“You Can Imagine” – Reframing Mental Health to Brain Health with Dr. Jeremy Richman

“You Can Imagine” – Reframing Mental Health to Brain Health with Dr. Jeremy Richman

I’ve had the opportunity to meet many people in my life that have influenced the way I think about things. However, the day I met Jeremy Richman was different. After telling me that his 6-year old daughter, Avielle, was murdered in her first grade classroom at Sandy Hook, he soon followed with three words…

”You Can Imagine.”

Since that encounter, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from Jeremy and hope you will too. It turns out, I’m one of the lucky ones. My life has been pretty good. I was privileged to grow up and have a childhood without trauma. Dr. Jeremy Richman is a neuroscientist and introduced me to a whole new way of thinking. He shifted my mindset to understand the meaning of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Protective Factors, which now drives our curriculum at Noble Impact.

Joe Pucci is a young man I met this past summer. He is a New York City native that attends Hamilton College and is very curious about life…especially in relation to education and how he might be able to make a difference. We are years apart in age but very close in how we view the world. He took a leap of faith and joined us this past summer at the University of Arkansas to take part in our Noble Impact facilitation of the Fleischer Scholars Program. Not only did he do great job but he had great interest in our curriculum and wanted to know more. So I asked if he’d be interested in interviewing Jeremy in order to gain further insight. Of course, he said yes.

Below is Joe’s recap of the conversation he had with Dr. Jeremy Richman.

In the brisk, dark morning of December 14, 2012…

20 children and 6 educators were ruthlessly massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Among the victims was 6-year-old Avielle ‘Avie’ Richman. As I prepared to interview her father, Jeremy, I grew increasingly uneasy at the idea of asking him to reminisce on this day. “I don’t want him to have to relive that experience,” I thought. Before I brought it up, he began describing that morning. My core was shaken. A knot developed in my stomach. This is what Jeremy wants. Not because he enjoys my suffering, but because it’s the only way I’ll develop compassion and want to do something with it.

Jeremy needs us to imagine that day — to put ourselves there and to feel the associated emotions. This goes against the common, well-intentioned response, “I can’t imagine…” But we can, and we must. Only then will we begin to care. This is why “You Can Imagine” is the trademark slogan of The Avielle Foundation. When we do this, we are subconsciously building compassion for those in that situation. Ultimately, compassion is what will drive people’s support for the cause, but it is also what will prevent people from committing violent acts.

This is a simple, logical, and powerful progression, but it is one that is uncommon and often deemed an abstract or ‘soft’ approach to curbing violence. Instead, we constantly focus on negative solutions that don’t seek to affect change in the individual.

According to Jeremy, the top three are guns, safety, and brain health. Many people use the term “mental health” but Jeremy reframes to the organ in which it affects…the brain. These solutions don’t ask the important question of WHY someone would act violently.

“We need to have some very serious introspection and open discussions about what responsibilities come with the right to bare arms – we have become very irresponsible in this arena and tens of thousands of Americans have paid a tragic price as a result.”

Banning guns won’t stop people from thinking violently.

Surely our schools should be safe spaces, but vastly increasing protection is a temporary solution. Violent people will still figure out places or ways in which to be violent. And our fascination with mental health doesn’t actually get us anywhere. Instead we need to begin considering the reframe of mental health to brain health, which Jeremy believes to be a start.

“[The word] Mental is intangible and invisible. It doesn’t come with anything of value that you can use as a tool. At best, it’s a label based on symptoms and syndromes. We need to realize that the brain is an organic organ that houses our behaviors, feelings, and memories. If a behavior is abnormal, it must be the tangible, organic consequence of abnormal brain biochemistry or structure.”

With this being said, Jeremy warns us not to get caught up in simple solutions. Analyzing brain health is critical to understanding the roots of one’s actions, but there’s more to it.

“There’s also a fallacy with associating violence with just genetics. For example, if we look at psychopathic behaviors…and see that it existed in their family history, we think that it must be genetic. But it’s also what you learn and know; the experiences you were exposed to. Both are right and wrong. No behavior is just genetic or just environmentally influenced. Behavior is always influenced by both nature and nurture.”

In short, we shouldn’t be focusing on guns, safety, and mental health, but we also can’t get caught up in attributing violence to one thing; it’s complex. Understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs) has helped us better realize the environmental influences. It showed that the more one is exposed to physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, as well as neglect and household dysfunction in their childhood, the more likely they are to be obese, smoke, drink, break bones, fail to graduate high school, engage in a risky life-style, and die younger. However, we can add to this foundation if we begin studying the brain and focusing on ways to improve it.

