WHAT BARBARA MADE
My colleagues who visited the hospice before me reported that Barbara grasped their hands and whispered that she loved them, but she doesn’t do that with me. I stroke her hair as it rises in a blonde-gray nimbus over her forehead. She is my friend, my boss, the CEO of the now 4,000-person company that she generously tells people we co-founded. Thirteen years ago, I was employee #1, she was employee #2.
Barbara’s left eye is closed but the right is half open, cerulean with a bit of cloud. Her parted lips are dry and her breathing is strained. “Would you like some water?” I ask. I think she nods, so I pour a bit from the bottle into its cap and tip it slowly onto her tongue. She moves her lips and I offer another capful. Her breath rattles in the otherwise quiet room.
Six hours later, Barbara is gone. Her 60th birthday is still six months away.
Our core team of 11, once 12, huddles together for comfort over the next few days. We focus on the things we believe Barbara would have wanted us to attend to: ensuring a great first day of school for the tens of thousands of kids we serve, making sure friends hear the news of her passing directly from us, launching a website celebrating what she loved and fought for. Tributes pour in from education leaders and guys in the warehouse, from politicians and parents. They laud her as a leader, insomniac, visionary, over-sharer, role model, mother and rabble-rouser. A metaphorical hunter-farmer, unicorn-rare.
But as we assemble her memorial, the photo that burns into my mind is of Barbara as a teenager, onstage at a grand piano, a curtain of waist-length blonde hair obscuring her face as she bends over the keyboard. She’d studied music at the Peabody Conservatory before abruptly switching paths. By the time I met her in her late 40’s, she was a venture capitalist-turned-serial entrepreneur. She’d chosen a radically different way to make something out of nothing.
Ours was an odd sort of start-up, incubated out of a company best known for strip-mall tutoring centers. In the heady days of the 1990s tech boom, Sylvan Learning had created its own internal venture capital fund to get in on the start-up wave. The Sylvan Ventures cowboys – as I couldn’t help calling them, these swaggering geeks playing at finance – heard about someone launching virtual elementary schools and figured they could do it better. No matter that they had no curriculum, no learning management system, no idea of how to get a school started, and not much interest in the details of any of the above.
What they did have was a couple of high-priced consultants -- and me. I was on loan from another company in the Sylvan Venture portfolio, a mobile edtech startup whose prospects were looking dim. It was my third launch in a row after I’d made the leap from educational publishing, and I had seen what could go wrong, had myself contributed to the wrongness: spending money on stupid stuff, deploying a sales force too early, being overly in love with an idea, not loving it enough.
Nonetheless, I was hooked on start-ups. What got me was “let’s put on a show” camaraderie of bootstrapping together with like-minded colleagues all working slightly outside their areas of expertise. Even though I’d yet to see one start-up past dress rehearsal, the cowboys didn’t have to ask me twice: I was in on the virtual school thing.
Our first charter applications were nothing if not creative acts. Writing them was my job, and I stretched to describe a kind of school that didn’t exist yet anywhere. What would a student’s day look like? I envisioned a fifth grade girl in East Nowhere – a girl who maybe looked like me when I was 10, teeth a little too big for her head and head a little too big for the classroom. I call her Jane, and watch behind my eyelids as she logs onto the computer at the sunny kitchen table, checking her schedule as she eats her Cheerios and her mom drinks coffee. Look, Jane says, pointing at the screen with her spoon: Mrs. Smith made a phone appointment for 8:30 to talk about fractions, and at 1 my Science team meets online to plan our wildlife project, so I am going to try to finish Little Women in between. Don’t forget dance class in town at 4, her mom says. Can we stop at the library on the way? Jane asks. I need to look up old maps of East Nowhere to go along with my genealogy research for History. Sure honey, her mom says, this new school is all about you. Like my mom would have said if Jane really were me and then was now and there were five fewer kids and mom didn’t have to race out to work by 7 a.m. each day to keep us in fish-sticks and Tang.
