What if all schools were tech investors?

Dave Lee
North America technology reporter

media captionHow tech investor Barry Eggers' whip-round at Saint Francis High School led to an incredible windfall

It's no coincidence that the school that banked millions this week by investing early in Snapchat is in the middle of Mountain View, California.

When the parents of your students are some of the world's wealthiest technology investors then, well, it's smart to make the most of it.

Saint Francis High School's incredible windfall wasn't a fluke - it was the result of a patient process which began in 1990, when it set up a development fund to raise cash for the school. The fund has been bankrolled by parents and alumni who know their stuff - particularly when it comes to making bets on technology stock.

At $17,000 a year for tuition, the school isn't exactly strapped for cash. Its campus, where I spent Friday morning, is leafy, green and well-equipped outside and in. The 1,760 students that come here are lucky, privileged, and most likely on their way to great things.

The development fund was set up to, among other things, provide money for scholarships that are offered out to kids from less well-off families in the area. And with the Snap deal, the fund has swollen to phenomenal new heights - $24m so far, with many more millions set to come. All from a $15,000 investment.

It made me wonder - why doesn't this kind of thing happen more often? $15,000 is small change to the budgets of venture capital firms around the world, particularly in Silicon Valley where $25bn was invested in tech companies in 2016 - an apparently "bad" year.

Deal breakers

Most schools can't afford to put together a fund like Saint Francis. But then, why should they need to? What if investment firms allowed a small slice of the money they invest to be kept by for schools, charities or other needy causes so that if and when the ship comes in, it's life changing for the many rather than the few?

"I think in Silicon Valley especially, or places with a lot of entrepreneurship, I think it's great for investors to reach out to local institutions and schools and see if they can include them in some of their deals," said Barry Eggers, founding partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, the firm that led Snap's first investment round. This week that investment became worth more than a billion dollars.

image captionThe school set up a development fund in 1990

It was Mr Eggers' idea to involve Saint Francis in the deal five years ago, based on the enthusiasm of his children, who loved Snapchat.

"They were sitting around the kitchen table one day and they were all on their cellphones laughing. They said 'Dad, have you seen this app, Snapchat?'

"My daughter said 'I used to use it five times a day, now I use it 30 times a day!'."

He sees no reason why the success at Saint Francis can't be emulated at other schools - but it won't happen easily.

"These institutions have to have a programme. It can't be a one-off, that's not going to work. They have to commit to doing this."

His point is it takes time and money, and it's about playing the numbers. Schools won't be able to just invest $15,000, sit back for a few years and see the success roll in. There will be vastly more misses than hits.

Prediction model students

At Saint Francis, as school president Simon Chiu was fielding questions from the nation's media, the music of Bruno Mars soundtracked a dancing competition, an event held as part of a week of activities designed to de-stress students.

The school didn't want us disrupting the day, or the dance-off, so we weren't able to get the view of the kids in what right now is America's most talked about school.

That's a shame, as the future of Snapchat rests in high schools like this one across the country, and eventually - if the app can grow as investors hope - the entire world.

But only if it remains "cool". Just as Mr Eggers' daughter was the early-adopter that predicted Snap's success, the students that are studying at the school nowadays would be the harshest critics of whether or not it will succeed. Maybe they've already moved onto the next big thing.

image source, Getty Images

"Certainly we know that kids are the first people to figure out what's hot and what's new and what's desirable," said Mr Chiu.

He too hopes the school's success will lead other venture capital firms to work in the same way.

"I think this is an amazing way for venture capital folks, or companies, to share these experiences with schools.

"I would hope that companies would look at this as an example of something they can do to help their local community."

Paying more tax would be a better way, of course, but that's a debate for another day. For now, Silicon Valley is basking in the enjoyment of a huge success that will trickle down into the tech start-up ecosystem, meaning more money for new companies.

A success like Snap is rare. But deals happen here every day - acquisitions and exits that have created a new breed of super rich.

As California's newest billionaires celebrate this weekend, perhaps we should imagine the impact if every big deal held aside just a few thousand dollars at the beginning for a good cause. It would allow the needy causes to accumulate real wealth. Now that would be truly disruptive, wouldn't it?

Follow Dave Lee on Twitter @DaveLeeBBC and on Facebook. You can reach Dave securely through encrypted messaging app Signal on: +1 (628) 400-7370

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