Today Meredith Olson, who is the CEO of the VELA Fund comes on the show to discuss the VELA Education Fund.
Mike McShane: Hello and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats and specifically our series What’s Up? with Mike McShane. I’m Mike McShane, director of national research at EdChoice, and today on the podcast, we’re going to try and answer the question, what’s up with VELA? VELA, or the VELA Education Fund, is a philanthropic organization that is doing some really cool and interesting stuff in education, and so today we’re going to talk to Meredith Olson, who is the CEO of the VELA Fund, joining us from beautiful Wichita, Kansas. I want to say here at the outset that this is the point where I should disclose conflicts of interest. I and EdChoice, we’ve partnered with VELA since before VELA was VELA, when it was in its early days. They’ve funded my research in the past, and so we have long and deep connections with one another. I’ve known Meredith for years, so I like to let people know that at a time so that it’s not just like I’m interviewing a stranger, but this is someone that I personally and that we at EdChoice have partnered with for a long time, so I just want all of you to know that before I have that conversation, but I think a really interesting opportunity to talk to VELA because they have a different view about how educational philanthropy should work. They’re trying to do something different. In a field where a lot of people kind of do the same thing, they’re doing something different, and I think it’s really interesting. Even if you don’t necessarily buy 100% into their theory of action, I think the lessons that they’re learning and the people that they’re uncovering and the stuff that they’re supporting has lots of stuff to teach all of you, and so I’ll stop flapping my gums here and we’ll get into it. Here is my conversation about VELA Fund with Meredith Olson. Well, Meredith it’s so great to have you on the podcast. We’ve known each other for so long. We’ve collaborated on so many things. Maybe we could start with, to set the stage, what is the VELA Fund trying to accomplish?
Okay, so Mike, happy to be here and always happy to talk about VELA and what we’re trying to do at VELA. VELA is an education fund that exists to identify and find those everyday entrepreneurs who are in our communities everywhere we live and work who are reimagining education in new and different ways and they’re doing so outside of traditional school environments. This is a movement that we see happening all around us and what we want to do is we want to give dignity to that movement, we want to highlight the incredible work that’s happening, and then we also want to invest in expanding these environments so that more and more students can have access. That’s our overall goal. Why do we care about it? Why is this so important to us? Well, a couple of things. Number one, we care deeply about education and the purpose of education. We believe that every person should be able to have access to education that lets them to develop into the person they want to be, that taps into their deeply held interest, talents, and motivations, and then equips them with the knowledge, the skills, the character, the values, and whatnot, so that they can ultimately find purpose and meaning in their life. That’s what we think education can and should be in its ideal state and we look around and we do see many students who are able to find that in their education, but we also see many students who are not, and that to us is a tragedy, and so we see a huge opportunity for transformation in the education space. How do we see that happening? If we think transformation is possible, and we do think it’s possible, we think that the kind of things that matter to families are the kinds of things that I just described about education, so how can you motivate the transformation that’s essential to deliver on this opportunity for kids? Well, we think that transformation can happen in existing school environments, can happen in existing public schools, or private schools, or charter schools, but we also believe that transformation is possible outside of those environments in new and unconventional ways. Importantly, we believe that if you want to see a system transform, it’s much more likely to happen if there are envelope-pushing alternatives that are happening that really cause you to reimagine what could be. For VELA, we intentionally invest in this unconventional out-of-system space. We do so because we see that as a space where innovators are able to practice their craft. We talk about permissionless innovation. What is permissionless innovation? Permissionless innovation is when you have an environment where entrepreneurs are able to innovate and offer new solutions without requiring the blessing of anyone. That means they don’t require the blessing of policy makers of education, funders of people who are in power. They’re able to innovate in response to serving the needs of their customers, who are the kids, the families, and the kids, so very intentionally, and this was a long preamble, very intentionally VELA invests in permissionless innovators who are innovating without requiring the blessing of anyone in order to satisfy the needs of families and kids. That’s the space that VELA’s in.
Mike McShane: Totally. How do you find these folks?