Those earliest days of the company happened to coincide with the September 11 attacks and their aftermath. I can still see myself walking along on Lower Broadway in Manhattan one day in mid-October 2001, on my phone with one of the consultants trying to come up with something to put in the “Name of School” blank in our first charter application. Somewhere around Prince Street I stopped and looked up toward big gap in the skyline where the Twin Towers used to loom. Every flat surface I could see was papered with the faces of the missing and the missed. The usual human river rushing along the street now buoyed arm-in-arm volunteers from all over heading toward Ground Zero, and each time a fire truck passed, people would cheer. “We’ll link our students together like they’ve never been linked before,” I said. “How about ‘Connections Academy’?”
It wasn’t my gig to build the curriculum and technology needed to make Connections Academy more than a vision; the consultants were supposedly working on that. My role was to convince a state or two to let us open our virtual doors – and then persuade families in those states to give us a try. By the time Barbara joined the effort in January 2002 we already had one school in Wisconsin slated to open the following fall and another one in Colorado near approval. Each week I would fly from New York and drive across the Wisconsin tundra to lead information sessions in freezing small-town libraries – often with militant homeschoolers picketing outside, warning that virtual public schools were a government plot. I would sit with families and hear their school horror stories, try to help them imagine that next year could be different for their kids. I would collect all their information on jerry-rigged forms I created at Kinkos and spend hours each night faxing them into our Baltimore headquarters to - who knows? Before Barbara joined us, no one seemed to have much interest in the nuts and bolts of how we were going to pull this off. There were many, many conference calls but not a lot of concrete progress.
The cowboys must have recognized this. They brought Barbara in because she’d made such an impression on them when she turned them down for funding years prior. She’d since grown, operated and sold multiple start-ups and had seen many others fail. She introduced herself to me on the phone as “the ultimate chief cook and bottle washer.”
When I took that call, I was at a Comfort Inn outside of Waukesha and had just had popcorn for dinner for the third night in a row. My bad attitude must have seeped through the phone line. I might have even said something about being the chief snake oil salesman. Barbara asked me to come to Baltimore to meet with her face to face.
She was tall with a thick mane of short honey blonde hair and a piercing blue gaze. She wore jeans and a blazer and no makeup that I could discern. She was not what I expected.
“Listen, I can make this a real company that delivers on what we’ve been promising,” she told me. “But I need a team who will figure it out with me, not snipe from the sidelines.”
I mumbled something about always fulfilling my commitments.
She looked at me across the conference table. We were the entire company at that point. “You remember meeting Mrs. Swenson in Green Bay, the one with the son Carl who wants to be a musician?” Barbara asked. My mouth must have dropped open, because I was sure no one back in Baltimore had been paying attention to those faxed enrollment forms. “I had a long conversation with her the other night,” Barbara continued, sliding a plastic bag over to me. “Carl apparently wants to play piccolo, and I told Mrs. Swanson I started with piccolo myself when I was a music student. I happened to find my piccolo in a trunk this weekend and sewed a new case for it for Carl. Do you think you could take it with you when you go back to Green Bay?”
Within weeks Barbara had let the consultants go and replaced them with a hungry young Harvard PhD in education and a software developer she’d worked with since he was a teenager. They in turn mobilized a crack team of curriculum writers and coders to build the initial program from scratch just in time for start of school. While I was out finalizing our second school and recruiting students, Barbara and the home team lined up a principal and teachers for each state – including a Colorado staff based in Baltimore with the clock turned back two hours. As August ticked by and School Day One loomed, we all pitched in to distribute computers to families and follow up on last-minute enrollment details. Yes, we need your son’s proof of immunization, even though he’ll be going to school from home. Yes, we can arrange for your second grader to take fifth grade math – but how about a quick placement quiz to make sure she’s ready? No, you can’t replace the science course with Bible passages: This is in the end a public school. No, your child’s chemotherapy appointments won’t count against his attendance; let’s just put them on his planner so the teacher knows to work around them.
