It’s Time (To Empower People) To Build

A letter to Marc from an education entrepreneur (and builder) on why we must reimagine systems, structures, incentives and support our current teachers (also builders) in order to empower people to build

David Fu
6 min readApr 21, 2020
Students at Streetlight Schools are builders too, having built a to-scale community model exploring spatial inequity. Lesson by Miliswa. 📸 by Andre.

Dear Marc,

You wrote a recent piece that has been doing the rounds across the Internet as it should.

I’m sure you’ll get many rebuttals, challenges, requests for debate. I hope that in the midst of all of that, you get to read this. This comes from someone who fundamentally agrees with your appeal and who has worked hard to become someone who is not just an economic taker to become a builder. And to empower others as builders.

I’m Fu a trained economist, an ex-banker turned education entrepreneur, and someone who’s worked to support many education entrepreneurs along the journey. Along with my team, we have battled against tremendous odds to create a holistic, loving, empowering, transformational primary school in inner-city Johannesburg, South Africa.

Over the last decade, I’ve engaged with hundreds of stakeholders of all kinds globally— from the head of education building an all-girls school in the Kibera slums of Nairobi to the Teach For All founder in Mongolia to an education entrepreneur trying to transform the next generation of leaders in Latin America to a technologist formerly at a successful edtech company who launched a nonprofit in South Africa to the teacher who taught in rural Zimbabwe who has become a bold, daring, talented school principal in her own right— at the intersection of education, entrepreneurship, equity and innovation.

We need help from folks like you, Marc, in order to get to work building.
Here are some core assumptions that we builders are working to challenge:

The incentives, structures and economic motives that attract people to different industries and drive innovation over time have started to show their weaknesses in today’s world AND are even less relevant in education. Incentives are not aligned to attract builders to the industries you call for (e.g., education and healthcare). Sure, you can make appeals to people to build for more altruistic or fundamental reasons, but in a hyper capitalist, winner-take-all, interconnected world, that’s not going to cut it at scale. Below, I lay out what I have specifically observed and directly experienced as to how this plays out in education:

Goals: Education is asked to perform miracles and rocket science. It is expected to start with young children from wildly varying backgrounds and help them undergo complete personal, cognitive, psychological, social-emotional transformation over the course of 10–15 years. For wildly varying agendas, depending on who you ask.

Value Chain: As I wrote in that post linked above, it’s extremely difficult for disruptive innovation to unbundle the value chain in education like in virtually every other industry. At the core of why this is the case, the education sector does not behave like a value chain because a) the end users (parent and student) do not act like consumers and b) the incentives are often misaligned at each ‘link’ in the value chain. In order to have a functional value chain, actors at each link have to be able to a) assess value proposition (which requires an effective and timely feedback loop, which education does not have) and b) make ‘purchasing’ decisions, which requires transparent pricing or at least equivalent / clear exchange of value. Differing opinions, misaligned incentives, and a whole host of other factors break down these assumptions.

Talent: Education has to recruit, train and retain talent in one of the largest professions globally. The war for tech talent may be fierce, but at least companies have incentives they can use like compensation, equity, perks and prestige. Imagine trying to build a profession 2x that size without any of the tools or resources to match.

There are incredible teachers I have had the privilege to observe, work with, learn from and inspire me every day, often earning far less than they should and working much harder to do one of the most important jobs on the planet with little support or recognition. Teaching is one of the most demanding jobs, yet we do not pay enough for it to be competitive with other industries nor give it the prestige it deserves (outside of a few countries) and expect to attract top-flight talent across the whole system?

Funding: Venture capital and most commercial funding is misaligned with the process of innovation and especially in industries like education where you’re calling for builders to go. Funding is not aligned with the messy process of scientific progress and R&D that underlies the creation of innovation and technology, while capturing most or all of the upside of commercialization and public glory of those endeavors. Long-term innovation requires a complementary, balanced interplay between research + theory + frameworks and implementation + application + business models.

Further, when you are funding the system with barely enough (if that) to manage the current system, how can you expect there to be innovation? The marginal capital available for bold experiments is tiny (see table below), and there is a massive gap in the scale up funding available and process or mechanism by which that funding can be accessed because most of it lies in the public sector. There’s never been enough marginal funding in education like with RAND, Bell Labs, PARC and now Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Alibaba to truly fund and scale ideas that work. Amazon has been able to generate surplus that it has reinvested in R&D over many years.

From As Good as Gold: Why We Focus on the Wrong Drivers in Education, by John Hattie and Arran Hamilton

Teachers Are Builders

Nonetheless, despite the lack of incentives, the lack of recognition, the lack of pay, the lack of resources, the lack of supports, many thousands of people still go into teaching.

Although there are undoubtedly bad apples as there are in every sector and facet of society, I believe the vast majority of them are trying to make a difference.

I’d argue another huge point you missed is that teachers ARE builders.

They are family builders.

They are community builders.

They are nation builders.

They are civilization builders.

They are builder builders.

To build with optimism and imagination (also highly recommended essays by Dan Wang exploring a similar topic), they need to be acknowledged, heard, empowered, rewarded, supported, cheered on, developed and held accountable to perform well.

Just as we have been cheering on our healthcare workers, doctors and nurses during the COVID-19 pandemic (and need to continue doing so after), we need to ensure that we do the same over the long-term for our teachers.

Thank you again for a much needed call to action, Marc.

In short, we need to rethink structures, systems, incentives, funding and more if we are to heed your call to action and build.

I hope that through this piece, we can engage in real, meaningful, nuanced dialogue about just how we might empower all people, all nations and our civilization to build. And to work together to remove the barriers that keep people from being empowered as builders.





David Fu

21 April 2020



David Fu | Ever-evolving, global ed & innovation entrepreneur | CEO Streetlight Schools | expansion lead 4.0 Schools | ex-i-banker | Joburg Global Shaper @WEF