Since it was created about seven years ago, Village Capital has worked with more than 500 companies worldwide and invested in early-stage ventures in areas such as agriculture, energy, finance and health. But recently, the Washington, D.C., venture capital firm has had a larger focus on education as technology becomes more pervasive in classrooms. Led by Marissa Lowman, who came on board as the education sector lead about six months ago, Village Capital is running several programs specifically designed to cultivate edtech startups — and investing in those that aim to close the skills gap.
Below is the edited and condensed transcript of an interview with Lowman.
EdScoop: How is Village Capital involved in the edtech business?
Marissa Lowman: Village Capital invests across five sectors, and education is one of them. So we run programs for education startups that are pretty early stage to help them grow and get connected to investors as well as their own peers.
ES: What kind of edtech startups are you working with, and how do you go about selecting them?
ML: Every year, we come up with a thesis around a particular topic that we think is most relevant in the sector. So for the past two years, we’ve focused specifically on workforce development startups, and within that, we’ve had a focus on credentialing. So companies that are focused on higher ed and college persistence. In terms of the selection process, we recruit companies from all over the country to participate in the program. They have to go through an application process. We look specifically for companies outside of Silicon Valley, Boston and New York City, as well as companies founded by women and minority entrepreneurs.
We’re really focused on democratizing entrepreneurship and giving resources to entrepreneurs that don’t traditionally receive venture capital. We’re essentially trying to level the playing field.
ES: How many companies are you working with now?
ML: We just had a program end in September, and that had 12 companies in the program.
ES: Can you talk a little bit about the process?
ML: Once the company is selected and becomes part of our program, we run three monthlong series of workshops in three different cities. This year, our workshops were in Washington, D.C., Phoenix and Denver. We selected those cities based on what’s most relevant to that theme and sector; we looked at Phoenix as a tech hub, as well as a hub for higher education. With Arizona State University, they’re doing a lot with edtech startups in terms of piloting them. The first four-day workshop is focused on honing their pitches, the second workshop is focused on customer development, and we bring in mentors that are potential stakeholders or customers for these companies and have them build relationships and help them scale. The third workshop is focused on investment, so really bringing in education-focused investors to meet with them and potentially invest in the company.
ES: Why is it important to invest your time and energy in these startups?
ML: Startups that we work with, we invest time and resources into them because we really believe they are the future of workforce development. In terms of job creation, they are directly creating jobs as they expand their companies and indirectly expanding services to students, helping them get jobs post-college or when they change careers.
ES: Is there a particular startup that is creating an interesting new model?
ML: One of the companies we recently invested in is called Upswing, and they are focused on really helping nontraditional students persist through college. They provide a virtual student services platform to allow students access to tutoring, career counseling and other services like that. Most nontraditional students are taking classes online, they might be enrolled in community college, they are generally older than a typical four-year undergraduate.
ES: How long have you been helping startups get a leg up?
ML: Village Capital was founded seven years ago, so we’ve been working with startups throughout that time period. We continue to be really excited about workforce development as a sector, and we plan to focus on it for next year’s program as well, because we believe there’s such a big opportunity for startups to support the new model of work that’s evolving.