PenPal Schools has good news to write to their friends about.
The Austin, TX-based startup won the Dell World 2014 Pitch Slam, besting six other finalists in a 5-minute pitch competition in front of a panel of judges, including Michael Dell himself.
Other participants included fellow edtech startups eduCanon, BeeLine Reader, and four others from the healthcare and “Internet of Things” verticals. Counting the preliminary elimination rounds, PenPal Schools won over 18 semi-finalists and “hundreds of applications” from New York, San Francisco and Austin in the education category, according to Jon Philips, Dell’s managing director of global education.
Founded in New York City by former NPR journalist and producer, Michael Bernstein, the company--originally named PenPal News--connected students in classrooms around the world to exchange views on current events. The six-week program connects two classroom of similar sizes and grade levels, matches students one-to-one to be pen pals, and provides writing prompts around issues like environment, poverty, technology and conflict.
The company’s launch in 2012 coincided with a major new news event: the U.S. presidential elections. One of the PenPal’s first outreach efforts was a Red State/Blue State campaign to get students in classrooms from different states to discuss different political perspectives.
In late 2012, Bernstein joined Socratic Labs, an edtech accelerator (that has since gone quiet). Shortly after graduation, Bernstein decided law school would be a more appropriate calling for his career. In Summer 2013, he entrusted the company to Joe Troyen, his colleague who had helped with the company’s product design. At the time, Troyen was traveling throughout Asia, mixing sightseeing with marketing PenPal Schools to local schools.
“We had classes using it internationally that were learning English and about life in America,” Troyen tells EdSurge. In fact, he believes “the most impactful connection was between these classrooms and those back in the States.”
With Troyen as CEO, PenPal News became PenPal Schools and relocated to Austin, TX, where it joined the Capital Factory accelerator. The company also added a new program to connect U.S. foreign language classes with native speakers who are learning English. Through the six-week program students also learn about cultural aspects like food, history, art and literature--all the basic topics of a typical foreign language class. Spanish, French and Chinese are currently covered.
PenPal Schools initially charged $1.99 per student, but Troyen quickly learned from his travels that “a lot of teachers around the world couldn’t afford that.” Currently, the company operates on a generous pay-what-you-want revenue model. Aside from $20K from Expansion VC and a grant from the Mozilla Foundation, Troyen says the company’s bootstrapped with support from friends and family.
He adds the company will be rolling out a mobile app for students, parents and teachers in January 2015. It’s expected to cost $1.99--a “luxury good for those who have smartphones,” in his words.
PenPal Schools currently boasts over 50,000 students in 40 countries as users, and Troyen is encouraged by the increasing market penetration overseas. “Six months ago we were 90% U.S., but now we’re approaching 70%,” with classrooms as far away as Kenya, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
For winning the competition, PenPal Schools will work with Dell’s education team to roll out pilots in Dell’s wide network of partnering schools in the U.S. “We'll identify schools that would be interested in helping PenPal get feedback,” says Phillips. Given PenPal’s global focus and Dell’s international reach, he adds it may be possible to “get our classrooms in Europe and South Africa connected with our schools here [in the U.S.].”
PenPal Schools follows in the footstep of other technology companies following a similar vision to build bridges between students around the world. Skype in the Classroom is a popular tool used to connect classes via live video chat. ePals, founded in 1996, boasts over ten million students and teachers in its global social learning network.
Troyen believes that the art of writing strangers half a world way will remain an alluring, timeless tradition. “The pen pal days have been around forever. Now that the world is interconnected, it’s more important for students to form connections and learn and work with people from different cultures and backgrounds.”