Why Sal Khan Quit Plush Job To Open Khan Academy

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Sal Khan is the founder of Khan Academy

New Delhi:

Meet Salman Khan, a household name. Not Salman Khan the movie star but Sal Khan of math videos – the founder of the Khan Academy headquartered in Silicon Valley, California. Today, Sal’s voice is familiar to millions of schoolchildren worldwide. A whole generation that owes him for teaching them confidence and math, free of charge.

In 2022-23, there were 7.7 billion overall learning minutes on the non-profit portal. With 160 million registered users, Khan Academy videos, available in 50 languages, have helped kids catch up with their classes and more. Tech giants, aware of his vast reach and recognition, donate generously to Khan Academy. Like many unicorns of his generation, Sal has a humble origin story that he shares over coffee at the vibrant Khan Academy offices in Mountain View, California. He doesn’t mind finding me a coffee mug from the office pantry, I note.

Amrita Gandhi: Students routinely send thank-you notes to tell you how grateful they are for getting them through math at school. How does that feel even today?

Sal Khan:  Any entrepreneurial journey, for-profit or non-profit, is very hard. I remember those first few months when I was getting rejected by lots of philanthropists, and I was living off my savings. That’s what gave me the energy to keep working on it…

Amrita Gandhi: Sal, you have a huge footprint with what you are doing. Millions of kids around the world are learning from Khan Academy and hundreds of schools use your tools to teach. Yet it all started with a very small real estate, your walk-in closet where you recorded many of your videos and still record many of your videos.

Sal Khan: There’s a window, you can touch both walls without spreading your hands, so it is small, but people shouldn’t feel too sorry for me (laughs). It is a nice closet and now definitely has some folklore to it. 

Amrita Gandhi: Sal you didn’t need to do math lessons for free for people, when you were already on the path to have a very conventional, successful lucrative career after MIT, Harvard, and working in a hedge fund. Not everyone knows that it began with your cousin, Nadia, and how you started helping her remotely with her math lessons. So that’s how it started?

Sal Khan: Even when I was working on my job, at the back of my mind I had nascent ideas about how education could be improved and the coolest second career could be for me to be a Dumbledore-type figure with my own Hogwarts and it was a daydream. In 2004, I was a year out of business school, and it came out of a conversation that my 12-year-old cousin needed help with math.

I talked to Nadia and she was ( struggling with) unit conversions. I was like, “Nadia, I am a hundred per cent sure you can figure it out.” I started working with her remotely.

A lot of the issues were her confidence. She got caught up with her class and got ahead of her class and I became her tiger cousin. I called up her school and I said I think Nadia should be able to retake her placement test. This was a girl having trouble with 7th grade math. By the summer, she was taking calculus at the local university…

Amrita Gandhi: The free component of the education you provide, that it should be available for free, clearly means a lot to you. Why is that?

Sal Khan: I worked in a hedge fund, I am not like an angel ( laughs). I believe in general and free markets. But, there are a couple of places in our lives where market forces do not lead to outcomes that are consistent with our values.

The two places are probably education and health. You can have a for-profit sector there that gets better at marketing rather than making the quality of the product really strong.

If a student is struggling, they can jump into Khan Academy and get the support they need. Science, middle school, high school, early biology, physics, even humanities, and grammar, it is all there. It is all free, hopefully, people realize there is no catch here, it is funded with philanthropy, and it is truly the most efficacious platform out there. There are a lot of folks willing to charge a lot of money and in places, it has turned into a very big business.

Amrita Gandhi: You have chosen an unconventional path for yourself that doesn’t prioritize profits. Was that hard?

Sal Khan: I quit my day job. We live out here in the middle of Silicon Valley. There were some VCs (Venture Capitalists) who would reach out to me and say we’ll write you a check, and you can start supporting your family. And I was intrigued, if not a little desperate. The first meeting was interesting but the second and third meetings were like – we can give people this for free, but we’ll upsell people this other stuff. And I would think about the kind of (appreciation) notes that you just mentioned – if we did that, probably 90 per cent of these people getting transformative positive impact won’t be able to do so.

