Today, New York EdTech MeetUp organizers announced that they are passing the baton to new leadership. NY EdTech MeetUp has the largest membership of any EdTech MeetUp in the country. Founded in February 2009, the group hovers at 4,000 members and has organized 40 MeetUps. The new organizers are: Kathy Benemann, Founder and CEO of Kiyo Consulting, and Michelle Dervan, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Pearson. (Note: NY EdTech is part of the formal name of the group; Ed Tech is the name of the industry.)
There have been successful EdTech MeetUp transitions in the past, most notably in San Francisco when LearnBoost passed organizer duties to edSurge in December of 2012. But other city’s transitions have not been as seamless. Denver is currently without a formal organizer.
We spoke with two long-time co-organizers of the NY group to reflect and project about the transition: NY EdTech Founder Tom Krieglstein, also Founder at SwitftKick, a student engagement company; and, co-organizer Sharon LaDay, Vice President of Business Development at Macmillan New Ventures, an arm of Macmillan Publishers that invests in ed tech companies. Krieglstein and LaDay, along with co-organizer Adam Aronson, Sr. Product Manager at Pearson, will be advisors to the new leadership team until they come up to speed.
The NYC Ed Tech Scene
So why is NYC such a key location for Ed Tech? “The size. Of both K-12 and colleges. Just the density of the opportunity,” cites Krieglstein. “Access to talent—educational and technical experts. Access to investors. Here you could take a train ride, or walk around Union Square and meet with a lot of investors in one day.” He also noted many titans of industry are here, for example, large publishing companies.
The publishing companies tend to work at a more measured pace, while startups feel the pressure to move quickly. Working in education requires patience. There are numerous stakeholders to consult, and a long sales and implementation cycle. Those Ed Tech startups that can figure out how to balance the manic pace of the city with the careful needs of the education community often fare better with all of their stakeholders. Ed Techs in New York City have a supportive community for these and other challenges.
LaDay believes Ed Tech has a strong home on the East Coast. Boston (birthplace of WebCT, now owned by Blackboard), and DC (headquarters of Blackboard) were on the scene early. In LaDay’s view, “NYC is a natural juggernaut. We have the largest school district. Plus NYC is the center for other industries, so it has an energy or natural buzz, inside and outside of Ed Tech.”
In May, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $20 Million investment in new devices and software and a $650 Million capital investment in wiring and hardware to keep up with what the government called the ‘tech ecosystem’. There is still some question as to how much of that will impact startups.
EdTech MeetUp groups in other cities have historically been run by a company or organization. “What makes us different is that we are just people. A MeetUp in every sense of the word,” adds LaDay. While San Francisco is organized by EdSurge, an online resource for the Ed Tech community, New York will remain run by individuals.
Who Do EdTech MeetUps Help?
EdTech MeetUps have a wide audience: those new to the industry, those looking to network for a specific project, and the usual suspects who have committed to attending multiple events. Typical archetypes are the Educator, the Technologist and the Entrepreneur.
As leaders of the MeetUp, organizers get to see some companies grow from small startups to larger organizations. LaDay noted a company called neverware that applied for one of the MeetUp’s quarterly showcases, citing them as an example of “enabling the maestro, instead of convincing the maestro that we have content she needs—concepts that stay out of the way of the pedagogy.”
Krieglstein highlighted Brainscape. “Andrew Cohen is one of our longest standing members. Every MeetUp, he would stop by and give me these updates. It was fun to see his company grow.” He also gave a “shout out” to Kate Meersschaert and the Ed Lab at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
On Transitioning an EdTech MeetUp
The fact of the matter is, organizing an EdTech Meetup is a lot of work. Coming up with a theme, securing speakers, reviewing content, finding locations, filling the seats, and setting up food and drinks are just some of the tasks required to make a successful event. Krieglstein, LaDay and Aronson have been at it for quite a while, so they thought, “Let’s pass along something valuable. It still has good momentum so someone else can pick it up and move it along.”
