Tips and Scoops from ASU GSV That You Won’t Find on the Agenda


Tips and Scoops from ASU GSV That You Won’t Find on the Agenda

By Tony Wan, Sydney Johnson and Jeffrey R. Young     Apr 10, 2019

Tips and Scoops from ASU GSV That You Won’t Find on the Agenda

What was once a sleepy conference at Arizona State University that charged $50 for attendance has now become ground zero for dealmaking in the education technology industry. (A ticket for this year costs nearly $3,200.)

Silicon Valley loves to talk about scale, and the ASU GSV conference has achieved that. Now in its 10th year, the show has grown from 350 attendees in its first year to more than 4,700 this week. It’s become known as the edtech industry’s rendezvous for investors and bankers—although it wasn’t always this way. “It was really hard to attract investors [in the beginning], because investors didn’t care about education technology,” says Deborah Quazzo, managing partner of GSV Acceleration and a key organizer of the show.

How times have changed. The ASU GSV conference stands out for being unabashedly capitalist, in the sense that everyone believes that delivering on profits and student outcome can go hand-in-hand. Increasingly, educators and administrators seem onboard with that premise as well as their presence at the event has grown. Here’s how the attendee demographics have grown from 2010 to 2018.

  • Total Attendees: 350 to 4700
  • Educators: 30 to 750
  • Entrepreneurs: 53 to 375 (there are likely many more who did not register but hung around at the hotel)
  • Investors: 65 to 400

It’s very easy to feel FOMO, across all the panels, keynotes, workshops, receptions and serendipitous meetings in the hallways. Here’s what we heard and overheard:

Imposter Syndrome

Plenty of attendees walked the halls with their game faces on, confidently pitching some new startup or project to whoever will listen. So it seemed a bit surprising to see a self-help session about “Imposter Syndrome” on the agenda, packed with advice for people who feel “inadequate, intellectually fraudulent, or inferior at work.”

Then again, a key point of the session was that such feelings are surprisingly common among leaders in the tech sector.

Emily Anhalt, a clinical psychologist who calls herself an “emotional fitness consultant,” led the session, and she started by asking the audience of about 60 people: Who has felt like a phony?

A majority of hands went up. And that was clearly what she expected.

“We compare ourselves to everyone,” she says, noting that it’s how we’re wired as humans. And social media feeds on our worst instincts when it comes to self-esteem. “Don’t compare yourself behind the scenes to everyone else’s highlight reel,” she said, pointing out that we see our own flaws but are rarely privy to the flaws of others when watching their Facebook, Instagram or Twitter feeds.

She did note that imposter syndrome is more common in women and people of color, since society already signals to these groups that their ideas are somehow less valued. To that point, the audience was disproportionately female and minority.

Among her tips for avoiding feeling like an imposter: Talk honestly about such feelings. “By saying something out loud you create a little bit of space to think, ‘Is it really true?’”

Also, don’t take professional criticism personally. When the boss says that your work is not good, don’t construe that to mean you’re not good. “Especially in tech, our work and our personal lives can feel one and the same,” she adds. “It’s really important to have some sense of agency and hobbies and relationships outside of work, so when things are shaky in one part of your life, it doesn’t feel like it’s completely rocking the foundations of your entire identity.”

And in leadership situations, be careful not to encourage feelings of imposter syndrome in others. Part of that, she said, is being transparent and acknowledging your own privilege.

“How powerful would it be if a CEO who just sold his company for a million dollars got on the microphone and said: ‘I worked really hard for this. But I was also born into a fairly well-to-do family and my parents gave me my first investment, which made it a lot easier to start this company,’” Anhalt said, drawing laughter from the crowd. “It’d be pretty powerful, and we don’t do that enough. Just by acknowledging your own privilege, you’re doing a service to the people who come after you.”

She is confidently co-founding a new startup called Beam, which she calls “a gym for the mind.”

Frontline Seeks a New Frontman

Frontline Education, which offers a slew of administrative and human resources software for K-12 districts, is seeking a new CEO. Its previous chief, Tim Clifford, retired in March, and the search for his replacement is underway. Charles Goodman, chairman of Frontline’s board of directors, is interim CEO.

