. So while Evan he’s mulling all this and wondering: will internet for schools become my bold endeavor, thousands of miles away, in Washington DC, President Obama, has created a new position in the government - a Chief Technology Officer to the United states. The CTO’s job is to find ways for technology to make America better. For security, for jobs, infrastructure, whatever. And the way the CTO does that is by setting up roundtables with tech people from across the country. Chances for industry leaders to brainstorm ideas or point out problems that technology could fix. And Evan being a successful entrepreneur with a lot of money and contacts, he’s the kind of guy that gets invited to round tables like this. And sure enough ….


Evan: I got a call from a friend who said hey we're bringing in you know 10 to 15 tech CEOs and serial entrepreneurs to the White House to talk about how to make America better with technology. You should come and I was like OK well I'd be happy to come. But what the heck am I going to talk about. So I'm thinking about it. I'm thinking about it I'm going to school broadband. So I started doing research. I found this survey that had been done by the FCC that said 80 percent of schools have lousy broadband. And I was like great. That's all I need. So I go to this tech table in January of 2012 at the White House and the first thing that happens is the chief technology officer of the United States a guy named in his Aneesh Chopra at the time comes in and then he says to all of us. OK so what should we do to make America better with technology. and he gets to me and I say well we should fix the school broadband problem. And he looks at me with sort of like this confused look and says what's school broadband problem. All our schools have broadband. We have this program that spends 2.4 billion dollars a year buying broadband for schools. Yeah, they have cable modems and they have lousy Wi-Fi and so they can't use technology in schools. Never mind the fact that your department of education is counting on technology to help transform education in this country. And he sort of looks at me and then he moves on and I'm like OK well that was my that was my chance and I was like well I put the idea in his head.


Alex:  Are you literally thinking like OK well I guess that's not going to be my thing. Where are you now in your sort of excitement-- 


Evan: Well here's the thing. That was the first time that I heard about this two point four billion dollar a year program like I did know about that. And so I was like hey Bold Endeavors you've got to have the vision and keep at it keep at it till the government shows up with the money. Hey the government's already shown up with the money. It's already there. Because if we can't fix this for two point four billion dollars a year. Boy that seems like plenty of funding. So then the president comes in, President Obama, and the CTO sits down next to me and the president gives his little speech and then he starts going around the table what should we do, what should we do. Aneesh sits down next to me and when somebody speaking. He leans over to me and he says hey you should go fix that


ALEX: Aneesh, the CTO says that to you.


EVAN: Yeah. And I said fix what? The school broadband problem. And I said Aren’t we here to tell you what to fix these. He says let me tell you a secret. We're the government. We don't fix anything. We make policy we provide funding but we can't actually go and fix problems. And I was like wow that is really discouraging. 


ALEX: They left this part of Bold Endeavor 


Evan: Exactly. He said but he said but you should go start a nonprofit to fix this. I said OK what will you do for me. And he said well I'll introduce you to the people you need to know and the government. So at this point I'm I'm sort of leaving the room and all I can think about is like two point four billion dollars he's going to introduce me to the people in the government. This is what I need to do.


Alex: And you're excited now and


Evan: I'm super excited and I call Aneesh and I say OK I'm going to do it. He's like do what. And like I'm going to start that profit to fix the school broadband problem. And he says really? I said Yeah he's like nobody ever takes me up on that offer. I said well, I'm going to. And so January 2012 is when I started Education Superhighway. 


Alex: So, I want to stop you at this point, because this sounds like the emotional high point. 


Evan: I call it the entrepreneurship emotional roller coaster. There isn't an entrepreneur out there who doesn't experience it. Highs are higher than anything else you've ever done for work and the lows are lower. So yeah absolutely. January 2012 I'm at a high. I’m like I've found the opportunity to have a chance to change the world. You know let's go.


Alex: How are you. How are you behaving when you're on that high. What do you do?


Evan: Well I talk incessantly to my wife. I'm saying I found my purpose. I found what I'm going to do next. I'm going to I'm going to do this thing. And she's she's like. OK great. We're starting this journey again the fourth time and


Alex:  it always starts the same way you come home


Evan: It always starts the same way, you come home really excited. And she's like you're about to go into the black hole again aren't you. I'd like you to go to the black hole because as you know as a startup person yourself like the first few years of a startup you've got to be all in. 


Alex: Yeah. What’s the first thing you do to get this thing up and running?


Evan: The first thing I do is I figure out how am I how am I going to attack this problem. And that's when I realize that OK I need to figure out what the problem is. What are the root causes why do we have this. 


