Boy Wonder

He’s a tech whiz, the anti-CEO and, at thirty-two, a self-made millionaire many times over. Now, Angus Davis aims to use his golden touch to revolutionize the way we shop, make Providence the Silicon Valley of the east and — in his spare time — fix the mess that is Rhode Island’s public school system.

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It took some sweet talking to convince investors that Rhode Island had the talent pool, and to persuade outside talent to jump into that pool. “Nerds like to be close to other nerds,” says Davis. He comforted the nerds with a Chestnut Street loft that could be Silicon Valley: Swipely’s lobby couch is orange pleather, IKEA was the interior decorator, every day is business casual, there’s a bunk bed and shower for late-night “jam sessions” or apartment hunting West Coast hires, lunch is catered by local sandwich shops and ethnic restaurants, pantries are stocked with soup, snacks and cereal, and the fridge chills microbrews for rooftop happy hours. Davis can’t meet friends for the usual whistle-blow cocktail because 5 p.m. is the middle of his workday.

Davis was a budding entrepreneur at eight years old: He collected articles from his grandmother’s magazines and incorporated them into his own publications, which he sold door to door. His father, a life science lawyer, and mother, now a tech industry consultant, divorced when he was in high school. An only child, he spent a lot of time with his grandparents. Before moving to Providence during elementary school, Davis lived in Bristol on the town’s parade route. July 4 remains his favorite holiday, and he celebrates it by hosting an annual “Liberty Bake” blowout with tents and vendors that could put some weddings to shame.

He is patriotic about revitalizing his roots and would love to see the state mushroom with startups: one motive for Swipely to succeed is that it would catalyze other startups. He’s invested in and mentored participants of Betaspring, which ferries entrepreneurial teams to Providence for a twelve-week program to transform themselves into fundable companies by providing mentorship, capital and immersion in an entrepreneurial community. He’s also an investor and mentor for NABsys, a genome sequencing upstart based in part on technology developed at Brown, located in Providence’s budding Knowledge District.

Davis has also devoted himself to education reform, which he calls an economic development imperative. “Who knows which sector will become hot, so why not just become known as the state that has the best public school system? Then every parent would want to operate in a state that has the best education.” He could have simply pulled out his wallet, but Davis considers himself an advocate. “I think of a philanthropist as some old guy who writes checks.”

“Angus is motivated by really sticky problems that people have failed to solve historically, and the outcome of that solution has as big an impact as possible,” says DiOrio. Education is Davis’s Apollo 13 mission. Davis doesn’t wade into endeavors; he dives in, naturally inquisitive and determined to understand how things work. To dissect education’s diseases, he immersed himself in papers about education policy. He volunteered in a classroom at Paul Cuffee, a maritime charter school in Providence, and tutored at a district school in the same neighborhood. “The outcomes at each school were remarkably different,” he says. “It opened my eyes to the fact that just because a child comes from a low income background doesn’t mean he or she can’t achieve at the same level as a child from a high income background.

“It’s a civil rights injustice,” Davis crescendos, his eyes flashing. “If you are a low-income Latino or African American kid in this country, you’re getting screwed by the public education system. Rhode Island has the fourth-highest rate of spending per student but the fortieth ranking in terms of achievement, a lousy return on our investment: No state pays more to get less. This country spends half a trillion dollars a year on the K-12 education system, more than we spend on defense, and most of that money comes from state, not federal, funds. Our only hope is facilitating policy change, not programs, because it’s those policies that determine how the government is going to spend that half trillion.

“I met a very wealthy woman who said, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that I spend an afternoon a week volunteering to teach this kid to read?’ I told her, ‘No, it’s a complete waste of your time. You’re an incredibly powerful woman who has the ear of all these influential people. You’d be better off spending half a day a week going to your legislature and saying, ‘Darn it, why is it these kids can’t read?’ ”

In 2007, then-Governor Carcieri asked Davis to serve on the Board of Regents. He and the board assisted with the state’s successful application for Race to the Top federal funds, got the cap on charter schools raised from twenty to thirty-five and brought Teach for America into local classrooms. Davis also co-chaired the hunt for a new commissioner of education: Deborah Gist says Davis was so persuasive about Rhode Island’s merits, she was intrigued though she had never considered moving here. “There’s no question I wouldn’t be in this role if it weren’t for Angus,” she says.

But there might have been repercussions for his rabid support of Frank Caprio and disdain for Lincoln Chafee during the gubernatorial campaign. In a surprise speech at the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition last year, Davis said: “Yesterday, I received an email from Senator Chafee. In this email, Senator Chafee asked for clarification on whether or not teachers had really been offered 100 percent job security, describing it as, quote, the basic question that must be settled, unquote. He said he does not want to, quote, inherit the labor mess, unquote, as he works to build a more prosperous Rhode Island as governor. What kind of leadership thinks the basic question about a school in which only half of children graduate and 90 percent can’t do basic math involves job security for its adults rather than the educational outcomes for its children?”

Last month, Governor Chafee did not reappoint Davis for the Board of Regents. Two other members were absent from the nominee list; his choices have some advocates speculating that the governor intends to cap the education reform movement and wants Gist ousted. (The Regents Board also hires the education commissioner.) Davis hasn’t won popularity contests with union members; there were a few barbs in the Providence Journal comments section when it was revealed that he paid $10,000 for a New York ghostwriter to pen Commissioner Gist’s ten-page speech to the General Assembly last April. Gist says she felt it was inappropriate to tap into her department’s funds for a speechwriter; however, she and her communications team were mired in the Race to the Top grant application. “As a business person, I look at opportunity costs all the time,” says Davis. “I would tell the person to spend their time on the application, which happens to be the largest federal grant the state has ever won, and not the speech.”

In response, an anonymous person started a website called “beefwithangus” that called for his resignation from the Board of Regents: It is not appropriate to pay $10,000 to help the Education Commissioner write a speech and then pressure her to keep an under-performing charter school [Highlander] open. Finally, since you were an underachieving and mischievous student and didn’t even attend college, it does not seem that you are qualified to be a Regent.

“People see a rich kid from Bristol, but Angus doesn’t believe in a free ride,” says Fandetti. “While other kids with trust funds were in college, he was living on nothing, an eighteen-year-old sleeping at his desk at Netscape. He wasn’t taking money from anyone. Angus loves what he does and that’s why he’s so successful.

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