Ranging from science to politics, and even to fashion, the US is a country built on the work of people from all over the world. Immigration has always been a source of some of these bright minds, and learning English as a means of unleashing this potential in America has always been important. A few years back, Jordan Meranus and Teddy Rice discovered a need to teach English with relevant content to ELL (English Language Learner) students from around the world to allow the minds of the newer generations to blossom and contribute to different causes.
We recently interviewed cofounder and CEO, Jordan Meranus, to learn about the story of their ELL product that they hoped would unleash the potential of thousands of children.
Working for Learning
Education and entrepreneurship have always been a common thread in Jordan Meranus’s career. Long before he founded Ellevation Education, he co-founded Jumpstart, an early education organization for underprivileged kids. Later, he became a venture capitalist focused on public education and even served as a board member at a charter school that “served primarily Spanish speaking students”. Through this, he began to realize something.
There “was this large and growing group of students who had incredible potential but who were experiencing a very wide and persistent achievement gap”. These students were usually ELL’s. As Jordan delved into this issue, he discovered that almost nobody was creating programs to serve the educators and help them more effectively teach content with English. Along with cofounder Teddy Rice, he explained, “we just ended up spending a lot of time together and discussing this growing need and why we couldn’t find great entrepreneurs to support, so we did some more research, and the more we did, the more it became clear: there was an opportunity to build something special.”
Their dream came to fruition in 2011 when they founded Ellevation.
What is Ellevation
Ellevation is an interesting name. It plays upon the acronym ELL and integrates it into a word that means lifting something up. That is the company’s goal; they want to lift up ESL (English as a Second Language) students to achieve their highest aspirations.
When Teddy and Jordan first started their company, they didn’t have any competitors. No other company out there had thought of combining high tech data, information, and instructional resources to help educators become more effective and informed in the classroom. Up to this point, most ELL programs were traditionally pen-and-paper based.
What Ellevation did, was combine content and English learning all into one product and using advanced software to help track progress and assignments. The program matches student’s skill levels in both English and the content. For example, if a student had an intermediate grasp of speaking but was at a beginner level in writing, the program would have strategies to help the teacher better approach the subject and maximize language acquisition.
When we asked Jordan to explain how the program would help a theoretical student, he elaborated, “Ellevation wouldn’t help you [the student]; it would help your teacher understand what you need to do, and how he or she can set up the classroom and approach the content so that you can understand it. So rather than a teacher lecturing on Galileo, they might use sentence maps, they might pair you with someone who had a better or maybe more advanced understanding of English, or they might do a media project to help you start to make sense of it.”
The Standard Issue
Creating such a service for ELL teachers hasn’t been the smoothest process, and the biggest obstacle can be summed up into one word: standards. The TESOL international booklet contains 71 pages for standards, and they’re always shifting. The information we knew about educating ESL students 20 years ago is different from what we know now.
Figuring out those guidelines and understanding them became a top priority when Jordan and Teddy were first starting the company.
And it was difficult.
To better be able to adapt to these standards, Jordan pointed to the mission statement of his company: listen and learn.
Jordan admitted that that’s all they could really do. In order to adjust, they needed to keep their ears open, listen to what they could hear, take in the information, and use it in developing the service. Jordan said, “There were people with great expertise out there we needed to engage and ask the right questions and learn.”
Therefore, outside of working through the slog of education standards, they met with industry experts and talked to them to get a better idea of how to mold the product to best serve the student.
Build That Network
In the modern day and age, anybody with enough determination and creativity could create an elaborate internet marketing plan using methods like adwords, social media, and content marketing. Jordan and Teddy chose to go old school. After going through a lot of research to understand their customer needs, they called up potential clients on the phone and “engaged in conversations with them”.
“As soon as we were able to really show that…we could really understand where they’re coming from and what their needs are” Jordan said, “we were able to engage in a very collaborative conversation and make progress towards a partnership”.
Building a strong network of loyal school partners has been important for their business growth. Many of the “leading lights of the education of English language learners” are their partners, and they tweet, blog, and talk in conferences about it. This organic growth and word-of-mouth marketing has been particularly helpful for Ellevation.
Working Towards the Future
Ellevation hasn’t changed their focus over the years. Instead, they’ve broadened their platform capabilities in order to become more comprehensive to serve more purposes.
When asked about the future, Jordan’s answer shows an interesting trend in our conversation, and that’s been the mission. He doesn’t think much about what the company is going to do in twenty years, or even five years. Just like he looked to the mission statement as a roadmap in the beginning, he intends for those words to direct the path of Ellevation in the future. To him, that means being “focused on the best way to help children achieve their highest aspirations.”
“I think it’s incredibly important to start with a need. That can be a small need, or it can be a big need, but I think the ideas that have the greatest resonance are those that address real critical needs that people benefit from.”
Favorite Subject: Entrepreneurship
Explanation: I am fascinated by people who create things of value and in particular, that make a difference in people’s lives. So when I think about what I like to read, what I like to study, and what excites me the most, I would say it’s entrepreneurship in any sector that has potential to improve the human condition.