Varun Gulati: Educational Entrepreneur
Varun Gulati '06 describes himself as a teacher turned entrepreneur. He co-founded the edtech startup UClass, recently acquired by Renaissance Learning. Previously, he taught high school geometry in New Orleans with Teach for America. He received a B.S. in operations research and a minor in computer science from Columbia University. Xinyi Zhou '10 talks with Varun about his time in the Magnet, how he ended up in education technology and thoughts on how to stay in a technical career while working on issues of social justice.
What classes and clubs were influential? In terms of classes, like many other people I was absolutely obsessed with Origins of Science. I loved that class - the way that it married abstract concepts with application and intertwined philosophy in there with math and science. It was such a beautiful way to wrap up my Magnet education after having years of intense focus in science and math and engineering, to really take a step back and look at the big picture of here's how mathematicians and scientists and philosophers have thought about the universe and thought about our world for millennia. I also really liked Genetics, I didn't end up doing anything bio-related but Ms. Bosse was really amazing. And of course Mr. Schafer's physics class, he is such a great teacher. In terms of extracurriculars, I was involved in a couple of different things. I competed a little bit with ACSL, the computer science competition, but what I really liked was the Physics Club competitions. My cousin was in the Magnet program at the time as well, so the two of us joined the physics club and we competed in the egg drop and all those other types of challenges. That was a ton of fun because you basically got to play and see what would go the furthest or be the fastest; you're creating stuff. A large part of education is very theoretical and this was purely practical. It's like R&E class on a whole new level, competing with kids around the county - that was a ton of fun.
After college you did Teach for America -- how did you decide on that?
I did one internship, actually two internships in consulting in college. And I liked it but I missed a certain human element. It was very business oriented and very corporate in many ways. I had in the back of the head the thought that I should be doing something else with my time. And being a fresh graduate from college I was also extremely idealistic, so I didn't accept my offer in pharmaceutical consulting for a lot of reasons, partially because I didn't believe in the noble intentions of pharmaceutical companies but also that I didn't find the work that simulating. So I decided to think about the experiences that I'd really enjoyed in college and I kept thinking back to when I worked with children with the various volunteer programs I had done, so I applied to Teach for America and that's how I ended up in New Orleans teaching high school geometry.
We interviewed you very briefly at the beginning of your two-year teaching stint -- could you talk more about that experience of teaching high school math in New Orleans?
I absolutely loved my time in the classroom. I don't think there's been anything else as rewarding as being a teacher. And in the type of community I had the fortune to work in, the impact you can have is directly proportional to the amount of work you're willing to put in, and I was lucky to see some awesome results from the students that I was working with. There were a couple things I really liked about teaching. One was for me personally, I walked away from the experience having a whole new perspective of how closely the education problems are tied to so many other systemic problems in America and it really helped me to build a conception of how deeply tied these systems are to each other. It built my conviction that to actually solve the education gap there has to be change happening on many different levels including healthcare, including mass incarceration, including nutrition and access to healthy food. I was fortunate to have seen that and I'm really grateful for that.
I'm also lucky to have had a very positive experience being a teacher; I know there are definitely challenges to entering the education world but I happen to have worked with students who were exceptionally hard working despite their circumstances, who did really well on their state tests. The teaching brought out a side of me that I really enjoyed, allowing me to express my creativity for the purpose of educating children who could then therefore alter their life outcomes. That to me was pretty powerful - being in a position where I could alter someone's life path for the better. So I really enjoyed that a lot. And I know I had a very positive experience teaching, I know not everyone does, and there are definitely some darker sides to teaching as well. I know that the education reform debate right now is very contentious and on both sides there are lot of merits to what everyone is saying and my view on the debate has been a lot more nuanced over the course of my time teaching. I started out being very pro-reform and I ended up kind of on the other end of the spectrum. I have an incredible amount of respect for teachers and I appreciate the Magnet even more for being able to do what they do.
How did you decide on your next step after TFA?
Tell us a little about your Magnet experience -- what do you remember? When I think of the Magnet I think of a couple things in particular. One is how academically rigorous it was. And I didn't truly appreciate exactly how rigorous it was until I had the chance to teach high school after graduating college. But the level of the academics in the Magnet program is above anything I've seen in any high school environment. The other thing that stands out is the teachers; the teachers basically created a school within a school for us and helped us foster a community that really made us feel like we could accomplish anything. Not only through the awards and accolades like the national olympiads or excelling in musical careers, but also in that the teachers actually believed that we as high school students could learn at the college level and could stand out at that level. Those are the two amazing things that stand out to me.
