Venture Capital

How A Black Female Edtech Founder Attracted $12.1 Million In Venture Capital

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In a typical year, more than eight million students are academically at risk because of school absenteeism. That number tripled to 25 million during the Covid-19 crisis. “Making phone calls, sending letters or postcards, isn’t scalable,” said Joanna Smith, CEO at AllHere and one of the 2021 Forbes 30 Under 30. Nor are those tactics particularly effective.

Smith’s company is an edtech company curbing chronic absenteeism in K-12 schools with mobile messaging powered by article intelligence (AI). It uses evidence-based interventions to help K-12 school districts implement family outreach strategies and keep track of which ones effectively get students to show up. Half of the achievement gap can be traced to absenteeism, Smith said. It’s what inspired her to launch AllHere.

Smith thought that absenteeism could be solved if school administrators had an app that provided a list of kids at risk of being chronically absent. But administrators didn’t want anything that would add to their to-do list.

The idea for AllHere is based on Smith’s previous experience as a school family-engagement director at Excel Academy Charter Schools in Boston. She recalls being “stymied with countless paper forms and long, reactive processes” when reaching out to students and parents.

There’s also a prevailing assumption that most kids who miss school don’t care and are ditching it on purpose, Smith told EdSurge. But her work and research have uncovered that there are other environmental factors in place, including difficulties with health, housing, food, and transportation.

Her first version of the platform failed miserably; Smith told Dennis Keohane of Harvard Innovation Labs Stories. Failing fast was a godsend. When the first version of AllHere failed, Smith went back to the drawing board. She spoke to school administrators and learned that the superintendents had the fiscal responsibility for solving the problem. The key to getting market traction was meeting their needs. Knowing who the real decision-makers were, she built a product that met the needs of school superintendents.

Most importantly, Smith listened. She replaced the online attendance platform with chatbots that use behavioral science and interactive nudges to encourage attendance and engagement of children in K-12.

The bot sends personalized two-way text messages to families to improve student attendance rates 24/7. Chatbots are software applications that use artificial intelligence and natural language processing to understand what an individual wants, then guide them there. It’s like a virtual assistant for your customer experience.

When AllHere launched its first chatbot, schools embraced the service as they faced a crisis in student attendance and engagement issues related to virtual learning. AllHere’s approach has been proven through randomized, controlled trial research to reduce chronic absenteeism by 17%, reduce course failures by 38%, and increase student retention.

Under normal circumstances, parents—especially those with more than one job—face stress. That stress level increased exponentially during Covid-19. The past year presented a window of opportunity to move beyond mailings and in-person support to leverage personalized, two-way text messages to improve attendance, the number one indicator of student success in K-12 education.

The number of schools using AllHere grew over 700% in the last year to 8,000 schools across 34 states, helping 2 million students and families across the U.S.

As a Black female founder with no cofounders, Smith faced an extremely steep uphill battle to raise money, but she did it. Her white male counterparts often have access to friends and family who invest in the pre-seed round. Black women hold more than 90% less wealth than American white men, according to Goldman Sachs Research. Black and Latinx female founders in the U.S. raised $953 million in venture capital in the first quarter of 2021, according to ProjectDiane 2021. That’s a pathetic 1.5% of all venture capital raised in the US in 2021 going to Black and Latinx female founders.

Against the odds, Smith has raised $12.1 in investment capital to date. AllHere launched using $5,000 from Smith’s savings. Through her participation in the Harvard Innovation Labs, she met Rethink Education, a VC investing in edtech startups with rigorous pedagogy, strong business models, and a proven product-market fit. It invested $250,000 in both 2018 and 2019. Rethink introduced Smith to another VC, which invested $100,000 in 2019. It is not lost upon Smith that even with the backing of Harvard’s incubator, access to investors and startup capital is still inequitable depending on a person’s circumstances.

AllHere’s recently announced $8 million series A round was led by Spero Ventures. It included previous investors, like Rethink Education, Gratitude Railroad, Potencia Ventures, Boston Impact Initiative, and new investors, including Softbank’s Opportunity Fund, Operator Collective, and Yard Ventures.

How has iterating based on user research helped your business grow?

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