Sports to education, it’s still game, set, match Andre Agassi

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MUMBAI: At the turn of the millennium, American tennis legend Andre Agassi scorched the courts with his formidable forehand returns. Years later — and well into his retirement from professional tennis — the 48-year-old former world number one is still hitting it hard, with a string of investments in education and sports-related startups.

The winner of eight Grand Slam titles, along with his associates, has deployed more than $1 billion (via a fund) since 2013 to set up 90 charter schools across the US. Run by private individuals with public funding, many charter schools don’t charge tuition fees. He’s also invested in Square Panda, a California-headquartered startup that creates artificial intelligencebased literacy products — with a special focus on students suffering from dyslexia.

“My lack of education was probably the greatest vehicle to my commitment and interest in the education sector,” Agassi, who was in Mumbai to launch Square Panda’s India operations, told ET in an interview.

Education tops Agassi’s investment mandate-cum-philanthropic cause list for a very personal reason. “I was an eighth-grade dropout… no education, forced to play tennis, and no choice,” he said. “So, I always correlate ‘no education’ with ‘no choice’. This led me to disconnect with my own sport, even though I was the best in the world. Education endows you with choice.”

Agassi invests in the stock markets through the Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund, which was established in 2011. It has a portfolio with a clear risk tolerance “which may not see 10-12% returns every year, but also not drop in value by 20%”, he said in a recent interview to a global publication.

He elaborated on this to ET: “I have a portfolio that is well diversified… I have my more high-risk investments that I personally engage with. Outside of that I am happy to listen to any investment (proposal) as a passive investor,” he said.

Apart from education, not surprisingly, sports is also a key investment theme. “Here, I take a much more aggressive position — investing my time as well as money,” he said.

He has a simple operating philosophy.

“I bet on people, not on things… A good idea can get screwed up and an average idea can really become something special because of people,” Agassi said.

Square Panda Inc chief executive officer Andy Butler affirms Agassi’s level of involvement in the affairs of the company.

“One of the incredible strengths of Andre is he poses questions that make you think from a different vantage point than what the normal course of day-to-day business forces you into,” he said.

Agassi’s investment in edtech startup Square Panda is an extension of his charter school portfolio, committing funds only after trying out its offerings in his charter schools.

“We have seen great results from what Square Panda can do to recognise the problem of dyslexia among children at an early age,” he said.

OTHER PARTNERSHIPS

“The ‘cost’ of dyslexia being detected at sixth grade versus detection when a child is five years old has many economic implications. In America, the economic burden of this is $14,000 a year versus $500 for life, if you can catch it early,” he said.

Apart from Square Panda, Agassi has partnered with companies such as athletics video site Unscriptd, coffee chain Lavazza, restaurant chain Michael Mina, exercise machine maker Bilt, online ticket exchange platform Viagogo and community bank Meadows Bank over the past few years.



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