Code.org: The Billion-Student Startup🎓Transcend Newsletter #54
A deep dive into Code.org and an interview with CEO Hadi Partovi.
Hola! Alberto here, from Madrid this week. Welcome to the Transcend Newsletter 👋
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Most founders want to build a billion-dollar startup
But one founder out there wants to build a billion-student startup
I got to chat with the one and only Hadi Partovi from Code.org about his plan to teach computer science to one billion students, his learnings through the journey, and his advice for founders!
The Billion-Student Startup
Code.org is a nonprofit founded in 2013 to teach computer science to the world’s youth, and it operates at a scale that’s extremely rare in the education sector.
Let me give you a sense of this scale: 70 million students have used Code.org. That’s more than all of the primary + secondary students across the European Union countries combined! Collectively, these students have logged in over 1.2B hours of coding and almost half of them come from schools with the highest economic needs in the US.
So who’s behind Code.org, and what does it do?
It was founded in 2013 by identical twins Hadi and Ali Partovi, who are some of the most successful founders and angel investors in recent tech history. These two brothers grew up in Iran, where they escaped war to move to the US. After starting and selling multiple startups, they got together to start Code.org and address a problem they had faced themselves: the lack of resources available for students to learn computer science.
Here’s how they do it: students log in to their platform and access a whole range of learning modules that help them cover basic concepts of computer science (I just did its Minecraft module for kids and it’s a lot of fun). Code.org also allows students to participate in the many initiatives that they run internationally, such as the Hour of Code movement.
But they also do a lot of work behind the scenes: almost 40% of its spending last year went towards K-12 teacher training (they’ve worked with over 2M teachers), 30% involves curriculum (which a lot of schools and teachers can use for free to build their own learning experiences), and 7% went to advocacy.
It’s important to point out that Code.org helps the world learn computer science, not just coding. Coding is great, but realistically not every student will write code in their daily lives: instead, their vision is to help students grasp computer literacy, which Stephen Wolfram defines as communicating with a computer in a way that will help you get a result you want. This is much more broadly applicable to most professions and a very important skill for the future.
Both Hadi and Ali were in my hometown of Madrid last week to speak at South Summit, and I managed to meet and interview Hadi Partovi, Code.org CEO!
I start by asking Hadi about his entrepreneurial journey, why he decided to build Code.org as a nonprofit, and his goal of reaching 1.5 billion students.
Scaling to a Billion Users
Alberto: You decided to build Code.org as a nonprofit versus going the venture path. Can you tell us more about this decision and what type of startups and founders do you recommend the nonprofit path for?
Hadi: The reason I chose to go the nonprofit path is because I knew from the very outset that I wanted the support of celebrities, world leaders, and most importantly teachers. The fact that we have President Obama, Shakira, Marcelo, or Neymar would not be possible if we were anything other than a nonprofit. In education, in particular, I think it is easier to reach a large scale as a nonprofit.
But this was particularly important in computer science because our most difficult challenge has been to change the culture and stereotypes around computer science, and to do that we needed the help of these celebrities. In other fields of education, such as math, you don’t need to convince schools that math is important. And schools have very real needs (and budgets) that a for-profit could successfully compete for.
It is harder for a nonprofit to attract the best people, especially in a technology company because we are competing with the highest salaried opportunities in the world. And the hardest challenge in a nonprofit is making sure that we have the funding available and eventually creating long-term sustainable funding streams because without that our future is unclear.
In most cases, even when aiming to have a social impact, it is easier to have a global scale when there is a for-profit business model. For example, look at Tesla. They have had more impact on decarbonization than any nonprofit could. And that is because their funding scales as their impact grows, and thus growth leads to even more growth.
Addressing the CS gap
Since launching in 2013, Code.org has been very transparent about its work and impact, publishing yearly impact reports and special reports on the state of Computer Science Education.
In your 2021 Computer Science Education report, you mention that 51% of US high schools offer computer science, yet only 4.7% of students are enrolled in courses – what is the main bottleneck here? And how do you envision Code.org or other organizations addressing this gap?
Great question. There are multiple reasons. First of all, stereotypes cause students to think that computer science is not meant for them, or that it is too hard. This in particular causes many women to avoid computer science and has been one of the hardest gaps to close. One way we are addressing it is by helping students learn computer science when they are younger. Another way is to use role models and student ambassadors to help break stereotypes.
Another reason is that many high schools teach only a single computer science course, instead of a pathway. In four years of high school, if there is only one course available, the maximum enrollment on average will be 25% of students per year. So another way to increase the annual enrollment is to offer more courses just like are available in math, or literature.
Ultimately, I believe that computer science will become mandatory for every student to graduate, and that will increase enrollment to the maximum possible.
Hadi’s advice for founders
Hadi has managed to build one of the greatest education initiatives in recent history, so I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to ask him about his advice for up-and-coming founders.
What are other projects you admire in the education sector?
I am a very big fan of KhanAcademy and Sal Khan. He was one of the very first people I reached out to before starting code.org, in order to hear his advice and learn from him. I was thankful that he took my call. I think it is important for entrepreneurs who reach success to help future entrepreneurs this way.