Meredith Olson: Great question. When we first got started, a little bit about the origin story of VELA, so there’s a small group, a small team of people who were just thinking, thinking about possibilities in education, thinking about innovation, thinking about permissionless approaches. This team was comprised of a handful of people from the Walton Family Foundation and the Stand Together community. I was a part of that team and we were thinking about this and we thought, “Gosh, we need to get smarter,” because we had heard stories. We’d heard anecdotes, we’d met people who were innovating outside of traditional environments, but we didn’t know a whole lot about it, and so we spent a couple years, this was in 2017 and 2018, just trying to get smarter and better understand what was happening. What we found was a broad diversity of approaches out there, everything from homeschooling that’s happening within a single-family home just for the family, to cooperative education, where you have multiple families who are joining together, to microschool environments, which are small learning environments, frequently headed up by an educator or a former teacher in a conventional environment. We saw co-learning communities. We saw self-directed learning communities. Basically, we saw this tapestry of ideas that were happening and we wanted to get smarter about it. We also found that there was a limited amount of research on the space, so we saw an opportunity to invest in the research, to invest in better understanding the space, and then to ultimately invest in the entrepreneurs who are making it happen. We ended up ultimately setting up a separate company, which became VELA, and it was funded in 2019 and 2020 through the generous support of the Walton Family Foundation and the Stand Together community. It has continued to grow with their support since that time. We are expanding to include a broader base of donors, which we’re very excited about to support this work. But you asked a question, “How did we find these entrepreneurs?” Well, at first we thought, if I rewind a few years ago, we thought it was going to be very difficult to identify and attract entrepreneurs to the work, and we couldn’t have been more wrong. It started small. We found a handful of really inspiring educators and school leaders who were doing incredible work. We then started working with some granting partners, so we developed a sub-grant partnership relationship with multiple entities. We ended up in 2020, when VELA became very public with our work, We worked with partners such as Camelback Ventures, the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, 4.0, the National Parents Union, Empowered, multiple organizations in order to work with them through their networks and identify entrepreneurs who were delivering education outside of traditional systems. By coming together arm-in-arm, we were able to attract innovators to this movement, and since that time it’s just grown and grown. At this point, we do have a rolling grant application process, and so when folks are interested in applying, they can apply on our website, and we ask, “How did you hear about us?” More than 50% of our applications now work through referrals from other grant recipients, so it’s a word of mouth.
Mike McShane: Totally. About how many grants have you given thus far?
Meredith Olson: As of this week, and keep in mind, they’re always going out-
Mike McShane: It’s always changing.
Meredith Olson: It’s always changing, but as of this week, VELA has awarded 1,352 grants totally $13.5 million.
Mike McShane: Now, if I do the math on that, it would seem to me that there are lots of opportunities to get smaller grants, and I think one of the really interesting things about VELA is that, could you talk a little bit about the grant sizes and who’s eligible for what?
Meredith Olson: Sure thing. Also intentional into VELA’s design was that we wanted to provide much easier access to capital for people who are trying innovative things, and so in doing that, we decided to reduce what would be a typical education grant size. If you think about the funders who invest innovative opportunities, they tend to invest at a very high dollar amount, right, so in excess of three, four, 500,000 for a potential grantee, the investments require a substantial amount of upfront due diligence, they oftentimes will be for a multi-year period, and they’re very tightly controlled because of the level of risk involved. Instead of going in with a lot of control on the front end, right, and investing in the more typical set of, we want to invest in world-class models that have an evidence back track record of success and a proven ability to scale, right? We hear this all the time, and we love those approaches, we do, and we’re glad that they happen, and we want to see more of that. We wanted to invest in a different part of the market. We wanted to be below that amount. When VELA was first established, we thought, “You know what? We want to come in and offer grants up to 250,000. And you know what? We could do maybe 15 to 2200 $50,000 grants per year.” What we found, and very much, we have an ethos at VELA of wanting to learn through experience and experimentation, and then adapt our approach just to continuously learn and improve, we want to be nimble, and we want to see what’s happening in the market and support it rather than trying to steer it, and so what we saw was there was an incredible amount of demand from a diverse set of entrepreneurs whose needs were much lower than going out with those large grant sizes. We ended up solving for, we offer three tranches of grants, so we offer micro-grants up to 25,000. We offer what we call next-step grants up to 50,000, and then what we call bridge grants up to 250,000, and so if you think about our total portfolio, we’ve done 1,352 grants to date. The large majority are small micro-grants. I believe the median grant size is about $9,000, so typically, applicants will apply for $2,500 or $10,000. There is limited due diligence on the front end. It shouldn’t take longer than about 30 minutes. You can apply on your mobile device, submit an application, answer a series of questions about how you are reimagining, learning, how you are serving kids in nontraditional ways, how you think about success, what’s important to you, and how are you going to measure whether or not it’s working, and so it’s a pretty skinny set of questions. We make decisions rapidly within about 30 days and then grant funding goes out the door. That’s our micro-grant portfolio. It’s a high-risk tolerance, very low threshold portfolio, and then we invite our grant recipients of micro-grants to come alongside us so that we can do research with them, invite them into our community so that they can get to know their peers, so that they can get to know others so they can share knowledge and know how and resources together and then learn and improve. Large portfolio, the large majority of our grants are these small micro-grants.
