Shaquille O’Neal, 15-time NBA All-Star, four-time NBA champion and three-time NBA Finals MVP, took the stage at TechCrunch Disrupt to talk about his passion for investing in edtech and backing projects that aim to change people’s lives. He discussed how he got into investing, the road to developing his strategy and his belief in the importance of education.
O’Neal is the lead investor in Edsoma, an AI-powered reading, education and communication platform for children. The NBA star was joined onstage with Edsoma CEO Kyle Wallgren, who says the startup’s goal is to teach a million kids to read. O’Neal touched on how he developed his investing strategy after hearing Amazon founder Jeff Bezos say that if you invest in things, you are going to change people’s lives.
“I went to a conference in ‘97 or ‘98 and I heard a beautiful bald-headed man by the name of Jeff Bezos say if you invest in things, it’s going to change people’s lives,” O’Neal said. “So when Kyle came into the office and he started talking about children, about education and his love for children, I knew it was going to be a great fit. And when I heard Jeff Bezos say that, I started investing in things that’s gonna change people’s lives. And that’s been great for me, and I don’t like to sit up here like I’m an expert, but that has always been my style.”
The app helps children learn correct pronunciation as they read aloud, and it also lets parents read with their children from any location, which is helpful for parents who live separately or travel for work. Wallgren shared that during Edsoma’s first month of launching, the company boarded 300 students. The company has now onboarded 9,000 students and eventually wants to change a million lives.
Wallgren said that he and O’Neal want to ensure that children from every type of environment have access to education. The pair also wanted to make sure that if another pandemic were to happen, children who were are unable to afford tutors would still be able to have access to education.
O’Neal believes that although he doesn’t have a specific formula when it comes to the VC world, having a sense of humor and being nice has given him a lot of opportunities. O’Neal, who brought that belief with him on stage as he invited a fan on-stage to sit next to him, said that he doesn’t want to be known for his fame, but for being nice.
“Me being nice has gotten me a lot of opportunity,” O’Neal said. “I wish it was a formula to how I get all my deal flows, but it’s just me being me and me having a sense of humor being nice and I’ve been very, very lucky. When [Wallgren] was building Edsoma, he told me that he thought of me because he knows the relationship that I have with children.”
O’Neal, who earned his MBA in 2005, says he believes that education is important to him largely because his parents pushed him into education. Reflecting on his journey on getting his Master’s degree, he says he did it for the children who look up to him to help them understand the importance of education.
“I did it for my children, and I did it for the children that follow me [because I] just wanted them to know that education is very, very important,” he said. “I’m rich and famous and got a lot of followers, but I wanted to show them that there’s more to that.”
O’Neal believes that literacy can drive positive change, not only for children, but also for people who are incarcerated.
“There’s actually a study that shows that if you can teach somebody that’s in prison how to read and increase to grade levels, they go from an 87% chance of reoccurring down to an 18% chance,” Wallgren said. “So literacy can drive economies that can change everything.”
Wallgren added that when Edsoma came to be, the focus wasn’t on making money, as the team was intent on making a difference when it comes to education, which aligned with O’Neal’s investing strategy.
“When you look at education, there’s studies that show that they actually design or select how many prison cells are going to be needed based off third–grade literacy levels 10 year out,” Wallgren said. “So you need to be able to tell that story and have it really resonate with the people that are investing in it, then we can actually change the way the entire country operates just by teaching kids how to read. And [O’Neal] really got that.”
When asked about how he weeds through the hundreds of companies that approach him every week, O’Neal says he goes with his gut feeling, and then passes it over to his panel. He says it’s not quick process, especially because of his strategy to only invest in startups that are going to change lives. Regarding the recent AI boom, O’Neal said if he does invest in an AI startup, it’s going to be one that’s changing lives.
“I was at Four Seasons, I was eating lunch and there were four distinguished gentleman sitting there playing with their kids and the kids recognize me and they’re playing with me,” he said. “Basically, I’m doing a babysitting job and one gentleman says ‘I want to talk about this company called Google’ and just talking about search engines and ‘you’ll be able to type in anything,’ and I was like, ‘That sounds good.’ We had a meeting with them and it looked good and I put some money in and I forgot about it. And then the newspaper told me how much I made and I couldn’t believe how much I made.”
After his investment in Google went well, he said he might as well try again. O’Neal admits that although he has made a couple of mistakes trying to get rich quick, he now has a strategy that he believes works.