EverFi’s office is out of place in traditionally buttoned-up Washington. The space is an open floor plan inhabited by young, dressed down employees who have unlimited access to food and beverages in the loft kitchen and don’t hesitate to chat up their amiable CEO Tom Davidson. Unlike most D.C. offices, EverFi has no official vacation policy, no time off policy and no dress code. To top it all off, the company’s focus is on “innovation” and the walls are covered with photos of smiling EverFi team members traveling the world with their bright orange company sweatbands. EverFi would be more at home in Silicon Valley if not for its mission to overhaul the education system by infusing underfunded public schools with private sector funding.
That mission starts with EverFi’s education programs, designed to teach students from fourth grade to their senior year in college about life skills ranging from managing personal finances to drinking alcohol responsibly to developing computer code to preventing cyberbullying and sexual assault. In Davidson’s eyes, learning these skills is essential to students’, and therefore, the country’s future. However, tightly stretched school budgets and days dedicated to teaching to common core standards leave little time and funding for these topics that are essential to post-school life. When one takes into account the difficulty of teaching kids these topics and add to that a lack of topical expertise in public schools, the deck is stacked against post-graduate success for students in underfunded schools.
EverFi approaches the education system with software solutions that teach students how to maneuver around issues that their lives will revolve around in the real world. The idea sprung from Davidson’s work as a state legislator in Maine in the early 1990s. In that role, he “focused on how technology can change the classroom,” spearheading initiatives to equip students with laptops and wire schools and libraries. After talking extensively with teachers, administrators, students and parents across the country, Davidson found that underfunded schools were not teaching in areas of paramount importance – personal finances, how to get loans, computer coding and engineering. He created EverFi to bring important life lessons to underprivileged schools in an effort to take on some of the country’s “most intractable problems.” The ambitious Davidson jokes that EverFi has established a “political infrastructure” in Iowa and New Hampshire, but when asked about a return to politics, explains that “no one in their right mind would vote for me.”
Like executives at other big education technology companies headquartered in D.C., Davidson was drawn to the District. for its pool of bright young talent. He chose to headquarter in Georgetown from a recruitment standpoint, arguing that setting up home base in a “cultural center” is important to 21st-century workers. It doesn’t hurt that the office is a short commute from his Foxhall home. And while some may complain about the lack of public transit in Georgetown, Davidson argues that Capitol Bike Share and the Circulator have changed the game for his workforce and explained that the company reimburses employees to utilize these options.
So, how does EverFi’s programming make issues like financial literacy and civic engagement immediate to students who are spending seven or more hours a day at their desks? Simple. EverFi’s programs teach students “in a way that is very connected to how they learn outside the classroom.” The software combines components of gaming with elements of social media to pique students’ interest and keep them working towards in-program badges and rewards. Teachers track student progress through EverFi’s system, allowing them to give more personalized attentions to students that are falling behind on certain topics. Davidson’s kids are too young for EverFi’s programs, but he assures me that once they come of EverFi age, “they’ll be using the programs through college, whether they like it or not.”
At colleges and universities all over the country, EverFi’s programs are teaching millions of students about alcohol responsibility and sexual assault prevention during freshman orientation, before many upperclassmen even step foot back on campus. Discussions on these topics, Davidson explains, used to be handled by “RAs [resident assistants] at bad pizza parties, with no way to know whether a student learned about the subject or was even present.” EverFi’s college programs are based on information and data provided to the company by experts at the forefront of these issues. Furthermore, they create accountability by showing administrators exactly who has participated and what they have learned. While news has been abuzz of late about tech companies breaching the privacy of their consumers, Davidson assures me that only teachers have access to the identifying aspects of student data. EverFi makes improvements and updates to its programming based on data that has been stripped of identifying factors automatically by the software.
Like many companies dealing in public-private partnerships, EverFi has overcome a number of barriers in bringing their programs to schools across the country. Davidson says that the biggest barrier to EverFi’s entry in certain schools is a “crowded day for teachers who have been asked to do more than they could ever bear” in terms of institutionalized assessments and the reinforcement of the emotional state of kids. “It’s hard to go in and ask them to do one more thing,” Davidson added, arguing that EverFi provides a supplemental netting under public schools’ students without displacing their curriculum. He emphasized that his company’s software is aimed at “empowering teachers” and touted EverFi’s new partnership with the National Education Association Foundation as proof.
EverFi has overcome the financial restraints of public schools by reaching out to and partnering with the private sector. The funding model brings companies, foundations and people “with the deepest pockets,” like Tiger Woods, pop singer Pharrell Williams, JPMorgan the NBA, to the table to fund EverFi’s programs for schools and districts they care about. These individuals and entities purchase the software from EverFi and work with the company to deploy the product in a predetermined school or district. However, there is no corporate or other outside involvement in the creation of EverFi’s products. Davidson says that EverFi has and always will be a “consumer-focused company.” He envisions building the model out to erase the disparities in learning that occur between poorer and more well off schools.
EverFi has far-reaching partnerships in the area, operating its alcohol responsibility program at Georgetown University, and running its other programs in Fairfax, Arlington, Prince George’s and Montgomery County public schools. Despite being headquartered in the District, EverFi has had trouble making inroads with D.C. City Public Schools. Davidson attributes this to the fact that some “big city districts are like aircraft carriers – they are difficult to turn and engage with sometimes.” However, EverFi’s programs have been deployed at Wilson High, Anacostia Senior High School, Eaton Elementary and a number of area charter schools.
EverFi’s programs aren’t just for kids though. In recent years, the company has partnered with banks and groups like the Mortgage Bankers Association to get their financial literacy programs into the hands of adults who need them. Davidson says the company believes in the concept of “education currency,” or the idea that companies and organizations should reward people who take time to gain better information about their finances and learn how to protect themselves from predatory lending. Some companies are already rewarding consumers with lower rates, better terms and lower closing costs because they have completed EverFi’s programs and measurably learned how to be more fiscally responsible.
The end game, Davidson explains, is to build out a “very large, international company that is in the business of alleviating big social issues.” He does not want EverFi to be seen as a “socially responsible” or “double bottom line business,” but rather a company that is celebrated for bringing capital to solve the country and world’s biggest problems with education. Private capital has revolutionized industry in America with innovation, so why can’t a similar model work to bring classrooms to the 21st century? That’s the question EverFi is in the process of answering.