More women are leading the way in EdTech

October 15, 2019
Winners of the Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition

Winners of the Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition, front row, from left: Dara Ruiz-Whalen and Alana O’Reilly of runner-up eClose; Vanessa Castañeda Gill of grand-prize winning Social Cipher; Penn GSE Dean Pam Grossman. Back row, from left: John Gamba, Entrepreneur in Residence, Catalyst @ Penn GSE; Michael Golden, Executive Director, Catalyst @ Penn GSE.

Computer science has long had a reputation as a boys’ club.

But that’s changing in the Ed Tech world, and the results are being born out in the latest Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition. In the competition’s 10th year, both the grand prize winner and the second place winner were companies led by female founders and CEOs. This comes a year after four of the competition’s five prize winners were female-led companies.

The results show a positive trend in the industry, according to Michael Golden, the Executive Director of Catalyst @ Penn GSE, which oversees the competition. The education marketplace has many niche learners whose needs have not been met through traditional methods.

When women and people from a more diverse range of backgrounds have a seat at the leadership table, this brings fresh perspective on how companies can serve learners and their families, Golden said.

That was certainly the case for grand prize winner Social Cipher, co-founded by CEO Vanessa Castañeda Gill. Social Cipher is a Los Angeles-based company that creates story-driven video games that give children with autism a safe, fun, and accessible space to apply social skills.

Gill, who was diagnosed with autism at 14, recently told EdWeek’s Market Brief that her own experiences inspired her to use her engineering training to create games promoting neurodiverse inclusion and empowerment through representation.

“I hid my diagnosis for six years and I suffered from low self-esteem,” Gill told Market Brief. “I didn’t want people to treat me differently or badly.”

When Social Cipher launches its flagship game in 2020, Gill said it will help players practice social skills and ease social interactions.

eClose, a Philadelphia company providing biomedical research training to teachers and students through an inclusive and supportive citizen science approach, won both the second place and audience choice prizes.

Founders Alana O’Reilly and Dara Ruiz-Whalen have created a company where high school students are partnering with researchers to study how diet impacts cancer. The researchers have a bigger team gathering data, and the high school students gain valuable STEM experience.

Both Social Cipher and eClose were recognized for their ideas and their potential to put those ideas into practice.

That’s the key to creating an education company that can make an impact, Golden said.

“In a decade of tracking companies through this competition, we see one consistent truth: an education solution is only as good as the business model that allows it to be operationalized, implemented, and sustained,” Golden said. “Our winner, and all seven of our finalists, have shown the potential to impact education in ways that haven’t been possible before. "

Read the Market Brief profile of Social Cipher here.