Your education shouldn't be tied to your zip code: Andre Agassi

Tennis legend-turned-philanthropist on his ambitions to transform early-stage learning and bring about a generational change through technology-enabled education

Published: Mar 27, 2021 11:56:45 AM IST
Updated: Mar 30, 2021 10:38:53 AM IST

andre agassi bgImage: Madhu Kapparath

Andre Agassi throws us off a bit when he asks if this is going to be a print story or video. As we fumble with a long-winded answer on it being bothmulti-format journalism, you seehe stops us with a calming wave of the hand, “No no, it’s fine. Just that if you’re going to write during the interview, I won’t speak too fast.”

With a mentorish lilt in his tone, Agassi almost makes you forget his CV that boasts eight Grand Slams, an Olympic gold medal and a fake mane that had its own fan-following (but that’s another story). In the Zoom ‘classroom’ that we’re in, the 50-year-old is an education evangelist, expressing his disappointment at a stagnant system while also plotting feverish attempts at rewiring it. “If I took you back 200 years and showed you a classroom, you’d know what it is, because that’s exactly how it is today,” he says. “I’m looking to change it.” As he segues from simple statistics to complex neuroscience research on early-stage learning, it’s clear that this is a man extremely comfortable in his skin, a far cry from the times when he held deep hatred for a game he excelled in.

21st century skilling is a subject that comes up often in the conversation and Agassi goes to great lengths to explain how he’s walking the talk at the 100+ charter schools he’s established across the US. “And that’s why I am in Delhi too,” says the largest stakeholder in edtech startup Square Panda, which facilitates early learning through artificial intelligence (AI). Also the chairman, Agassi announced during his short stay that the company is going to invest $50 million over three years towards early-stage education for 5 million primary school children. In a freewheeling conversation with Forbes India, the 50-year-old shared his insights on the education system, his effort to recalibrate it, and how the empty-nest syndrome is creeping upon him and his wife, German tennis legend Steffi Graf. Edited excerpts:

You set up the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education way back in 1994 to focus on public education. What makes education a subject so close to your heart?

Despite appearing to be successful at what I did as a tennis player, I lived a life very disconnected because it was never my choice to play tennis. The disruption led me to a breaking point where I was going to quit at a very early age. And then I demanded from myself that just because I couldn't choose my life doesn't mean I can't take ownership of it. And I wanted to find my reason for playing, I wanted to find something bigger than me that I was still connected to. Then, I saw the show '60 Minutes' in which two guys rolled up their sleeves and systemically changed the lives of children who had no choice [through the charter school system]. When you are in an impoverished neighbourhood, when you don't have opportunities or equity in society, there is really no choice. I made it my mission that day to create a choice for kids through education. To me, that's the future they're choosing and that's connected to the lack of choice and lack of education I fought in my life.

Tell us a bit about the significant milestones for the Foundation. What have you achieved in 27 years?

I started by helping children in need for the first four years of my Foundation and then I realised I was just sticking band-aid on a lot of issues; that's when I specifically focussed on education. End of the 90s and heading into the 2000s, I took a $40 million mortgage and built my own charter school in the most economically-challenged area of Las Vegas; it was a K-12 school with 1,200 kids. And then I spent the rest of my career trying to pay for it and making it sustainable. During that process, I was quite frustrated, not because of the difficulties in educating these children, but that I had 1,200 kids in the school and 3,000 on the waiting list. That made me twice the failure of the success that I was. As a result, my mission was to figure out a way to scale it.

That’s when a gentleman named Bobby Turner [real estate investor] stepped into my life. We got together sharing our passion and frustration in the public education space and put together a scalable, sustainable solution to expand the mission through the private sector. With the Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund, we have, in nine years, managed to build over 125 best-in-class charter schools across the US.

My frustration with philanthropic work was that, while it feels really good, you are always aware of who you can’t help. That doesn’t feel so good at all. And it’s also not incredibly scalable. Plus, waiting on governments is never an easy solution. So, we need to innovate and many of the stakeholders needed to come to the table to figure it out. That led me to the truth in social impact investing and if you can find the right metrics that work for equality and equity, and is also sustainable from a return on investment standpoint, you really have something that you can scale fast.