Guns, safety, and mental health fill our discussions following violent events like those in Sandy Hook, or the recent shootings around our country, but something isn’t working. Violence seems more prevalent than ever. To do something about it, Jeremy is creating a paradigm shift in how we approach these situations. A focus on prevention and intervention rather than solely on reaction. The Avielle Foundation believes in “Preventing Violence and Building Compassion.”

 

It hinges on the belief that compassion can prevent violent memories, feelings, and behaviors from ever transpiring in the first place. It is admirably grounded in positivity and embodies curiosity, selflessness, passion, and resilience. In tying this back to Jeremy, we can see that his story isn’t defined by the tragedy itself, but rather by his response to it.

Jeremy’s unique, resilient approach can be contextualized even from his earliest experiences. His story begins in the “hippy trippy” 1970s in Boulder, Colorado. The time and place made for an open-minded environment filled with a diversity of people, ideas, and ways of life. Although he left at nine years old, its values are evident in him today: The ability to find compassion and optimism in the face of adversity; The interdisciplinary nature of his work; The discontent with the status quo. It’s prevalent in his identity.

His adolescent years continued in the sprawling, then small town of Tucson, Arizona. Jeremy’s isolated, desert home was shared with his mom, an ESL teacher, his dad, a chemist turned technology expert, and his sister. It’s no wonder that his current endeavors span from neurological research to educational implementation – a rarity in the scientific community.

Shortly after moving, Jeremy’s grandfather was diagnosed with a severe form of Alzheimer’s. He reminisces on how misunderstood the disease was and how hard it was to watch his dad deal with his father’s pain, but says that it was ultimately eye-opening. He was deeply fascinated by how our personalities were dependent on the proper functioning of the brain. As he sought to learn more, it dawned on him how little we actually knew about this organ. But that’s what excited him. He saw an opportunity to make profound discoveries in such an unexplored realm, and that’s exactly what he would wind up doing.

This same curiosity however, did not translate to his early schooling experiences. Considering he was already thinking about brain science, this surprised me. But this is often the case in our school system; we tend to squash creativity, curiosity, and fun (see Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk for more on this). But it also didn’t help that Arizona’s education was ranked 51 out of the 52 states and territories at the time. This left him woefully unprepared for college.

Upon entering the University of Arizona, Jeremy described himself as a “long haired party man who thought good grades came with just showing up.” He would go on to achieve successes in molecular and cellular biology, neuropharmacology and toxicology, and meet his wife, Jennifer, where they’d “geek out together,” but long before this, he was on his way to flunking out.

Things only began to change when a friend of his called him out for complaining, and not studying. He took this to heart. He became aware of his short attention span, inability to effectively manage time, and lack of study skills. But most importantly, he now wanted to do something about it. He began attending study primers at the Human Resource Center, going door-to-door of professors at the university, and generally becoming more proactive. This is the Jeremy I assumed filled his adolescence, but it didn’t. So how’d he end up where he is today?

We tend to mistakenly associate profound thinkers with being exceptional intellects in their youth, but studies have disproven this theory. It turns out that having character, curiosity, and determination is much more important than having a high IQ or getting good grades. As Albert Einstein, who struggled mightily as a child, once said:

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. Most people say that it is intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.”

This is part of the reason that he was thrilled to partner with Noble Impact – whose student-centered curriculum focuses on purpose driven outcomes. He believes that Noble is “thinking in an innovative, out of the box fashion to build value, integrity, perseverance, and compassion through emotionally intelligent platforms.” Through The Avielle Foundation, Jeremy and his team are providing profound scientific insight into brain health and the importance of compassion, while Noble is using and facilitating that knowledge in its programming for students and teachers.

On top of this, we now know that our brains are extremely plastic – meaning they change in response to experiences – particularly from three-years-old to the end of adolescence. It doesn’t matter whether those times were good or bad, but it does matter that we learn from them. For many people, it takes a large degree of suffering to develop – as was the case with Jeremy. He nearly flunked out, but he responded and came back stronger.

Many years later – with exponentially greater suffering – the same might be said about his response to Avie’s death. In times like these you are tested immensely. Although it was an “infinitely heartbreaking, unforgettable moment,” Jeremy’s character shined through.

Surely, rage was pent up in him, but he translated it into self-growth and an application for greater good. After Avielle’s murder, Jeremy notes, “Jenn and I, literally within days, decided that we had to do something. We knew that it had to be meaningful, prevent violence, and build compassion in any possible way that we could.”

The resiliency it takes to swiftly respond with action that will prevent others from experiencing their pain is unbelievable. It is selfless. It defines strong character.

It’s been five years. It’s been heartbreaking. What have we done? What will we do?