Alex: It's interesting. Your your answer is a little bit counterintuitive. Essentially your first step was I have to figure out what problem I’m solving.


Evan: That's right.


Alex: Which I think is a lot of people might blow past that because you've already settled on a problem right, you know the problem. it's broadband. I just got to, I got to get that money you know and start fixing the problem. What made you want to dig deeper into the actual nature of the problem.


Evan: Well because if you know every problem has a set of root causes. And so I knew the outcome was that our kids didn't have good broadband. So why was that. You know what was the reason that this was happening.


After the break, Evan discovers a billion reasons why this was happening. That’s after these words from our sponsors.


<<BREAK>>


Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with EducationSuperHighway founder Evan Marwell. When we left off, Evan is trying to figure out why schools don’t have good Internet. And the first thing he wants to look into is that 2.4 billion dollars, The e-rate program. The government’s program that’s supposed to solve the school broadband problem. The program that helps schools pay for high-speed broadband. If this money is supposed to be buying good broadband, but 80% of schools don’t have good broadband, what exactly is that 2.4 billion being spent on? 


Now, there was a website, where schools applied for money from the e-rate program. 10’s of thousands of applications a year, each asking for a small piece of that 2.4 billion. Evan thought, one way to answer that question is just to review all those applications, maybe he would learn a thing or two about how the money was being spent. 


Evan: So there were literally tens of thousands of applications every year from schools for this program and I said how the heck are we going to review all this information? And this is another one of these examples of you know your network can be really helpful. So I called up a friend of mine who's working at a hedge fund and I say, hey any chance that some of those guys at your hedge fund could write some code to scrape down all this information and put it into an Excel spreadsheet for me?


Alex: Any chance you want to spare half half a million dollars worth of engineering costs to write a little data scraping program for me.


Evan: Yeah and the answer came back, sure, we'll do that.


Alex: That's a nice friend to have.


Evan: Exactly exactly. You know your network is incredibly important and the care and feeding of that network is incredibly important so that when the time comes that you need to make a call like that they're excited to help. 


Alex: Yeah but talk about that how did you sort of care and feed, like I mean this makes it sound very quid pro quo. But like talk about like all the groundwork that went into building the relationship to the point where when you called this person they were like sure


Evan: Yeah, so I would say that I probably spend you know a quarter of my time building and caring and feeding my network and what that means essentially is anybody who asks me for a meeting. Pretty much, except for salespeople. I take it


Alex: Really


Evan: Pretty much like I get a call. I got a LinkedIn message a month ago from must have been a 25 year old kid working for Google in Ireland and he said can I do a call with you. Because I'm thinking about X, Y and Z and Edtech and would love your to hear your story and understand get your advice. So I took it. Like you know most people don't take that call.


Alex: Yeah well I don't take that call. Right. I want to because I'm curious about people and I like meeting people but I don't because I have this notion of like oh I'm a CEO now my time is valuable. I shouldn't be taking these calls because I have to stay focused. 


Evan:  you do have to stay focused but you need to invest in your network. 


Alex: So you, you think that's a mistake on my part.


Evan: Well I mean it's hard for me to judge your particular situation but I think the time invested in you know building your network and I should say with no expectations. Right. So like I don't have any expectations for this person. But what I know is that over time if you are helpful to people that when you need help people will be helpful to you.


Alex: Right.


Evan: And it's not always true. But but I can tell you for sure that the success that I have had as an entrepreneur has been in no small part because of the incredible help that I've gotten from people in my network along the way. I've had a few sort of postulates about you know how to be successful as an entrepreneur. One, is you gotta invest in your network. The second is you've got to be focused. Focus focus focus. I preach that all day long. And then the third is it's better to be lucky than smart. Which is hands down 100 percent true.


Alex: You call your friend. He gives you he helps you out with some some some data analysis guys who can help code some scraping programs and you start combing through the. What is it, tens of thousands of applications.


Evan: About 50,000 applications


Alex: 50,000 applications and what are you looking for.


Evan: How's the money being spent? And what we learn is that schools were way over paying. The typical school was paying twenty two dollars a megabit per month for their internet access while businesses were paying like 3. So if you just put that in perspective paying twenty two dollars a month per megabit would be like paying five hundred dollars a month for your cable modem. OK? We were like OK this is a problem. The affordability of broadband is clearly one of the problems.


Alex: Was it's sort of like an aha moment for you when you sort of looked at what came back when you like actually analyzed all these 50,000 applications?


