A Rebel with a Cause

Jeff Patterson, Gaggle

April 02, 2019

I’ve always liked to upset the status quo. As a kid, I often found adults in authority to be cringeworthy.

My entrepreneurial journey is defined by a desire to fling a solution in the face of authority. Tell me that something can’t be done, a problem that’s too messy to solve, and I’ll find a way.

In 1998, I was running an educational software company that I had cofounded, and I found myself in conversation with a teacher. I asked her if she used email to communicate with her students, to which she replied, “Oh, no, my district would never let kids have an email account.” As the owner of a business that wouldn’t exist without email, I had to ask the “why” question—that’s what entrepreneurs do.

The teacher’s response: “It’s too risky. We can’t manage the safety and security concerns; we won’t be able to monitor who the kids are talking to or handle potentially unsafe behaviors that might be hatched online.” The concern was valid, but so were the benefits of students using email. They should have access to the same essential tools as adults. I could solve this problem.

In the 20 years since that conversation, I grew my Evergreen business, Gaggle, from what was originally a safe student email system, a “Hotmail for kids,” to a comprehensive learning management system for schools. As the platform evolved, it became clear that it was the safety component of our product that drew interest from most schools. Our core offering is now a software and people solution that sits behind systems like Google Apps for Education or Office 365. We monitor email and documents for suspicious terms or images to insure students’ safety.

Student safety and wellness have become our Purpose.

The data from schools reflects the essential role Gaggle now plays in keeping kids safe. In 2017, our safety team alerted schools to 17,000 suicide references. Those instances are in addition to thousands of other flagged communications relating to everything from weapons to fighting to bullying to pornography to drug abuse and physical abuse at home. Our team monitors those communications 24/7, alerting schools to credible threats and serving as an early warning system for potentially dangerous situations. It’s our mission to identify the worst-case scenario and prompt intervention.

That intervention has saved the lives of students. In one stark example, we alerted a school about a young woman’s intention to take her own life. The alert resulted in a school resource officer rushing to the bathroom to find that student within about a minute of her death.

It’s heartbreaking to witness the scope of the mental health crisis affecting students. Kids are suffering with anxiety and depression at alarming rates. They’re scared; they’re lonely; they don’t know who to talk to. They’re embarrassed. They desperately want someone to hear them, to care. It’s heavy.

Our team recognizes the enormity of the responsibility we have as providers of what is a life-saving technology. The men and women who serve as safety representatives at Gaggle are on the front lines, and their commitment to our Purpose is relentless. That level of care is evident across our company.

The gravity of our Purpose is a blessing and a curse. We currently protect four million students in the U.S. But I can’t help but worry about all of the students who are not being heard, whose messages are not being flagged, whose schools aren’t being alerted. That concern propels our team to grow the business and bring our safety solution to more schools. We are driven to expand the Gaggle lifeline to cover more kids. Our goal is to protect 10 million students through our platform in the next four years.

As our Purpose drives our growth, it also propels my personal and leadership development. I’ve been an entrepreneur my entire life, and my desire to rebel against the status quo continues to fuel my journey. Now, guided by Purpose, my ability to solve a difficult problem seems more important than ever. If the dire challenges that students are facing today are the new normal, I look forward to continuing to ask the tough questions and provide solutions.

Jeff Patterson is the CEO of Gaggle.

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