How Sal Khan Revolutionized Education With Khan Academy
Aiming for the stars as a non-profit organization — delusional or genius?
The timeline of the Internet is astonishing. The way things have progressed in the past two decades has brought humanity to a new and exciting place. This is the age of the Internet, and it all starts in 1999.
In 1999, the dot com bubble was reaching its peak. Everyone was busy making startups. Companies like Google were started at around the same time. The Internet was starting to take over the world. But competing with other companies with the same goal was hard work, and startups were not for everyone.
Enter Sal Khan
Sal Khan, a student at MIT, as suggested by his friend started working at a venture capital market startup, NASDAQ after graduating.
It didn’t go that well. In 2000, the startup collapsed, and he had to let some people go. He left the world of startups deciding never to come back again. He describes it as a painful and political experience.
After leaving the world of startups, he went to Harvard Business School, and after completing it, joined a very lucrative career as an investment analyst in a hedge fund. Since he came from a poor family, the money was crucial for him and his single mother who raised him through tough times.
Remote Learning in 2004, Seriously!
In 2004, Sal’s cousin’s mother came to him to ask him to help her with math. Sal started teaching her remotely, in 2004. He taught her over the phone and used Yahoo’s messenger service. Yahoo had a feature called “Yahoo Doodles” back then. So it helped him write equations. If you’re familiar with Khan Academy, the equations are still written that way.
He also bought a pen tablet. As a tutor, he helped her ace math. He used to do it 30 minutes after work, every day. 5 months before, she had been put into a medium math class. Now, she was in an advanced math class. Word spread around, and he started getting requests from other family members. He started teaching a bunch of other children in his family over the phone.
The Decision to Make YouTube Videos
By 2006, he was tutoring up to 15 of his cousins. Obviously, it was difficult clearing the doubts of 15 children over the phone. Someone in his family suggested that he start making YouTube videos. You can imagine that in 2006, YouTube was not a place for educational videos. In its infancy, it was anything but educational. Sal thought that YouTube is not the best option.
He did make software based on education in college like a software used to teach math to attention deficit children called “Math Planet.”
So, he made a software to generate practice problems, hints, and give him feedback about how the children are doing. This is the software we now know as Khan Academy.
It was getting increasingly hard to teach so many children all at once. So in 2006, he finally made his first YouTube video and made it public. Soon, people started to take notice. He was getting letters from all over the world saying how much he helped them.
All of it was free, and everyone around the world could access it. But that raised a big question: “Who will fund it?”
How He Got Investors
In 2009, he was going through a financial crisis because he quit his job, and it got difficult to fund this project.
One day, completely out of the blue, Sal got a donation of $10,000. It was from Ann Doerr, a philanthropist and the wife of a billionaire, John Doerr. They then met one day and he showed her how this project could change the world.
She asked him how he’s supporting himself, and his answer was: “I’m not.” That resulted in Ann giving him $100,000 to help pay his bills. He was delighted as it supported him financially. But a much bigger thing was coming for Sal.
In an interview, Bill Gates was asked about how we could better educate people. Bill Gates told him about Khan Academy and Sal. He talked about how he was using it for his children.
Bill Gates talking about this “one guy who makes these incredible 15 minutes videos” was unbelievable for Sal Khan. He saw a great opportunity in this. He searched for ways to contact Bill Gates. He got on a call with him. The date of the meeting was fixed.
That meeting with Bill Gates went really well for him. He was given a $2 million grant by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. At the same time, he was also given a $2 million grant by Google. So he had a total of $4 million for Khan Academy.
That meant he could add more teachers, engineers, and resources for them. He partnered with his friends and other engineers to increase Khan Academy’s reach to millions of people.
Software Changes Lives
Software is capable of things that couldn’t even be captured by imagination some years ago. Educating people is one of them.
On YouTube, people post anything from comedy sketches to life advice. But more than a decade ago, putting math and science videos on YouTube was a brave experiment.
It was brave because he left his job for it. It was an experiment because no one had done it before. But it was the experiment that brought us Khan Academy — a non-profit organization that turned profitable for millions of people worldwide.
Sal Khan has had a great impact on education. The goal to provide “free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere" must have sparked from him being one of the children he wants to teach, in the past.
He was an underprivileged kid whose single mother struggled to make ends meet. Making Khan Academy a for-profit organization could have made him billions. But he says he would have donated it to a cause like Khan Academy anyway. So he became the change he wanted to support.
All the money in the world is nothing compared to the thousands of letters he got from students and their parents all around the world. An entrepreneur with a primary goal other than money is rare. But these rare gems are the people who transform the world with their solutions.
If you set out to change the world, and the idea sounds crazy, you might be on the right path. Changing something requires you to lead the way. That means you have to be the first to do something really crazy.
For Sal Khan, it was risking a lucrative career in hedge funds. That meant he had to run everything from his own pocket for a long time to the point of extreme anxiety of running out of money to survive. Imagine leaving a job that changed your life for doing something that costs you money instead of paying you.
There are no rules for taking risks. No manual that guides you on what road to take. But that’s life. Sometimes, the road not taken leads you and the entire world to the light. In this case, the light is Khan Academy — a bright star with dark and confusing origins.