As often is the case with EdTech MeetUp leadership, their day jobs have grown into more demanding positions over the years, perhaps even in part because of their leadership in the community. Mark Phillips, Managing Director of HireEd, an education recruiting firm, and a former organizer of the Denver EdTech MeetUp, understands that situation all too well. He and Dan Carroll, COO and Co-founder of Clever, an instant login provider for students and schools, founded a Colorado MeetUp, alternating event locations between Boulder and Denver. As their companies grew, the time commitment became an issue.
Phillips, similar to the NY EdTech leadership, cited the broad scope of the MeetUps as a potential challenge. So many groups sprout from meeting at EdTech MeetUps, and then focus on their specific area, that it can be difficult to establish a core group. Sometimes, the ‘sprouts’ stay within the core EdTech MeetUp family. Phillips noted that the Austin EdTech MeetUp founder came from Denver, where he attended MeetUp events, and was interested enough to get the group off the ground in Austin when he moved there.
NY’s Krieglstein adds, “The core advantage is the community. Bringing people together. Tons of stuff comes out of [EdTech MeetUp] that I have no idea about. It is not about getting credit for it, but about building the platform. If everyone is achieving levels of success, then the nest grows and we all achieve. It pays back dividends.”
Denver EdTech MeetUp is currently without a formal organizer. Phillips feels the best fit for the job could be a current member of the group in Colorado and has sent communications to the group soliciting volunteers. Both the NY TechEd and Denver EdTech MeetUp leadership had some conversations with representatives at edSurge (the organizer of the SF EdTech MeetUp and a supporter in Austin) during their transition talks. The NY team is clearly transitioning to individuals as leaders and the Denver group has no formal transition as of this posting. [Update: Denver EdTech MeetUp appears to be merging under Educelerate Colorado!]
The Future of EdTech MeetUp
LaDay noted that NY EdTech MeetUp, or perhaps others, might take the lead in connecting regional EdTech groups. Early on, LaDay and team reached out to EdTech MeetUp organizers across the country to try and create a “connectedness” among the MeetUps. They were considering “some unified drive to stoke a national conversation so all the troops could be rallied for key issues.” They organized a call with SF, NYC, Austin and Chicago, but that plan did not formally develop. The groups do show alignment in their descriptive language on MeetUp websites, with some nuances to highlight their regions.
Krieglstein cited the possibility of a NYC Ed Tech conference. He shared, “If you think of the number of people from this area who head to South by Southwest every year…”
Reflections on Organizing EdTech MeetUps
Krieglstein founded the NY EdTech MeetUp because of his own work helping schools build engaging communities. He has an interest in peer-to-peer learning, and in 2009, he felt there was not a community in the tri-state area dedicated to this in EdTech. He cites the biggest challenge as getting people’s attention, “not dissimilar to a startup”, he noted. “In the beginning it was 5-10 of us crouched in a small room having a conversation,” said Krieglstein. “It was like that for almost a year. Once we had a core group of dedicated people, it expanded from there.”
When asked what he wished he knew before starting the group, Krieglstein paraphrased an Ira Glass quote: “The vision in my head was over here and the reality was over there. And that frustration was OK.” Which event was his favorite? “The first one! Just the fact that we had one, and that people showed up who weren’t me.” They are also proud of their holiday party MeetUp as it raises money for charity.
In answer to the burning question, who writes the MeetUp event titles, the team spilled that it is co-organizer Adam Aronson. A favorite title (and not surprisingly, a big draw), the Biggie Smalls inspired, “I Like It When You Call Me ‘Big Data’.
LaDay: “We were ourselves. We weren’t tied to anything. So we had some fun with it.”
Krieglstein: “Looking back, I am thankful for the never-ending support from the community members. And I think of the number of times that this shouldn’t have worked. But [the community] was always willing to support it.”