Mike McShane: That’s what I think is so fascinating. I mean, it’s a mindset shift, right, of saying, “Well, listen.”
Meredith Olson: Right.
Mike McShane: I think, as you mentioned, one of the questions that I wanted to ask about this was a tolerance with risk, with saying, “Hey, listen, we’re not going to ask for a sort of blood and hair sample in addition to everything that you get in there,” that anybody who’s been on here, who’s applied for a more traditional grant will know that’s an incredible amount of, as you mentioned, due diligence that goes into those, and I think just based out of an idea, a perfectly reasonable one, that we don’t want to see money stolen or wasted or any of those things. But there’s a trade-off, right, that the more do you sort of ask of people, the limited number of people that have the bandwidth to do that, or that are in a position to be able to have it happen, so I’m curious, trying to get the money to give to these folks is that a conversation you have to have and saying, “Hey, listen, there’s more traditional ways of philanthropic giving that are if you give to the art museum or whatever, they’ll buy a painting, it’ll hang on the wall. There’s nothing that can really go south with that one.” But we want to mix it up a little bit. We want to take some chances on people, and we don’t know, some of these things, I imagine if you do 1352 of anything, some of them ain’t going to work, right? It’s just not, it’s just the way the numbers work, so how are you able to convince the folks? ‘Cause, I mean, I think it’s a wonderful thing, you’d like to see more of it. What does that conversation look like?
Meredith Olson: Great question. Again, word of mouth is our best marketing, and so oftentimes at recipients and our new applicants have heard about VELA from their friends, from others in their community, from people who have already experienced it, so that tends to be the teaser. We are very transparent about what we invest in, why and how, and show a lot of narrative examples through our social media pages, as well as through our website. Then once you are welcomed into the VELA community, we do have frequent virtual meetings. We also, depending on location, we have some live convenings where we talk about, we invite people in, we share them, why we value them so much, and then how they can become a part of the community, and then we also invite them into, we have a private social community. It’s on Mighty Networks and it’s for all of our grant recipients, so they’re able to interact and share knowledge there, and then also get more information about what VELA’s all about and why they’re such a valued part. Then I want to touch on, Mike, you mentioned something about risk, and I want to touch on this because I think this is really important. Part of what we’re trying to do at VELA is really disrupt the approach to philanthropy for these types of early-stage smaller investments, so we’re investing on a trust basis. Rather than coming in as the funder with a set of, “Here are the 20 eligibility requirements and then here are the 20 different things you need to in order to deliver on this grant funding,” instead, what we do is we say, “We’ve seen your application. We believe in you. We trust you to go do what you know you need to do in order to serve the families and kids that are in your care. You know their needs better than we do. We don’t know. We’re a funder. You’re smart, you’re in your community, and you’ve got a view on how children should be educated, and you’ve got a view on how you can best serve, so go ahead and execute on that.” Here’s what we see happening, and this is where I think the risk actually gets dialed down, what happens is when you treat people that way, when you build trust, when you give them the dignity to make decisions that they know are in the best interest of their businesses and in serving their customers, their families, their kids, three things happen. Number one, creativity goes through the roof because they’re unconstrained. They’re able to freely adapt their services to meet the needs of the kids and the families, okay, so we see all kinds of wild and wacky approaches to education and we see it happening because people have the ability to do it, right, and we’re not constraining that creativity. The second thing we see is confidence. For most of our VELA grant recipients, this is the first dollar of funding they’ve ever received from anyone, okay? Maybe they had a good idea, they’ve had a proof of concept. Maybe they’ve been in operation for two, three, four years, and they didn’t know that someone else maybe believed in them. Yes, they have families who are receiving benefits and services from them, but to have a funder come in and say, “You know what? I believe in you, and I want to see you grow,” it creates such a mindset shift. What we’ve heard over and over again from our supported grant recipients is, “You believed in me. I already believed in myself, but you believed in me. That gave me even more confidence to grow my business, to serve more kids so that I could be even more effective.” They love that, right, because they’re living in a state of adaptation and creativity, and now they’ve got this confidence to do it. Then the third thing that happens is, and you touched on this a little bit, Mike, it’s the increasing the access to capital. You don’t need to be someone who has been working in education for