That was the decision we made to make this a non-profit. Let’s make sure this works, let’s make sure it’s engaging to students and families and teachers, and let’s make sure it is accessible…

I have enough, I have my health, I have a wonderful family, and two cars in the garage. If you can get to work on something and get notes like that, there is nothing better than that.

Amrita Gandhi: You grew up near New Orleans, Louisiana and there is a story about when you were growing up and you were doing your mom’s taxes and you realized that she was pretty much earning minimum wage. She raised you and your sister, singly. Did your family have a big impact on you and the fact that you are today giving away math for free? Others might have said when I have the capacity to earn, I am going to earn as much as possible for myself.

Sal Khan: My father was a physician, and in 1968, came here (to America) and had an arranged marriage to my mom. Then something unusual for South Asian families happened. My parents separated. My father was going through some mental health issues. I never really met him. I met him one day when I was 13 and he passed away when I was 14.  My mum raised my sister and I as a single parent. The main job she had access to was to be a cashier at a convenience store. When I was very young, as she didn’t have childcare, I remember her job was… she had the keys to this vending machine and would take out the change. To her credit, we never felt poor. But every now and then it would hit us. Like we didn’t have health care. One of my father’s colleagues would see us for free.

By the time high school came around, I asked my older sister where she wanted to go to college, and she said Brown (University). And I was like, “Are you crazy? The tuition is twice what we make in a year”. She explained what financial aid is. While filing taxes to show you needed financial aid, I looked at our income and wondered how we were managing it.

Amrita Gandhi: You graduated from MIT yourself and went to Harvard Business School, yet you gave up that lucrative career?

Sal Khan: When it was my turn to go to college and business school, I had a chip on my shoulder that I am not going to have financial insecurity and I want to make sure that is off the table.

But by the time Khan Academy became a thing I was working in a hedge fund, I was able to pay down my debt and was feeling more secure, but we were not fully secure. But at some point, you have to ask yourself, how much do you really need?

And I think beyond a certain amount you go from zero to some figure. Money matters a lot. You have the basics to support the family and go on vacation,  beyond that, I don’t think it gets you a lot. Instead, if you can work on something interesting with good people, it doesn’t get better that…

Amrita Gandhi: What was the reaction of your family when you decided to quit your job?

Sal Khan: We had some savings that we were saving on a down payment for a house. My wife had a medical fellowship, but it wasn’t a lot. Our first child had just been born; my mother-in-law had just moved into our house. I had a lot of mixed reactions from family members on quitting my day job because it was a good job. (Laughs).

Amrita Gandhi: There is a lot of anxiety about kids getting into the right college. There is a lot of pressure when parents feel their kids aren’t studying enough. There is pressure with extracurricular. What is your general advice in this era of heightened competition for getting in?

Sal Khan: A part of my answer will be a little bit traditional. It is important that children have a really solid academic foundation. As a parent, it is good to sometimes take a little bit of action to make sure they have a fundamental foundation in math, reading, and writing. It doesn’t have to be dramatic or hours and hours – that’s when it gets unhealthy for the kid’s mental health. 

Also, it is important to have enough space in their lives to develop authentic passions rather than doing things just to get into college. College admission officers in America are really good at being able to distinguish between authenticity, at least here where extracurriculars mean a lot.

Amrita Gandhi: You have embraced AI in a big way. Yet many educators have been reticent. What makes you embrace it so readily while others have reservations?

Sal Khan: I think a lot of those reservations are legitimate. Open AI reached out to us over a year ago, well before ChatGPT, and they showed us GPT 4.  When we saw what it was capable of, we thought it was very compelling, but a lot of fears around errors, cheating, around bias, we saw them as well, and we started having these debates. We thought that if we could change some of the fears into features and mitigate the risks by maximizing positives, we should do that. We believe we should not just use technology because it is cool. We should have a clear goal of what we are trying to solve.

Everything we do, if we look at the whole narrative of Khan Academy, from the time I started tutoring Nadia to now, is to try to scale the personalisation. The mastery. How do we scale what a tutor would do, how do you give that personalisation to hundreds of millions of people?

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