Evan: Oh it it was an incredible moment because I was like OK here's a problem that can be solved. This is an execution problem. This is not where we have to invent some new technology. Fiber exists. Wi-Fi exists. Internet access exists


Alex: and the money exists


Evan: and the money exists. What the heck is going on. And now aha! What's going on is that schools are completely overpaying for their Internet access. In addition to looking and seeing that schools were overpaying for bandwidth we also found that a billion dollars a year of this money was being spent on phone service. And so I talked to somebody who was like because in 1996 the way you got broadband was through dial up connections so you had to have a phone line. So it paid for phone lines so that you could get a dial up connection. And I was like oh my god. A billion dollars was being spent on the phone lines of schools which were eligible because back in the day that's how you got your Internet access.


Alex: So schools weren't even spending this on broadband. We're just sort of using it to defray their just operating costs.


Evan: Exactly. Exactly. The program that was funding it all needed to change.


Alex: So now how are you feeling.


Evan: So now I'm feeling psyched because I'm like OK like every one of these problems is solvable and So we got on a plane and we went to D.C. and in D.C. we went and met with a woman named Karen Cator who at the time was running the Office of Educational Technology in the U.S. Department of Education and we went to her and we said hey we need to fix the school broadband problem. She's like OK what problem. 


Nobody knew that schools had a broadband problem, right? It was like the CTO of America when I said we have to fix the school broadband problem and he looked at me with like a blank stare. That was the reaction we got everywhere. 


So we say 80 percent of school only four million kids have you know good broadband. We need to fix that. She's like OK well how do we fix that. Like we already get funding what's wrong. And so we take her through our little consulting study and we lay out the process for her. Oh


Alex: and this is something you've been through quite a few times at this point. Right


Evan: exactly.


Alex:  What is it like to constantly be like we have to solve this problem and people are saying what problem is that is that unusual in your experience.


Evan: No that's that's the truth of every entrepreneur right. You have the opportunity because nobody else had solved the problem you found.


Alex: So you've evangelized. and then what happens.


Evan: And then she tells me you need to go talk to the FCC. She helps me arrange a phone call. And so I get on the phone with this person, give him my pitch  and he says to me Well how are we going to solve that. Like how are you going to pay for that. I said there's 600 million dollars being spent on phone service. At the time I thought the number was 600 million dollars He's like what? Like 600 million dollars being spent on phone service. We don't need to do that that's not helping anything. He's like there is not 600 million dollars being spent on phone service. And I'm like No no. Like I looked at the data and I'm pretty sure. He hangs up on me.


Alex: What


Evan: Yeah, he hung up on me.


Alex: He literally hung up on you.


Evan: He literally hung up on me and I was like OK that didn't go so well. And I'm sitting here thinking to myself policy what are the problems of just talking to the first person who has anything to do with the policy that's related to this and he hung up on me.


Alex: I haven't I've been hung up on once in my life I think. Has it happened before.


Evan: No.


Alex: How did that feel?


Evan: OK remember that emotional rollercoaster. Yeah. Now I'm at the bottom like oh crap. Like this is the end of the line if I can't figure out an answer to this.


Alex: Right.


Evan: This is our money and if we can't get the money to be spent more effectively and we can’t do some other stuff that we need to do like how do we solve this problem.


Alex: And are you mad at this government bureaucrat who won't even take the time to listen to you talk about


Evan: More I'm flabbergasted because I'm sitting here looking at the data and he's like there's no way. I'm sitting there going but like I've got the data. So I’m kinda like..it was my first introduction to the fact that government is not necessarily data driven. We're changing that.


Alex: That's like I'm just laughing because it's a pretty a pretty big understatement.


Evan: Yeah yeah. So anyway, here's what happens. Three weeks later. My phone rings. I’m like you know hello. And it's this guy who hung up on me and he's calling me back. He said


Alex: he was like I think we got cut off.


Evan: Yeah, not quite. And he said yeah about that phone service. It's probably a billion dollars. Okay, I'm back at the top of the roller coaster. I’m like a billion dollars. He's like Yeah I had some people look at it and yeah it's probably a billion dollars, so let’s talk some more.


Alex: What happened during that. Did you ever get the story. 


Evan: We for sure were creating noise around this problem. Right, in the Department of Ed and like trying to get other people and all this kind of thing. And so I think I think he partially realized we weren't going away. I think his boss was interested in this problem and so I think he was like well let me look into this. And I think what he really realized was that oh my god we're the FCC. We spend two point four billion dollars a year on this and we have no idea what we’re spending the money on. 


