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.
EDWIN WARFIELD: You served three terms in the Maine House of Representatives and led a successful effort to provide laptops for Maine seventh graders. Following that you became a venture capitalist with Village Ventures. Can you tell us about the history and the launch of EverFi. What inspired you to launch EverFi?
TOM DAVIDSON: It really came from both experiences, my time in the state legislature and then my time as a very subpar venture capitalist after that. There were really two things that came out. One was I had sat on a lot of committees in Maine that dealt with access to education, access to broadband, and it became very clear that there were these issues that no one paid attention to within the school day. Things like financial literacy, student loan preparation, summer learning loss, alcohol responsibility, that you could see the effects of in my policy life, but you also knew that there was never going to be any money to pay for it, and that was really where my experience working with the early stage technology companies came in. It created an opportunity. It created a whole new way of thinking about this to actually attack these issues as a company using scale and technology, and that’s really where those two ideas came together and that was the germinating moment of EverFi.
Nine years ago, today, this very day, we loaded up into an RV that was on its last legs before we went on the trip and I think its still is the hazmat zone somewhere being cleaned out to this day. But we knew that we really wanted to do was beyond the ground talking to teachers, folks in the community, parents, educators, superintendents, and others to find out really the issues where the rubber hits the road.
We literally started in Trenton, New Jersey, drove, stopped off at the inauguration for President Obama, and made our way through the south through the Mississippi Delta through Coosa County Alabama and the Black Belt, made our way through East Baton Rouge Parish into the farm towns of Texas, the Tiguas reservations of Texas and Arizona, and eventually wound up in Los Angeles.
It was an incredible journey that I don’t think we could ever state strongly enough how important that was to us because we really just learned so much about how school systems worked, saved us a ton of time thinking about how technology could actually be integrated in the schools. We did all that with…honestly it was like a couple of 100 bucks. All of us, you know, didn’t have the proverbial pot when we started this company. We hadn’t raised any money. We did everything on our credit cards. We were all broke, and, you know, that couple of $1,000 to rent that RV was literally everything at that point, to the point where the last night of that, you know, are sleeping on a couch in the lobby of a hotel because that was how…how lean things were as we were trying to build our early technology and get this thing off the ground.
Q: Can you tell us about the decision to launch your company in Washington?
A: I started the company initially with my good friend from college, a guy named Jon Chapman; and we had all gone to Bowdoin College together. Jon told me the second day we were together, he said, you know, the first thing that we’re going to do, if we can ever afford it, is bring Ray Martinez on, who I’d known a little bit from college. Ray was the star quarterback, you know, held a bunch of records at Bowdoin, and didn’t talk to me much when we were in college and so…and so we brought on Ray, you know, within a year of starting the company and we all shared the same thing. They had a really great background in education and particularly in operations and managing people and growing businesses as part of Kaplan, which at the time was owned by the Washington Post and, you know, they had real education chops from an operations perspective. I had policy side of the house and really the finance side of the house, and all three of us cared a ton about kids in classrooms at the end of the day, so it was the perfect marriage. To this day, you know, I think cofounders and folks who start companies are supposed to end up hating each other and not trusting each other, and suing each other at the end of the day. I still talk to these guys five times a day. We work side by side doing everything in the company, and huge amount of love and trust there that’s been there since the beginning.
I will tell you, number one, it’s where Jon and I were both living, and so that made sense. Ray was living in La Jolla and San Diego and still I think curses us to this day that he can’t surf every morning. Jon and I were here and my network was heavily based here, but having said all that, what we learned very quickly was there is…there is literally no better place in the world to launch an education technology company than the Baltimore-Washington, you know, broader Baltimore-Washington corridor. The reason is you certainly have the policy apparatus here, department of education here is interesting, thought leadership is here, but more than that you have about 10 very interesting cornerstone companies in the education space, from Blackboard to Strayer to Sterling partners and all their companies. Laurier, you know, K-12, 2U, and you just go down the line. Those are the extraordinary amount of entrepreneurs, and so one of the things that we benefited from the people that have, you know, been through the rodeo at a Blackboard or somewhere then you get this from an education technology perspective that we were able to bring into the company and that was a big help. You couldn’t do that anywhere and you certainly can’t do it in Silicon Valley. This place has unique advantages to being an education company that West Coast companies will never, you know, have.
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