When Mississippi’s Jim Barksdale was CEO of Netscape Communications Corporation (1995–1999), headquartered in Mountain View, California, he recognized that “we were having problems hiring people with skills central to technology-driven companies – from fields like engineering, technology, science and mathematics.”
In 1997 he teamed up with venture capitalist John Doerr to found TechNet, a network of technology leaders “whose first goal was to improve public education.”
While Barksdale, Doerr and leaders from companies like Intel, Oracle and Microsoft worked together through TechNet to increase accountability in public education, “the idea for creating the Barksdale Reading Institute began to form,” he said. Meanwhile, at his day job the Netscape CEO helped usher in the Internet boom with the company’s initial public offering. Netscape received the “Entrepreneurial Company of the Year” award in 1997 from both Stanford and Harvard business schools, and PC Magazine named Barksdale “Person of the Year”.
In 1999 America Online acquired Netscape for $4.2 billion. Barksdale, who retired from running companies after realizing a reported $700 million from the Netscape deal, said, “It was quite fortunate that I had this wealth come along. I guess that’s why they call them fortunes.” Less than a year after Netscape’s merger with AOL, Barksdale and his late wife, Sally Barksdale, shared their good fortune with an investment of $100 million in the state of Mississippi in 2000 to create the Barksdale Reading Institute (BRI).
“In conjunction with TechNet, I read a lot about improving school systems. As I drilled deeper, I realized that the core competency all children need at an early age is the ability to read,” said Barksdale. “A child can’t learn math, science, history or anything else without being able to read.”
BRI, headquartered in Oxford, Mississippi, partners with the state’s Department of Education, Mississippi public schools and public universities for systemic reform in how children are taught to read. Its primary goal is for children in Mississippi’s public schools to leave the third grade reading fluently and with comprehension at the third-grade level.
Coming from an Internet business culture marked by fast-moving start-ups and quickly accumulated wealth, Barksdale approached the investment in literacy for Mississippi children as venture philanthropy, a cousin in terms of expectations to venture capital investment.
“I never saw BRI as a ‘non-profit,’” he said. “Our investment in this program is social entrepreneurism. We put money in, and we expect results out.”
Barksdale’s first hurdle was to find a BRI leader who could apply the business principles necessary for getting results. “I interviewed several nice people, but they didn’t have the passion, drive or knowledge, and most thought coming to Mississippi was missionary work,” he said. “I wanted somebody who was committed to stay and work on this problem, not leave like a missionary does.”
Barksdale turned to the “great advisory board that earlier advised me that this browser thing looked like a pretty good deal”: his “smart as whips” children and other family members. Their recommendation to head BRI? (Uncle) Claiborne, Barksdale’s younger brother.
“My smartest move was to convince Claiborne to come to BRI,” he said. “He is wizard smart, loves learning and seeing others learn, and is passionate about children. Claiborne knows only one way to do something—the right way.”
Finding the right way to improve reading metrics for Mississippi children hasn’t been easy for the Barksdale brothers, who confer by telephone most days. “We know the right method,” said Barksdale, referring to the Mississippi Reading Reform Model, developed by the state’s Department of Education. “We measure results, and know that when teachers use our teaching method, children learn to read.”
What took BRI down the wrong path in its start-up years is its experience-based finding that no matter how well reading teachers are trained—whether in universities or through expert classroom coaches—they don’t sustain the methodology without support from their school principals, too many of whom are resistant to new ways.
In 2010 BRI shifted its focus to strengthening the instructional role of principals.
Jim Barksdale is president and CEO of Barksdale Management Corporation, a philanthropic investment corporation. Prior to Netscape he served as CEO of AT&T Wire- less Services (1994–1995), president and chief operating officer of McCaw Cellular Communications (1992–1994) and executive vice president and chief operating officer of Federal Express Corporation. At Federal Express he led development of the first computer system capable of tracking millions of packages. Barksdale received his B.A. in Business Administration in 1965 from the University of Mississippi, whose Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College the Barksdales endowed in 1997.
Why focus on “strengthening the instructional role” of principals?
The word “principal” comes from the phrase, “principal teacher.” When principals hire good teachers and fire those who are not, support and model the best teaching methods in the classroom, then reading metrics improve more quickly.
How are you approaching change in regard to principals?
We are learning from three-year pilots in four under-performing school districts. BRI hired and pays the salary of the principal of a school in each district, and those principals have authority over hiring and firing teachers, curriculum, discipline and other issues that empower them to get results. BRI supports the principals and reading teachers in various ways. It’s just like a business. If a principal doesn’t hit the numbers—if reading metrics don’t improve—we have to say, “you’re not the person we want in this job,” and Claiborne has. He’s fearless.
How else are you strengthening principals?
Donna, my wife, and I funded the Principal Corps at the University of Mississippi. This program works with 15 principals every year, training them to exercise transformative leadership.
How is BRI measuring the ROI (return on investment)?
Educational research groups from North Carolina and the University of Missouri are conducting studies on the principal pilots and a pre-K reading program. We’ll learn from the studies, year-over-year test scores and other measures. Ultimately we hope that the state will adopt our methods of hiring people in public schools and implement methodologies like the Mississippi Reading Reform Model.
Was there a teacher who made a big difference to you?
Etoile DuBard, my fourth-grade teacher. I’d had trouble reading in early childhood, and was tutored in the second grade. Etoile DuBard was a wonderful teacher and she’s one of my heroes.
Are there enough good teachers?
There’s always a shortage of good teachers—of any teachers in some areas. Teach for America (TFA) has been a godsend, and Delta State has the largest TFA training center in the country. Some stay after two-year assignments. Michael Cormack, a TFA teacher from Oregon, has become a transformative principal at an elementary school near Clarksdale. He’s in every classroom, modeling instructional techniques. Improvements in the school’s performance are beyond phenomenal. Wendy Kopp, TFA’s founder, should receive the highest medal in this land.
From your vantage as an investor what are you seeing in Mississippi entrepreneurship?
You should look at under-the-radar entrepreneurs. There’s another whole level of entrepreneurial activity. Donna is a great entrepreneur, probably more so than I, and advises some of them.
What does it take to be a successful entrepreneur?
Willingness to take risks. Ideas—and enormous energy, passion and the work ethic to leverage ideas. This kind of person attracts other passionate people who catch on to what the leader is trying to do.
An excerpt from Polly Dement’s book, Mississippi Entrepreneurs. Published by Cat Island Books LLC and distributed by University Press of Mississippi. Mississippi Entrepreneurs, which includes profiles of over 80 of the state’s diverse and visionary enterprise creators, can be ordered online or purchased from independent book stores.