decades, or working in education reform for decades, or maybe as a policy expert, or a pedagogy expert. You know what? You can be someone who is serving families. That increases the scope of who can be an entrepreneur. We see broad diversity. We see socioeconomic diversity. We see demographic diversity. We have entrepreneurs who are in urban, rural, suburban environments. We’re all across the country. We’re in every state. We’re in three US territories with entrepreneurs. If you look at demand where it’s coming from, more than I want to say, it’s about 52% of VELA entrepreneurs identify as people of color. We ask our VELA entrepreneurs, “As a practitioner, how do you identify yourself? Do you identify yourself as an entrepreneur, as a teacher, as a family, as a community leader?” In many cases, our entrepreneurs, they’re all of the above, but we ask them to pick one. About a third identify first as teachers, but a plurality, the greatest number about 40% identify as entrepreneurs first, and so it’s this mindset that folks are bringing as they come in, it’s really changing the conception of who can be an entrepreneur, and at what level, and how they can gain access to the capital to build their businesses.
Mike McShane: Now, I think we’ve been sort of teasing a few of these things there. Do you have a couple of examples of programs, organization, schools that y’all have funded? Just any of them off the top? Again, there’s 1300, so you can’t possibly do justice to all of them, but just to give the little. Obviously, everyone can go to your website, and you guys have a great YouTube channel that highlights lots of stuff, so this will only be the movie trailer of them, but I’d love to hear just one or two kind of cool things that y’all have been able to fund.
Meredith Olson: Sure thing. There’s so many different examples. Gosh, we probably do have 20 or 30 videos out there where you can see specific examples and get a peek right inside a small learning environment. From a categorization standpoint, we invest essentially in just a handful of areas. Those include small learning environments, people who are, they’re delivering education outside of a traditional environment and they’re doing it daily. That would be one. We also invest in content and learning materials, people who are developing project-based learning modules, or maybe they’re developing a gamified assessment approach to mathematics delivered via technology. Maybe they have alternate methods of assessment, or we see a lot of pedagogy-specific materials, classical curriculum, lots of different things in this content, and learning materials. What’s interesting for us is that the folks with whom we’re working are tending to try to distribute these materials to the unconventionally school population, right, so they’re designed with that in mind versus being designed for a traditional school environment, which is a different thing, and so we’re excited about the proliferation of ideas in the content space. Then finally, the third category are really what we call learner and family support, so train-the-trainer models, or counseling-type models, super-counseling models where people are enabling learners and families to pursue education in a different way, and then giving them confidence to do so. Those are the broad categories. Size-wise, we have everything from very small numbers of students serve, to we have some grantees who are serving tens of thousands, and even one that’s serving hundreds of thousands of people as they have grown. I’ll give an example. One of our first investments was in Prenda when Prenda was pretty small, and so that was going back, I want to say, three years ago now. At the time, Prenda was operating in one state in Arizona and VELA’s support helped enable Prenda to expand outside of that state to additional states, and the organization is now, I believe they’re serving more than 3,000 students in six states and have several hundred guides who receive support for microschool administration and microschool models via Prenda. That’s an early one. There are school leaders right now who maybe they’ve started with serving 15 students, they’ve doubled to serve 30 students, maybe they have two or three sites, and they’re in the process of developing their own, call it Prenda-like models. We have a number out there. Adamo has been serving 38 students. They’re taking on 80 more students and they’re building out a microschool model for replication. Another one would be Barefoot University, which is a nature-based, or a forest-based outdoor learning approach. Barefoot University, I believe they’re in Texas serving about 900 kids today. They’re growing to serve 2300 and open 15 chapters. You see this kind of activation happening around small learning environments. We see a lot of homeschool co-ops and homeschool resource centers. There’s one in South Carolina called Classeteria, which is a homeschool resource center that’s based in a shopping mall where you can come in and you can gain access to all the resources you need so that you can learn how to start your own homeschool co-op, which, here again, a homeschool co-op isn’t materially different than a microschool, and is not very different than maybe a small private school, but these types of environments get classified in different ways in different states, but oftentimes, they’re offering a very similar experience. Those are a few of those examples.