Another project I am a big fan of is the reading software Learning with Homer. It is software for tablets that helps the youngest learn to read, without a teacher. My own children learn to read English this way long before they started school, and I believe this could be a game-changer in much of the world where access to quality education is low
Code.org is one of the most ambitious projects in education in the last decade: what advice do you have for founders who want to address really big, hairy problems in education (vs. solving niche issues, getting a good exit early on, etc.)
First of all, I am not sure we would’ve been nearly as successful if we started our project as a for-profit company. Our ability to win the support of teachers, world leaders, and celebrities has really helped grow our impact, and I don’t know if that would’ve been possible as a for profit.
I have two pieces of advice for all founders:
1) the first is to hire amazing people and not to sacrifice on this early on. The first 10 people you hire will have more impact than anything else you personally do yourself. Once you’re a 10-person company, 90% of the work is what those 10 people do, and they also set the bar for everybody else you hire. One difficult but important mindset is to imagine that every person you hire should raise the average talent on your team. Each new hire is either reducing your team average, or raising it. The nature in companies is for the bar to lower over time, and it is especially important to avoid this early.
2) The second is to dream big. One of the early values we established at Code.org was to “think big, and act small”. It is easy to think incrementally, and acting like a small start up requires taking steps quickly, and maintaining agility. But the lesson from Code.org has been that dreaming the biggest dream actually helps with success, because people want to see us succeed. If we had only aimed to teach 100,000 students, people would expect us to do it on our own. Since our goal is 1.5 billion students, everybody wants to help us, because it inspires them. Every founder should aim to have a vision big enough to inspire future team members, investors, and customers.
I would love to hear what problems/pain points in the education space you would like edtech startups to solve in the next 10 years.
This is a difficult question because there are so many opportunities and I don’t know where to begin.
When I think globally, there are hundreds of millions of students who do not have access to quality education, nor even access to a computer with the Internet. A smartphone-based education system for teaching the basics in the developing world would be the first thing I think of.
My next thought is that the pandemic showed all of us that online learning can open opportunities. We need to think creatively about hybrid models combining online and in-person education. The greatest opportunity here is in the university system, especially in the United States where tuitions are absurdly expensive. I am sure that in the next 10 years we will see a rise of university alternatives that blend online and in-person learning. For example, watching lectures from the top universities on video, and then interacting with students and teaching assistance in person.
Another hybrid opportunity is for families that want the benefits of remote work. The pandemic has enabled millions of knowledge workers to work from anywhere, but they cannot do that unless somebody addresses education for their children. I do not know if this will be socially acceptable or not, but there is definitely a demand among families to be able to travel now that they can work from anywhere, many would love an option where their children can join them and move to new cities or countries, so long as school could be from anywhere. Doing this right would need to combine hybrid and remote learning, and is challenging because public education is governed locally, not globally.
Lastly, virtual reality has finally reached a point where the quality and affordability are worth investing in for really great educational experiences. There are plenty of subjects that could be taught more successfully in virtual reality. Or inspirational experiences that cause students to want to learn at greater depth. As the cost curve makes virtual reality devices cheaper and cheaper, there will be a growing opportunity to build specialized VR content for education.
Hadi is incredibly ambitious with his goal of becoming a billion-student startup – what does the future look like for Code.org?
Lastly, it's been almost 10 years since founding Code.org – where do you want it to be in 2031 when you all turn 20 years old?
We are rare among companies because we actually have very clear goals for 2030, and even for 2040. If I had to name a single goal for 2030, it would be that in the United States computer science has become mandatory for every student to learn at some point in their primary and secondary education. Whether they learn on Code.org or on another platform is secondary to this goal. This is how we ultimately reach our goal of every student in every school learning computer science. And if we achieve that goal by 2030, I believe the United States (because of its leadership in technology) will inspire the rest of the world to do the same by 2040.
It was a true honor to interview Hadi and learn about the history and future of Code.org – thank you Hadi for taking the time and opening up the playbook and learning behind such an inspiring project!
If you are helping the world learn to code, reply to this email and tell us more about what you are building! We want to hear from you and support you.
The Roundup ☀️
🌍 Our friends at Kibo School just announced their seed round to provide high-quality & low-cost STEM degrees to students across Africa! The Transcend Fund participated in this round for its first-ever official investment – join their founding class or their team now!
🇮🇳 Indian edtech startup, PhysicsWallah raises a $100 million Series A funding round, becoming the country’s 101st unicorn.
🇨🇳 Is Chinese Edtech making a comeback? With US edtech investment melting down, Chinese edtech stocks that got hammered last year are surging.
Network Jobs 👩💻
Looking for your next opportunity in the edtech + future of work space? Check out our Transcend Network Pallet to find the best job opportunities from our network:
Co-founder & CPO @ Hyphen (London)
Head of Learning @ Laboratoria (Remote)
Head of Operations @ Kibo (Nigeria)
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Great interview, Alberto! Super interesting to read about why they went the non-profit route. I see stereotypes affecting first time software engineering job seekers too.