This piece has been corrected.
Degrees from the University of São Paulo and Stanford University, a lucrative career in investment banking — Claudio Sassaki had achieved the success his Japanese immigrant grandparents wanted for their family.
But after 10 years on Wall Street, that life felt empty, he said.
Sassaki wanted to make a difference. Education seemed the place to start. He was keenly aware that Brazil’s deep inequality and high levels of violence were rooted partly in the failures of the education system: More than 50 percent of Brazilian adults have not finished high school, according to the OECD, and studies show only 8 percent are proficient in Portuguese and math.
To help break this vicious cycle, Sassaki and Eduardo Bontempo founded Geekie in 2011. The startup uses personalized learning strategies to upend what Sassaki calls the “factory school model” of education and make opportunities available to more Brazilians.
The company’s digital platforms — which can be used on a cell phone, tablet, or computer — determine each student’s learning gaps and then customize lessons through text, video and exercises. The technology allows students to move at their own pace through the curriculum and provides teachers with real-time data about their progress.
It’s working: Geekie now has 5 million users throughout Brazil. In 2016, users improved their scores an average of 72 points on the 1,000-point national ENEM exam. To scale up the technology across Brazil, the company in its early years donated one free subscription to a public school for every one purchased by a private school. It has since shifted its focus on leveraging public-private partnerships to achieve greater reach and engagement.
“We need to be smart enough to build a business plan that is sustainable,” Sassaki told AQ. “But we should not penalize people who don’t have the ability to pay.”
The company declined to disclose revenue, but said they have 85 employees and users in nearly every city in Brazil. Education involves many stakeholders and presents distinct challenges, but Sassaki believes that integrating technology into the classroom is the next frontier.
And it certainly beats Wall Street, he said.
Starting a social business like Geekie “fulfills your soul,” Sassaki said. “There’s no way you will want to go back.”
A previous version of this article stated that Geekie continues to donate one subscription for every subscription purchased. It phased out this practice in 2015.
Steiker-Ginzberg is an independent journalist