Heather Hiles towers above most other edtech entrepreneurs. Truly. She played basketball in high school but picked academics over sports and wound up graduating from UC Berkeley, with support of a Pell grant. She began a long career in education, which included cofounding two social enterprise organizations (one of which helped get 4,000 women off welfare). She is also a former Commissioner of San Francisco Unified School District’s Board of Education and she started two edtech companies. She’s played called big shots in edtech, too, becoming one of the rare African American women to raise venture capital funding. Hiles raised $12 million between 2011 and 2015 for her company, Pathbrite, which she sold to Cengage Learning in October 2015.
This past October, Hiles quietly signed on at the Gates Foundation as deputy director of postsecondary success. This is her first public interview about why she joined the foundation and what she hopes to accomplish there. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
EdSurge: Equity has been a stated mission of the Gates Foundation in higher education. How do you define equity in the context of your new role?
Hiles: I will say the equity agenda that is explicit on behalf of the foundation is probably the primary reason I accepted this opportunity and took on this position.
There are many different layers of the equity lens that I look through. First and foremost, our goal with post-secondary success at the Gates Foundation is really around getting 11 million more credentials and certificates in the hands of folks who otherwise would not have gotten those kinds of credentials in their hands, by the year 2025.
With that kind of agenda, we’re saying that folks who are already getting through, getting their credentials, attaining their goals, are fine. It’s those folks who have been falling between the cracks—who don’t get the credentials and certificates that they need to be in this knowledge-based economy—that we want to serve. That’s a huge, big goal. It means that we have to make a lot of innovation and fund a lot of new ways of doing things in order to close that skills gap and that knowledge gap that’s in the market right now.
Most of those folks are going to be people who are African-American, Latino—folks who need re-training because they were in jobs that have become obsolete. To close that gap, we’ve got to find people who are building products and creating solutions for themselves, who come from those communities where we’re trying to help more people get the skills. I think one of the problems that we’ve seen in a lot of technology is that it’s really been built by a very exclusive small set of creators that doesn’t look like or represent the majority of the students that we’re serving, especially in public institutions. So we’ve got to get more resources into a more diverse set of creators. And so we need to work with a broader array of people also at the Gates Foundation level. (Hint: She reads all the comments on her LinkedIn page.)
I’m sure many readers will be wondering, is there going to be a big change in focus in what the Gates foundation is doing in higher education under your leadership?
I don’t think that I’m going to be undoing stuff we’ve done. I hope that what I’m doing is taking it to the next level. I hope that I’m able to share a bigger vision that connects the dots and really puts us on path to get those 11 million people the certificates and credentials they need to be in the workforce by 2025. So I want to make sure we’re making the investments, the grants, doing the work to make that happen, and so I just think of it as additive. It’s like we have certain trains running really well and on time and I think I’m just going to hopefully add more trains or maybe get an express train that goes a little faster to get more done.
You actually took the Gates job before the election. Does the election put these issues in even sharper focus than before?
Oh, it does. I’ll tell you why. We had a certain level of assumptions and sense of security about—for example, the role of Department of Education and other things—that we would have taken for granted if there had been a Clinton administration. I think with the Trump administration, there are just so many unanswered questions. In some ways that’s incredibly exhilarating. There may be opportunities for doing some things in a less traditional way that really make great sense when we want to efficiently and effectively prepare people for new-economy jobs in the upcoming world.
What the election campaigns did was bring to the forefront many Americans who feel dislocated and removed from the new economy. We have to stop excluding or forgetting about people who live in rural communities, people who live in Mississippi, for example, where factories were there and people were living well, and now they can't find a job to save their lives. We’ve got to really re-engage with the full America again.
Our roles in the post-secondary group are going to change slightly, and we’re going to have to pay attention to some stuff maybe that we didn’t feel like we had to worry about. But I also think that there could be some really great opportunities for doing some unique investments and helping prepare people for what’s coming.
At Pathbrite, you focused on learning portfolios—thinking about alternative ways to represent competency. Tell us a little bit about how that background influenced your decision to join the Gates Foundation.
Pathbrite brought me a very humbling set of reminders about how difficult it is to support the higher-education community. I think education is the most complicated industry to work in. Having been in various kinds of roles—in nonprofits and for-profit startups and also as an elected official—it’s really helped me understand the different components of the value chain of providing education.
Did your time at Pathbrite make you feel that the role of for-profit vendors in education is more or less legitimate than you thought going in? After all, one of the questions, particularly in higher ed, is: Do companies have a legitimate role, or are they there just to make a profit?
The truth of the matter is that if you look at the adoption curves of new technologies, especially machine learning and AI, the education sector is the latest and last to adopt those technologies, even when the rest of the technology world and other markets are using real-time analytics and doing wonderful things that should be benefiting our students. So that causes me to feel like we absolutely need to get the best leverage we can out of private-sector innovation and bring that to educational institutions because otherwise we stay so far behind that we lose a lot of the students we shouldn’t lose.
Sometimes the Gates Foundation has been taken to task for not consulting enough teachers or professors—or for not taking those viewpoints seriously. How do you think about getting the right mix of input from stakeholders?
One of the biggest challenges in the market, frankly, that none of us can fix right away is that there’s a huge divide between the adjunct faculty and tenured faculty. The adjunct faculty are the ones who have the majority of the teaching pressures put onto their shoulders, and they get the least amount of development and support in most institutions.
One of the things that we can do is to make sure that there is more support and attention given to those adjunct faculty who have almost insurmountable demands put upon them, and I certainly want to help bring those resources to bear with them. From the institutional perspective, so many dollars and so many hours and so many supports have been given to the administrators and institutions that we’ve partnered with, especially those at four-year institutions. We’re just starting to do more with the two-year institutions.
Here’s a silly question. If people at Pathbrite had to give you a nickname, what would it be and why would it be that nickname?
I don’t believe in nicknames, so they certainly haven't shared it with me. Ooh, golly, that’s so funny. It’s funny because of what I want to do is text all of them right now and ask them.
I do know that the rumor mill was that I’m very demanding, and the joke would be that I come across as very accessible and so they would constantly joke about how deceiving that is to people that aren’t in the know.