Tutoring Cousins at Scale, Khan Academy Educates the World

From tutoring his cousin in algebra to creating an on-demand learning community that reaches millions across the globe, you could say that Salman Khan has put his Harvard MBA to good use.


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From tutoring his cousin in algebra to creating an on-demand learning community that reaches millions across the globe, you could say that Salman Khan has put his Harvard MBA to good use. Khan is the creator of Khan Academy, the educational organization and website that aims to provide "a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere" operating on the inspiring premise that "you can learn anything."

When Khan sat down with Big Think, he told the personal story behind the business, which Forbes called "a $1 trillion opportunity." But what appears in hindsight as an overnight success began slowly, with Khan tutoring an extended group of cousins, helping them achieve small degrees of academic success and then building that success to scale.

"I started building software for [my cousins] to make sure that they had strong foundations in things like basic arithmetic, fractions, decimals, exponents. And that software that I was making for them that gave them as much practice as they needed and solutions and a way for me as their tutor to keep track of what they were doing, that was the first incarnation of Khan Academy."

Khan says that a key to the success of Khan Academy was its ability to place little bets, making scalable innovation possible without over-investing in ideas that don't quite pan out. Not every single idea can be a winner, so starting small and waiting to receive some validation for the idea is a business strategy that can help you reach a wider audience — a much wider audience in the case of Khan Academy, whose YouTube videos have reached hundreds of millions of people online.

But more important to Khan than purposefully disrupting current models of education was his desire to help family and friends obtain the tools that would allow them to succeed in their own ambitions. His example is inspiring and it testifies to the power of technology and innovation to create a better world, applying principles of exponential growth to human resources like knowledge and caring.

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