“Education has opened every door for me in my life.”
The son of two educators, Evan Marwell, CEO and Co-Founder of the massive infrastructure project EducationSuperHighway, grew up surrounded by great intellect and teachers who showed him what was possible in public education.
Doors opened for higher education, for employment in the management consulting field, then at Harvard Business School. That is where Marwell, a 2019 YPO Global Impact Honoree, decided it was time to open doors of his own.
He started businesses in the eastern U.S., including a telecom services business that capitalized on the newly hatched cellphone industry. His profits led him to San Francisco, California, USA, to launch Criterion Capital Management, which he and a partner grew from USD4 million to USD1.4 billion by 2010.
“Then I got my eight-year itch and decided I really wanted to do something to have an impact and make a difference in the world,” Marwell says.
That something, EducationSuperHighway, has helped level the playing field for more than 40 million U.S. public school students regardless of location or economic situation by giving them access to high speed internet in the classroom. Before this, most schools either had no internet access or ran on such narrow bandwidth students could not conduct simple research or access educational content online.
Marwell’s vision for EducationSuperHighway manifested in three distinct stages.
Stage 1: a deep dive
Marwell discovered the book, Bold Endeavors by Felix Rohatyn, where he learned about 10 infrastructure projects that changed the face of America, such as the trans-continental railroad and the land grant university system.
“Basically, Rohatyn’s argument was that only the government was big enough to do these things and we need the government to take on a similar role in the 21st century,” he says.
But Marwell also realized something more personal, that every project was the result of one person who had a vision for something bold and kept at it until the government got on board with the funding.
“I said to myself, ‘You know what? That’s what I want to do.’”
Stage 2: a problem surfaces
Marwell kept the idea in the back of his mind until the next revelation occurred. Naturally, it happened at a school.
He urged his daughter’s elementary school teachers to employ online learning, such as Kahn Academy and TED Talks. They told him they had tried but very few students at a time could watch videos before their system seized. They had been forced to abandon that path.
As Marwell listened to the teachers, the second part of his vision clicked into place: The content was there, as was the will, “they just had lousy internet.”
“So now I have this bold endeavor ‘do a big infrastructure project’ in my head and had this, you know, internet problem at my daughter’s school in my head.”
Then the phone rang.
Stage 3: the president calls
As a Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur, Marwell was invited to join a roundtable with U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chief Technology Officer, Aneesh Chopra, to discuss how technology could be used to strengthen the United States.
Having learned through research that “80 percent of schools had lousy internet,” he says, Marwell told the President he thought fixing schools’ internet would strengthen the country.
Marwell thought his idea had fallen flat when he was told the U.S. government already was spending USD2.4 billion annually to deliver internet to public schools. Instead, President Obama encouraged him to fix the problem, opened doors to agencies and people who could help, and suggested he start a nonprofit to lead the way.
EducationSuperHighway was born.
Veni, vidi, vici
Marwell’s team worked state-by-state, enlisting governors — the states’ CEOs — to help open doors to independent school districts. The EducationSuperHighway team — just 70 people at its peak — worked with local contractors and internet providers to raise awareness and tackle whatever was slowing the internet down in each school.
Some needed fiber laid. Most needed connections in classrooms. And all needed to buy more internet service. Given slim school budgets, that meant successfully negotiating down the price of access.
They worked with 49 of the 50 United States (Kentucky already had fiber optic and opted not to participate) to upgrade services in the roughly 80,000 public school buildings in the United States. Of the 20,000 schools that needed infrastructure upgrades, only 1,350 still need fiber optic connections, mostly in small towns and rural communities.
When EducationSuperHighway launched in 2012, there were about 4 million students out of 47 million in U.S. public schools who had access to broadband strong enough to meet the needs in the classroom. Today, there are nearly 45 million students with that access.
“In 2019, we have a little over 2 million to go,” Marwell says. “And our expectation is that by 2020 we will have reached 99 percent of U.S. schools and we will actually go out of business. August 31, 2020. We’re done.”
Where’s this highway leading?
Marwell sees two areas that will require follow up: Steadily increasing the amount of internet bandwidth districts purchase and helping teachers employ technology.
“But the good news is the infrastructure is in place now,” Marwell says. “We’re building a product to leave behind, to give states and school districts data on who still needs to upgrade bandwidth and how to find better deals.
“I think we have set the stage for these leaders to continue driving upgrades going forward.”
Working with government at all levels has opened more doors to what may be Marwell’s next bold endeavor: leveraging data and technology to make government “dramatically more effective.”
“If you want to solve big problems, government has to be a part of it, and we have this incredible opportunity to improve it,” he says.
“The last seven years of work for me have without question been the most satisfying seven years of my career,” Marwell says. “I’m very interested in staying in the impact business and making a difference, every day.”