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An entrepreneurial approach to teaching

MBA student plans for a career in educational innovation

March 31, 2015

Vinit Sukhija, MBA ’16

Vinit Sukhija, MBA ’16

Recently named one of Forbes’ “30 under 30” people to watch in education, Vinit Sukhija, MBA ’16, wasn’t always interested in the field. A class he took as an economics major in college first opened his eyes to the true importance of educational equity.

“I took a public policy class on wealth and poverty in spring 2009, and it challenged me to grapple with the problem of educational inequity in our country,” Sukhija said.

Sukhija’s interest in the field was cemented when he discovered that a great teacher could significantly increase a student’s lifetime earnings. “[The statistics] for me were mind-blowing and helped me understand how transformative a great teacher could really be,” said Sukhija, citing the work of education economist Eric Hanushek, PhD ’68, who discovered that a talented teacher can raise a student’s lifetime earnings by more than $20,000.

Sukhija joined Teach for America after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley. Assigned to teach algebra in an underperforming Los Angeles high school, he soon noticed that the best teachers seemed to have something in common.

“The highest performing teachers—the ones winning prestigious teaching awards—had a unique entrepreneurial bent to them,” Sukhija said. “These teachers would analyze the nuanced challenges their students were facing and devise new and creative solutions to address them.”

After two years of teaching, Sukhija joined Teach for America’s staff with hopes of applying this lesson to higher level education issues. “I thought if we could leverage innovation to improve results at the classroom level, then we could also leverage it to improve results at the system level,” he said.

Sukhija was named manager of the nonprofit’s Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Initiative, a program that supports the organization’s alumni in launching education-related ventures. These run the gamut from RISE Colorado, a nonprofit that engages low-income parents in addressing educational inequity, to Allovue, a software firm that helps school administrators link spending to student achievement. Sukhija helped such organizations connect to accelerators and incubators. He also managed Teach for America’s Social Innovation Award, which provides $150,000 in grants to education startups each year.

“That’s when my interest in education technology blossomed. I wanted to learn how we could leverage new tools and technologies to improve the teaching and learning experience,” he said.

According to Sukhija, the major challenge facing schools today is finding ways to meet the specific needs of each child. “Our schools still apply an antiquated industrial model to classroom organization, with 30 to 35 students sitting in rows of desks and only one teacher standing in front of them. The challenge these teachers face is developing and delivering personalized curricula that cater to their students’ diverse learning styles and paces,” he said.

Sukhija’s experience working for Teach for America gave him new insight into ways technology could address this problem. He cited one company founded by the organization’s alumni, Newsela, that adapts daily newspaper articles to different grade and skill levels, enabling children with a range of abilities to read the same stories.

“I believe the education technology industry has an amazing opportunity to address teachers’ pervasive differentiation challenges,” he said.

Sukhija’s work in educational innovation is what prompted Forbes to name him to its “30 under 30” lists, which recognize “young game changers, movers, and makers” in 20 fields. Sukhija was one of more than 600 people under 30 years old selected by the magazine in January. He was one of six from MIT Sloan named to the lists.

Despite the experience Sukhija gained supporting Teach for America entrepreneurs, he found himself wishing he had a deeper background in accounting, operations, finance, marketing, and other core business functions.

“I knew if I wanted to develop as a leader in this industry—to continue supporting ventures or even start one of my own—I would need a broader functional skillset,” he said. “Marry that need with my interest in education technology, and Sloan was the perfect place for me.”

Now a student in MIT Sloan’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation Track, Sukhija said he has particularly enjoyed New Enterprises, a class taught by Senior Lecturer Bill Aulet.

“Even though I was supporting new ventures at TFA, I hadn’t engaged in the entrepreneurial process myself—researching target markets, developing pricing strategies, [etc.],” he said. “The Entrepreneurship and Innovation Track has allowed me to think through the exact issues I came here to think through.”

Looking ahead, Sukhija said he hopes to work as an intern this summer in Amazon’s Kindle for Education department and is planning for a career in education technology. Thanks to his time at MIT Sloan, he said, “I know I’m going to be able to much more effectively support education entrepreneurs.”