Awardee Retrospective: Zach Wissner-Gross
listed in Hertz Foundation
What the 2012 Newman Award winner learned from working to change how math is taught
For Hertz Fellow Zach Wissner-Gross, teaching undergraduate physics during his PhD was more than a curricular requirement -- it was the inspiration for his post-graduate career. Upon graduating from Harvard in 2012 with a PhD in physics, Wissner-Gross founded School Yourself, an educational platform dedicated to making interactive content, which went through several iterations before being acquired in 2015. The venture was motivated by his experience teaching undergraduates, and fueled by early investments and discussion through the Hertz Foundation's Harold Newman fund.
"I had a wonderful time teaching during my PhD," Wissner-Gross recalls, "but even at Harvard there was quite a heterogeneity in how prepared the students were." So he started exploring ways to bring students up-to-speed on core concepts in science and mathematics.
"It was an exciting time to be in education," Wissner-Gross recalls. “The word MOOC [for “Massive Open Online Course"] was on everyone's tongue, and new players like Khan Academy and edX were building online courses at many different levels, for everyone. "I had the sense that there was a unique opportunity to create a company in the education space, and if I wasn't going to do it then, it wasn't going to happen," he says.
Along with co-founder John Lee, an MIT alumnus and former Google engineer, Wissner-Gross founded School Yourself to create interactive textbooks and lessons, which would respond adaptively to students' correct and incorrect answers. It was a rough ride at first. "We had some prize money from Harvard’s President's Challenge, but we didn’t actually salary ourselves until a bit later," he recalls.
So when School Yourself won an investment from the Hertz Foundation's Harold Newman Entrepreneurial Initiative Fund, the investment went a long way towards keeping the company running while the growing team built out the product.
Wissner-Gross also credits the discussions he had about School Yourself's business model during the Newman application and funding process. Rather than focusing on launching in Apple's iBooks Store, the company moved toward producing a stand-alone, web-based platform, opening access to more customers and enabling even more powerful customization of the lessons.
"The goal was to create a product that felt like office hours," he explains. For every mistake School Yourself could find along a problem-solving pathway, students would receive targeted feedback. "It was a race to set up as may partnerships and put out as much content as we possibly could," he recalls. "Being a Hertz Fellow opened a lot of doors. You can be a small team, and working with the right big partners goes a long way."
In 2015, after three years of building an innovative product, School Yourself was acquired by Amplify Education, a digital K-12 education company. Wissner-Gross is now working on a fractions product with Amplify's math team, and is delighted by the larger team he's able to lead. "It's exciting to have such a fantastic team that can focus on improving the design and interface," he said.
Wissner-Gross can't imagine launching without the support of his graduate school and Hertz communities, which provided invaluable teammates, connections, and ideas. To students thinking of starting a company, Wissner-Gross says, "strike while the iron is hot, while you have access to great institutions and great connections."
"It might feel like jumping into the deep end, but so much of the success of our venture was really found in the teammates, friends, and advisors we had coming out of grad school."
The Newman Entrepreneurial Initiative Fund was established by Hertz Foundation Director, Harold Newman in 2011 to support entrepreneurial efforts by Hertz Fellows. Mr. Newman has long been an active supporter of the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, serving both as a Board Director and as a generous donor. The $500K gift provides initial support in the amount of $25,000 for each new venture selected from within the Hertz Fellows Community. Those interested in the Newman Fund should email firstname.lastname@example.org