rachel jacobs
Wikimedia Commons/ Billy Penn

Philly start-up ApprenNet and the legacy of its CEO who died on Amtrak 188

For the first 24 hours, Rachel Jacobs’ friends and family held out hope.

There was a disaster scene being picked apart on train tracks near the Frankford section of Philadelphia. Local hospitals were inundated with more than 200 injured patients. Some were still missing, their families desperately clinging onto hope they’d be found.

And for those first, long 24 hours, Jacobs’ coworkers and family searched everywhere for her. They talked to media, called into talk shows and showed a photo of Jacobs to anyone who would look.

“I went to the hospitals last night and she wasn’t in any of them,” her co-worker and friend Emily Foote told reporters the day after the crash. “I went to the churches and schools where people are being sheltered, and we still can’t find her.”

And then they did. Heartbroken, her family released a statement: “This is an unthinkable tragedy.” At age 39, Jacobs became one of eight victims of the derailment of Amtrak 188, the train crash that rocked the nation one year ago today.

Jacobs was the CEO of ApprenNet, a local education technology startup — but her former co-workers say she was so much more than that. She left behind a husband, and a two-year-old son. She’d gone to Kyrgyzstan to develop local businesses and launched a nonprofit in Detroit to consult entrepreneurs and artists in the city.

And since Jacobs died, her co-workers at ApprenNet say they’re working to further her legacy. She wanted the startup to not only be successful in its own right, but to increase educational opportunity across the world for people who might not have had access to it before.

“Rachel was, at her core,” Foote told Billy Penn this week, “motivated by helping people.”

Building a merger

Rachel Jacobs and Paul Freedman met at a round table in the middle of a crowded hallway during a conference at the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz. in April 2015. Jacobs was newly in charge of ApprenNet, a Philadelphia-based startup that uses video to offer online education and training to provide a more immersive learning experience.

Freedman was from the Bay Area and was an experienced Silicon Valley leader in the education technology space. He co-founded Handsfree Learning, a startup with similar goals as ApprenNet in that it was looking for better ways to deliver online training to professionals and students alike.

The two had been introduced by a mutual friend and within five minutes of the beginning of their conversation, Freedman says he knew the companies had strategies that aligned.

“Immediately I was thinking that we would be better off together,” he said. “She was an amazing person, so charismatic and very clear on the vision of where ApprenNet wanted to go.”

Freedman and Jacobs talked with their co-workers and decided on a merger. Both sides were in favor, and all that needed to be completed was the paperwork and the negotiations before ApprenNet and Handsfree Learning would become one. Jacobs would be back and forth between New York and Philly while Freedman would be in California.

A month later, Amtrak 188 derailed.

There was a pause to search for her. There was a time for grieving. Her co-workers, especially in the Philadelphia office, were told to take as much time as they needed to let the reality sink in that someone they’d worked closely with for months was gone. Foote, an ApprenNet co-founder who knew Jacobs for a year prior to her taking over as CEO at the beginning of 2015, said everyone coped a little differently.

“It’s a crazy experience to have a personal connection to a national tragedy,” Freedman recalls, “and it’s really just weird to see your friend the lead story on CNN for days.”

Sure, there was some talk after the crash about whether or not the merger still made sense. But those concerns were quickly quelled, and by July, ApprenNet and Handsfree had merged — they decided to remain bi-coastal and shortly thereafter announced the conclusion of a $1.8 million funding round.

Freedman took over as CEO, Foote was the chief customer officer, Josh Salcman, who came from Handsfree, headed up product development and Nestor Toro took over the engineering. All are still there today, each working to bring Jacobs’ vision to fruition.

Growth in the face of tragedy

ApprenNet’s picked up some huge clients: Comcast. Penn Medicine. Teach for America. Goodwill. It had a successful funding round that wrapped up last fall and more backing could be in the pipeline for the education technology firm.

But when I asked Foote in the company’s Center City co-working space what she’s most proud of, she didn’t mention the big clients ApprenNet has signed or the money it’s raised. She’s most appreciative of the internal culture the company has cultivated in the face of such a tragedy, how it’s continued satisfying even its earliest clients and the “exceptional” technical team’s work in launching platform improvements.

“We were a very close team before the crash,” she said about ApprenNet’s 20 employees, about half of which are based in Philadelphia. “But I think it did help strengthen the closeness between Handsfree Learning and us, because the merger happened at the same time.”

Before the crash, ApprenNet was most focused on nailing down clients in higher education. Today, one of its main niches is healthcare. Every day, there’s an emphasis on not only taking the company to new places, but to make a societal impact. Jacobs had dreams of doctors in developing companies using the platform to be trained on new techniques or of people in underrepresented communities finally having access to practical job training to propel them toward getting their dream job.

“We’ve done our best in this last year,” Freedman said, “to fulfill the power of her vision.”

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