Under Clifford, the company has made a dozen acquisitions that greatly expanded Frontline’s product suite. These deals also pumped up its valuation as well. When its previous owner, Insight Venture Partners, acquired the company in 2014, it was worth about $130 million. In 2017, Frontline sold to Thoma Bravo for $1.3 billion—which begs the question: How much will its next buyer fork out?

Expect the company to continue its tried-and-true strategy of acquiring assets. Greg Doran, Frontline’s chief financial officer, says it’s a safe bet that the company will snap up more assets later this year.

Another University Goes Venturing

Western Governors University (WGU) is an investor in a new education fund focused on postsecondary services. Dubbed New U Ventures, the fund will be managed by EPIC Ventures, a Utah-based venture firm whose previous deals include Instructure, the publicly-traded LMS company.

New U Ventures is currently in the process of closing the first fund, with a target of $120 million, from which it will make early-stage and growth investments.

According to its website, New U is eyeing products and services that “redefine a post-secondary education that supports the future of work, improves quality, expands access, and optimizes outcomes for the next century.” Portfolio companies will also have the opportunity to test products with WGU’s network of students and it’s incubator lab, which conducts efficacy evaluations.

Launching investment funds seems to be the trend du jour for higher-ed institutions. In 2018, the company that operates Strayer University and Capella University launched a $5 million seed fund. A year earlier, Southern New Hampshire University and Rethink Education started a $15 million fund.

The Cringiest Moment May Go to...

...a panel about diversity. During a session about the low representation of women in computer science, a man in the back of the room interrupted in the middle of the conversation. (This wasn’t during the Q&A portion.)

The audience member chimed in to say that the lack of diversity in CS relates to shortages in student advising and counseling, and he pointed to an upcoming documentary on the topic. One panelist addressed the situation by telling him that he was “mansplaining,” while some audience members cringed and groaned before the moderator reined the conversation back in.

The audience member who spoke out was Joe Besecker, founder and CEO of Emerald Asset. And while Lewis and other panelists said they did not have an issue with his idea, the way he interrupted the all-women panel was upsetting and missed the point. “I agreed with him saying part of the problem is in advising, and that’s right,” said Judith Spitz, a panelist and founding program director at WiTNY. “But it’s not what he said, it’s the fact that he yelled it out in the middle of the session.”

“I don’t know if he heard any of the words we said, or me specifically trying to correct his behavior,” said Colleen Lewis, an associate professor of computer science at Harvey Mudd College who was also on the panel. “I feel like this is so common, I’m like ‘Oh gosh this again, really?’”

As it turned out, Besecker sat on a panel Tuesday called “Beyond Lip Service: The Investment Case for Diversity.” During this talk, Besecker mentioned Monday’s snafu, telling his audience that he felt silenced. And after his panel, he told EdSurge he felt that “there is a natural bias in today’s society against the white male.” (Oh, the irony.)

Spitz, who previously served as CIO for Verizon, said she has experienced similar situations throughout her career. “Being interrupted that way is something that is all too common for women in tech. I’ve seen it throughout my career and it is something that needs to be addressed.”

Funding Fury

GSV Acceleration has closed on a new fund. Pearson is launching its own. And word on the street is that University Ventures is cooking up something new as well.

But the award for the most sassy name for a new education fund goes to Dunce Capital, which is led by John Danner. Previously, he co-founded Rocketship Education, a charter school network based in California, and later went to start his own edtech company, Zeal. That company fizzled, but Danner remains an active angel investor in the industry, having personally invested in Epic!, Juni Learning, Lambda School, Outschool, Padlet and Swing Education. (He’s already written publicly about what he’s eyeing.)

Dunce Capital’s first investment is SV Academy, which operates a 12-week program for training people to fill sales and marketing roles for technology companies.


Each conference, ASU GSV hands out awards for noteworthy educators and entrepreneurs. This year’s recipients include:

Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem’s Children Zone, received the GSV Lifetime Achievement Award.

Michael Sorrell, President of Paul Quinn College, received the Innovator of Color Award.

Frida Polli (CEO and co-founder of Pymetrics), Christine Willig (CEO of Illuminate Education) and Jessie Woolley-Wilson (CEO of DreamBox Learning) received the #PowerofWomen Award for guiding their companies to major financing transactions.

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