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Alex Cranberg marks 20 years as champion for school choice

Learn how this oilman and entrepreneur diverted his attention to helping students attend college

Mike Taylor //May 27, 2020//

Alex Cranberg marks 20 years as champion for school choice

Learn how this oilman and entrepreneur diverted his attention to helping students attend college

Mike Taylor //May 27, 2020//

Alex Cranberg | Founder and Chairman, Aspect Energy LLC | Co-founder of ACE Scholarships

Age: 65
Raised in: Los Alamos, New Mexico; Charlottesville, Virginia; Austin, Texas
What he’s reading: “The Virtue of Nationalism,” by Yoram Hazony; “Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism,” by Dennis Prager

Alex Cranberg attended high school in Austin, Texas, then earned his degree in petroleum engineering from the University Texas-Austin and an MBA from Stanford. The son of the late nuclear physicist, professor and inventor Lawrence Cranberg, Alex founded Denver-based Aspect Energy LLC in 1993. The exploration and energy investment company has participated in oil and gas projects in more than 15 countries.

Alongside his entrepreneurial interests, Cranberg is co-founder of ACE Scholarships, now in its 20th year and operating in eight states. In 2019, the organization awarded more than 2,500 scholarships to K-12 Colorado students from low-income families to attend schools of their choice and has granted more than 25,000 scholarships worth more than $53 million to Colorado students since its inception. Colorado’s ACE scholars posted high school graduation rates of 97.9% and 99% in 2018 and 2019 respectively, and on average 73% go on to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher. Typically, the recipient’s family pays one-third of the cost so that everyone has a vested interest, and the scholarships are based on need, not merit.

ColoradoBiz: What experience – besides being a parent yourself – motivated you, with others, to create ACE?

Alex Cranberg: I’ve always felt that education is the most fundamental, powerful process by which people become better people, nations become better nations. I know as an entrepreneur, solutions come with having to figure out how you do something better so you can be successful in your enterprise and serve people.

CB: How did your early support of school vouchers help lead to the formation of ACE?

AC: In 1998, I believe it was, there was a voucher initiative in Colorado, and I got very interested and involved in that. It failed. But I thought, well, it would be kind of hypocritical if the only thing I’m willing to do is argue for other people, like the taxpayers, to spend money if we’re not spending money ourselves. So I thought, we’ll do what we can as private people to make a difference. There were several other ACE founders.

We don’t say or think private schools are always better or public are always better. It’s just that parents need a lot of choices because there are a lot of different kids. Anybody who has more than one kid knows every kid is different.

CB: One striking quality about ACE is that the scholarships are based on need, not merit. Explain the reasoning behind that.

AC: e have agreements here in Denver with, I think, 150 schools. We don’t try to say which one’s the best, because there is no such thing as ‘best.’ We let the parents decide which schools they want to send their kids to, and we let the principals of the schools decide which kids who apply are the best fit for their school. They’re not necessarily the ‘good kids.’ Most of these are kids who are not doing well in school; otherwise their parents wouldn’t be desperate to try to find an alternative. No poor parent is saying, ‘Oh my gosh, my kid’s doing great in school, but I want to pull them out and spend money to do that.’ Nobody with a lot of other stresses and problems in their life is trying to fix what’s not broken.

CB: Some people may be surprised to learn you’re a product of public schools. 

AC: I’m a product of good schools and some mediocre schools. I will say this: I’ve become more and more appreciative of the fact that faith-based schools are more focused on values in a way public schools used to be. Public schools – they’re great for a lot of kids. But I think they’re also suffering a certain identity crisis, which occurs in any kind of enterprise that doesn’t have much competition.

CBThere’s a lot of opposition to school vouchers. Do you have discussions on that with the public-school sector?

AC: Lots of times. It’s not about being anti-public schools. If anything, it’s pro-public schools, because we feel public schools that operate in environments where there are choices get better themselves. And why wouldn’t that be true? It’s true in every other facet of our life. There’s nothing that’s magically different about education, except that it’s so important that it’s even more critical that we bring all the tools in the toolbox to bear.

CB: What initially attracted you to the oil and gas business?

AC: My family moved from Charlottesville (Virginia) to Texas when I was 15 or 16. When you’re a certain impressionable age and you get to a new state, you think, ‘How do I fit in here?’ In Texas, that’s oil and cattle. I got cowboy boots, I got a hat, and I got interested in the oil business (laughs). As a kid, I was involved in debate, drama and music. Music was my No. 1 love. I played the cello. I thought I was going to become a professional cellist. Ironically, Texas had a lot more really good young cellists than Virginia did. I was the No. 1 cellist of my age group in Virginia. In Texas, I was like, way down. I didn’t want to be a journeyman musician all my life. When I got to the University of Texas, I took a course, just out of curiosity, in petroleum engineering – introduction to the oil industry – and I just loved it. Loved its practicality, loved the students who were there. Something I could really sink my teeth into. My dad was a nuclear physicist who I thought was way more brilliant than I could ever hope to be, so I didn’t want to be a journeyman physicist either. But I was interested in business, and engineering is a combination of science and business. And petroleum is Texas, so those three things come together — why I’m a petroleum engineer.

CB: Your father’s outspokenness as a professor at the University of Virginia (he was also chairman of the Central Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union) ultimately put him at odds with academia despite his distinguished status. How did that shape your views? 

AC: My dad, he learned the hard way that your freedom and your rights to speak are driven by your ability to make your own living in life, particularly as an entrepreneur. He became an inventor/entrepreneur, and he didn’t make a lot of money, but he kept the family fed, because he couldn’t be a professor anymore. He was too outspoken at the University of Virginia. What I learned, what our whole family learned, is that your ability to get access to the marketplace is the ultimate guarantor of free speech. I think it’s pertinent to K-12 as well as higher education. If all K-12 is one big government bureaucracy, then your ability to teach freely, to learn freely, is compromised by what’s politically acceptable. And these days, what’s politically acceptable is not necessarily aligned with a lot of families’ values, but you may not have any choice but to accept that. That’s another version of the lesson my dad learned.

CB: One of the books you’re reading is “Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism.” What spurred your interest in that book?

AC: My dad was Jewish, my mom was Christian, so I thought I knew something about Judaism, but it turned out I didn’t really. I’m deeply respectful of both Jewish and Christian religions, but I’m learning so much about Judaism and realizing, reading this book, that I’m probably more of a Jew than a Christian. What’s interesting in the book is, it says Jews’ No. 1 concern is about acts, and Christians’ primary focus is on faith. I have an easier time being a person who acts than a person of faith. You should try to do both, obviously. As you can tell, I’m somebody who believes in acting. Part of being an entrepreneur is, you grab onto the end of a string, whatever you’re working on … I guess that’s where faith comes in; you have faith it’s going to unravel something good.

CB: What do you like most about being an entrepreneur?

AC: The sense of possibility. That you’re forced to learn and respond. It’s always about learning the possible, what you can do.

CB: Do you still play the cello, and do you see parallels between music and business?

AC: I still play a little bit — particularly when I need to commune with myself. I really loved playing in orchestras and ensembles. As in team sports or ‘team music,’ learning to work with other people is pretty critical to being a good businessperson. I’m not a great manager, but I like working with smart people who play together well with me.