I had always wanted to explore the world of tech and I had an offer with Google as a data analyst. I moved out here towards the end of the summer of 2012 and didn't last very long, to be honest; after 6 months, I was starting to look at other opportunities. I realized there was this whole world of education technology and I started contacting a whole bunch of education technology companies whose missions I really liked and started volunteering my time. Around February 2013, a lot of things changed really rapidly. I got a call from a college friend who had also been a teacher and he wanted me to come on board with his idea, United Classroom, and he wanted me to apply to this accelerator as a cofounder. I was ready to leave Google, I wanted to be back in education and I liked the idea of United Classroom, so we applied to the accelerator, we got in, I quit my job at Google. We went through the accelerator, changed the idea of United Classrooms a couple of times, rebranding as UClass. Then we went through another pivot -- when you change the idea or product -- and we ended up creating a Dropbox-like tool for education, and that was ultimately the idea that took off for us. We saw a lot of interest from school districts and charter networks and we sold the company to Renaissance Learning in February of last year (Techcrunch).
What's your role at Renaissance Learning now?
We are an education software company; our bread and butter is a digital reading program called Accelerated Reader that targets primarily k-8. We also have a number of other math and reading programs in our app portfolio. It's a company that's been around for 30 years and pretty big, it's over 1100 people. We started out in rural Wisconsin, in a garage by our founder. She wanted to incentivize her kids to read so she created a game where after they read, they took a quiz, and they would earn points. Simple idea, but it took off pretty well. I really love the company, it's deeply mission oriented and that really resonated with us at UClass, where every single person we brought on cared about education and was deeply invested in our mission. Renaissance is the same way. They didn't come into this as a startup a couple years ago, they've been around for a while, and they've made a monster impact on students' lives improving reading across the country, scientifically validated improvements for reading and math.
I saw that you're performing a musical called South of Market this week -- what's that about and how did you get involved?
I've been involved in a number of performance related things since I moved out here. Bhangra is a high energy type of dance from North India, very percussion heavy, very energetic. I joined a very competitive team out here; we performed in Kenya, at competitions around the US, at four half-time shows for the Golden State Warriors, so it has been a very cool experience! A friend of mine was creating a satirical musical and he knew that I danced bhangra and he wanted to incorporate a scene with a bhangra performance so he asked me to audition, and I got an acting role and a dancing role. The musical is essentially a parody of silicon valley.
One thing interesting about doing these interviews is that I have a lot of discussions with other Magnet alums on not just how helpful the Magnet was to us, but also how much it is part of our privilege. So I'm very interested to hear your perspective on how you're able to maintain a technical career and also try to take action on education equity and stay present in talking about other issues in social justice as well.
Being technical has always been a huge part of who I am, before the Magnet, and amplified during the Magnet. I know I am a technical person at my core so I'll be back in the classroom someday teaching computer science, but until then I will stay involved in the intersection between tech and some other form of impact oriented field hopefully for the new future. For me the realization came while I was at Google, and I wasn't there for a very long time, but I realized that -- no offense to Google -- but I didn't care about Google that much. And I realized I couldn't work on something unless I truly cared about it, and that's what I had to go back into using this skill I have. It is truly a privilege to be able to be exposed to science and engineering and math at such a young age, and to be able to use that for good is almost an obligation for me. So when I found out that education technology is a field, it made sense to me that I should be using my technical skill to impact a field that I care so deeply about, which is solving the education gap. Since then I've tried to broaden my impact a little more. Since we've sold our company I've had a little more time to tinker on the side. Recently I've started a site on incarceration inequity (deathpenaltytruths.com). The website is a digital infographic, one page, it took simple HTML and web design skills, but I tried to use a medium of presenting information that would be easy to digest for the common person and which utilizes skills that I have. So I'm getting long-winded here but the point is to say that I hope to continue to use my skills in technology towards solutions for the systemic problems that are so pervasive today, not just in education, but other fields as well.
One other thought is, in 2016, the good news is there always opportunity to make technology work for something else. And it doesn't have to be computer science, it can be other fields as well. No matter what field you're into, in there is a demand for technology skills from people who are willing to make an impact. We're in such a digital and mobile age that there is a strong overlap between any field of your choice and technology.
See more updates from the Class of 2006, celebrating their 10-year reunion: Class of 2006 Reunion Update