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State of the Union

A DC-based startup just might change the face of education by friending a few tech titans. 

EverFi’s Tom Davidson was photographed in front of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s “Electronic Superhighway,” which will be featured in the upcoming exhibition Nam June Paik: Global Visionary.

When Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Google’s Eric Schmidt and Twitter’s Evan Williams decide to do anything together, it’s big news. So it’s not so surprising, then, that the startup world went nuts when the “Mount Rushmore of technology” recently infused $10 million into a game-changing education software company based in Georgetown.

Tom Davidson co-founded EverFi four and a half years ago, and immediately shattered the formerly staid world of e-learning, paving the way for this titanic investment. After attending Sidwell Friends School and Phillips Academy at Andover, Davidson picked up his zeal for online learning in Maine, where he was elected to the state legislature six months after graduating from Bowdoin College. He realized that students didn’t just need algebra and grammar; they also needed help with what he calls “critical life skills”—financial literacy, substance abuse, sexual assault prevention and cyberbullying. He and co-founder Jon Chapman set about creating software to teach those skills.

But before they could attract the Bezoses and Schmidts of the world, they had to induce big-time corporate partners. That’s because, in their true light-bulb moment, they grasped that asking cash-strapped schools to pay for their products was a losing proposition, and they didn’t need to apply for grants with the Department of Education. Rather, EverFi approached partners such as J.P. Morgan and the NBA to sponsor schools and foot the entire bill of rolling out the software into designated districts.

Some 800 corporations have signed on since 2008, serving 4.5 million students in all 50 states. “It’s a new kind of a revenue stream, a third-party payer for education that hasn’t existed to date,” says Davidson, who has also pioneered adult-learning platforms that these companies offer to their employees.

To up the ROI—and minimize eye-rolling and sighs from students of all ages—the learning interfaces are something of a blend between Xbox, virtual reality and Facebook. “When students learn how a stock exchange works, they’re on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, buying and selling,” says Davidson.

And as the startup world well knows, clients of new technology can be fickle, so EverFi baked into each curriculum the ability to prove the product’s value. The programs track student progress and show results, both via improved scores on the software’s gaming elements and regarding how students are discussing the issues through its social media components. Next up: a civics education curriculum developed in partnership with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s nonprofit, slated for a December launch.

As EverFi continues to grow (they expect 120 employees by year-end), Davidson is beginning to see the company as cut from the same cloth as those of his new investors. “Between the three of them, they’ve been a part of the three biggest networks in the world,” he says. “And at the end of the day, we feel like we’ll have created a network of millions of kids that are tied together.”