From teacher to innovator

Learning to read and love literature is a great pathway to knowledge.

Sarah Mielbye ’09, a teacher turned entrepreneur, is helping children make that journey—whether she is in the classroom or working at a startup.

Mielbye’s latest endeavor: co-founding the startup CommonLit, which provides free instructional materials to support literacy development for students in grades five through 12.

Her work caught the eye of AT&T, which chose to fund CommonLit as part of its Aspire Accelerator Program. Earlier this year, Mielbye appeared in a commercial, in which she shared how AT&T’s support helped grow the business.

“The AT&T Aspire Accelerator was hugely impactful on CommonLit’s growth, allowing us to add more free resources to the site for teachers,” Mielbye said. “Throughout the accelerator, AT&T was with us every week, coaching us through big decisions and introducing us to other ed-tech startups that we could learn from.”

Before co-founding CommonLit, Mielbye taught for several years—first as part of the Teach For America program, and then at Roxbury Prep in Boston for six years as a seventh grade teacher.

Her favorite part: opening up the world to children through literature.

“I absolutely loved it. It was the most exhausting yet exhilarating job I’ve ever had. Getting hundreds of 12-year-olds to love reading and think critically about their world will always be what I’m most proud of,” she said.

Sarah Mielbye ’09 shares information at the June 2016 International Society for Technology in Education Conference and Expo in Denver.
Sarah Mielbye ’09 shares information at the June 2016 International Society for Technology in Education Conference and Expo in Denver.

While she was at Roxbury Prep, her co-teacher Michelle Brown came up with the idea for CommonLit. “The idea was to create a website that could scale the best practices that we used in our classroom so that more teachers have access to high-quality, meaningful curriculum, regardless of how much money their school has. The first version we launched had about 20 downloadable documents,” Mielbye said.

Brown won the Teach For America Social Innovation Award, and asked Mielbye to join her in launching CommonLit in late 2013. Mielbye currently serves as chief product officer.

“Now we’re a fully digital, flexible, 100 percent-free collection of almost 800 fiction and nonfiction resources,” she said. “Right now, we have almost 1 million registered users, and we’re growing rapidly.”

As a student at Wheaton, Mielbye served as an editor for the Wheaton Wire, sang for Voices United to Jam and the Whims, and participated in numerous student clubs.

“Performing in all those singing groups has helped a lot with public speaking—both in front of my students and beyond. And I actually use a lot of my skills from my days as editor of the Wire every day: editing, writing, graphic design and team management. It’s funny how all of those seemingly unrelated interests come together in my role at CommonLit,” she said.

Professor of History Alex Bloom, who had Mielbye as a student in his First-Year Seminar, knew even then that she brimmed with potential.

“She was smart, articulate and focused—an excellent student,” Bloom said. “She came to Wheaton with a career plan for becoming a teacher and she succeeded in achieving that goal. But I always felt there was something more brewing in her mind and personality. It is not surprising that she has used her education work as a platform to launch this tech company. And not surprising that it has done so well.”

Now Mielbye is enjoying watching the success of CommonLit on the heels of the commercial.

“Since that video was filmed in January, our staff has grown from five to 15 people, and we’re still hiring,” she said. “I’d love to see CommonLit grow until it becomes an indispensable resource for every middle and high school literacy teacher nationwide.”