Date: October 2017

Early Childhood Spotlight Sessions: Day 2 Reflections

Melissa Viola

Although the second day of SOCAP17’s early childhood Spotlight Sessions, curated by Gary Community Investments, included less content than the first, the conversation continued to reinforce the social and financial value of investing in the future by focusing on children during their first five years. Keep reading below for a recap of highlights and takeaways from the final day of early childhood content.

In addition to our sessions, our booth in the vendor marketplace received considerable attention, thanks to a special partnership between GCI, IDEO and The Lego Foundation that invited visitors to ponder the question, "What do young children, ages 0-5, need?" Our booth featured an interactive “learning through play” experience with a table full of thousands of Lego pieces, where attendees imagined--then built--something that could help improve the lives of young children. The experience encouraged attendees to take a break from the frenetic pace of SOCAP, and it provided us the opportunity to talk about our recently announced $1 Million Early Childhood Innovation Prize, which is seeking ideas for maximizing every child’s potential during their first three years of life.

Technology and Innovation: Positively Impacting Young Children

Building off the first day’s plenary session about how disruptive technology could revolutionize early learning, this panel, which included Will Clark of WeeSchool, Fumiko Hoeft of UCSF Hoeft Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Lab and Chalaphaty Neti of IBM Watson’s Internet of Things, had us thinking even more deeply about the role technology could play in supporting early learning and child development assessment, especially as rapidly-evolving neuroscience technology provides the ability to understand more intricate cognitive processes and ed tech solutions offer personalized, adaptive experiences for children that are more efficient, effective and scalable.

  • Whether its application-based learning or artificial intelligence, ed tech still needs to put parents at the center of its design. Parents aren’t trained as teachers, so there is the potential for technology to provide tools and resources that help them better understand how to educate and interact with their children. But technology will need to meet parents where they are so they both trust and see the value in utilizing these new solutions.

  • More collaboration is needed to ensure that all stakeholders--including researchers, entrepreneurs, educators, parents, children and investors--are at the table so we can fully understand, thoughtfully design and advance new technology that has a proven positive impact on learning and development.

  • While we need to be cautious not to label children too early and embrace that technology can help children to learn at their own pace, new technological solutions also have the potential to assess young children, and English language learners in particular, for learning disabilities, risks for developmental delays and school readiness at earlier ages, allowing for children to receive targeted interventions and treatments even sooner.

  • There is incredible power and promise in digital distribution, which will allow new technologies to reach anyone with a smartphone. The result? More easily achieving impact at a global scale.

Matching Capital with Investment Opportunities: How Investors Evaluate the Early Childhood Sector

This powerhouse panel of female investors, which featured Collaborative Fund’s Lauren Loktev, Omidyar Network’s Ashley Beckner and Learn Capital’s Jennifer Lee , was moderated by GCI’s Luis Duarte and provided valuable insight into the early childhood investment mindset.

  • While just over 3.5 percent of capital invested in education currently goes to early childhood, the EC sector offers a broad range of investable opportunities in areas such as health care, child care, healthy food and early intervention, making it more attractive to a range of investors, and ed-tech is being used in the early childhood space in more creative ways, allowing for additional investment opportunities. And, because of the impact that parents have on young children, two-generation investment strategies can be leveraged, which has opened up the market even more.

  • Sourcing early childhood investments is largely driven by relationships and reputation. Learn Capital has been investing in education since 2009, providing a rich pipeline for identifying opportunities, and, despite being fairly new to the early childhood space, Omidyar has deep investor relationships that have helped with identifying promising investments in companies like Tinkergarten. And, while Collaborative Fund is not strictly education or early childhood focused, it has a strong network of contacts and recently partnered with Sesame Workshop on an early childhood-focused early stage fund that allows it to leverage Sesame’s deep experience in child development.

