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Student-led SvF makes first investment

By Katie Burke, Daily Staff Reporter
and Steve Zoski, Daily News Editor
Published April 27, 2012

A group of University students have made an investment that aims to change learning forever.

The Social Venture Fund, a student-run impact investment fund belonging to the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies in the Ross School of Business, made its first investment this month when it invested in LearnZillion, a recently developed educational technology company.

SvF was founded in 2009 as the first student-run venture fund at the Business School, comprised of graduate and undergraduate students. It is also the first student-run social venture fund in the United States, according to SvF’s website.

The fund researches companies with social and environmental interests and will give $2.4 million to LearnZillion along with 17 other investors.

Business graduate student Seth Greenberg, SvF’s director of operations, said a unique aspect of SvF is its careful consideration of the social aspects of the companies it researches for potential investment.

“What differentiates us from other venture funds is that we also quantify the social impact the businesses are having,” Greenberg said. “We find it to be particularly important for us as a social venture fund to consider that as a key criterion for making an investment.”

Greenberg said the company’s use of technology to work with lesson plans made LearnZillion an attractive prospect.

“(The videos) are going to be a really effective tool, just to use and be able to combine teacher instruction with technology,” Greenberg said.

The Washington, D.C.-based company was founded last summer by Eric Westendorf and Alix Guerrier. LearnZillion develops video lessons for students grades 3-10 and also collects data, which aims to help teachers across the country improve their lessons.

LearnZillion, which primarily provides math lessons, plans to expand its videos to other subjects in the near future, according to Guerrier.

“Going into the next school year, it will be math and literacy, which we’re very excited about because actually there are many fewer literacy resources online than there are math (resources),” Guerrier said, adding he hopes the new additions will please customers.

Guerrier added that implementing LearnZillion means overcoming the technology limitations of school districts.

“It’s more that the structure in schools actually makes it very hard to effectively use technology. Sometimes there’s bad connectivity, sometimes there’s crappy and old hardware, but also there are rules about it,” Guerrier said. “There are rules about using stuff in class, and rules about where you can use it, and then from our perspective, there are a lot of education products that are more built with a school district in mind rather than an individual teacher, if that makes sense.”

Guerrier said LearnZillion appreciates the SvF investment and connection to the University the investment brings.

“Being introduced to and having access to interested students is great,” Guerrier said. “We have an intern, in fact maybe two coming from Michigan … that’s awesome.”

Guerrier added that LearnZillion continues to improve with help from professors and students in the School of Education at the University.

“One of the things that’s important for us as an education organization, providing an (education) service directed at teachers and students, is being able to measure the impact that we have on learning for our users,” Guerrier said. “Basically access to that academic mind at the Ed. School helped guide that research, and that’s a relationship that’s continuing.”

Business Prof. Gautam Kaul oversees SvF and said it is a two-year program with an application process that includes intense work and research in making investment decisions.

Kaul said the nature of the fund goes back to the roots of business as a tool for social welfare.

“I believe business was created to serve society, and I think that’s what our business proposition is,” Kaul said.

Kaul added that the goal of the fund is to display the positive effects of financial ventures and the impact they can have on the well-being of society.

“We are very keen on showing to the world that doing good is financially sustainable,” Kaul said. “It is not that you can only make money by serving the rich, we want to prove that entrepreneurship in creating things for people who do not have the resources most of us are fortunate to have is a viable business model.”


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