By Yigal Kerszenbaum, Managing Director, Employment Technology Fund

There are 100 million adults in the United States who cannot read above a sixth-grade level, trapped in unemployment or toiling at low-pay positions with no path for advancement.   And 89 percent have difficulty making up lost ground in a traditional classroom because of work commitments, transportation issues or lack of funds.

So what if a company figured out how to effectively deliver literacy with what is already in most people’s pockets or in the palm of their hand: a basic cell phone?   

That’s exactly what Cell-Ed is doing—with powerful results for learners.

Cell-Ed is delivering an easy way for millions of workers worldwide to acquire literacy, language and jobs skills on any device with no internet connection or data plan needed. So people who ordinarily couldn’t get to a classroom would be able to work on three-minute interactive lessons, say, on their lunch break or while waiting for the kids to get out of school. 

And Thursday, they were named a finalist in the Adult Literacy XPRIZE, a multi-year, multi-phase competition focused on transforming the lives of the nation’s 36 million low-literate  adults  (reading below a 3rdgrade level) by tackling the largest obstacles to achieving basic literacy–access, retention and scale.

Launched in 2015, the Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE, presented by the Dollar General Literacy Foundation, challenged teams to develop mobile applications for existing smart devices that result in the greatest increase in literacy skills among participating adult learners.  From 109 teams across 15 countries, Cell-Ed was one of a handful of tools selected to participate in a 15-month, 12,000-person field test with adult learners in Los Angeles, Dallas and Philadelphia.  

While they didn’t take home one of the grand prizes, they take home something invaluable—new data and insights to better meet the learning needs of the low-literate adults they serve. And while all four finalists proved that literacy can be taught through mobile applications—Cell-Ed also demonstrated the value of providing a call-in cellular option for the hardest to reach.

And now they are gearing up to for the XPRIZE’s Communities Competition. This 15-month long national competition will challenge organizations, communities and individuals to recruit adults with low literacy skills to download and use the finalist tools—like Cell-Ed—toward a goal of engaging and transforming the lives of one million adult learners in the United States.

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Cell-Ed through my work leading the Employment Technology Fund, the first social impact investment fund targeting technologies that train, upskill or improve access to lower-income adults struggling to find meaningful employment.  

Talk about a perfect match—a mutual desire to use technology to improve employment opportunity for low-income, underprepared adults (on the go). 

Cell-Ed was our first investment in 2017 and I’ve been inspired at their trajectory over the last two years—from continuously improving their offerings to uniquely serve low-literate adults, to their partnerships with employers who want to see people reach their full potential, to the increase of learners using their platform.  

Cell-Ed’s products are truly meeting learners’ needs where they are—literally and figuratively—offering ‘skills-on the go’ anywhere and aligned to the needs of the individuals (as proven in these field test findingsof Cell-Ed with healthcare and hotel workers, conducted by the EdTech Center at World Education, through the support of the Walmart Foundation).  

I would like to personally thank the XPRIZE Foundation, the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and the Dollar General Literacy Foundation for your commitment to transforming the lives of low-literate adults.   Your work to improve literacy and our work to improve employment opportunity will truly make a difference for millions of underemployed, low-income adults and their families.  

For more information about the winning teams and the Communities Competition, visit  adultliteracy.xprize.org  and  communities.xprize.org.  

About the Employment Technology Fund (ETF) 

The Employment Technology Fund is the first social impact fund to invest in technology solutions that improve employment opportunity for lower-skilled, lower-income adults in the United States. By shaping the future of work, ETF and its portfolio companies will close the employment opportunity gap facing 103 million adults who lack the skills, training and opportunities to access family-sustaining jobs and meaningful employment, including women, minorities, and immigrants. Since launching in August 2017, the Fund has made seven investments including: Cell-EdNorthStarSkillSmartNeprisSignal VineCareAcademy, and PAIRIN. The Fund’s investors include the Walmart Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, Joyce Foundation, The W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the ECMC Foundation. Learn more at  www.employmenttechnologyfund.com

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