Larry Singer is a CEO, but not the smug type, who’s likely to engage you in a long-winded conversation about himself, while you sip on your drink and wait for someone more interesting to come along.
Singer is different. Last week he pitched EdSurge a story about his nonprofit, Open Up Resources, but, after our conversation, we found a story about a struggling innovator. He, like many of our podcast listeners, is a person who wants to do well, but also do good.
In this podcast, we talk about his crazy 30-year journey in education, which took him from Pearson to farming, to the nonprofit work he does now. We hope his story—and its imperfect ending—can motivate those of you who are on your career journeys to find work that makes you happy and taps into your passions.
Listen to the podcast or read highlights from the conversation below (which have been edited and condensed for clarity).
EdSurge: Let’s talking a little bit about your schooling because, like many other people in the education space, you didn't study education. In 1975 you were studying at the University of Redlands in California, and you got a BA in entrepreneurship. What were you thinking at that time? Why entrepreneurship?
Larry Singer: I went to a college at the university called Johnston College, which had all narrative evaluations, and a negotiated class contract. It was experiential learning.
I wanted a liberal arts degree that other people would think is a business degree. So, for entrepreneurial studies, I took classes like Physics I and II. Then, the third class was Newton and Einstein, and why were they able to break out from all other physicists. In economics, I would do micro and macroeconomics, and then do Smith, Keynes and Marx, and say, "How did the three of them break out?" Not just in business, but what is it that allows people to get breakthroughs in the industries that they're working in or the disciplines that they're working in. That's what I wanted to study.
You graduated around the same time Steve Jobs introduced Apple's first personal computer. Were you influenced by events, like Apple releasing their first personal computer, and IBM doing the same thing? Was it also a big time for entrepreneurship?
It was. In fact, in education, there was a lot of experimentation going on, like at my college. In industry, you saw big titans falling to smart, high-potential young people with ideas.
The bane of my existence in high school was being told, "You have so much potential. All you have to do is work harder, and study and do all your homework." These entrepreneurs seemed like heroes to me. People who weren't following the rules, but who were getting breakthroughs because of it. The question is, how do people who break rules also succeed? That, to me, is what makes an entrepreneur.
So after college, you worked at a computer company then you moved to Texas Instruments. Why go into Texas Instruments? What happened there?
Well, it's interesting. I was with one of the very first software companies, the very first one that wasn't a computer company. I was one of the first sales guys at a time when to get the job, you had to stay on the bar stool for the whole interview without falling off. There was no such thing as qualified people.
When I started in it, we worked with people in every single industry. It became clear to me that those in public sector, in state and local government, in higher ed, and in K-12 had potentially a very different role. These were information industries that collected information about people and then gave services. And yet, they were so far behind financial services and manufacturing in adopting technology that I persuaded the software company that we should have a focus on something that I called SLEDs (state, local and education), which became a fairly standard thing in the tech industry, but we were the very first ones to do it.
But, the software company was not as into, what I would call, Maslow's hierarchy. In this space [SLEDs], you can't go after revenue. You have to go after fixing problems. Then, the revenue comes. They write you checks of the biggest size—bigger than any other industry—if you have solutions, but you can't come to them without a solution. I love that. It was just like what I was studying. TI (Texas Instruments) was making a fortune on Speak & Spells and other stuff, but no solutions. They had the calculators and people were buying them, but people didn't know why and how.
I had an idea that we could start working with the educators and with the textbook publishers. If we could integrate calculator-based activities into the curriculum, then it would improve the math. Then, if that happened, people would buy more calculators. TI seemed like a place that had offerings that were waiting for solutions to be wrapped around it, so it was like the greatest place for me to go.
Where did you get the idea from? How does that even come to your mind?
This hippie school that I went to, everybody there majored in like transpersonal psychology. There had only been one business student ever before me, and it was Peter Cohen, who eventually became president of McGraw-Hill.
Everyone else was trying to figure out how to do good in the world, how to save the environment, how to open the world, end racism how to open the world to gender issues. This was 30 years ago, and people were talking about gender issues.
If you can do good and do well at the same time, it's kind of the ultimate way to express your life, and so I was always trying to figure out how do you take the pieces that are sitting there. I'm not an inventor. I had so many friends who were engineers and super technologist. But I did see these calculators that were doing well. Couldn't they do more if you tied them to the education?
When you were in Texas Instruments, you stayed there for about seven years, did you notice any evolution happening?
One of the things that was happening at that time was mainframes were giving way to client-server computers. Now that might sound esoteric, but a state government can afford to have a mainframe. A school district can afford to have a server. Until that change, the idea of IT working, and information systems and computers for kids for was impossible because that would mean giving up all the control to the state government, or even the federal government, and the politics just wouldn't allow it.
