Ballmer Sees Software as Key Link to Reach At-Risk Schoolkids

(Bloomberg) -- Former Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer is backing a project to give schools and social service workers technology to find and predict when kids need help like food aid, after-school care and tutoring.

Ballmer and his wife Connie, who together founded the Ballmer Group to fight poverty among children and families, are investing $59 million over five years for a stake in Austin-based Social Solutions, which is owned by Vista Equity Partners. The cash will help fund the software developer and set up projects in 20 cities that will connect the company’s Apricot software to school data on things like attendance and grades. The software is similar to the kind of customer-management programs that companies like Salesforce.com and Microsoft Corp. sell to corporate clients, but it’s designed to help school officials and social workers provide services to kids, Ballmer said. Salesforce’s philanthropic arm is also working on a similar program, Ballmer said. 

“You want to do analytics like ‘OK, what is it we should do to help this kid? Or how do we help this family help this kid,’” Ballmer said in an interview. Many government agencies still use paper, files and Post-It notes, or software programs that can’t talk to schools, other agencies or charity organizations. Ballmer smoothed out a blueprint-sized piece of paper that’s a diagram of what he saw on the wall at the local King County Department of Mental Health—hundreds of sticky notes in a variety of colors tracking things like different types of programs for various ages. 

Social Solutions’ Apricot can monitor school data and use algorithms to determine which students are doing well and may need accelerated programs and which students may be at risk for falling behind or dropping out. The software combs the resources available in local nonprofits and suggests services such as tutoring, after-school care or meal support.  “The software will be able to make recommendations and actually facilitate the referrals within the program,” said Social Solutions CEO Kristin Nimsger. Some of the company’s current Apricot customers include the Institute for Public School Initiatives at the University of Texas at Austin and the YMCA of Seattle.

The Ballmers are focusing their philanthropy on programs that provide chances to pull children and families out of poverty. However, to build this kind of software requires a for-profit company rather than donations to nonprofits, Steve Ballmer said. 

In 2015, one year after Ballmer left Microsoft, Connie asked him to find a solution to an issue that had cropped up in an earlier project. She was part of a committee trying to bring technology to Washington State’s child welfare offices, replacing boxes of case files. The committee opted to build a bespoke software system called OLIVER and the Ballmers gave $9 million to fund it. The good news: caseworkers from Seattle to Spokane loved it. The bad: because it was a custom system, broadening it to more agencies and adding more features had to be done from scratch as well. The price tag cited was $50 million to $200 million. To do it, “you were basically starting a software company,” Connie Ballmer said, so they pulled the plug. She asked Steve to find a better way now that nonprofits are spending some of their precious resources on technology. 

“There’s just a lack of money in this sector,” Connie Ballmer said. “Ten years ago investing some of your incredibly precious money into data or tech would have been nice but nobody could afford it. Now it’s mission critical so they are making room for it.”

That led the Ballmers to the investment in Social Solutions, they said.

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