Bezos and Ma

Amazon and Alibaba are the world’s 2 largest e-commerce companies.

Their founders dabble in education as well.

1. Day 1 Pre-Schools

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, announced on September 13 that he and his wife MacKenzie would launch a new charitable effort: $2 billion towards homelessness and “a network of new, non-profit, Tier One preschools in low-income communities.” And: Montessori-inspired, full-scholarship, “child will be the customer.”

Details were in short supply.

– “Tier One”? My guess is he just means first-rate.

– “Montessori-inspired”? My guess is he added the word “inspired” because he wants freedom to innovate, and doesn’t want to get trapped in a debate about Montessori orthodoxy.

– Why pre-schools? My guess: much less regulation. Bezos has watched Gates and Zuckerberg struggle with their charitable efforts because of K-12 politics.

2. Yungu (Cloud Valley)

Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, was an English teacher before he became an entrepreneur. On September 7, Ma announced he’ll retire to focus on education philanthropy, like Bill Gates.

One of Ma’s ideas is launching boarding schools in China’s rural areas. Another idea: he has launched a pre-K to 12 school. It will be a non-profit bilingual school serving 3,000 kids.

For the upcoming September semester (2018), it plans to enroll 60 students in first grade, and another 48 in seventh grade.

After submitting online applications, candidates will be assessed based on their materials and face-to-face interviews with the student and parents. Prospective candidates do not need to hold a Hangzhou hukou, or household registration.

To meet the needs of bilingual teaching, up to 40 percent of the faculty are hired from a global pool, each having more than five years of teaching experience internationally. The rest are mostly award-winning teachers with experience in domestic educational institutions.

Yungu said it will have a favorable ratio of teacher to students – one teacher for every five students – in a bid to address common problems of public schools such as cramped classrooms. To explore the full potential of students beyond their schoolwork, it also includes personalized modules and social services in the curriculum and pays special attention to utilizing technology in teaching.

Website is here.

Like many new school websites, this one focuses on key aspirational ideas. Hmm. My mental map: when I study the 8,000 new charter schools created in the USA over the past 20 years, it’s 75% about the team, and 25% about the cool ideas.

Clicking around, I managed to find the bio of one American Grade 1 teacher at Yungu. His background was teaching ESL at the university level (and even that included many short 1-year stints). Wow: teaching 6 year-olds and 19-year-olds…very different! I would never draw too many conclusions with just a snippet of info, but that one snippet doesn’t give me confidence…

Many start-up schools with celebrity backers, whether people like Oprah, or institutions like Microsoft or Stanford, have gone badly. A common thread is a founding team who have never started brand-new schools before.

That was me in 1999, and wow, did I make a ton of mistakes.

All start-ups are hard. At the Harvard innovation lab, the stat they liked to quote was that 80% fail.

A problem with school start-ups: often even those “bottom 80%” schools are good enough to draw students. So they don’t “fail” in the sense of shutting down. They fail to become the shining examples that their celebrity founders had hoped.

3. My friend Mira writes in the NY Times that Bezos should not start his own schools, but give money to existing efforts and Montessori school operators.

Actually, her advice might appeal to Jack Ma more than Jeff Bezos. Ma and Bezos have different mental maps.

From Michael Baker at ThinkDesign:

Jeff Bezos is perhaps most famous for his “Customers First” slogan. This is a line that has been touted in many of his speeches, and Amazon claims to maintain a strict adherence to this rule. According to Jeff Bezos, the secret of their success is their laser sharp focus on putting customers first.

…Jack Ma, on the other hand, offers us an entirely different view on “Customers First”. While Alibaba also claims on putting customers on the top of its list, it means something very different by this term. For Jack Ma, the customers are the small business sellers – and they come first.

Alibaba does not believe in satisfying the end-consumer or making decisions to facilitate them. Jack Ma’s philosophy is to empower the small business sellers – and let them do the job of carrying out consumer satisfaction. Because according to Jack Ma, he doesn’t know the consumers, but the sellers do!

My guess is that Bezos doesn’t trust any of the existing operators of schools, serving rich or poor, traditional or Montessori. In his mental map, existing school operators are perhaps akin to managers of traditional retail stores…the ones he has defeated over the years, by giving customers something better. He seeks a new breed of school leaders, those who put the customer even above their own strongly held expert beliefs.

By contrast, Ma perhaps would consider Mira’s advice. One could imagine him saying: “My job is to empower the school leaders, and let them as individuals do the job of carrying out consumer satisfaction…they’re the ones who know the customers (kids and parents).”