In the summer of 2005, Miles Gilburne and Nina Zolt had long talks over dinner in their Washington home about what to do next. For more than six years, Mr. Gilburne, a former AOL executive, and his wife, Ms. Zolt, a former lawyer, had supported a philanthropy that used books and online tools to enhance skills of inner-city students.
The program, which Ms. Zolt directed, had been moderately successful. Students liked writing online about books and sharing their ideas with Internet pen pals, including adult mentors. Many teachers embraced the project, called In2Books, and participating students outscored their peers in standardized tests.
Still, the costly venture grew only gradually, classroom by classroom. The couple had put $10 million into the charity, a “meaningful portion” of the family wealth, Mr. Gilburne says. “It was enough money that I did lie awake at night thinking about the size of the checks,” he recalls.
As philanthropy, the couple’s efforts, however worthwhile, weren’t sustainable. But their vision of using the Internet for communication and collaboration to improve education has taken on a new life — as a business.