Profile: Vivi Friedgut, CEO, Blackbullion
Charley Rogers speaks to founder and CEO of financial edtech startup Blackbullion, Vivi Friedgut, about the cost of studying and why edtech and its unicorns can give fintech a run for its money
Name: Vivi Friedgut
Job title: Founder and CEO, Blackbullion
Q. What led you to come up with the idea for Blackbullion?
Well, looking at how finance education has historically worked, it’s usually left to charities, and people going out to schools and colleges and universities and delivering workshops, printing out handouts and doing it that way. But that has to rely on outside funding, which means the programmes are accountable to their funders. Often, even, the charities would get money from the banks, which obviously raises its own set of questions, and can make running any kind of financial education model very difficult. It’s great that people want to help, and so set up charities to do so, but it’s incredibly hard to maintain.
Whereas Blackbullion is run on a business model rather than a charitable model. It means we can be completely independent, without corporate overlords getting involved. I mean we have had payday loan companies offer to pay to advertise on our website, but then we’d be answerable to them. And, of course, we wouldn’t have those kinds of businesses on our site!
What is an edtech unicorn?
‘Unicorn’ is a term used in finance to refer to a privately held company that is valued by investors at more than $1bn. The term was first used in 2013 by venture capitalist Aileen Lee, and has since become popular in the technology sector.
Q. The idea for online financial education seems both really obvious, but also hasn’t really been done before…
Both those things are completely true. It does seem obvious, but because historically financial education has been a charitable operation, we’ve taken a completely different look at it.
Q. So would you say it’s a more practical approach? More sustainable?
Sustainability is absolutely the right word. In order to make sure we’re independent and our model is sustainable, we do charge for what we do. But we see it as a good return on investment. There has been a huge rise in the number of students applying for emergency funding at universities, and that’s incredibly stressful for the students. So there’s the mental health angle as well. And it’s not good for universities, either. Students are a huge source of income for HEIs, and so if they drop out due to money, that’s not good for the university. So we don’t see it necessarily as a charitable action, because if we can help students understand their finances, it’s better for everyone.
You might also like: How digital money tools can improve student retention
Q. In terms of impact, how does it work?
Universities pay, but it’s completely free at the point of access for students. So universities pay for a licence, and they use it in all sorts of ways. We’re a big part of the recruitment and onboarding process for universities, so helping new students get a handle on their finances.
Some universities, for example, will have a requirement that all international students take our international module (we work on modules). So they will direct them to Blackbullion.
But it’s completely free for students to use.
Q. What do you think of the rising costs of education? Should university be free?
I mean, it’s obviously a really complicated issue.
Our system isn’t perfect, but I think we’ve got the best one we can hope for at the moment. In an ideal world everything would be free, but we don’t live in an ideal world. We see in countries that have free education models, that it blocks out more disadvantaged students because there aren’t bursaries to support the cost of living. So we have to decide. I mean, 20 years ago, people say “well education was free”. It was, but then you didn’t have 50% of 18-year-olds going. So we could make it free, and have only 10% of the population attend, which is fine, or say that we want it to be available for everyone, in which case it needs to be paid for. So, there is no easy answer to this. Not only is it a contentious issue, but it’s being used as a political football, so we end up talking about the politics instead of the real issue, which is dangerous.
Q. How can technology innovate in education?
Figuring out student finances – what students are paying, etc – at universities is still largely done on paper, so there are people running around campus with piles of paper. We thought there must be a more efficient way to do this. But the education world is not very techy. Numbers show about 3–5%, whereas in finance it’s more like 75–80%. Education moves a lot slower, but there is certainly space for technology to make a difference. Often with edtech, the problems that really need solving aren’t particularly interesting, for example timetabling. That’s not sexy, nobody wants to work with that, but that’s what makes a huge difference to parents and teachers, and that’s what they want.
So it’s about taking the real problems at hand, the low-hanging fruit, and innovating ways to solve them.
Q. Will edtech catch up to fintech?
I would bet the house on [edtech] exploding in the next few years. Fintech is a much easier way to make money, there has been much more money invested in it, so it’s growing much more quickly. And although there are a lot of amazing, innovative teachers, schools, colleges and universities doing great things with tech, the education sector on average is very slow-moving, and notoriously difficult [for tech companies] to break into. So you can understand the best and brightest [entrepreneurs] out there saying, “Why would I bang my head against a brick wall here when I could go into healthcare or finance?”
But I believe we will see an edtech unicorn in the next 10 years. I mean, the education sector is more of a nascent market, but it absolutely has potential.
You might also like: Six reasons why e-learning is growing with Generation Z
And everyone has to do their part. It’s an ecosystem, man! You do your job by shining a light on it, we do ours by building things we think people want to use, and the universities do theirs by innovating towards new ways of doing things. So if everybody pitches in, I am confident that edtech will for sure become a huge market.
I mean, education is the biggest sector after healthcare, so you’ve got all these people, and all this opportunity.
And there are a lot of very brilliant, bright people out there, and lots of money. It’s just about putting the money with the right brains, but I’m incredibly optimistic about the growth of edtech, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this. There are much easier ways to make money. But we’re talking about the future of the world here, it’s so important, so it’s worth investing in. I would bet money on it. And I have done! That’s why we run Blackbullion as an education business, rather than a finance business, which we could have done. It’s too important not to invest in. We just need more to happen. And government has started getting behind edtech and putting policy in place, which is very encouraging.
So if we all contribute to this ecosystem, I don’t see any reason why edtech won’t be a huge market very soon.
To find out more about Blackbullion, visit blackbullion.com
For more information on Blackbullion’s award win, see our news story here: Student finance and budgeting tool wins prestigious GESAwards 2019 semi-final