Education has always held pride of place in Tom Davidson’s life and career. He ran for the Maine legislature from his college dorm, and went on to play a key role in enhancing broadband access to the state’s schools and libraries. Later in life, as a partner at Village Ventures, he funded early-stage technology companies in education before driving all the way down to Washington, D.C. to build a digital education startup. Five years on, EverFi is at the forefront of educational innovation, delivering life-enhancing and life-saving programs to over 14 million learners, many to sections of society that need it most.
Leveraging his passion for education and prior experience in venture capital, Davidson has raised over $60 million from a veritable who’s who of venture world – Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Twitter’s Evan Williams and Google’s Eric Schmidt, and marquee venture firms such as New Enterprise Associates, Advance Publications, Rethink Education, and Allen and Company.
In an interview with citybizlist’s Edwin Warfield, Davidson outlined his vision for EverFi. “I want it to be a very large standalone awesome software company that has chosen 15 or so areas that it wants to attack that are important to the country and is doing that really, really well and profitably,” he said, calling his goal a really simple one.
Davidson also explained why he believes in a combination of for-profit goals and social enterprise, and why companies like EverFi are best positioned to expand education access to all, besides sharing leadership secrets that won him a 99% employee approval rating and a place among Glassdoor’s highest-ranked CEOs.
A: I am not sure that being “supplemental” precludes you from doing anything in the core or vice versa. Now I will say this, the power of EverFi is in the network. It is in the school network, the teacher network, and the amount of students that are up on the platform, which gives us flexibility to—because of those relationships with districts and others—to really do whatever we want to do at the end of the day. I can’t imagine a world five years from now where we are not playing in some very, very specific part of the core. Having said that, when you think about the areas, the districts, teachers, and parents are trying to get their arms around. It might be bullying, it might be digital citizenship and comportment, it might be school safety. It might be financial literacy, obesity, nutrition, character, ethics, diversity, inclusion, Hispanic heritage, Black History Month, you know, these areas that are left very much wanting from what is in the market today and we could focus on those areas for the next five years and never go into the core and be perfectly happy. I have no idea where that rating came from.
Q: Glassdoor named you one of the highest-rated CEOs in 2016. Can you tell us some of your management secrets, philosophy etc.? What is the culture that you're trying to create at EverFi?
A: You know, you stay up at night writing your own reviews enough and post them, now I am just kidding, I was super proud of that for the company. I think I had made a joke at our last annual meeting where I put up a picture of me and my two co-founders up on the slide and I said, Jeez, all the work was done by that point in time like, you know, the cake had been baked and the reality is everything good that’s come out of this company has come from people who have walked in the door to work here since then and… but listen I mean we focus on culture and we focus on it like with a laser focus. Anyone who is going to work here and be successful including me is going to be an optimist. That’s not that you have blue birds flying around your head and things are happy all the time because most of the time anyone who runs a company will tell you it feels like the house is burning down around you.
An optimist is someone who at the end of the day believes that in the art of the possible that something can happen. You can punch above your weight class, out-punch your coverage, you know, pick your sports metaphor. I think at the end of the day I have tried to reinforce a couple of key themes to everybody. You know, I meet with everybody who starts to work here and I tell them this. Number one, have your partners’ and your teammates’ backs, and by that I mean we have a saying, you know, stab in the heart and praise to the back.
Walk around and talk behind people’s backs, talk ‘em up, tell people of how good someone else is doing at their job, don’t look for credit, just do your job and don’t think about whether you are going to get recognized for it, okay, and like trust me. These places, everyone knows what is going on with everybody and so I think that those are being reflected in a broader sense that this is a great place to walk in the door and work everyday. It is supportive, it is meaningful, it is important work and people have your back.
At the end of the day, I think that that is all we all want is we want to be a part of a team and we want to be working on something that we think is valuable and important, and you don’t want to work with the jackasses, you want to work with people who want to see you succeed and do well, and I think that reflected in, you know, the Glassdoor rating and other things that we have won along the way, it certainly is not the fact that I am some genius operator.
Q: Where do you see EverFi in 5 years?
A: My goal for EverFi is really simple. I want it to be a very large standalone awesome software company that has chosen 15 or so areas that it wants to attack that are important to the country and is doing that really, really well and profitably. Everything else after that whether we are public, private, owned by somebody else, you know, employee or whatever it is kind of the plumbing of the place and… but the core mission and everything, that’s I think what we have pointed the bow of the ship towards and are really going after it in a pretty hard way.
We have gone to Canada thus far and we do want to scale internationally. The great thing that I’ve learned. Listen, I am a first-time CEO. I learned a lot of this stuff by just falling down or getting it right, and I am not sure there is a big difference between either one in terms of how you go about it, but I will tell you this. Everything that we’ve done has always seemed like a much bigger deal than it ever winds up being, and I think going international is one of those things. It sounds crazy, difficult, you know, tough to jump the pond, tough to go into different languages whatever, but you know, we just started translating our programs into multiple languages. We just started, you know, implementing our programs out of the country and like anything else you just got to do it. You are going to stub your toe along the way and if it works then do that.
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