Blackboard, the District’s largest and most recognized education technology firm, announced last week it would lose the last of its founders when Michael Chasen steps down as chief executive in December after 15 years at the helm.
It’s rare for a founder to remain in a company’s top spot as it expands, making Chasen’s tenure all the more significant. The skills demanded of the CEO at a small upstart are significantly different from those needed to guide a large corporation.
Chasen is now free to start another venture, perhaps here in Washington, or take on an executive appointment at an established enterprise.
Chasen is mum on next steps, but it’s certainly been done before.
Blackboard, as its known today, was born from the merging of two small firms in the late 1990s. The result is a slew of co-founders who have left the company before Chasen in pursuit of new ventures.
Matthew Pittinsky created Parchment, an education data company in Scottsdale, Ariz. Stephen Gilfus formed District-based consultancy Gilfus Education Group, Daniel Cane created health care company Modernizing Medicine in Boca Raton, Fla., and Timothy Chi started nuptials Web site WeddingWire in Bethesda.
Chasen is likely to have options. In addition to being a well-known figure in education and technology circles, the education software sector has seen renewed interest from investors of late.
“All of a sudden it’s as if the venture capital community over the last two-and-a-half years woke up to the fact that there’s a significant opportunity to invest in educational technology,” said Roger Novak, general partner at Novak Biddle Venture Partners and one of Blackboard’s early financiers.
That interest has been especially felt around the Washington region, where a legacy of technology companies and the proximity to the federal government have created fertile ground for new ventures.
Landover-based 2U, formerly known as 2tor, partners with colleges and universities to develop online versions of graduate programs in fields such as business and nursing.
K12 in Herndon provides a Web-based alternative to elementary and secondary schools, and District-based EverFi supplements academic curriculums with online tutorials about substance abuse, personal finance and cyberbullying.
But for all the area’s upstarts, none of them have yet to reach Blackboard’s scale. Their employees still number in the dozens or low hundreds, not thousands, and they typically reach a narrower segment of the market.
“What Blackboard really became was a platform for online education,” Novak said. “A lot of the other things are really niche-oriented companies, which I would call feature companies. It’s a feature of a platform, not a whole platform.”
Blackboard was taken private last summer in a $1.64 billion acquisition by Providence Equity Partners. Such deals often lead to executive shake ups and shifts in strategy.
Jay Bhatt, the chief executive of Progress Software, is slated to replace Chasen. Bhatt has led the Bedford, Mass.-based firm since December 2011 and initiated a strategic plan there that includes staff cuts and the divestiture of “non-core” products.
Blackboard has made strategic moves of its own in the past year. The company acquired education software maker Edline and two competitors who assist schools using open-source software.
“We’re able to execute quicker and make more strategic moves than we were able to make as a public company,” Chasen said. “I would actually say we’re much better as a private company, or at least in a better position.”