LAKELAND, Fla. – In announcing Friday the creation of the Florida Education Venture Incubator, Bill Olsen posed an inviting question to about 850 private school educators:
Have you ever thought about starting a new private school to serve low-income students?
Olsen, director of The Drexel Fund’s Founders Program, was speaking on Day 2 of the Step Up For Students Gardiner & FTC Conference at Victory Christian Academy here. The two-day conference, organized by the state’s largest scholarship funding organization, drew its audience from educators whose schools participate in state scholarship and voucher programs serving roughly 140,000 students.
The Venture Incubator project is a partnership between The Drexel Fund, a philanthropic venture fund, and Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog. Its intent is to spur education entrepreneurs to create more high-quality private schools in the state.
“With demand for scholarships surging in Florida, there’s a huge need for more seats in high-quality private schools,” said Step Up For Students president Doug Tuthill, whose nonprofit anticipates awarding more than 140,000 scholarships in the 2019-20 school year. “Drexel wants to combine money that they are providing with technical support to make sure people have what they need to use startup funds effectively.”
Founded in 2015, The Drexel Fund’s goal is to finance the expansion of successful private school models serving low-income students and to seed new ones. While there have been many applicants, the organization realized few were ready to start schools.
“We’re finding three or four people a year who are ready to go 12 months from now, but we’re missing 100 every year who have really good ideas,” said Courtney Collins-Shapiro, a partner at Drexel, who along with Olsen, will lead startup sessions for interested individuals in Miami, Orlando, Tampa Bay, West Palm Beach and Jacksonville in September and October.
Olsen said he’s hoping many of the passionate, talented Floridians who aren’t ready to start a school will register for a startup session, where they will learn how to set a budget, attract high-quality teachers and recruit students.
Collins-Shapiro said that Florida is the best place in the country to launch a private school for low-income students, adding that one of the incubator’s goals is to work with 80 participants over the next four years.
“We’re here to spark innovation, to find the people across the state who have great ideas, who have talent and skill and the entrepreneurial spirit,” she said. “There’s a lot of positive energy across the state, whether it’s the Department of Ed, the Legislature, the governor, and Step Up being a huge partner.”
Tuthill called the conference “the perfect venue” to announce the incubator.
“It’s the largest gathering of private school educators in the country,” he said. “A lot of these educators are interested in expanding their schools, and they have friends and colleagues who are interested in starting schools.”
Olsen agreed, saying that attending the conference has bolstered his enthusiasm for working with the state’s future education leaders.
“The conference has been incredible,” he said. “People are so enthusiastic and so committed to serving students. Florida is just an amazing place for entrepreneurs, people who want to do something bold and beautiful and important for kids.”