It became clear that first spring that Barbara had the worst physical luck, and the greatest grit. If there was a crack in the sidewalk, she’d trip into the hole underneath it. If there was a flu going around, she got bronchitis. If there was a horse nearby – and there always was, she raised and adored them – it would kick her, throw her, or collapse on her. She regularly lost cell phones in toilets, including on airplanes after pushing the flush button at 30,000 feet. She locked keys in rental cars, dropped file boxes of papers in windy parking lots, and once formed a human backstop for a child hurtling down a hill on rollerblades. And yet she never took a sick day, never let her stitched, bandaged, or plaster-casted state prevent her from carrying on the business at hand. “The doctor says it’s a sinus infection, but I’m finding that hanging my head off the side of the mattress keeps the pressure off my ears,” I recall her saying on a call early on. “If my voice sounds funny, it’s because I’m talking upside down. Now what’s the latest on our Colorado enrollment?”
Despite Barbara’s mishaps, School Year One launched with only minor hiccups. In October, Barbara gathered the entire company – now about 20 people – for a celebration dinner at a restaurant in the Fells Point section of Baltimore, a couple blocks from the office. She asked every person to stand up and make a toast focusing on what they’d liked best and least about their Connections experience so far. The educators in the group were excited to have created schools where teachers could tailor learning to each student, and frustrated by how dry the curriculum was at this early stage. The techies tended to be grateful for work that did social good but anxious about all the features they’d left out of the platform so that it could launch on time. I was thrilled that we’d found 400 students to join our brand new schools -- and apprehensive about the pushback we were seeing from unions and homeschoolers. Then Barbara stood and spoke for 10 minutes about her two daughters, ages 5 and 8, who attended traditional local public schools; her mother, now in her 80s, who had been a public school teacher for almost 30 years; and her own role as a trustee of two local public universities. She detailed the challenges she still faced to ensure that her girls – one active and very verbal, the other artistic and practically mute – were in the right classrooms to suit their needs. She talked about the sadness her mother felt about not reaching so many of her students in the crowded, stressed city schools where she had worked. She talked about the despair with which the higher education world now looked at K-12 as it produced students by the score who were in no way ready for college work. Voice rising, eyes blazing, apparently unconscious of the suddenly pale faces before her, Barbara gave us the opposite of what she would call “rah-rah.” Instead, she’d heaped the enormity of the need in the center of the table, and piled the immensity of the challenge right on top of it. Then she sat down and dug cheerfully into her Caesar salad.
No one spoke for a minute. “But other than that, everything’s good, right?” I finally said with exaggerated brightness.
Barbara looked up and around at the team. “Of course! We accomplished a near miracle here.” She raised her glass again. “Here’s to Connections!”
We all clinked glasses, Barbara stretching furthest to reach every last person at the table.
In Year Two we launched schools in four more states, instantly tripling our enrollment. Every state required something different, and it fell to Barbara and me to figure out how to make the grade. In Pennsylvania we needed to collect 2,000 signatures to prove the demand for 500 student seats we projected in our charter application, so Barbara hand-stenciled Connections T-shirts for our petition team – our Chief Education Officer, our Chief Technology Officer, our computer inventory guy, our Colorado principal, Barbara herself, and me. We drove from all points through the last of a multi-day snowstorm to a suburban Harrisburg mall, and set up our stations in the nearly deserted corridors. The sun came out and families began flooding the mall, stir-crazy kids dragging exhausted parents toward the food court. Everyone stopped to talk for at least a minute or two. “I’ll be able to see my kid’s grades in real time?” one harassed looking mom asked as her 13-year-old stood sullenly by. “You mean no more snow days?” asked a young dad with three stair-step daughters hanging off his legs. “Where do I sign up?”
