Learn Different

Rebecca Mead:

entilla, AltSchool’s thirty-five-year-old founder, is a native New Yorker who attended Buckley, on the Upper East Side, and proceeded to Andover, the New England prep school. He went to Yale, where he majored in math and physics, and then earned an M.B.A. Ventilla worked briefly for Google, then launched a startup, Aardvark, which developed a tool for “social search”—the ability to direct a question to a targeted group of people. In 2010, he sold the company to Google, reportedly for fifty million dollars. Ventilla rejoined Google as a group product manager, and eventually became responsible for creating a “unity of experience” across the company’s products—insuring that, say, a user’s search results are informed by her YouTube browsing history. When Ventilla quit Google to start AltSchool, in the spring of 2013, he had no experience as a teacher or an educational administrator. But he did have extensive knowledge of networks, and he understood the kinds of insights that can be gleaned from big data.

The first AltSchool opened that September, in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco. The idea grew out of the search that Ventilla and his wife, Jenny Stefanotti, a former Google executive, conducted to find a preschool for their daughter, who is now four. (They also have a two-year-old son.) “It was a startlingly miserable experience,” he told me. “You are thrown into this high-stakes world of trying to get your two-year-old into a school, and all the places that are desirable have a hundred times more people applying than they admit, and if you don’t pick your preschool right your child will be penniless and alone at thirty. And there is, absurdly, a little bit of truth to that.” While visiting schools, Ventilla was struck by how little education had changed since he began school. “A three-year-old today isn’t that different,” he told me. But, largely because of technology, “a thirteen-year-old is really different.”