Startup School: Three Aspects for K-12 Schools to Emulate

I wish more of my school career was like my experience in startup incubators. Last weekend I found myself in the midst of an intense presentation about the viability of my ed-tech venture. Four world-class consultants who have built companies from scratch, scaled struggling ventures, and executed countless investments, grilled me on the inner-workings of my startup, EdConnective. The consultants had my financial statements projected on a screen for the whole room to see, combing through them line by line, illuminating all potential weaknesses in the venture through a barrage of questions. It felt like Shark Tank, except the consultants were actually on my side. There were no cameras and no one tried to offer us some horrible deal for 50 percent of our company. The consultants serve as mentors within the Education Design Studio, an ed-tech startup incubator which is proving to be incredibly formative in ways that college and K-12 school often are not.

1). Student-Centered Learning

Before grad school, I spent more than 12 years and 14,000 hours in education systems being taught an enormous amount of content that did not interest me at all. For hours I would struggle through calculus homework that I only took because it would make me more competitive for my college application. A seemingly endless cycle of memorization and regurgitation represented much of my school experience, which in hindsight seems like a momentous waste of time. Because of that, many of my peers mentally or physically checked out of that academic rat race. I wonder how much more value my peers and I could have received from our educational experiences if they were driven more by our interests, as in the case of some startup incubators.

The Education Design Studio, a startup incubator designed to assist the development of ed-tech ventures, is comprised of nine organizations that are passionate about adding value to the education space. As such, everyone is incredibly invested in the learning experiences afforded to us in the program. When Ubongo, a startup that provides an edutainment show for kids in Tanzania, is assigned a complex assignment to assess their market, they approach it with the utmost seriousness. They realize the alignment between the learning experience, their personal desires for success, and the design studio assignment is immediately relevant to their venture’s growth. Never have I been in an education experience where my desire to learn from my instructors has been so driven by my personal interest. The tailoring of education to fit passion and project is a phenomenon that I hope others get to experience earlier in their educational careers.

2). Multidisciplinary Learning

Another feature of this startup incubator that I admire is its multidisciplinary nature. In one workshop I get to interact with JustMaybeCo, a literacy organization, Edumize, an international notes taking platform, and 321 E-learning, a website that provides support for the Down syndrome community. During my education policy masters program, I gained lots of insight from colleagues but our views were ultimately restricted to that of the teachers and policy wonks we were. In the Design Studio, my peers range from web developers to accountants. Furthermore, at any given moment, we may be taught by a serial entrepreneur, angel investor, or international lawyer. There is something extraordinarily impactful about putting a participant driven project at the center of a learning experience, then pouring in all the expertise, knowledge, and resources in to help it succeed. Too often, subject matter and content is placed as the focus of the educational experience, with the hope that the content learned can later be applied to something of use or interest.

3). Aspirational Factors

I’ve participated in numerous incubators, from Starting Bloc to the Wharton Venture Initiation Program and the value of participating in these programs alongside peers who are farther along in the process cannot be overstated. When attending Starting Bloc a few years ago, I had nothing but a passion for improving the education system. There was no venture and no plan. Meanwhile, there were colleagues in my cohort who were already members of a five-person team and one year into the launch of a venture that was producing revenue and impact. That experience inspired me to take the first step in becoming a social entrepreneur and eventually led to the start of my current company. In the Wharton program, my company was newly incorporated and I had just started refining the actual service that EdConnective would provide. At that time, colleagues of mine in the program were getting press on the Today show and generating traction with potential investors, clearly at another phase than I was. Working with peers in the same incubator who are in different places of development with their project is uniquely motivating. Audacious goals seem so obtainable when the folks around you are making them happen.

The student-centered, multidisciplinary, and aspirational aspects of startup incubators are characteristics that I hope more learners can experience before graduating high school and college. Perhaps this is already being done in some places. I would love for people to share examples of incubator-like experiences outside the context of the startup world on twitter @edconnective with the hashtag #startupschool. See you there!

For more info, follow Will Morris on Twitter @edconnective.

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