by Liam Pisano
On June 16th, 2023, the EduLab Capital Partners team will once again travel to El Paso, Texas to co-host the second annual LatinX in EdTech: Bridging the Digital Divide Summit. Last year at this time, we were feverishly planning an inaugural event that we felt had tremendous personal meaning to our team. It felt a bit rushed as all first time events do, and it undoubtedly felt chaotic, but the results spoke for themselves, which we will get to later. This year, with a little more runway and a successful blueprint in hand, we look to June 16th as an opportunity to expand the vision and the conversation.
To quickly summarize, the summit’s intent is to highlight both LatinX excellence in leadership in both the classroom and in the boardroom. Intentionally hosted in El Paso, Texas, where there is one of the highest concentrated Hispanic areas (83%) in the country, coupled with extraordinarily low broadband penetration (50%). The lack of broadband penetration is a recipe for disaster for any community, nonetheless a socioeconomically challenged rural area. So we’re there to highlight solutions, highlight entrepreneurial excellence and create a call to action in a place that needs it. And as the summit nears closer, we wanted to take a quick opportunity to welcome yet another co-host to the event, the ECMC Foundation- who will bring the perspective of higher education to the table, further expanding our scope and purpose.
Backing up a bit, we started on this journey not by design, but through somewhat challenging circumstances. As investors, we are always interested in the pain point and’ the why’ an entrepreneur felt the need to solve for it. Sometimes you get the chance to see the pain point in actual practice. About two months into the pandemic in April of 2020, through a chance meeting with the Hunt Foundation, our team was connected with an ecosystem builder and coworking space called STTE (https://sttefoundation.org/). Based in El Paso, Texas, STTE’s mission is to develop and deploy entrepreneurship and STEAM-based educational programs for students and adults that accelerate and advance economic development.
We recognized and appreciated the value of this model and wanted to better understand how they were weathering the pandemic. After an initial meeting, STTE CEO Joe Sapien was kind enough to set up a virtual educator roundtable, where we would hear from educators and administrators in an open forum. We gathered for what we thought would be valuable insight on the tools that were helping educators get through these trying times.
Instead, what we heard from educators was sobering. Two hours of pure frustration. Trying to find devices for students on eBay. Driving to the local WalMart for WiFi. This was not the story of the edtech boom that many of us experienced within our own portfolio during the pandemic. We did a few more of these with the same results. We got to know the team at STTE and their mission well. We learned about El Paso’s rich history and current infrastructure challenges. Once travel loosened up, STTE came to visit us in Boston, and we came up with the idea of an EdTech Summit. Why not highlight the achievements of those who are fighting through these issues? Why not discuss what the other side of the Digital Divide could look like? Why not create actionable insights from a conference?
And that’s what we did. On a shoestring budget and through a massive effort from the STTE squad, we put a daylong event together in a matter of months. On a hot day in June, we convened a crowd of 200 educators, entrepreneurs, investors, and superintendents to: (i) celebrate the accomplishments of educators who found new ways to educate during the pandemic, (ii) discuss the connectivity challenges that the El Paso region faces and hear case studies on workarounds, (iii) acknowledge and highlight the work of LatinX edtech founders, and (iv) connect regional superintendents to edtech entrepreneurs through a unique pitch competition format that allowed for open and actionable feedback.
The results were encouraging, as attendees felt as though an intimate summit was just the right complement to the re-emerging big edtech conference scene. It was neither too big, too small, but indeed just right for discussion of regional and national issues. The mix of individuals led to open dialogue that felt personal and indicative of the challenges at hand, while remaining hopeful for what could be. In summary, the cocktail reception at the conclusion of the day led everyone to the same question: “When can we do it again?”
Several months later, keynote speaker Maxeme Tuchman’s company Caribu, was sold to Mattel. A few months after that, highlighted speaker Jaime Martinez, CEO of ECP portfolio company Schola, raised a $10 million Series A round led by Channel Equity Partners. These were completely tangential to our day in El Paso, but it’s nice to see good outcomes.
Fast forward one year and yes, we’re doing it again. We found that convening superintendents and entrepreneurs was pretty productive, so we’re incredibly honored to announce that Dr. Maria Armstrong, Executive Director of Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents will be keynoting the event this year. We’re expanding content and conversation to include higher education and challenges faced by the community colleges in the region.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a link to the event itself. Yes, El Paso is not the easiest place to get to, but it’s an incredible place once you get there. The people are warm, welcoming, and proud. If we are to take stock in the US Census Bureau’s predictions that the Latinx community will make up nearly 29 percent of the population by 2060, it is a glimpse of what’s to come. We hope by then connectivity is not still at 50%, but we need to examine where it is today. It’s a case study event that focuses on what we can do to change a situation. We’re the fly by night convener, but STTE is an organization on the ground instituting change day in and day out, and they deserve our time and attention. So please come on down and join us.