Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Virtually Perfect Revolution

There’s a Bollywood megastar who’s famous for removing his shirt on the big screen to show off his well-sculpted torso. Today’s piece is not about him but about someone who shares his name Salman Khan – and who could soon become a household name in his own right (so we hope) for his incredible, and very different kind of work on the small screen.

This “other” Salman Khan goes by Sal and was born in New Orleans to immigrant parents from Bangladesh and India. Sal grew up to be a brilliant student not only was he valedictorian  of his high school, but he earned three Ivy League degrees (in mathematics, electrical engineering, and computer science from MIT and an MBA from Harvard). He went on to become a hedge fund analyst in Silicon Valley until a few years ago, when he did a small favor for his cousin that led him to his true calling.

It started in 2004 when this young cousin, back in New Orleans, needed help with her math homework. Sal spent time tutoring her over the phone from California and used Yahoo Doodle notepad to give her a simple online visual of the math problems he was explaining. Soon other cousins wanted to join the discussion and learn from their helpful older cousin, this MIT graduate with a math degree. But teleconferencing up to six cousins per call got complicated, plus they wanted to bring their friends in on the free instruction, so Sal had to get more resourceful. He began recording his tutorials using the same simple black backgrounds and colorful, chalk-like fonts and overlaying them with his calm, gentle explanations. He then uploaded them to You Tube and watched as they received, say, six hits per lesson, then 14, and soon 20, and so on.

At a certain point, it became clear his cousins and their friends weren’t the only ones clicking on these links. Sal soon began receiving emails from students of all ages and, get this, from all over the world to thank him for helping them pass their math class or else making one of their least favorite subjects interesting. See where this is going?

Two years ago, Sal walked away from his lucrative hedge fund career to revolutionize education. As he told one reporter, with minimal effort on his part, he can provide free education to empower anyone, anywhere. Today, the Khan Academy channel at You Tube offers 2,300 free, online lessons in mainly math, chemistry, and economics, with plans to expand to history and biology next. These lessons have been viewed more than nine million times.

As a true testament to Sal’s vision, Bill Gates (who supports the academy through his foundation) says he uses the You Tube courses to teach his own kids. In 2010, Google gave the academy $2 million to create more courses and translate its library into 10 of the world’s most spoken languages. The same year, Sal made it on Fortune’s prestigious “40 Under 40” list. The academy is now working on programs to take free education to parts of the world, such as isolated parts of Asia and Africa, where it's least accessible.

In the meantime, the next time your child struggles with his or her homework, you know where to direct them not only for, say, math guidance but to inspire them with this powerful testament to the difference one individual can make.


  1. I so enjoy stories about the path creators take to get to where they are. The "free education to parts of the world" is what really sold me. I will check it out!

  2. Oh definitely, I agree with Rebecca. Education is so important and so hard to get for many people around the world.

    What also grabs me about this story is how small, local efforts sometimes grow into global ones almost by themselves when there is a need for them.

  3. Wow, what an amazing person! I couldn't stop smiling as I read this--these kinds of stories always make me happy. The Bill Gates part floored me.