If you ask Jeremy and Jen, the answer is compassion, and I’m sure Avie would agree.

Individual vs. Institution: Who continues the story?

Individual vs. Institution: Who continues the story?

When I was a teenager, I remember my Dad telling me…

“Whatever you resist, persists.”

Professional Development

Last month, we organized a professional development workshop for about 130 faculty, staff, and administrators from eStem Schools. I was excited about the opportunity because I believe very strongly in the importance of acknowledging individual identity in any institutional system…especially education. The fascinating thing to me is the disconnect of this acknowledgement and why every institution doesn’t focus on individual identity to communicate their brand, whether it be a for profit company or non-profit organization.

We had two goals:

  1. Engage participants in activities related to individual brand building
  2. Take professional headshots of every single eStem employee

Over the past several years, I’ve shared numerous conversations about this individual brand idea with professional photographer, John David Pittman (JDP). We went back and forth with ideas and terminology. Call it marketing, branding, messaging…whatever you want. Our collective belief was in the power of controlling your own narrative and being conscious of how you’re communicating that narrative to the world. I believe it to be more important from my position as a high school educator as access into college hinges greatly on judgment that students receive through social media channels. It’s no secret that college admissions officers look at an applicants social media accounts to make judgments regarding acceptance.

Therefore, I believe my professional responsibility is to introduce students to this reality…what Google calls the Zero Moment of Truth – ZMOT (“it’s the new decision-making moment that takes place a hundred million times a day on mobile phones, laptops and wired devices of all kinds.  It’s a moment where marketing happen, where information happens, and where consumers makes choices that affect the success and failure of nearly every brand in the world”.)

In a 2002 letter to shareholders and prior to the Google terminology, Procter and Gamble’s CEO, A.G. Lafley referred to the First Moment of Truth (“when consumers stand in front of store shelf and decide whether to buy a P&G brand, or a competing product”) and Second Moment of Truth (“when consumers use a product and it delivers a delightful and memorable experience – or not and then decides whether to buy it again”). In 2006, P&G employee, Pete Blackshaw created the Third Moment of Truth (“where the product experience catalyzes an emotion, curiosity, passion, or even anger to talk about the brand”). Reference – Keith Ewart | ZMOT, FMOT, SMOT, TMOT

Business Sector Language

A.G. Lafley would probably tell you that all this started with a simple question…

What do our brands need to stand for in the hearts and minds of their strategic target?

Social Sector Language

Translating that to a students, teachers, and schools…

Who am I in the hearts and minds of friends and colleges?

Who am I in the hearts and minds of students and parents?

Who are we in the hearts and minds of parents and community?

As an educator, I’m curious how these moments of truth translate to the education sector. ZMOT, FMOT, SMOT, and TMOT…do they apply to a school, to a teacher, to a student?

Absofrickinlutely!

Who are we kidding? You want to check out a school…go to the website. You want to check out a teacher…google them. You want to check out a student…check social media. Furthermore, if the teacher isn’t on the website or is represented with a crappy photo and bio, it’s not good! JDP has since redefined that for eStem’s “Our Staff” page.

This is the world we live in and it’s not slowing down. You either adapt or get left behind as an individual and as an institution. The secret lies at the intersection of both. If institutions have individuals that value their brand and control their individual narrative in a healthy way, the institution will flourish. And…the individual will provide tremendous value to the institution by showing people they are a good citizen of the community. Therefore, it makes everyone better. Not just the individual. Not just the institution. Everyone!

Let’s get tangible. What can we do?

As A School

Start with culture and create a culture of communication. Challenge all teachers to post something once a day. One tweet, one instagram picture, one facebook or blog post. Encourage teachers to be themselves while embracing their own voice, their own style, and their own authentic selves. All posts should focus on positive stories being created in the classroom or school. This will drive a healthy school culture.

As A Teacher

Think of your classroom as a brand. What stories are you telling and how are you telling them. If you aren’t telling them, no one else will. Is it through social media? Through emails to parents? Through school newsletters? How are you connecting with parents, with students, with other teachers…these are your stakeholders. The more communication the better.

As A Student

What does your social media account look like? Perform an inventory and see how you’re talking about yourself and others. Based on social media alone, are you someone you’d want to accept into Harvard? What is your messaging to the masses? The majority of students have much more power than any teacher or school because they have more followers.

Change is Hard

The transition from discomfort to discovery is painful and some people never make the transition. When I was trained in the Change Cycle curriculum there was one quote that stood out and resonated:

Image result for socrates the secret of change

As I stated above, we had two goals for the workshop and my job was to engage teachers in what we believed were relevant activities related to identity building. I had facilitated these activities with students and have received great engagement with the majority of students. Last year, I decided to introduce a new activity that had students perform an individual activity, mirroring what Google does on an institutional level, which they call, Ten Things We Know To Be True.