But, client-server computing emerged during that time. All of a sudden, you had people start dabbling in schools with, "What would we do if we could collect data about the kids if we had information about how the tests at the beginning of the year compared to the test at the end of the year? Which teachers were getting the best results? What are they doing differently?" All of a sudden, all of these solutions that every other industry was looking at became possible.
From where I was sitting, what was changing is that people in schools were no longer trying to implement the same model that they did in the '50s and '60s where almost all the kids went into domestic service, or manufacturing or agriculture. Now, everybody was talking about knowledge-based jobs. That was the other big thing that was happening then. As client-server came about, more information-oriented jobs came available in careers. The thought that we need to change the way we prepare kids changed.
For me, this synergy between the new industry tools of IT being available in education and these new needs for knowledge-based jobs, and so education needed to change, just created an opportunity that hadn't been there in 20 years. Everybody agreed there needed to be a change, and it was somehow connected to this, and no one could quite figure out how to do it. Thirty years later, we're struggling with that same exact issue. Even though there's a lot more IT, none of us feel like we're exploiting it completely to help kids.
You started working at Pearson. I'm curious how someone who's a free thinker ended up at Pearson. The company doesn't exactly have that reputation—it’s a big corporate entity, and it's so different.
Honestly, while I majored in entrepreneurial studies, most of my career, except for one not-for-profit step when I was working at Harvard, most of my career I've worked at organizations with at least 40,000 employees. So I consider myself what I would describe as an intrapreneur. Where instead of raising capital in the market for an organization, you use budget resources to help the company understand what it really does.
They came to get me from Silicon Valley intentionally to do two things. One is to integrate the 14 K-12 units into one K-12 market facing unit for all these acquisitions they had made. They had tried twice before to merge them and failed. Then, the second thing was to move from a book publisher to a software publisher to take advantage of these capabilities. When they said they wanted those two things, those things are big innovative things. I thought they wanted them, so I went there to them and found out while they really wanted them, the culture really had very significant barriers to make those kinds of changes.
I mean, I was so peeved at the publishers who come out there and talk about being education companies, but shareholder value trumps all. They didn't get the Maslow's hierarchy. If they would've paid attention, they would've gotten higher shareholder value. Instead, since I have left, the stocks have all crashed, and we're growing at a ridiculous rate.
When you talk about the Maslow's hierarchy, what do you mean? What do you mean that they don't get that? What are they not getting?
In my view, the way Maslow's hierarchy works for these big corporations is that if you focus on what your customer needs to be successful and you use the resources your organization focus squarely on meeting that need, and once you figure out how you do it, then you look at the business model that you implement so you can do it profitably and at a good value to the customer.
These are the kinds of things that you're applying to open up resources now?
Correct. Corporations do it backwards. They think, ‘There's an opportunity to make money. How do we figure out a product to fit in that space?’ You have got to flip it. What do they need first, and how do we satisfy it? Not, what are they willing to spend money on and how can we get it?
So, moving from the corporate to the nonprofit world for you kind of gave you the opportunity to apply your skills but also find a sustainable model in that space?
That's right. So, we have three primary goals. One is to get the highest quality curriculum as widely available as possible, to as many kids regardless of the resources of their school district. That's one. Two is that we do so in a way that creates a self-sustaining business model for us, but also creates an ecosystem of authors and consultants who have the same motivations we do, and that they can be self-sustaining. And that finally, we do it in a way where equitable access is the key.
Recently you guys just had an award that you won. Can you talk about that a little bit, and why that was important?
Just like when I was at Texas Instruments, and the Baldrige Award set criteria of how you think of quality, EdReports has become like the Gartner Group or Good Housekeeping of the instructional resource market, and they define what good is. What we did is we reverse engineered it. We thought their answer to what was good was right. So, how do we build a product that meets their criteria for excellent?
We find the very best authors out there who understood what we need to do. Then, we built a quality control process that just like Silicon Valley's, just like we did at Texas Instruments for the Baldrige Award, a separate of team who understood the objectives, who reviewed and gave recommendations back to the authors of what they needed to do in order to hit the right scores. It wasn't just some esoteric to make it better. The standards in EdReports gave us something clear.
For someone who wants to do good, who wants to be innovative, but also wants something sustainable, what would you give them as advice as they map their own career journeys in education?
First of all, don't try to set a path and be set on it. Be open to opportunities as they come up, and realize that you can kind of twist an opportunity to your objectives. Set life goals, not career goals. Then, find the opportunities for career options to fit your life objectives. Figure out who you are first. They don't define you; you define you. Find the place where you fit.