It took multiple all-nighters to finish that Pennsylvania charter application, with Barbara editing and proofreading between midnight and 4am and me picking back up at dawn. We had so much to describe now: A whole digital curriculum that came with real books delivered to families in great big boxes along with their computers. Carefully selected teachers, some of them 20+ year veterans and others excited newbies, all trained and state-certified. A software platform that kept everyone on track. A year-long schedule of field trips organized by region within the state. Detailing it all took hundreds of pages, not counting appendices. I hand-delivered our submission on a dolly, ten dense 5-inch binders stacked almost as tall as I was. The Department of Education staff actually looked a little scared when I wheeled it into their offices. We got approved in record time.
In addition to wrangling charter approvals, I was in charge of marketing the program to families – getting butts in the virtual seats. We tried everything in those early days: direct mail, email, radio, movie theater ads, info sessions with food and giveaways. I did everything from writing copy to overseeing design to trolling the Walmart Superstore aisles at 2 am to find the right goodies for the next day’s gathering.
Doing all of this for one or two states was one thing. Now that I had six, things got a little crazy. On a plane to Arizona in June 2003, I defied a flight attendants’ directive to turn off my BlackBerry until I had finished a rush order of 10,000 postcards to be mailed in Florida. Over the next 10 days I spoke to families in Yuma and Dayton and Erie before rolling into the outskirts of Orlando on a dead hot Friday afternoon. As I set up yet another hotel conference room with computers and books and cookies and juice boxes, a mother entered waving our postcard, tears streaming down her face. “I had almost given up finding a school for my Jaden,” she gasped. “It’s a miracle from God. Please tell me there’s still space for him to get in.” I don’t tell her that the real miracle – thanks to triple-overtime and first-class postage – is that her card actually got delivered before this session rather than two days afterward.
I was sweating the limits of my chewing gum-and-baling wire approach to marketing, and it was costing us. The metric side of marketing – knowing how many of what to send out to get what response, comparing and harvesting lists of prospects, managing the spend – was a vampire art to me, drained of the human juice that made meeting these families and kids so much fun.
So one day mid-Year Two, Barbara insisted I ride with her to the airport from a legislative session in Tallahassee because she had something to talk with me about. “I know you love this company as much as I do,” she said as we idled in the drop-off zone, ignoring the mirror-shaded glare of the security patrol. “You have to ask yourself what your best use is now. You’re already doing two other jobs – developing schools and working state policy. You need to think about whether marketing is your number one. If it’s not, I think it’s time we found someone who will only do that.”
I silently hated Barbara that day, hated that she found me lacking in any way. Didn’t she know I purposely didn’t request reimbursement for thousands of dollars of marketing charges on my personal credit cards – for radio buys, printing, sign-making – so as to stay somewhat close to the budget? Didn’t she know I drove a Ryder truck with broken windshield wipers through a blizzard to get to a presentation in Eau Claire? Of course she knew. I helped select our real marketing person that spring. The following school year, we doubled enrollment again to nearly 5,000 students, our schools exceeded state test benchmarks, and we broke even financially.
From Year Three forward, we added at least two new schools a year, some years three or four. Our curriculum grew to tens of thousands of multimedia lessons, and our students continued to outscore their peers in “normal” schools on things like reading and math. Year Four was the last time the whole headquarters staff could gather in one large room for a stand-up meeting during enrollment crunch time in August, with Barbara hoisted up on a table telling everyone to cancel their soccer games and staycation plans for the duration. By Year Five we had 10 schools, two offices in downtown Baltimore, and more people working as teachers and school staff out in the field than both of those offices combined.
My team was always “remote” – attached to neither headquarters nor schools, most likely to be found in an airport or a state capital or a rental car place. Which was where I was in Spring 2007 when Barbara sent out an email to the core executive team telling us she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. The spin of people around me in the Columbus Airport Avis area made it hard to concentrate, so I sat down on my suitcase and formed a visor with my hand, the better to focus on the bad news in my palm. Just two hours earlier I’d been leading hundreds of parents and kids on a raucous protest through the Ohio Statehouse, and now I was worse than helpless. “Shit,” I said out loud, or at least thought I did. “Shit, shit, shit.”
