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Gene Wade got his first job selling carnations from a flower shop on the corner to passersby at age 11. His home was in a housing project in Boston, and if he knew anything, he knew that he wanted more. He was a good athlete, and smart, but not very motivated toward academic achievement until he was given the opportunity at age 18, to join Project REACH, a youth leadership program.
In partnership with the Efficacy Institute, Project REACH held a series of seminars about goal setting, how to think about success, how to use failure as feed back rather than as an indicator of innate deficiency, and the value of social entrepreneurship – how people could make society better through business. Wade says it was like a light bulb turning on in his mind. Soon he was studying 7 hours a day, 6 days a week and went to the top of his college class.
After graduating a semester early from Morehouse College in 1992 with a degree in political science, Wade went to work at The Efficacy Institute – working on curriculum and helping to train others. While there, he decided his life’s work would focus on education reform. His next stop was Harvard Law School where he became known as the education guy. His mentor from the Efficacy Institute told him that if he wanted to have an impact on education, he should think about what he would want schools to be like when he retired, 50 years from now. It was then that Wade realized that American schools face systemic problems and need systemic reforms. The only way to create systemic reforms was to start with one school, create a model for success and begin scaling up until the entire system benefits.
When he graduated from Harvard Law in 1995, as the first lawyer in his family, he didn’t have the heart to tell his parents he probably wasn’t going to practice law as a career. He also realized that he needed experience and capital if he was going to make his plans for an educational social experiment a reality. He worked long hours for several large firms doing bankruptcy law and corporate finance, but never lost sight of his dream. He realized that he needed more business savvy, so he went to Wharton and secured his MBA in 1998. Finally, he felt ready, and launched a fund raising effort aimed at super-rich, socially responsible investors and venture capitalists to create a company to manage charter and failing public schools.
Within two years, his company, Learn Now was servicing 11 schools and 6000 children, with $48 million in revenue and 250 employees on the east coast. The company was doing great, but Wade still felt there was more to do. After selling Learn Now to his largest competitor for $38 million, he stayed on for a year to make sure the methods and goals he set were being met before striking out on another path toward a different educational goal.
When Wade and partner, Juan Torres, a Bronx native and Baruch College and University of Michigan Law grad, started Platform Learning in 2003, they didn’t want investors to please; they wanted to do it their way. Wade and Torres, who was working on Wall Street and had the same ideals, started recruiting other recent grads who were interested in educational reform. Together the group reviewed different solutions and realized that federal funding was available for tutoring under the No Child Left Behind Act. Platform Learning created a series of after-school tutoring programs designed to bring inner-city kids up one full grade level in math or reading in just 50 hours, over 12 weeks.
In just under two years, Platform Learning’s qualified teachers are tutoring 50,000 kids in small groups all over the country. Their goal is to be an industry leader in K-12 education services, possibly helping as many as 500,000 children within 10 years.
The Small Business Professors' Words of Wisdom
What a story! Here are entrepreneurs who never say die. They don’t tackle small problems; they’re out to save the world – or at least America’s educational system, one child at a time. Not into conspicuous consumption like so many superstar entrepreneurs we could name – here are people who could have focused on being rich; instead they’re focused on making a difference! Their motto: Capitalism, when it works properly, unlocks the hope and dreams of many. Gene Wade, Juan Torres and Platform Learning, we salute you!
- Case History: Platform Learning, Inc. www.platformlearning.com
- Entrepreneur’s Strategy: Solve societal problems utilizing funds from charitable investors to get started.
- Could This Work For Me? Pick a problem, go to well known, deep-pocket investors in your area and convince them you can create a profitable business solving that problem.
When he graduated from Harvard Law in 1995, as the first lawyer in his family, he didn’t have the heart to tell his parents he probably wasn’t going to practice law as a career.