Alex: Right. And that's a scary thought, if you’re that guy.


Evan: And that is a scary thought right.


Alex: So as he became a partner to the ever apologized for hanging up on you.


Evan: That's not his personality and he probably would describe it as hanging up. He probably would say, I got to go. And then hung up. So. 


Alex: So he says it's a billion dollars. So now


Evan: he's like a billion dollars and he says come back to D.C.. OK let's talk some more. And so that sort of started our engagement at the FCC. 


So Evan gets connected with the FCC. But then, he encounters the same problem that he’s been encounter over and over again. He says, We have to solve this problem. The people who can solve the problem say, What problem. There is no problem. And they give him a blank stare. And what’s worse, some of the people who claim there’s not problem are the telecom providers, who are getting that billion dollars that schools are spending on phone lines. 


The fact that no one but Evan believed that the problem was actually a problem was itself a problem. And one that wouldn’t go away. Until Evan proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the Internet in public schools was bad. Proved it so clearly, that no one could look at the proof and deny that the problem existed. How Evan found that proof? After these words from our sponsors.


<<BREAK>>


Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with Evan Marwell. Evan is desperately trying to prove that this problem -- that Internet in public schools is bad -- is a real problem. Of course, he knows it’s a problem because he’s looked at a bunch of data that suggests it’s a problem. He has that survey, that he found on the FCC’s own website where they actually surveyed people and 80 percent of them said the Internet didn’t work. He’s also run his data scraping program to find that schools are wildly overpaying for their Internet and also that a lot of the money they are paying is actually going to regular old phone service. But somehow that is not compelling enough to the people he is talking to. And he realizes he needs even more compelling proof that this problem that he knows is a problem is actually a problem. And so the next thing he does is come up with a way to prove it to the people who don’t believe it or don’t want to believe it. And the way he is going to do that is with a test. 


A simple test, that every school across the country could take, that would measure how fast the internet in that school was. He thought if he could just design this test and make it easy for schools to take then that will be the proof that he needs. He called in another favor, got a computer engineer to make a simple, easy to use speed test, that any network administrator in any school district could run. And then, all they needed to do, was get all the school districts in the country to run it. Not all of them, but a big majority of them. 


So Evan and his team got the Department of Education to send out a huge email blast to all the schools, publicize it on their website. Evan and his team got the FCC to talk about it, news sites wrote about it -- they did everything they could to get the word out about this high speed Internet test. To the 10’s of thousands of schools across the country. And in the end..


Evan: We get a thousand people to test their broadband and we're like oh crap.


Alex: How many do you need?


Evan: A lot more than a thousand people to test their broadband. 


But remember what Evan said, it’s better to be lucky than smart? At this point, he got some luck, in the form of someone who is very close to him. 


Evan:  I get a call from my mother and she's been following what I've been doing and she says to me I just ran to

 

Alex: Part of your network that I assume you've been taking care of, attending too.


Evan: Taking care of. Exactly. And she says I just ran into my old boss //his name is Kurt Kiefer, he’s in charge of all ed tech for the Wisconsin Department of Education // and I told him what you were doing and he said oh that's really interesting because you know we're we have to roll out this testing across the state and we have no idea if our broadband networks are ready for it so he said why don't you give him a call. Maybe you can work together. I call him up and he said Yes I've got this problem. I hear you're doing something about measuring broadband and I'm like yeah. And he says OK well I know your mother and you're from Wisconsin so you must be okay guy. So let's try it. So we launched this program where the Department of Education in Wisconsin markets to all of the school districts and schools in Wisconsin and we get 75 percent of them to test their broadband. 


Alex: What strikes me about this is sort of like at this point you've got this sort of recursive nesting sort of set of problems that you're solving to solve this larger problem. And at this point you're way down in this loop. Right. Like you have this big problem which is like slow internet no broadband then you sort of figure out the root causes. Even though you've figured out the root causes you can't get the people in power to believe the root causes. So then you have to figure out a way to convince them. So then you need data but then to get the data you don't have a way to the data. So then you have to sort of go state by state and start partnering with state departments of education and at this point you're so far away from this original problem. It's a lot of faith that like this far away from where you started like that like it's eventually going to lead you back to a solution. Did it did it feel that way?

 

Evan: No. It felt like I am on the path. I am making progress. The glass is half full. By the way. That I felt like I was completely on the right track and you know you take a lot of left turns that you should have turned right and you've got to get back on course. It's not a straight line as you can tell. Right. But no. I felt like I'm making progress here.


