An Interview with Shawn Young, CEO of Classcraft, on their Recent Success in Becoming a Certified B Corp
On March 19th, 2019, Classcraft announced its official certification as a Benefit Corporation (B Corp). We sat down with Shawn Young, co-founder and CEO of Classcraft, to talk about what the certification means to him, the company and to the future of education.
Shawn started building Classcraft when he was teaching high school. He wanted to engage his 11th-grade students in Physics and believed that game mechanics, like role-playing, could help. The combination of 9 years of teaching experience, web-development skills, and a love of games all led him to Classcraft.
Before we jump into the interview. You may be asking, what is a B Corp?
B Lab, the certifying body, defines B Corps as “businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose”. This means the businesses choose to govern and operate all aspects of their organizations in a socially-conscious manner to balance profit and purpose.
Shawn, for those who don’t know Classcraft, what’s one of your favorite ways to describe the company and what you do?
Classcraft has really evolved as the product and the initiative have been growing and transforming over the years. For us, student engagement is critical to the success of any educational initiative.
To explain how our engagement management system works, I’ve been using an analogy that Classcraft is like a train. Think of ‘student engagement’ as a steam engine on which you can hook other initiatives like bullying prevention or developing the 4Cs or personalized learning. Of course, you can run those initiatives without Classcraft but by using Classcraft, you are adding a student-driven, engagement-focused steam engine that will pull all the initiatives forward. Classcraft does this in three ways: gamified classroom management, non-cognitive skill development, and gamified personalized learning. Added on top of this is the usefulness of the data we provide to the school and district leaders. Leaders can track the initiatives with Classcraft to understand, develop and assess in real time specific initiatives.
With Classcraft, leaders can track initiatives by connecting them to indicators in the classroom. From there, they can collect the data they need to be able to iterate on their plans.
Classcraft’s broad vision is ultimately to sustain and generate better student engagement with this school leaders promote, track and make progress with their strategic initiatives to achieve their goals.
Why was it important for Classcraft and it’s shareholders to pursue an alternative business structure – in this case the B Corp structure?
Classcraft has always been a relationship-oriented company.
For us, how we operate, how we look at partnerships, how we choose to operate with our staff, and how we work within our community – our approaches and values already aligned with B Corp requirements. So, our internal discussion was not, “let's align ourselves to B Corp”. Rather, we applied for the certification to tell the world that this is how Classcraft chooses to operate as a company.
I think the other piece is that in education, and this isn't true everywhere, but there is a tendency for school leaders to want to work more closely with let's say, nonprofits versus private companies. A B Corp is as close as we can get to a nonprofit while still being a for profit company. This piece is important because it helps us to signify to our stakeholders – school and district leaders, teachers, parents and students – that even though we're working around big data and understanding the behavioral analytics of children, we're never going to sell that data and we're never going to use it for anything else other than helping them move forward their own educational outcomes.
The B Corp certification helps to frame the social responsibility that we have in terms of the data that we're generating. Because, you know as well as I do that, in 2019 data privacy and data practices are really critical, not just in education, but in all industries.
How does becoming a B Corp serve or change the way a company might go about fundraising?
It's an interesting question. In our case, not a lot. We're already talking to folks who are impact-driven investors. But in general, being a certified B Corp definitely broadens who we can talk to.
One of our investors is the MaRs catalyst fund. They are a social impact fund based out of Toronto, Canada. Part of their mission as an investor is to help their companies think about their practices. Not necessarily push everyone to B Corp, but they have a great rating for their fund and how impactful it is. For MaRs, it comes down to the B Corp assessments that they have their companies do. And so, in terms of working with those types of investors, being a B Corp is a bonus because it kind of certifies for them that we’re impact aligned.
In Classcraft’s press release, it’s highlighted that Classcraft received a 86.6 score. A high score compared to the EdTech industry average for applicants of 50.5. Can you explain what this rating means and how it is calculated?
Yes. The score serves as a public commitment to social impact. To be a B Corp, you need to have 80 or more. Though, there's still room for growth. The score really clearly breaks it down and shows publicly where the points are coming from. So when the B Lab group does the assessment, they're looking at six areas. One is Governance. The other ones are how you treat your community, your employees, social impact for your customers and the environment. There are hundreds of questions in the self assessment. Then, they interview you and ask for the paperwork to confirm your answers. It is a rigorous assessment. At the end of the day, having a score above 80 shows that you, as the company leadership team, are committed to your customers through impact, but also all the other stakeholders that are involved in working with the company, including partners, the board, your staff, and your community. What type of jobs are you creating? What type of governance structure do you have in place? Do you have diversity on your board? Do you have a positive impact on the social and economic structure of your city? For EdTech companies the impact on schools is usually clear. What the B Corp certification does is prove that the company’s impact goes beyond that.
It was also mentioned in the press release that not many EdTech companies are B Corps or have managed to receive a B Corp certification. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. I was surprised, myself.