That being said, I realised that all the schools that I built shared one central sore spot--early childhood literacy and second-hand English learning. So many children in America don’t speak English, but their beautiful native tongue, as their first language. While that should always be the case, learning English is the key to 21st century skills--it changes the life trajectory of a child dramatically if they can cross the rubicon of going from learning to read to read to learn. That’s what made me invest in Square Panda, an edtech company that deals with early-stage learning through its technology platform.

It was another milestone in my life when, six years ago, I was made keenly aware of the neuroscience that goes behind each individual brain, and that about 85 percent of the neurocircuitry develops at a really young age, between the ages of 2 and 8. I went to Stanford [University] and met with a neurospecialist, Bruce McCandliss, who showed me how they put electrodes on children’s heads, like a shower cap, while they play or read or do some activity, and you can see the neuro-receptors firing on what’s working and what’s not. It makes you realise there’s a topography going on inside every individual brain. That’s why I believe technology can play a huge role in assisting teachers to be better at what they do, and also speed up a child’s ability to learn and grow. We brought a great team together, created a game-based system that keeps a child engaged, but behind that is real PhD neuroscience that’s constantly learning each child. You need that immediate feedback, you can’t just test a child every three months to see how well they’re doing. You need to recognise in real time not just what the problem is, but what intervention needs to happen right now.

And with such learnings, how do you plan to create impact in future?

For me, it’s always about how many children I can reach. That’s why I am in Delhi at the moment because Square Panda is an Indian company. I saw a huge need, there is a huge discrepancy, an economic divide in education. The quality of your education shouldn’t be tied to your zip code. Here, I saw the most opportunity to impact more children. Don’t get me wrong, we are in America as well, in the fifth largest school district in the country and expanding there. But the truth is this is about all our children. In India, the mother tongue is so crucial to maintain and to speak, but when you talk about 21st century skill, you can’t ignore that learning English brings about a systemic change in generations. Where you are from and where you live should always be respected and we’re very localised, but we need to assist teachers in learning how to teach it. We’ve run pilots throughout multiple places in India and, as a result, have strong relationships and rollouts happening in Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh, for example. I have dreams of impacting everybody, so when you ask me what’s next, it’s the next child.

What made you invest in Square Panda?

The founder Andy Butler came to me for my experience in the education space and my obvious awareness of how we can balance philanthropic and for-profit work, and scalability and sustainability. I say he made a cold call, and he says it was a warm call (laughs). I heard him, learnt a bit more and then piloted it in my own schools. And when I saw the dramatic increase in speed of literacyit raised the speed for the slowest learners by 30 percent and even the best learners by 7-10 percentit compelled me to get involved.

When you set up the fund with Bobby Turner in 2011, you leveraged commerce for philanthropy. There is a common perception that making money is antithetical to doing good. To you, how did the two meet?

How do I choose so many ways that there are to refute that perception? There is a beautiful place for everybody to sit at the same table. You know what the number one teaching tool in the world is? It’s YouTube. When my daughter wants to make something special for her parents, she goes to YouTube, follows videos and makes a beautiful dinner. On the other hand, a farmer with a broken tractor on an island in the South Pacific also goes to YouTube to fix it.

Businesses and technology and their interface with impact and humanity, if done right, is a tool to make a difference. If it was just about business then, god bless you, go work for a living. For me, it’s about how you impact as many children as possible.

Besides, look at the scalability it brings. It took me 15 years to build one school, it took me another 10 to build the next 125. That’s 70,000-80,000 children. Mind you, lots of money has gone into building the technology, lots of philanthropic hearts have come together to recognise the need to raise and invest money to build an AI platform that has an ecosystem that lets you walk your child through to learn English, or even their literacy, as if you have a personalised PhD tutor. You want to talk about bridging the economic divide, technology is the only thing that creates the greatest equality. It has helped everyone across different walks of life. Politicians haven’t been able to do it, redistribution of wealth hasn’t done it.