Alex: Got it. Ok. So you have this aha moment. Because through through the Wisconsin experiment you realize OK this is our path in order to get like a big enough data set to prove that there's an actual problem to the powers that be we have to start partnering with state departments of education.


Evan: Right. Turns out Kurt's an amazing guy, amazingly well connected. So we started calling on other states and we give him as a reference and he says yes you should work with these guys they're good guys, I know his mother And ultimately something like 30 states or something like that over the next year that partner with us and we do these tests and we end up with 800,000 people in 35,000 schools test their broadband. And so now we have a data set. And shockingly the data says only 10 percent of our kids have good enough broadband to use technology to classroom. So like we knew the answer before we started but now we have data. And so now I'm able to take that data to the White House and I show up with this data and they're like oh this is real. And fortunately the new chairman of the FCC this guy Tom Wheeler was a business guy and he was like well here's the data. This makes sense and by the way we're we're paying you know schools are paying eight times as much as businesses and we can't be doing this too well. So we got to make some changes.


Evan: And so after a year and a half of work, the FCC does a major overhaul major modernization of the program they phase out that billion dollars of phone service so that takes us from a billion four a year for broadband to two point four billion. But then they add another billion and a half dollars. So now it's a three point nine billion dollar program and it's poised to make all that data that was confidential publicly available and that was key because we then took all that data about who was buying what from whom and at what price and we put it online. And as a result every school in the country could see what every other school was buying and who they were buying it from and how much they were paying and every service provider could see where do I have opportunities to sell my product because I have a better price. And as a result of that we've seen an 80 percent decrease in the cost of broadband for schools.


Alex: Wow. Just by creating a sort of a marketplace with less information asymmetry.


Evan: Yeah exactly. And so that 80 percent decline in the cost of broadband has led to that 10x increase in the number of kids that now have enough broadband to use technology in the classroom.


Alex: So, right now in America what percentage of schools have access to broadband Internet.


Evan: About 88 percent of schools and roughly 88 percent of the 46 million students in public school districts have the key components of good Internet access. 


Alex: And when we started, when you started this company how many students had access to broadband.


Evan: In 2013 only 4 million students had access to high speed broadband in their classrooms and that was less than 10 percent of the 46 million public school students in the country.


Alex: We went from 4 million students having access to 40. And that's that's almost 90 percent of students in America now. And it's basically all because of you.


Evan: Well I wouldn't say it's all because of me. 


Alex: There is a lot of people, but none of them got the ball rolling like if you hadn't gone on this mission a while ago. I think it's safe to say that we wouldn't be anywhere close to where we are today.


Evan: Yeah I think that's fair.


Alex: It strikes me that you had to be so many things to solve this problem. You had to be a management consultant. You had to be a data data gathering service. You had to be a data analysis shop you had to do some coding. You had to be a networker. And then you also and then ultimately you had to be you had to go into the business of sort of like policy advocacy policy.


Evan: And then we had to be product developers to put out that website where everyone could see what everyone else was paying and then we had to be network consultants to work with school districts to help them figure out what they need to buy and buy and run good procurements and work with the service providers and we have to be salespeople to convince service providers to bid on these opportunities. So yes we have had to be a lot of things. But kind of just like any other business.


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At this point Evan’s been at it for 6 years. A champion of the school of persistence vs. the school of pivoting. A champion of diving into all the minute details, while never forgetting the big picture of what it’s all in service to in the end. 


Since Evan and I first talked, EducationSuperHighway has released a new report with updated numbers. According to the report, 44.7 million students in America are connected, that’s 97 percent of America’s public school students. There are a little more than 2 million students to go. Ever optimistic, Evan said he’s pretty confident those students will be online by his goal: the year 2020.


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ALEX: Next time on Without Fail.. I talk with a woman who brought her business from a simple storefront where she was the only employee, to an empire that now brings in over a billion dollars of revenue every year. And she says that the main thing that helped her business take off was a change in the way she thought about herself: 


<<Until I forgave myself for being female and African American and smart, I did okay. My business started to really grow the day I forgave myself for being smart and female.>>


My candid and fascinating conversation with Janice Bryant Howroyd on the next episode of Without Fail.


Without Fail is hosted by me and produced by Sarah Platt. It is edited by me, Nazanin Rafsanjani and Devon Taylor.


Jarrett Floyd mixed the episode. Music by Bobby Lord. 


If you are enjoying the show -- leave us a review! It helps others discover the show. Or better yet, tell your friends. Let everyone know this is a show to listen to. 


As always, thanks for listening. 




**This transcript may not be 100 percent accurate.**

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