Avni Shah wants to keep learning going for everyone

Growing up, Avni Shah’s father drove an hour and a half to work every day so she and her sister could enroll in a better school district in Alabama. She later watched her parents put away savings for years to be able to afford college tuition for their daughters. From a very young age, she came to understand the meaning and importance of a good education. 

Today, as the VP of Google for Education, Avni works every day to help build tools that make a  high-quality education available to everyone. That mission is especially important now as widespread school closures from the COVID-19 pandemic have challenged schools and families to quickly adjust to distance learning.  

Through it all, Avni remains optimistic about the future of education and the role technology can play in shaping it. She says that over the past few months the resiliency of teachers and students alike has inspired her, and that there have been “bright spots” of positivity.  

How do you explain your job at a dinner party?

My team builds tools for teachers, students, and education leaders to help improve teaching and learning at scale. One thing that’s great about working at Google is that describing my job is pretty easy, and always a great conversation starter—I get lots of feature requests (and bug reports ?) wherever I go. 

The use of technology in education is especially important now. What are you most excited about?

It’s been amazing to see the role technology has played to keep learning happening, no matter what. As I look ahead to the next six to twelve months, I’m excited about working alongside teachers, education leaders and students to build tools that can really meet their needs, both now—in this ever-changing situation—and for the future.

What we’ve seen in the past few months is an unexpected acceleration towards the digitization of education and learning. As that shift continues to happen, I see an opportunity longer-term to unlock even more of the potential of technology and the role it can play in being helpful to teachers, students and families. While tech is only part of the solution and there’s still a lot of work left to do, it’s clear that technology will have a unique part in shaping the future of education.

What has surprised you the most over the past six months?

The adaptability and resiliency of everyone, especially teachers. Teachers, schools and entire governments across the world had to quickly adjust to huge changes when schools started closing, and in many cases, the shift to distance learning happened in a matter of days.

I saw it with my own daughter. Back in March, her school closed on a Thursday, and by Monday, the whole school was up and running with a full virtual curriculum. They literally went from zero to distance learning in seventy-two hours. And that story isn’t unique—we hear stories like this from our teachers and students all over the world.

What’s more is that my daughter’s class continued to adapt and adjust. I remember their first video call and hearing twenty second graders talking all at once—it was definitely a bit chaotic. But the students, teachers and administrators quickly adapted. And now my daughter is teaching me things like what online classroom etiquette looks like. 

How have you and your team stayed motivated? 

Over the past few months, my team started a weekly tradition called “bright spots” where we share inspiring stories about how teachers, students and families use our tools. 

We’ve heard creative ways teachers turn their homes into virtual classrooms—including one teacher who used their shower as a whiteboard surface. There was also a family in New Zealand who sent a photo of a distance learning classroom they built on top of a hill so they could have access to satellite Wi-Fi; it was made out of a generator-powered farm trailer! 

Who has been a strong female influence in your life?

My mom. She’s incredibly hardworking and approaches life with this calm, yet tireless, optimism. When she and my dad moved to the U.S. from Mumbai, she worked multiple jobs to help make ends meet and taught herself English by watching Nick at Nite on TV. Later on, she worked full time while she studied (and passed) the CPA exam, and she moved in to help me when my first child was born—while still working herself. 

I started keeping a list of all the positive things that wouldn’t have happened if COVID wasn’t here to remind myself that there are nuggets of good. Getting to see my mom every day is definitely on the list. She lives in Alabama and I live in California, but since the pandemic, my kids video call her every day.

What advice do you have for women starting out in their careers?

Careers are not linear, and things that feel like sideways or downward movement can still be progress. Be open to opportunities that might be surprising or sound scary because that's usually where learning and growth happen. 

I’ve been at Google for seventeen years and moved around the company quite a bit, working on Search, Maps, Chrome and now Google for Education. Some transitions were harder than others. For example, there was the time when I moved to Zurich, took on a new role, became a manager for the first time, and got married—all within the span of three weeks. Every time I made a transition, I had to learn about an entirely new product, industry and team, and where I could fit in. But every transition helped me get used to feeling uncomfortable and learning new things again. And, in hindsight, I can see how each of those moves was extremely valuable.