I think it has to do with the broader commitment that I was just talking about. It's one thing to do good in your field, in Education, but as a B Corp, you also have to commit to society. Not just in your value statements but in your practice, in your day-to-day operations.
It took us two years to get the certification. It's not a total walk in the park to get it. You do have to make it a priority and commit time to the process. When you consider that the average score of EdTech companies is so low compared to the required 80% score for the certification – companies would have to make changes to get it.
The other reason is that the B Corp is well known in impact circles. I also think consumers, especially American consumers know about it. But that being said, I think we're still going to have to explain it to teachers and school and district leaders for a while. So, I’m not sure that there is an immediate win versus the effort required for EdTech companies. These are some hypotheses.
Classcraft is an “engagement management system” designed to support students and teachers. In light of this, what are some of the social values that you are committed to? Can you give us some examples of how you embody (or plan to embody) those values?
Absolutely. It’s actually a core part of the Classcraft identity. We built out a pretty robust and comprehensive values document over the last 18 months for our staff. We modelled the corporate values off of the values that are built within our product. It'd be kind of hypocritical to say, we’re really committed to creating collaboration in classrooms for personal and student growth — and then not embody that in our own company. Right? Like if we were super competitive that would be weird.
We mapped the values of how we run and operate the company. This goes all the way to when we do yearly reviews for staff, like one of the core components is values alignment. Our corporate values are engagement, collaboration, personal growth, and commitment to quality. That's really what the product is about. So, we review our staff based on these criteria. Two examples:
Engagement – what does engagement mean and look like?
Collaboration – what does that mean and look like?
Yes, Classcraft is a really flexible system but, there's a few things that are non negotiable in the core design of our product. One of them is that it’s a collaborative team activity – you can't win on your own in Classcraft. There's no leaderboards. A lot of people, when they think “games”, they think competition. We're saying, actually, Classcraft is a team activity.
This is also how we work in our company. We think about how we want to be with our team, but also with other stakeholders, like our Board – we want to keep creating collaborative, engaging experiences.
How we operate on this inside is also felt on the outside, by our customers. We get a lot of, “you guys are so different from other EdTech companies we work with.'' I think it’s a result of our internal values and company practices.
Our next question is more of a philosophical one. How do you think society, and education more specifically, might benefit from the growing presence of benefit corporations in the industry?
There are some important ethical issues coming out of EdTech right now, and they are developing fast – faster than people are able to understand. A few examples: the ethical issue around data privacy and data collection, like we were mentioning earlier. People are sensitive to technologies collecting student data and, for many educators, it is still uncharted waters. Another critical issue is the unclear role of AI in education, and of AI working with the big data collected within schools. Within this example, there’s a specific question being asked about AI and adaptive learning. What is the impact adaptive learning has on the classroom?
Transformation is happening really quickly within the Ed space as a result of technology advancements. But I think it's happening faster than we can regulate and I'm not sure we should regulate – that’s a whole other debate for another time – but we definitely need to make sure that we, as EdTech leaders, are socially conscious, and apply best practices and research-driven approaches to develop our products and services. There are, of course, a lot of ways to go about this. But I think the B Corp certification is definitely one way to at least have an external body looking at companies, through a rigorous evaluation process, and certifying that the company is approaching their work from a standpoint that is relatively ethical.
The process does not end at the point of being approved and certified. Classcraft will continue to be assessed and evaluated after the certification. Specific certifications like the B Corp make it easier to understand how a company chooses to respond to the ethical and transformational technology changes that are emerging in the industry right now. My sense is that as more EdTech companies get the B Corp certification, other companies are going to start seeing it as an important differentiating factor around these critical ethical issues.
What advice would you offer to other entrepreneurs considering the B Corp certification?
I would say that if people are interested in becoming certified to showcase how their company operates, they should just do it. It's not really long or expensive. It can be long to get certified, but taking the assessment itself is not that long. It takes about an hour of time to fill out the company assessment survey. I think the survey on its own is valuable.
The survey was one of the reasons our company discovered and became interested in the B Corp certification. The MaRs Catalyst Fund encouraged us to complete the assessment survey. I remember they said, “you don't have to be a B Corp, but we want you to take the assessment so that at least you're thinking about these social questions”. We saw, right out of the gate, that we were already operating pretty close to the certification requirements. This pushed us to change a few of our practices and get over the 80 score mark.
It’s worth the energy if people are socially inclined to just take the self assessment and reflect on their own governance structures. The questions are thought-provoking. Like, what is the diversity on your Board? I think that the exercise in itself is worthwhile, even if a company’s goal may not necessarily be to get the certification immediately.
In EdTech, we're already in a social impact space. So, it's really just about how you want to run your company. Start thinking about the questions collectively, as entrepreneurs. Jump in, do the self assessment, figure out how you feel about the social issues, and then question yourself about what type of legacy you want to leave behind. It's really about changing your mindset, and your approach to running your business.
Learn more about Classcraft’s values and culture.