I am applying for a Spencer Fellowship to work on this project. This is a rough draft of my project proposal.

The phrase “PayPal Mafia” is often used to describe the group of PayPal founders and employees who’ve gone on to be some of the most powerful players in Silicon Valley. The PayPal Mafia has subsequently formed additional technology companies and investment firms, becoming millionaires (and in a couple of cases, billionaires) in the process. Members of the “PayPal Mafia” include Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman, Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, Russel Simmons, Dave McClure, Max Levchin, and Keith Rabois – the co-founders of Palantir Technologies, SpaceX, Tesla, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Yelp (among others); partners at several venture capital firms; and investors in some of the most high profile contemporary tech companies, including Facebook and Mozilla.

The PayPal Mafia has been credited by technology journalist Sarah Lacey and others with helping to build and fund the wave of consumer-focused Internet startups that emerged in the mid 2000s following the dot-com bubble burst. (PayPal itself was acquired by eBay in 2002.) According to Silicon Valley mythology at least, the Mafia – all men – have been successful because of the skills and confidence and camaraderie developed at PayPal. As a 2007 profile in Fortune described them: “highly intelligent workaholics who were good at math. No frat boys, MBAs, or, God forbid, jocks.” The shared corporate culture at PayPal was coupled with a shared ideology among many Mafia members about the role of finance, technology, and private and public institutions – including most famously in the case of libertarian Peter Thiel, the role of governments and schools.

Is there an equivalent to the PayPal Mafia in education technology? That is, is there a company or organization that has launched the careers of lots of ed-tech entrepreneurs and investors, that has become a powerful political, financial, and social network for education technology people and products? Pearson? Kaplan? Teach for America? MIT? ASU? The Gates Foundation?

This project will trace the networks of investors and entrepreneurs and politicians and professors. It will draw on the research I’ve already undertaken to identify who’s funding ed-tech companies. (See: This new project ( will connect data about venture capital investments to who’s founding ed-tech as well.

The goal, in part, is to identify and trace how certain ideas get popularized, how they become embedded in education technology products, policies, and practices.

One example of this is “personalization,” a concept shared by tech and ed-tech alike – your Facebook news feed is “personalized”; the list of movies Netflix recommends to you is “personalized”; suggestions for other products you might purchase on Amazon are “personalized.” And so too are the recommendation engines that ed-tech companies like Knewton or AltSchool say will help students navigate curriculum more efficiently.

Knewton founder Jose Ferreira formerly worked at Kaplan. AltSchool founder Max Ventilla was a Google exec. Peter Thiel is an investor in both of these companies.

“Follow the money” is, perhaps, clich√©. But as billions of dollars of venture capital flow into ed-tech every year, it’s essential nonetheless. Yet it’s complicated by the paucity of independent reporting on education technology – that is, from sites not partially or wholly funded by tech investors’ or tech philanthropists’ money.

The education technology company Edsurge, for example, positions itself as a news organization while also promoting conferences and services selling ed-tech products to schools. Its investors include the very same investors in many of the products it covers.

“Follow the money” and follow the narratives that posit that certain kinds of tech products are necessary in the classroom.

These two commands are important for education journalism. They’re at the core of my work.

I have started my research into “Ed-Tech’s Mafia” but am applying for a Spencer Fellowship in order to devote more time to it. I have created a database where I list investors, entrepreneurs, and company executives and trace their connections to various companies, initiatives, and buzzwords.

John Katzman, for example, is the founder of the test prep company The Princeton Review. More recently, he founded the online education company 2U, as well as Noodle Companies, which help schools and parents make ed-tech purchasing decisions. He has also been one of the most active angel investors in education technology in recent years – among those companies in his investment portfolio, Edsurge.

Research emerging from this project will be published on Hack Education (although I am open to publishing articles about it elsewhere). Hack Education is my education technology website – one of the only independent sites for ed-tech news and analysis. I have not taken any venture capital funding, nor have I taken philanthropic grants to sustain my work. The site is supported through small donations from readers (as well as the public speaking I do around the world).

I do not track metrics on visitors or page views on Hack Education. As my writing isn’t ad-supported, I do not see the point. Furthermore, I think that advertising and web analytics violate readers’ privacy. After some threats against me in 2015 – such is the life of women in technology working online – I did install Cloudflare, a security company that offers DDOS protection and DNS management. According to its analytics, my website sees about 65,000 unique visitors a month.

Regardless of the readership numbers, I am one of the best known and most respected writers on education technology, and publishing this project on Hack Education would reach a wide audience of educators, administrators (both higher ed and K–12), entrepreneurs, investors, and politicians.

Audrey Watters


The Education Technology Industry Network

A Hack Education Project

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