  • There are plenty of challenges to investing in early childhood, including the need for ecosystem building that allows entrepreneurs to better understand, navigate and tap into early childhood revenue streams, especially if the goal is to get innovations into the hands of lower-income children and families. To that end, more federal funding for early childhood and more creative business-to-business-to-consumer and public-private models are needed to help new solutions reach consumers without the ability to pay. In addition, there is an over-emphasis on brand IP and increasing noise around new innovation in the space, which oversimplifies the complexity of combining education, engagement and technology and makes it more difficult for high-quality, unique technologies to break through.

  • As artificial intelligence creates uncertainty about the future of work, questions are arising about how to best prepare young children for jobs that will be available in 25 years. While there is no definitive answer, all the panelists agreed that social-emotional intelligence, critical thinking and creative problem-solving—all skills that are developed during the first five years—will be crucial, making early childhood learning and development even more critical to the success of our future workforce, and, ultimately, our economy.

Powerful Cross Sector Synergies: Early Childhood Development, Workforce, and Health

While early learning and development is crucial to driving successful child outcomes, other factors, such as health and families’ socioeconomic status, influence how children grow up. This panel, which was moderated by the Campaign for Grade Level Reading’s Ralph Smith and featured Catherine Atkin of Early Learning Lab, Meera Mani of The David & Lucile Packard Foundation, and Liddy Romero of WorkLife Partnership, explored how the larger ecosystem in which children are raised  impacts their development and why we need to address two-generational issues like workforce development and health care access to achieve sustainable impact at scale.

  • To truly create sustained and enduring change, the early childhood field needs to be clear about it’s North Star goals, which for many includes children arriving at kindergarten ready to succeed and third grade reading proficiency.

  • Workforce barriers faced by parents, including access to quality jobs, upskilling and training opportunities and work supports, are often left out of the early childhood conversation. But, organizations like WorkLife Partnership are addressing one of the biggest reasons parents struggle to maintain employment, which is access to reliable child care options, by partnering with to target the expansion of in-home child care providers to better meet the needs of working parents.

  • Pediatric practices are an under-utilized platform for reaching young children and their parents at scale, and foundations like Packard are teaming up to identify the best interventions to leverage in those settings.

  • The challenge continues to be achieving impact at scale. While there is great promise in integrating technology into future social sector solutions, there is no silver bullet app that will support the diverse needs of parents and families. To truly influence outcomes for all children, we need to emphasize cross-sector collaboration, connecting innovation to community-level efforts and focusing on scaling best practices rather than programs.

Designing a More Open and Collaborative Social Sector

GCI’s Steffanie Clothier participated in a session on open innovation that was outside the early childhood focus but still relevant to the conversation given our $1 Million Early Childhood Innovation Prize. Steffanie Clothier joined OpenIDEO’s Jason Rissman, GHR Foundation’s Kerry Medek, Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Matthew Steine, and Nadia Roumani of Stanford University’s d. School and Effective Philanthropy Lab to talk about how open innovation can solve local, national and global challenges.

  • Open innovation challenges can be surprisingly effective at attracting unlikely innovators from across the globe. For example, GHR’s BridgeBuilder Challenge, a global challenge targeting the intersection of peace, prosperity and planet, had much greater participation than expected, drawing winners from Cameroon to Myanmar to Chicago with 650 ideas submitted from 185 countries.

  • One concern with prizes or challenges is how to get beyond only a few “winners.” GCI’s prize design attempts to address the competition component by intentionally inviting a broad group of innovators, experts and reviewers to participate in an ongoing innovation network. A second component is thinking about how the prize fits into a larger innovation architecture that includes support for innovators--both within the prize and outside it--and provides access to capital beyond the prize awards.

GCI is appreciative of the early childhood experts and thought-leaders who participated in our Spotlight sessions, and we look forward to hearing more about how this content inspired attendees to think differently about investing in young children. Have feedback or takeaways to share on our early childhood sessions, or stories of how connections made at SOCAP17 will positively impact the sector? We’d love to hear about it--email Luis Duarte or Steffanie Clothier.