Tech entrepreneur says to keep learning, listen to feedback and hire carefully

Last week we interviewed Forbes 30 under 30 Tanyella Evans, 27, the co-founder and COO of Library For All, a tech non-profit based in New York that is committed to unlocking knowledge and opportunities for those in developing countries with limited access to educational materials. Tanyella and her co-founder Rebecca take on this mission with their cloud-based library of e-books. In areas where books are scarce but the mobile networks are growing, Library for All’s cloud-based library is a simple yet innovative tech-based solution to the critical need for educational materials. The platform is device agnostic and easy to use, and it is significantly more cost effective and sustainable than building and maintaining physical libraries.

Why did you decide to tackle the problem of people not having access to educational materials in developing countries?

In 2011 I was the Executive Director of a small NGO working in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. In 2010, the country faced a devastating earthquake that killed over 200,000 people, and our work was focused on relief and rebuilding. A beacon of hope in the community was a high school we built– one of the first free high schools in Port-au-Prince. We laid the foundations for 900 students, but over 3,000 students enrolled. We had to go back to the drawing board. I realized then that we needed a scalable solution to provide people with the dignity of access to education, to enable them to shape their own future.

A few months later I had coffee with my (now) co-founder Rebecca in New York. She had moved to Haiti after the earthquake, and had seen school after school with no access to books. So she had begun to dream – of a cloud-based library of e-books, powered by mobile phone networks, that would provide access to local language educational content on mobile phones and other low cost devices. This idea instantly struck me as possible. I knew it was the scalable solution to the lack of access to educational materials, and we teamed up to launch Library For All in 2013.


What was the dream when setting up Library For All?

All of us at Library For All share the same belief that education is the key to unlocking knowledge and opportunities for people across the world to create better futures for themselves. Our belief is echoed in research too: studies show that if all students in low-income countries acquire basic academic skills by the time they finished primary school, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty.

Our mission is to provide the students around the world who are not currently learning the basics of reading and writing with access to the tools they need to lift themselves out of poverty. We plan to reach 5 million people with access to educational materials by the end of 2017. This is just the beginning for us – we know there are 250 million children who are not learning the basics of literacy and numeracy, so we have a lot of work to do!

Fenickson with Library

How has Library For All impacted the areas where you have launched? 

Since October 2013, our Library has reached around 2,000 students in Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo through our pilot programs. Through months of testing and evaluation on the ground, we have focused our attention on curating content that is culturally relevant and available to students in their local languages. While our content is sourced from international resources and local publishers, it is also vetted by local educators and experts who understand our students and their learning environments. In our pilot school in Haiti, many students had never seen a book about Haitians before, let alone a book in their local language, Haitian Creole.

We listen to feedback from our local partners and collect data to assess our impact and learn how we can improve. So far, we have received an overwhelming amount of positive feedback from each of our program schools. In particular, we are working with local partner organizations En Classe and World Vision to evaluate our Library’s impact on literacy rates among students in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We look forward to sharing the impact of the new influx of reading materials in our students’ progress by year-end.


How would you describe the journey of setting up a business? 

Starting a business, whether it is a for-profit, non-profit or hybrid enterprise, is an experience of a lifetime. It is all-consuming, overwhelming and hugely rewarding. I have realized that it is so important to have a business that you really believe in with every fiber of your being because it will become all that you think about all day! I thought that the start was the hardest when I was in it, but now I think that transitioning from start-up to sustainable enterprise – establishing practices and ensuring culture remains deeply rooted – is much harder.


What role does education play in the life of an entrepreneur? 

You have to keep learning as an entrepreneur. I am constantly reading business books, blogs, and magazines to gather insights for myself and for my organization. You owe it to your team to be the best leader you can be. I also find it exciting to read about ideas – new management practices or business tools – and then get to implement and try them out with my team! If they work, we adopt them across the organization.


What is the biggest challenge that you have faced when setting up Library For All? 

The biggest challenge has been the upfront investment in technology. Tech by nature is very capital intensive. Despite our limited resources, we have been fortunate enough to attract extraordinary tech talent at each stage of our growth to help us get to the next level. It’s the passion that attracts great employees, and for techies especially, it’s the opportunity to work on some really interesting, complex problems that will ultimately transform the course of a human life, a community, or even a nation.


What is the one thing you wish people had told you before you started your entrepreneurial journey? 

I wish people had told me to hire carefully – it’s easy to hire talented people. But it’s not easy to hire the right talented people for what the organization needs.


Building a platform for e-books and then partnering up with mobile phone networks to deliver this service sounds like a daunting task that would make quite a few people hesitant to even start. What advice would you give to someone in that situation? 

Yes, it’s a huge vision! But in comparison to the scale of the problem, our goal to reach 5 million individuals across the developing world is just a start. There are 250 million children across the developing world who are not learning the basics of literacy and numeracy, even after 4 years of formal schooling. This tells me that schools in developing countries are not able to deliver even a basic education, due in part to a lack of access to books to teach. Yet 6 of the 7 billion mobile phone subscribers live in the developing world – so there is a clear opportunity for Library For All to help address this problem with our cloud-based platform. So if I were to give advice, I would say make sure that your enterprise is solving a real problem faced by your users or customers. If you are sure that it does, then be bold and aim to solve it for as many people as you can.


In your opinion and based on your experience, what does it take to run a successful organisation?

I think it takes a futuristic tendency – to be able to look into the future and imagine what the world could be like if your enterprise existed. This is really important because you will cling to this view of the world a great deal in the first few days, weeks and years. Your survival as an enterprise depends in large part on convincing other – customers, investors, employees – that this future can exist and that it will be amazing.


You co-founded Library For All with Rebecca McDonald. How important is it to find the right partner to start an entrepreneurial journey? 

I have seen successful enterprises with a sole entrepreneur, and with co-founders, and I think both can work. I don’t think you can necessarily go out and recruit a partner. In my opinion, it either emerges organically or it doesn’t. For Rebecca and me, our friendship was first, and it always will be. We back each other 100%. A partner is the most amazing asset to have when things get tough, but don’t be afraid to go it alone.


What advice would you give to a young social entrepreneur? 

I have always been an old soul, but I think being young brings with it the benefit of heady idealism that is very helpful when starting out. Surround yourself with mentors and advisors and don’t be afraid to ask for help when the going gets tough. Use your youth to your advantage to win friends when you can!


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