Mike McShane: Sure.
Meredith Olson: Then let me, I’ll share this one because we do have, I mentioned counseling support, this is really an important element in the non-conventional or unconventional space. I’ll just read the description that one of our entrepreneurs provided. Here’s an entrepreneur who received a $2,500 grant, so small grants, and she says, “My business empowers families to make choices for their children. I coach parents on different alternatives in our area, as well as customizing curriculum and how to do a variety of tasks, such as recordkeeping, or how to apply successfully to college. I also provide weekly or monthly accountability for these parents and students so that they stay on task with their goals. Additionally, I serve our community of homeschool families with innovative classes, where I teach a variety of subjects, as well as one-on-one tutoring. I specialize in out-of-the-box kids, Socratic style learning, STEM, and also the special needs community.” These are the types of services that we’re seeing. That would be a typical, very small investment in someone who is actively going out and serving, in this case, 42 families.
Mike McShane: Now, how do you all measure success? How do you know that what you’re doing is working?
Meredith Olson: I’ll answer this in two ways, how does VELA measure success, and then how do our entrepreneurs measure success. At VELA, for us, what we want to see is we want to see increased dynamism and openness in the education market. We want to see more people being exposed to more ideas where they’re more open-minded and willing to try something different. Part of what we’re doing is we’re trying to increase access to unconventional education experiences to as many people as possible. Our entrepreneurs, to date, have been able to reach 5.8 million kids. Some of those experiences are very narrow and very deep and some are much more shallow touches, right? But part of what we’re trying to do is inspire people to think differently about education. We do that through investment and entrepreneurs who are directly serving. We also do that in shining a light on the narratives that exist. VELA has had more than 200 mainstream media stories. Our entrepreneurs have been featured in just about every publication, both national and in local media. We’ve been on broadcast TV. We had one of our grantees offers in an unconventional learning environment run out of a skateboarding shop. It’s a surfing and skateboarding shop in South Florida where kids see their education and they also are learning a craft. Two of those students went on to compete in skateboarding at the Olympics in Tokyo. That was a fun media story that we had happen. But we’re thinking if we shine a light on how kids are pursuing education in new and different ways, if we increase the exposure so that more and more can do it, then we start to stimulate normalization of these different approaches, so we’re measuring our success in terms of dynamism and student served, in increasing adoption, and seeing more and more people taking a new approach to their education. That’s what we care about at VELA is developing this community that’s making that happen. When we think about our community, what does it mean? What does success look like for a VELA entrepreneur? That’s defined by each of our entrepreneurs. Most of our entrepreneurs, and I can talk about trends, right? It’s not going to be the same for everyone because they’re each unique and different, but the trends that we see, generally, they want to create rigorous learning experiences is a big part of why they’re operating outside of traditional environments is because they want greater rigor, right? How they measure that might be in different ways. While some of our entrepreneurs do rely on standardized assessments, state tests, NWEA, or Iowa tests, I would say that the large majority of our grant recipients, and we do have research on this, we’ve got a research report it’s called classrooms anywhere available on our website, where we asked that question, we did deep research on our grantee community and asked, “How do you evaluate success? How do you think about assessment?” Standardized assessment would be one method, but the large majority of our grantees evaluate strength of project-based work, acquisition of skills, mastery-based competencies, they look at portfolios, they look at project work, they look at writing, they interview families, and kids, and so I would say it’s more of a traditional assessment approach that maybe we had before the rise of standardized multiple-choice testing. We see that more commonly. Also, when we ask our grantees how they personally measure the success of their business, something that jumps straight to the top is, “Look, I want to make sure that my kids are thriving, that they’re becoming confident and creative learners and that my business is growing, meaning I have demand, people want in, and so I have a waitlist, I have more demand out there than I can even serve.” They define success as, “Gosh, people like the services I’m delivering, and there’s more people who want it,” so they’re measuring in terms of demand. They’re also measuring their success in their ability to get better. One of the things that VELA offers to its grant recipients is connection to other entrepreneurs all across country so that even as they are independent and autonomous and driving their own businesses, they want to learn and improve, so they want to learn from their peers, and so there’s a ton of knowledge sharing, there’s a ton of resource sharing. Let’s say you’re operating a small learning environment and another VELA grant recipient has an admin platform for people who operate small learning environments, they come together quite frequently, or I’m operating this in learning environment, but I’m always open to new ideas about content, they go, and they tap into these content resources, and then the person who’s offering the content resources is saying, “Man, I really love the product, but I want it to get better,” so they’re seeking feedback from people who are deploying it, so there’s a little bit of, it’s like there’s mutual benefit happening, and so people are improving collectively together, even as they are independent operators.
