Over coffee at the MaRS Discovery District Aron Solomon told me that we can come to know people (to a certain degree) through online mediums like Twitter. I disagreed.
The person sitting across from me was a gentle, balding 49-year-old Jewish guy from Montreal. He said he wakes up every day “wondering how I’m going to help someone.” But his online presence paints a different picture, that of an opinionated and fiery mind when it comes to startups and education technology.
Solomon, a senior advisor to the MaRS Discovery District’s Education Innovation space, wrote an infamous column in the wake of Toronto’s massive July 8 flood. The title was “The Don’t Be an Asshole Rule,” where Solomon argued that Uber’s decision to implement surge pricing during the flood was morally wrong. It attracted nearly 100,000 unique readers.
And then came the ensuing hate mail, like one piece entitled “Why Aron Solomon is an Asshole.” The blogger accused Solomon of lacking a basic understanding of economics, also arguing that Uber’s surge pricing was “standard protocol.” The worst of the hate mail came from several possibly hurt individualists, who pelted Solomon’s inbox with a flurry of quotes from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.
Solomon’s online persona may be most notable on Twitter though, especially after the eight-part manifesto he tweeted out weeks ago. He called on Canadian entrepreneurs to reject the “artificial bullshit of startup culture,” and to reward invention rather than perpetuate a celebrity culture of “who’s hot” and who’s trendy among venture capitalists.
“I’ve been successful over the past decade in intentionally crafting my own personal brand the way I wanted it to be, which extends to my professional brand. That’s going to resonate with some people and with others it wont,” said Solomon. “What sucks is when our brand is crafted for us and we have to look within that. I don’t want people telling me how to act online and in person, I want it to be authentic.”
In building both his career and his image, Solomon has put in his time. He might be one of North America’s foremost thinkers in education innovation.
A mentor to countless startups in Toronto, Silicon Valley, Chicago and Stockholm, Solomon was also the founding CEO of THINK Global Schools. He’s been an advisor to Peter Thiel’s The Thiel Fellowship (formerly known as the 20 Under 20) since it launched in 2010. Throw in brief stints as a lawyer and a teacher, and 55 trips to China, and one has an interesting case study.
He started his career as a high school teacher in Montreal. There he said every time he had an entrepreneurial idea, others tried to dissuade him. “People said ‘you’re a high school teacher, you need to shut the hell up and go back to class.’” But he persisted in challenging the notion that teachers could only impact 70 to 100 students a year. With technology he wanted to help 70 million.
Some years later his mother got very sick and died in a matter of months. Solomon himself fell very ill too, but luckily made a full recovery. This period in his life led him to the decision that he would rather try and help as many people as possible rather than solely make money. It was never an epiphany but more of chance to “reinvent."
“People ask me ‘why am I so cheerful?’ I’m cheerful because I didn’t die, number one,” said Solomon. “I’m cheerful because there’s so much cool stuff that I get to do everyday and I love the people I get to help.”
Eventually he moved on to educational consulting with clients in San Francisco and Stockholm, coupled with frequent trips to China.
While in China he had the idea to start a dual-branded high school linked to a national university. The idea appealed to Chinese government officials in 2008, who were looking to attract foreign talent to open a western-style hospital. Solomon had the investors and the state’s blessing, in the form of land and tax incentives. Unfortunately when he went back to Toronto the Great Sichuan Earthquake hit China and killed over 69,000. Plans for the school stalled.
Around that time a wealthy family looking to open a global school approached Solomon. They wanted students from around the world to benefit from a baccalaureate, pre-university program where they could live and study in three countries per year. Solomon pitched his vision of how THINK Global School would be and he became the founding CEO, opening it in September 2010.
“How can you get kids to really understand the world? You get them out and get them travelling,” said Solomon. “I thought it was important for them to see a lot of cities and I thought it was critically important for them to live in those cities.”
Calling himself more of a builder than a maintainer, he moved on after two years. Those students who entered THINK’s first cohort under Solomon will graduate this year having studied in 12 countries.
Today he continues to advise many startups throughout the world while giving talks on education. At MaRS, where he spends most of his time, he challenged me to find an employee who isn’t “ridiculously talented.” The bar is set high so that any advisor at MaRS must have been a seed-level executive in their past.
Higher education experienced its twists and turns over the past five years, with the rise of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Some of these didn’t go exactly as planned as the kinks continue to be worked out. Meanwhile pundits are calling for the abandonment of the traditional campus. But an optimistic Solomon says the education system is working exactly as it should, it was just designed for a world that disappeared over 50 years ago.
“Education needs a lot of fixing,” he said. “I gave a talk a year and a half ago in Stockholm to 3000 educators in the room and I told them, don’t tell me the education system is broken, it just hasn’t responded.”