Business People and Community

Education innovator highlights risk-taking, destigmatizing failure

Sal Khan, founder and CEO of the Khan Academy, touted the “huge positives” that come with guiding a values-aligned nonprofit organization with a global educational mission in his virtual lecture to the Miami Herbert Business School.
Sal Khan, founder and CEO of Khan Academy. Photo courtesy Khan Academy
Sal Khan, founder and CEO of the Khan Academy. Photo: Khan Academy

In a virtual discourse—held on Wednesday with University of Miami Patti and Allan Herbert Business School Dean John Quelch moderating—Sal Khan, who founded the Khan Academy in 2006, talked about the travails of entrepreneurship and the importance of destigmatizing failure in learning, while suggesting that the learning loss scenario prompted by the pandemic “should be treated as a disaster recovery project.”

What today is a global nonprofit that supports hundreds of thousands of teachers and parents around the world to provide “free world class education for anyone, anywhere,” launched as a family tutoring effort to help a 12-year-old cousin who was struggling with basic math.

In 2004, Khan was just married and, with a new M.B.A. in hand, was working as an analyst for a hedge fund—a job he described as the most profit-driven imaginable—when he learned at a family gathering that his young cousin Nadia had been placed in remedial math at school. She returned to New Orleans and, from his apartment in Boston, he began to tutor her remotely—after school for Nadia and after work for him.

He helped fill in Nadia’s learning gaps and “slowly, but surely she got unit conversion” and caught up with her class. He urged her school to let her retake the placement exam, and they agreed.

“That same Nadia who a few months before thought she couldn’t understand math, who had been put into remedial math, was now placed in an advanced course,” Khan said. “I was hooked.”

Nadia’s younger cousins asked for help. Word spread and family friends joined.

“I saw a common pattern. They were trying, they were bright kids, had good teachers, but they had gaps that they had accrued year after year, over many years,” Khan remembered. “That 10- to 20-percent deficit kept building up. I kept having to go back and fill in those gaps for them.”

With his background in software—he has degrees from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—Khan thought he could write a program that could provide online practice. At a dinner party a few years later, a friend asked how he was scaling the lessons he had created and suggested Khan post them on YouTube. Khan balked at first—“YouTube is for dogs on skateboards, not for serious mathematics”—but still decided to give it a try and posted several 10-minute microlessons on the site.

“Which do you prefer—the one-on-one talks or the online lessons?” he asked the young learners. “Hmmm, the videos,” was the response he received.

“I took that as positive feedback,” Khan indicated. “I believe what they were saying is that it was better to have an infinitely patient version of their cousin—you could pause, and you could repeat. That meant I had to explain less and could work more on the mega cognitive.”

His young family moved to Northern California, and Khan was spending more and more time on the venture. They decided to take a risk, try it for a year, and so shifted savings for a new house into the project.

“As an entrepreneur, you have to have a bit of delusional optimism that the world will recognize your brilliance,” Khan said. “Slowly, but surely, the world began to notice. By fall of 2010, we had enough funding to get an office space, and we were off to the races.”

The Khan Academy, with 120 million registered users located in 190 countries worldwide, provides free, short video lessons for almost all math taught K-14—which includes foundational learning for college freshmen and sophomores—most science education and many humanities lessons. Modules are available in 50 languages, and the Academy has begun offering lessons for early learning. Through, it offers a free peer-to-peer tutoring platform where anyone can receive help.

Funding for the nonprofit comes from philanthropists, not venture capitalists. Does Khan regret following the nonprofit route?

Not at all, he said, explaining that there have been “huge positives” that stem from the altruistic mission.

“We’ve had the capital that we need because of the press, people inspired by the vision, and people coming out of the woodwork to help us,” Khan said. In the tech world, driven by constant competition for talent, Khan noted that the Academy has gotten “some of the best”—workers interested in good salaries, albeit not the highest, in exchange for doing values-driven work. The company currently employs about 200.

Additionally, he appreciates that his board meetings are much different. “Instead of my board pushing me on what our next-quarter earnings are going to be, they push me on impact, impact, impact—how do we know we’re reaching the kids we’re trying to reach? How do we scale it? On balance it’s been a blessing,” he said.   

That said, Khan is a self-described “capitalist at heart.”

“I believe in free markets and that innovation occurs in the for-profit sector,” he said. “Yet there are certain places where market forces don’t work well, or they don’t work in a way that’s aligned with our values—and the two areas where that pops up the most are education and health care,” he added. “When you’re talking about making sure that every student has access to education, I don’t think the market forces are set up for that.”   

Government should intervene but is often too bulky and bureaucratic to get it done. “But everyone deserves to learn algebra even if their parent can’t give them their credit card,” he said, and so nonprofits are often the best suited at promoting efficiency in these areas.

Has he ever had any self-doubts about his professional path?

“Oh my gosh, yes—it’s hard to go through a day without self-doubt,” Khan said jokingly.

“Looking back, as soon as I started thinking that this is what I want to do with my life, that this could be the virtual version of the great museums or the great universities and it could serve billions of people for generations to come, I was struck with ‘who do you think you are Sal? You’re just some guy. You have an opinion about education, but you’re not a formal educator. [You’re] a guy operating out of a walk-in closet; there’s no archetype for what you think you could do. You have no business model, zero experience in a not-for-profit realm.’”

According to Khan, when in business school, though his school did not offer grades, the one course he would have failed was “social entrepreneurship.” And he noted that when he was starting out, he was initially rejected by 20 to 30 foundations.

 Yet, he persevered. And he said that is the most important thing for the entrepreneur: to get to the other side. “In any life journey, you’re going to hit those lows and remembering that previous low point can be a powerful muscle to know that you’re going to be able to resolve this newest challenge,” he said. 

The pandemic has exponentially increased the organization’s reach—the Academy now provides about 90 million learning minutes daily.

Khan said that recovery in the education realm is clearly K-shaped. Some kids  are doing just fine, while many others are suffering from the loss of contact and support.

In terms of global education rankings, the United States, despite a relatively higher investment, often figures far down. Khan said the comparisons don’t tell an accurate story.

“The U.S. is very large and very diverse in terms of its students,” he pointed out. Adding that Finland is smaller than the Bay Area and very homogenous, Singapore is a city state, and in China not all children take the test—the International Student Assessment Program or PISA exam—that is used as the global measuring stick. 

While the U.S. can certainly improve, Khan said that what it does far better is the notion of destigmatizing failure. “Getting a D or an F doesn’t mean you’re a horrible person. It just means that you haven’t learned it yet—we have to continue to work to destigmatize failure associated with learning,” he said.

“Delegations from those same countries who score better than the U.S. have come to visit with us at the Khan Academy and they want to know: ‘How come our kids are not starting the next Google, what’s the U.S. secret?’ ”

Here, there is more emphasis on entrepreneurial risk-taking, and there’s less stigma for failure compared to anywhere in the world, he said.

Khan’s family is from India and Bangladesh. “From a philanthropist perspective, if I were there, there’s no way people would have come out of the woodwork to support me for a venture like this,” he said.

The past 10 years have been wild, Khan noted, adding that he is extremely happy with how the company has prospered. 

“As an entrepreneur, in some ways I’m more impatient than ever to make the dent that we want to make in the universe,” he said. “Yet, I like growing fast slowly, and I want the Khan Academy to be around for all of our grandchildren.”