Yet just as Barbara had worked on through broken ankles and mild concussions, she pressed forward through cancer treatment. Her hair fell out so she got a sexy blonde wig, recapturing her hairstyle pre-kids. She got her lymph nodes removed so wore long sleeves all summer. The chemo suppressed her appetite so she lost weight, but then celebrated when the will to eat came back and she could once again put the men to shame at table. The principals of all the schools got together – now 13, now 15, now nearly 18 different sites – and held coordinated Pink Ribbon campaigns, with photos flowing from Oklahoma and South Carolina and Utah and Oregon of kids, parents and staff walking for “Team Barbara.” In 2010 her doctors proclaimed the cancer in remission, and we served 18,000 students.
By early 2011, the executive team began meeting to debate the big next step: an exit from startup status. This would be the reward for our initial investors, including some of those original Sylvan cowboys, for keeping their faith in us for the past 10 years, along with a payout for each of us based on the stock options we’d taken in lieu of fat salaries and job security. Along with changing American education and making a difference in the lives of thousands of kids, this was what we’d been working for over the last decade, what we’d promised our spouses and children in exchange for the hours we did not get to spend with them.
We passionately debated our small range of choices. Would we go public, like our biggest competitor had just done? The thought made the educators among us a little queasy, to be out on Wall Street while working in schools. Would we look to be acquired by another education company, possibly a large publisher or tech provider? The iconoclasts on the team, myself included, worried about being swallowed by a big company, though we had to admit we weren’t so small ourselves anymore. Would we take a fat investment from a venture fund and delay the whole process for another couple of years? The fiscally minded wanted their reward a little sooner than that.
Barbara kept her tongue while we talked in ever-louder circles. “Listen,” she finally said, waving her arms to shut us up. “My only two priorities are to set Connections up for the future, and to make sure this team is rewarded for hanging in there. But I need to know that you are with me all the way through the exit. If you’re even thinking about leaving within the next year, you have to tell me now.”
We all were quiet for a few beats. Some had worked with Barbara for more than 20 years through multiple companies, others since the birth of this one, still others for only a handful of seasons. It had been undeniably satisfying, even glorious, but also a long hard haul.
“I’m not going anywhere,” I said finally, if only to break the silence. One by one, each of the others agreed. If there had been a pen knife handy we might have nicked our thumbs and sworn to it like blood siblings – it felt that solemn and somehow superstitious.
Later that year, Connections was acquired by Pearson, a global publishing company trying to navigate its transformation into something more cutting edge. The world was turning away from the printed textbooks that were Pearson’s mainstay, and our little company – barely a speck on the windscreen of our new parent despite enrollment now of close to 30,000 students in more than 20 schools – was to be a key engine of innovation.
The executive team took home checks with more zeros than most of us had ever seen in one place. Many of us joined Barbara in pooling some of our incentive pay into an extra bonus fund for colleagues with equal longevity but no stock options. And all of us stayed.
In Fall 2012, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of our first schools. More teachers were hired that year than had worked with us for the first five years combined.
At 8:30 on the morning before Valentine’s Day 2013, I was packing up handouts for a joint presentation with one of my new Pearson colleagues when an email came in from Barbara. It was an odd time for her: You could count on her missives in the wee hours but 7-9 am was usually a dead zone.
To: Executive Team
Subject: My world has just changed
I have Stage 4 cancer. It is in my bones (femur, hips, pelvis and sternum) and liver....It is not widespread and I probably have at least five years and maybe more but this is very bad….
The rest of our core team quickly gathered by phone and discovered there was very little to say. We’d wait for Barbara to decide how and when to tell the rest of the company. We’d offer to divvy up any tasks on her plate – knowing there were many that she’d been unable or unwilling to delegate up to this point. And of course, we’d stay. Our blood oath was officially extended into the foreseeable future.
