How to create a nonprofit in Silicon Valley


An unidentified student at the University of British Columbia. (Martin Dee/AP)

Perhaps Ram, also known as “Pram,” does have something up his sleeve. In an area dedicated to creating some of the nation’s most highly valued companies, Ram, a former executive at Yahoo! and Google, has created something relatively few others have pursued — a technology nonprofit in Silicon Valley.

“So you can imagine this conversation,” said Ram regarding when he came home to his wife and announced that he would be leaving his job at Google to start a nonprofit, “She says, “So, what’s the clever new idea you have,’ obviously. And I say, ‘well, I want to do a nonprofit.’” Soon after, Ram’s then-14-year-old son chimed in, “’Dad, but isn’t being a parent like running a nonprofit?’” At this point Ram, who has created the open educational software platform Gooru, started to laugh as he recounted the organization's beginning. 

“Education is kind of a very, very interesting space,” said Ram,”and the reason I decided to do this as a nonprofit and as an independent entity...is I fundamentally believe that there is just a lot of activity in education over the past 500 years. And we can’t arrive at it today just because we have some social network and pretend that somehow we’re going to figure it out for the world.”

Silicon Valley is an area almost entirely dedicated to for-profit pursuits. The land of the venture capitalist, entrepreneur and angel investor has not been the place to look, necessarily, for nonprofits. But this doesn’t mean that they are absent. We spoke with Ram in his offices at Ednovo in Palo Alto, Calif., on Tuesday. The offices were bright and decorated with blue and green paint. Despite not having a multibillion dollar start-up, Ram could not have looked happier — smiling frequently, particularly when the conversation turned to education.

For Ram, online education tool-building was all about amplification — not business creation. “‘Can I amplify the impact everyone else is having on education’ is really the posture. I figure it is the only way you can change or contribute to education,” Ram said, making a clear distinction between for-profit education models and nonprofit models. “In the grand scheme of things,” he continued, “if you want to move the needle you have to move the needle with 7 billion people working with you. Because education is such a local thing.”

“We want to honor the right to education,” said Ram, outlining Ednovo’s vision. “The Googles and Yahoos and Apples and Microsofts and so forth — all these guys can do good education and good technology. They are clearly the big players in the space. But, for all of them, they have a huge business to run. They don’t sit around like me 25 hours a day 8 days a week thinking about education.”

“And within those constraints,” Ram said, “do they have the mind-space to give this as much attention as a start-up — a for-profit or nonprofit start-up like ours can do?” Ram’s implied answer was, clearly, “no.”

“I fundamentally believe we can build technologies for social transformation,” he said. “Education technology, to me, is not first about technology. It’s about design. Every technology we want our students and teachers to use — guess what? They’re already using it. They’re just not using it for learning.” After all, continued Ram, teachers are writing and reading blogs, sharing social media data and otherwise interacting fully online. “They’re doing everything we want them to do. They’re just not doing it for learning.”

But the road that led to the creation of Ednovo was not easy. It was lined with skeptics, particularly among the investor class. “In the Valley, in particular, I met with a number of my friends, some of them happen to VCs. And, of course, the first quarter, I would say, I spent almost every meeting defending why I had to be a nonprofit.” Ram defended against the argument he should be a for-profit company, saying that he was not in the “education business,” but in education, and honoring the right of children to acquire an education.

“Very fortunate for me was that I found a couple of believers,” said Ram, who went on to describe how he outlined for potential backers how he would entice a software engineer to work for a nonprofit (you let them walk away with your code to make a for-profit entity), “it helped us refine our whole approach to this messaging.”

Ideas@Innovations is teaming up with On Leadership to speak with some of Silicon Valley’s established and up-and-coming leaders to shed some light on what it means to create, lead and inspire in one of the nation’s most vibrant and innovative regions. This is one piece in this series.

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