Mike McShane: When you look to the future, where would you like to see VELA go in the next, maybe five, 10 years?
Meredith Olson: Where VELA wants to go, as we mature over time, is we want to continue to invest in our grant portfolio so that more and more families and kids can benefit, but what we want to see happen is we’re looking to create this sustainable ecosystem of permissionless innovation, so success to us looks like a community of people who are supporting one another, where they’re able to get access to capital, to connection, to confidence, to capacity building, where they’re getting better together, where they have a sense of belonging, they’re improving together, and we’re celebrating success, and people want in, and they want to learn more about it, where there’s a real sense of shared ownership and sense of belonging, and VELA becomes that engine for people who are really reimagining education in a different way. Over time, we just want to grow this work, and we want to attract people to it, and then we would like to be the subject matter expert on permissionless innovation in the education space.
Mike McShane: Well, Meredith Olson, thanks so much for helping us all understand what’s up with VELA.
Meredith Olson: Thank you, Mike.
Mike McShane: Well, I hope you enjoyed that conversation as much as I did. I think VELA encourages us to think differently about philanthropic dollars in education, about who should be the recipient of things, about questions of size and scale and risk and I think that there’s a really incredible opportunity that they have there. As I said, they were one of the early funders of Prenda when it was much smaller when you’re giving out something like 1300-plus grants in order to enact an enormous amount of change in education, not all 1352 have to lead to success. If you can fund 10 or 15 or 100 truly transformative innovations, that can do a whole lot to improve education in America and around the world, and so I’m really excited. Obviously, it’s early days for them, even though they’ve already given out more than 1300 grants. I think they have a really interesting future ahead of them. I think the groups that they’re working with have interesting futures, the entrepreneurs that they’re uncovering, and I would not be surprised if in the next 10, 15, or 20 years, we look back and we see, oh, wow, that new organization, or that new school or that person who really did something cool and transformative, that Vela’ fingerprints are not on there somewhere, whether they funded them at the very early stages, or the slightly later stages, I just have this sneaking suspicion that when we look back on some of these successes or hopeful successes that we have in the future, we’ll see VELA’s support. As always, thank you so much for listening. Please like and subscribe to this podcast, or I guess rate it, like it, and subscribe, YouTube. See, this is how not cool I am. Maybe I listened to too many YouTube videos where they say “Like and subscribe.” Subscribe, minimum subscribe. I think it’s probably rate and subscribe would be more appropriate. Give us a nice five-star rating on iTunes, or I don’t even know if you can rate things on Spotify. It shows, again, how with it I am. I’m always looking for new cool people to talk to a lot of the folks, not unlike the folks at the VELA Fund that I hear from are from word of mouth, so if you know a cool organization, institution, individual doing stuff in K12 education in America, give me a shout. Let me know. You can always follow me on Twitter. I’m @mq_mcshane. Always check out EdChoice’s website, www.edchoice.org. You know the spiel at this point. I’m remiss, I do it too frequently, but I’m not going to do it here to thank Jacob Vinson and our great folks we have, various summer interns at this time, and I feel terrible that I don’t know some of their names, but brave dear interns, if you helped make this podcast possible, thank you so much. We really appreciate it. I look forward to chatting with all of you again on the next edition of EdChoice Chats, and specifically on a new What’s Up? episode, where we find out what’s up with some interesting thing happening in education.