Silicon Valley Entrepreneur Bets on Education Start-up

By E.J. Kessler

Published January 24, 2003, issue of January 24, 2003.
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aura Lauder has a thing for start-ups.

In the 1990s, the now 42-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur staked her professional career on one of the Holy Grails of the digital boom — interactive cable television, a platform that allows two-way, multimedia communication between television and the Internet. The company she worked for, ICTV, sells a groovy piece of software called HeadendWare that brings such interactivity to any digital set-top box. But Lauder was not content just bringing interactivity to television viewers. She wanted to use the technology to improve education. So in 1992 she started the company’s education division.

“I said, it’s terrific that we can create this, but it’s not just for entertainment or internet access,” she told the Forward in a telephone interview from her home in leafy Atherton, Calif., a posh suburb about 35 miles south of San Francisco.

Lauder’s work at ICTV brought her into close contact with schools and teachers, but even that was not enough to slake her thirst for improving the world — or for innovation. Heavily involved with her children’s Jewish day school, she soon set her sights on bolstering the oldest of interactive communications: those between teacher and student.

As a result, she’s staked her philanthropic career on another brave, new venture: DeLet (Day School Learning Through Teaching, and Hebrew for “door”), an three-year pilot program of intensive teacher training and curriculum development that hopes to provide one answer to the pronounced nationwide shortage of day-school educators.

DeLet was launched last year with an initial class of 18 fellows and is now recruiting its second class. The fellows, who are being mentored through an intensive 13-month program that includes summertime workshops and classroom teaching, must commit to teaching two more years in a day school and to acquiring an advanced degree in Jewish education or a state teaching credential. They can apply for a $10,000 scholarship to do so. The fellows study at either Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., or the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. They will teach in Boston; Providence, R.I.; Los Angeles; San Francisco, and Palo Alto, Calif.

The program is funded with $3 million in seed money from a group of philanthropists, including Charles, Andrea and Edgar Bronfman; Michael Steinhardt; the Crown family, and, of course, Lauder herself, who is married to venture capitalist Gary Lauder, son of Leonard Lauder, chairman of the Estée Lauder cosmetics empire.

“The objective is to scale this up to recruit and train hundreds, so there is a national cadre,” said Laura Lauder, who is a general partner of her husband’s venture-capital firm.

DeLet also incorporates her interest in high technology: Fellows teaching at schools in the hinterland participate in some sessions via videoconferencing.

Lauder grew up in a “small, intimate” Jewish community of about 5,000 families in Canton, Ohio, a city of about 150,000. An avid tennis player, she attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and became a “little sister” of the Jewish fraternity Zeta Beta Tau. “I dated all the Jewish boys at Duke,” she said. At Chapel Hill, Jews were “an anomaly,” Lauder said. She met her husband, a New Yorker, while she was working in San Francisco. He had gone west to attend Stanford Business School. “I was always involved in Jewish life,” she said.

A budding philanthropist, she entered the prestigious — and rigorous — four-year fellowship program of the Wexner Heritage Foundation in 1995, forming a close bond with a group of about 20 fellows in the Palo Alto-San Jose area. The experience, she said, was “transformational.” The group became the nucleus of support for the Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School, which Lauder’s two children, ages 5 and 7, attend. The school started out small in borrowed classrooms but has since built its own campus and grown to 250 families and 400 students, with a waiting list. The key to its growth was its excellent teachers, Lauder said, which showed her the pressing need for more such day-school educators. Nationally, the field of day-school education has been experiencing an extreme shortage of personnel as low salaries drive people out of the field.

“My experience in Palo Alto is that our school had great teachers, and that is what drew the broadest spectrum of parents,” she said. “If you asked parents whether it was their dream to send their children to day school, half would say no, until this great school with great teachers and a great environment came along.”

“If we can train them in an environment where there is attention to networking, where they can feel supported and part of a prestigious group, they are more likely to stick with it and accept low salaries,” she continued. “The problem is not so much finding great teachers as it is keeping great teachers.”

The school has contributed not only to the Jewish and secular education of the children, but also to the atmosphere and cohesion of the community. “When my husband and I came to Palo Alto, the Jewish community was very dispersed,” she said. “Now, because of the school, there is a ‘mitzvah corps’ that helps families with their financial situations or when the kids get sick…. When there are deaths in the family, the entire school comes out. It’s a true spiritual community as well as a learning environment.”

“That’s the way to build a new generation of Jewish leaders,” Lauder said. “They feel it in their kishkes, both children and parents.”

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