By Sarah Holloway

What happens when you bring together young people from across the globe — from vastly different cultures, and with vastly different backgrounds, experiences and expertise — and challenge them to solve a deeply entrenched global problem? Add to that some classic startup techniques, and you might have a pretty powerful weapon against some of the biggest challenges facing society today.

Taking this journey with two dozen Columbia students representing seven schools from Engineering to Policy to Business across the university provided some surprising, fresh ideas. Their specific task was to come up with ideas for solving common, but seemingly intractable challenges in K-12 education such as how to engage disengaged parents, how to prevent students from dropping out, and how to better serve students with physical or learning disabilities. The teams were focused on public education in Brazil but these issues are, of course, universal.

Case Study: K-12 education, the $4.4 trillion challenge

Research shows that the acquisition of education — and the earlier the better — not only empowers individuals with knowledge, but increases chances of a healthier and longer life, boosts lifetime income, balances inequality and is a potential pathway out of poverty.

According to The World Bank, there is a 9 percent increase in lifetime earnings for one extra year of schooling. There is data to back this up, but it is also something most people know intuitively. But if education is so important, why do some 264 million children across the globe not have access to formal education? Why do those with access go to mediocre schools and why do schools continue to fail our children over and over? A UNESCO report states that only 83 percent of children who do attend school complete elementary school and just 45 percent finish high school.

It’s a resource and equity issue despite the fact that education is a $4 trillion business. More is spent on education in New York City, for example, than on any other public service — some 30 percent of New York’s annual nearly $90 billion budget. While these numbers are staggering, the reality is that this is likely not nearly enough to serve all children well and, of course, not all investment in education is equal. But this is not just about money. The issue is much more complex, one that involves not just resources but parent engagement, community support, strong policies and on and on. In Brazil, the location for the K-12 challenge, data on education spending across the country’s public school system, which serves 50 million students, suggests that how resources are utilized has a greater impact on learning outcomes rather than how much money is spent.

Problem-solving with an interdisciplinary, entrepreneurial approach

With all of these challenges, a new approach to problem-solving is needed — and perhaps the setting of a university is the perfect place to experiment and to engage fresh minds on the subject of the future of education. University students represent diverse perspectives that can, together, consider the full scope of a problem based on their knowledge from different fields of study such as business, policy, education, engineering, and the arts and sciences.

The challenge with a university is moving away from theory and into reality, and that’s where harnessing the speed and agility of a startup are crucial. Research on the ground, talking to customers and stakeholders to both understand the problem and have empathy for the people the solution is being built for, allow for rapid testing and the ability to discard solutions that may sound promising, but ultimately won’t work.

This focus on extensive people research seems logical in the for-profit world but is sometimes overlooked when trying to solve problems that are happening right now. Often in the social sector, the drive to get resources out there is so strong that good old customer discovery — understanding what the people on the ground can really use — gets left behind.

Promising results

By mixing fresh, diverse perspectives with startup methodologies and, most importantly, startup methodologies that focus on the customer, new ideas and solutions really do emerge. Among the teams engaged in the K-12 education challenge for Brazil, 33 percent went on to implement their ideas and are currently testing their assumptions in the real world. Whether they make it past the startup phase — always a period of precariousness and uncertainty—remains to be seen. However, at the very least, some new ideas are out there in the ether. Maybe one of them is the next Coursera or Khan Academy or Google Classroom.

So, perhaps when we think about the myriad of problems society has yet to solve, universities— and their multifaceted students—are places where new ideas in any field in need of innovation and experimentation can indeed blossom.

Sarah Holloway is a member of the faculty at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs where she teaches entrepreneurship and nonprofit management, oversees the school’s management program, and runs a campus-wide entrepreneurship initiative focused on global education technology for the Center for Development Economics & Policy.

Please go to and follow @nslexperience to learn more and come along on the learning journey with us!