After earning her Bachelor's degree in computer science at Columbia University, Jen Schnidman found herself in an unlikely place: in front of an Arkansas classroom as a Teach For America corps member. An idea that she thought would be a temporary venture into the world of education quickly changed her life.
Following her two-year stint teaching in the Mississippi Delta, Schnidman packed her bags, moved to New Orleans, and accepted the challenge and unique opportunity to help found a charter school.
This new school was crawling with young, bright teachers who were excited about the prospect of working in post-Katrina New Orleans--a hotbed of progressive educational reform. Despite the hard work, common mission and relentless passion, a big piece of the picture remained amiss. The missing piece? A tool that could make relevant information about student progress readily available to teachers and administrators.
As is true with any entrepreneur, in this void, Schnidman saw opportunity. The day she left her classroom, Schnidman started her own business, spurring the idea for what soon became Drop the Chalk, web-based software that is revolutionizing the way teachers teach.
Drop the Chalk tracks student performance on specific skills, highlighting those that have been mastered and those that still need work. Intuitive and easy to use, Drop the Chalk caters to the standards, culture and curriculum of each specific school--creating a customized student data management system for each customer.
While Schnidman acknowledges that the educational technology market is a crowded one, she uncovered an underserved niche. Most education software tools take a "one size fits all" approach, but Schnidman defied conventional wisdom. She set herself apart by creating a solution tailored to meet the needs of her clients. Her commitment to a teacher-centered approach is truly changing the way teachers monitor student progress and drive achievement, ensuring a strong position for Drop the Chalk long into the future. And having recently graduated from The Idea Village's 2010 Entrepreneur Challenge, an intense, six-month business boot camp, Schnidman is perfectly positioned for what lies ahead.
Why do teachers need Drop the Chalk? "Intuition about what works and what doesn't work in the classroom can only go so far," Schnidman explains. "To understand how to proceed in an effective and efficient manner, you need cold, hard facts."
Schnidman's recipe for success is quite simple: find a problem worth solving, develop a deep understanding of the challenges, and collaborate with people who have a vested interest in the solution. Here are a few cornerstones of her business philosophy:
Find your Niche
You can't be everything to everyone, so don't try. Schnidman's niche? Charter schools--just like the school that inspired her to develop the product. In serving this once-ignored corner of the market, Schnidman's entrepreneurial plunge is making a fast and furious impact. Headquarters in New Orleans helps, too. As the home of the nation's most vibrant ecosystem of charter schools, the city is more than a hotbed of education reform--it's also great market.
Find Funding in Line with Your Mission
Schnidman is as passionate about her mission as she is about her product, and she expects potential investors to share her zeal. Attracting investors who are motivated by Drop the Chalk's ultimate bottom line--education reform--has proven challenging. Schnidman's passion and creativity are paying off, however, leading her to nontraditional sources of capital.
Drop the Chalk secured a $100,000 investment through Village Capital, an initiative of The Idea Village Entrepreneur Challenge that connects critical seed-stage investment to high-impact entrepreneurs. This innovative approach to startup finance was conceived and funded by First Light Ventures, an independent subsidiary of Gray Ghost Ventures. (This exciting pilot is also underway with partner organizations in Mumbai, San Francisco and Boulder.)
Additionally, prizes at Tulane University's 2010 NewDay Challenge and UPenn's First Annual Milken-Penn GSE netted Drop the Chalk an impressive $35,000 in startup funds. Beyond helping to cover Schnidman's operating costs, this sends a powerful message that Drop the Chalk is really hitting its stride.
Recently, both Drop the Chalk and The Idea Village submitted applications to the PepsiRefresh Project, a program dedicated to supporting individuals and organizations that are "refreshing" the Gulf in the wake of the tragic oil spill. To learn more and to vote for Schnidman, visit http://www.refresheverything.com/ starting Monday, Aug. 2.
Let Your Product Inspire You
Schnidman may be Drop the Chalk's only full-time employee, but her dedication enables her to do the work of a small army. Within its first year on the market, Drop the Chalk quickly expanded from one school to seven. After experiencing the triumphs and challenges of teaching firsthand, Schnidman understands the importance of tracking student progress. She draws strength and inspiration from her experiences and is committed to making Drop the Chalk the world-class product that it has the potential to become.
Now, this computer scientist-turned-entrepreneur who never dreamed of teaching "cannot wait to return to the classroom" and use the tools she has developed to make a difference.
To learn more about Drop the Chalk, visit www.dropthechalk.org .
The Idea Village is a non-profit organization with a mission to identify, support and retain entrepreneurial talent in New Orleans by providing business resources to high-impact ventures, and has engaged more than 880 people to support more than 580 local entrepreneurial ventures, representing 975 jobs and more than $87 million in revenue.