This time as she went through treatment, Barbara kept a blog. In it she chronicled in exuberant, often gory detail what the doctors said and what they did, how she felt and what she thought through the serial hospitalizations that she could bear only because of WiFi. She filtered nothing: Her “whininess” about the massive injections, the impact of the steroids on her already legendary appetite and insomnia, how the throat-closing effects of the drugs almost made a piece of Romaine at a fancy restaurant the thing that took her out. Colleagues across the country monitored the blog and called us when too much time went by between posts. It was as if everyone we knew was holding their breath while pretending to go about business as usual.
It actually was BAU for long stretches of the ensuing months. Connections continued to thrive: reaching 40,000 students and then 50,000, spreading to more than half the states with full-time schools and all of states with part-time programs, winning accreditation and awards. Barbara worked harder than ever. The new treatments had bizarre side effects – growths in the neck, radical fluid retention, fiery soles and palms – that sounded hilarious in her blog. And she usually had good news to report along with the exotics: Tumor markers steady or declining, no sign of further spread.
In October 2013, the core executive team held a retreat at our Chief Education Officer’s vacation house in Maine. We’d done this once two years before, right after the sale to Pearson, as a victory lap. This time it was Barbara’s agenda.
Before we headed north, Barbara asked each of us to submit five questions about our part of Connections that the others should know, including important flukes, legends, and milestones. We all groaned, having suffered through pop quizzes on similar material that Barbara had administered during supposedly fun times like company parties and birthday dinners.
On the second night of the retreat, after the bonfire and lobster bake, Barbara gathered us around the dining room table and unveiled an elaborate board game of her own devising. It was a bastard child of Trivial Pursuit and Bingo with mutations of Jeopardy. She’d crafted the gameboard from scratch, with tinted-block lanes leading to the champion’s circle. She’d hand-lettered, color-coded, and laminated action cards featuring our questions. And she had apparently raided a family Monopoly set for play money and game pieces, supplemented by Connections-related trinkets: the lapel pin she’d designed in 2004 for everyone to wear, branded erasers we sent in kindergarten welcome packs at one point, rocks from the cheesy 10-piece geology kits we’d long since replaced with a digital 3D versions.
Our usually boisterous crew was momentarily struck silent.
“I call the hot rod!” our Ops guy said. When he first started working with Barbara three companies and two decades ago, he’d just narrowly escaped being arrested for road-racing his Camaro down dark Maryland back roads.
“Load me up with hundreds,” our Chief Financial Officer laughed. He was the frugal soul of integrity in real life. “I’ll make it rain.”
“You can be the little prince,” our Systems Designer said to our Chief Education Officer, Barbara’s heir apparent, handing over the bronze crown game piece. “You clearly need some time to grow into it.”
I pawed through the game pieces, pausing at a little bronze typewriter that might have come from a dollhouse, when Barbara handed me a tiny flute. A piccolo.
We locked eyes as we had once done when it was just two of us in a bare Baltimore conference room. “But what are you going to be?” I asked, surveying the few remaining game pieces.
“Oh, I’m not playing,” Barbara said. “I made this game for you guys. Shall we begin?”
About the Author
Mickey Revenaugh leads a double life: As an edtech start-up junkie (including at Connections Academy, the inspiration for “What Barbara Made”), and as a writer whose work has appeared in Cagibi, Catapult, Lunch Ticket, The Thing Itself, Chautauqua, The Tishman Review, and Louisiana Literature, among others. Mickey was a finalist for the Diana Woods Memorial Award in Creative Nonfiction, the Penelope Niven Creative Nonfiction Award from the Center for Women Writers, and the New Millennium Nonfiction Awards, as well as the American Short Fiction Prize. She holds a dual-genre (Nonfiction and Fiction) MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College and an MBA from New York University. Mickey lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.