When I was raising the fund, I spoke to a lot of wealthy companies and individuals in big conference rooms, and told them about what I was doing. And they said we love what you are doing, but it doesn’t have enough returns for us. If you go to my Foundation, they will also tell you that they love what I am doing, but that they’re sorry they can’t help me make money--they are charged with giving it away. So I’m like, wait a second, is there a possibility that the two groups can sit in a room and figure this out? What do you say that we come to a compromise here and really change the world?

How similar or different are the gaps in early-stage education and schooling in India and the US?

In America, 66 percent of children don’t read at the grade level by the fourth grade. Pretty daunting when you think about it. A majority of those incarcerated in our country are illiterate. When you cross the rubicon of going from learning to read to reading to learn, the entire trajectory of your education picks up at multiple levels. If a child can’t read and process content, s/he is falling further and further behind.

When I see India from my vantage point, I see that if a child knew 21st century skills of communication in English as well, they would move from a certain history of upbringing to possibly, say, interfacing with the tourists at a nice hotel being a concierge. That’s life-changing, as then they’re equipped to help their children. I don’t claim to understand the landscape here from all parts of education, I don’t have the experience in India yet as I do back home, but I know one thing: No child is more important than another.

How has the Covid-induced global shutdown affected education for the underserved?

It’s been a disaster. In the US, we take three months away from school in summer. When you watch a child come back from summer, they spend a month to two learning what they forgot. They call it the summer slide. Now you look at a year of schools being closed due to lockdown, and you have what I call the Covid slide. If a three-month break needs two months to get back, imagine what a year will do to you. How does it impact you from a social standpoint? I think we could lose a generation over it unless we figure out ways to speed the learning up.

The thing at Square Panda is I don’t have to describe this problem, or what my solution will look to do. We need 21st century solutions to a personalisation of the education journey. Our school system hasn’t changed for 200 years. And I feel compelled to bridge that gap.

While remote schooling due to the pandemic has given wings to edtech, one flipside, especially in countries like India, is that it excludes kids from underprivileged backgrounds. How can online learning be made more inclusive?

As I said, a lot of people need to come to the table to solve this. You have to provide something that’s incredibly affordable. You have to provide a level of efficacy that’s helping them. You can call yourself an edtech company, but the question is what’s really going on with the system--the back of house, the learnings, the neuroscience, how it’s helping the teacher? If you go deep into what we do, it’s powerful to take everything we’ve known at some of our greatest universities and finally have a distribution vehicle that can supply at a scale that it becomes incredibly affordable.

steffi graf and andre agassi“Like any good business, a good marriage is one that stays pretty nimble to the seasons of life. Life requires you to be partners, so you bet on people--I bet on her and she bet on me and we are grateful every day for that" - Andre Agassi
Image:  Rindoff Petroff/Suu/Redferns/Getty Images 

Tennis legend vs education evangelist/philanthropist: Which is your favourite role and why?

I mean it when I say I hated tennis with a dark and secret passion. If you read my autobiography, it’s written on the first page. What was good about tennis? It taught me a lot, I got to meet a lot of people, but also the fact that when I was playing, I could impact people for a few hours. It felt very personal to me. That was one of the tools I used to prepare myself for the battle at hand, as I watched these people take time out of their lives to come and watch me.

But what I am doing now is offering someone a break in life, I am giving life in one sense. It’s not even close in my mind about what I value more or what interests me more.

At 50, your hands are full and you have a chock-a-block schedule. How do you spend your downtime? Do you and [your wife] Steffi [Graf] still follow tennis closely?

We follow it and I help people along the way. I like to stay engaged with the game. Tennis has given me the platform to live the life I am living now, and I try to respect it by staying connected to it.

Like any good business, a good marriage is one that stays pretty nimble to the seasons of life. You’re asking me about my life at a time when our son went away to college and our daughter is 17 now, and our parents are much older. Life requires you to be partners, so you bet on people--I bet on her and she bet on me and we are grateful every day for that. We’re going to have more time now as empty nest approaches, and you can already feel it a little bit. The only thing we are sure about is that we won’t add any more animals to our life. We have three dogs, a hamster, a fish, a bunny, and two stray cats we’ve nurtured in our home and who sleep literally in our room. We have too many heartbeats going on in there.

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