Michelle is the founder and CEO of CommonLit, an award-winning nonprofit organization dedicated to improving adolescent literacy rates. Under Michelle’s leadership, CommonLit has become a robust, free online reading program that has reached over 10 million teachers and students. In addition to being an experienced classroom teacher, Michelle holds a B.A. in English Literature and Spanish from Butler University, and a master’s degree in Education Policy and Management from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
How did you get started?
I got started as a classroom educator and taught seventh grade reading in a high-poverty school in rural Mississippi in 2009. I later transitioned to teach at a high performing charter school in Boston called Roxbury Preparatory Charter School. I went from a school that lacked key resources, such as physical books, co-planning time, institutional knowledge, and access to mentors, to a school that had a strong vision and resources.
After teaching for four years, I decided that I wanted to take the things that I learned inside a high performing school and implement them on a broader scale through policy reform. However, just days into my first week as a master’s student of education policy, I felt disillusioned by the pace and progress in the field. I kept thinking about my 7th-grade students in Mississippi who were going to school every day without access to cutting-edge technology and quality reading materials.
I shared with my academic advisor, Dr. Ronald F. Ferguson, that I felt I had made a terrible mistake starting this master's degree. When he prompted me to tell him about what led me to this point, my passion, we realized I needed to start a business venture. Within hours, I had the vision to create a free website of reading resources and a domain name. I started a student organization at Harvard and convinced 15 graduate students to dedicate their free time to uploading reading passages onto a very basic website. When graduate school ended, I used my wedding money to contract an engineer in India to build version 1.0 of CommonLit. I then spent the next year writing lessons for CommonLit, and that’s how it started.
What is it like to be an early stage entrepreneur?
People don’t often talk a lot about how isolating it can be to be an early stage entrepreneur. If you’re going to happy hours and conferences, it probably means that you’re not spending enough time actually building and testing your product. At the end of the day, the best entrepreneurs roll up their sleeves and "hand-roll" their idea. After completing their incubator program, the Airbnb founders flew to NYC and started knocking on doors, offering to take pictures of hosts’ apartments. I think founders have to take that same spirit to building their tool in the early stages, especially if it is a product.
Sometimes a breakthrough requires a break-with. What did you have to let go of in order to advance your vision and accomplish your goals?
The first thing is that I had to believe that I could build a better reading program than what was in the market, including programs that districts pay millions of dollars for. This requires a lot of belief in a vision, and by extension, a lot of belief in yourself.
I don’t think that I’m self-promotional by nature. So, to keep my energy up in all those early fundraising meetings, I had to let go of the feeling that I was fundraising for me or promoting myself. I had to remind myself that building a world-class free reading program is about the students that need this tool. I had a strong feeling that if I didn’t build CommonLit, then nobody would, otherwise it would already exist. Holding on to this idea helped me become a better entrepreneur and let go of the imposter syndrome that I think so many people grapple with.
What are the major projects or initiatives you are working on? What’s important to you right now?
Since I started CommonLit in 2013, we have revised our earliest theory of change and matured a lot in how we think about impact. Originally, our basic theory of change was that we would build a free online reading program that could bypass the traditional district curriculum acquisition process and directly reach educators, especially in classrooms that need it most. And that theory worked. However, we are learning that there is so much more that we can do to help school teams and districts roll out the curriculum, align it to other initiatives, and sustain the work. Now, we are working more with administrators and providing the wraparound services like coaching and training, and aligning assessments.
What are some of the broad trends in education that you feel will have a significant impact on the way children will learn in the future?
The best edtech products that I’ve seen target a specific topic or grade. Often, education technology entrepreneurs assume incorrectly that they can build a platform that is for all of K-12 and higher education. There might be some learning management systems that could work across all grades, but in my opinion, learning tools really need to be targeted to the workflow and best practices of specific disciplines, subjects, and grades. I would encourage entrepreneurs to ask themselves what a fifth-grade math class should look like or what an eighth-grade reading classroom should look like, and get hyper-focused before thinking about expanding.