Translating that to an individual basis required students to spend significant time in reflection mode. I was beyond impressed with student results. In fact, many students put their results on personal websites and one student, Bethanie Gourley, even made a video it, which is awesome!

I was very interested to see how teachers would respond to the same challenge and most of them embraced the process while sharing results with colleagues. However, there were some that I just didn’t reach and I put that on me. My fault.

After cleaning up, I was on my way out of the building and came across a paper on one of the tables with the “Ten Things” exercise. My eyes went to #8…

I understand that not all teachers or administrators will agree with me about the importance of individual identity and how I believe we should treat it as a branding opportunity for students, teachers, and schools. I understand that branding can have a negative connotation in the social sector but…the world we live in today is very fast. It’s not a matter of if but when. You might not believe in the “brand” identity approach but every market (business and social) in the world is showing us that “brand” is important and has the ability to control messages, actions, and attitudes towards individuals and institutions. I know we’re not products, but the ZMOT to TMOT approach is now applicable to people. How do we leverage ourselves and our stories for the common good?

As Tristan Walker says, “No one else should be telling my story.”

It’s easy for me to empathize with people that state, “I am not a brand.” I totally understand where they are coming from. This whole social media thing didn’t exist when I was in high school or even when I started teaching. In the whole scheme of things, it’s totally new to me but I’m trying to embrace the change. Innovation isn’t limited to institutions, it needs to happen to individuals and if you don’t innovate yourself, no one else will.

So, let’s reframe. Fine, you’re not a brand. How about this…you’re a story that isn’t finished yet. As my friend Dave Knox told me many years ago, “Marketing is telling the story, and branding is continuing the story.”

If Dave is right, and branding is continuing the story, it begs a couple questions…

  1. Who continues the story?
  2. Who consumes the story?
  3. Who cares about the story?

Embrace it or resist it…your headshot is the first line of your story, and the story continues. What will it be?

Here is what we did. Enjoy!

A new hashtag I’m playing around with…

#InnovateYoSelf

Tuning In: A Culture of Identity

Tuning In: A Culture of Identity

 John David Pittman is more than a photographer, he’s a storyteller.

I met JDP in the spring of 2014 as we hosted the first ever High School Startup Weekend at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. He volunteered his time that day because of his connection to education and his interest in what we were trying to accomplish over a 3-day period with 80+ high school students. His work was awesome and it made me think about more ideas for collaboration.

 

Both of JDP’s parents are retired educators. His father was a high school teacher, coach, principal, and superintendent. His mother was a high school english teacher, gifted and talented coordinator, and elementary librarian. And his brother is currently a high school teacher and coach in Gravette, Arkansas. That’s just his immediate family.

When you start talking education with JDP, he has many opinions and also connects his current occupation of photographer to the possibility of utilizing it for the education sector, specifically K-12.

Since our first encounter, we’ve talked about doing projects together that would be mutually beneficial while serving a higher purpose and we’ve managed to do that through a couple different avenues, one being our Noble 301 Apprenticeship Course.

He’s also volunteered his time to provide our students with an opportunity to visit his studio and receive professional headshots of their own. We’ve seen our students use these headshots on their social media pages and in applications for college. 

In addition to projects with Noble Impact, JDP has been a guest speaker in many of our classrooms and his message of being “tuned in” resonates with me every single time I hear it.

“Being tuned in is being aware of yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, your environment, and how you fit into your environment…it’s a sense of hyper-awareness and not just walking through life half on.”

JDP connects the “tuned in” message to photography in many different ways but he’ll be the first one to tell you that it all starts with a professional headshot.

“Whether it be an athlete, an artist, or a teacher, I want everyone to be invested as a human…in themselves and their own identity, which connects to others through story.”

As we embark upon our most recent collaboration, I’m very happy to again focus our efforts on education while attempting to lift the teaching profession to new heights. With a professional headshot as the beginning, we’ll be laser focused on building a culture of identity. We both believe in the power of teachers and we also believe it’s a profession that has been slighted. In fact, one of the problem statements from this past summer’s Noble Summit was this…“The problem with education is that teachers are undervalued.”

The purpose of collaborating with JDP is to put teachers first while making sure that value is communicated at a very high level. A professional headshot signifies the importance of identity building and is an industry standard that most companies adhere to. Why not schools? Therefore, professional headshots for every single individual contributing to the organizational school culture should be non-negotiable. Here are a couple takeaways that connect JDP’s words to the significance of a professional headshot…

“This is important. This is a big deal. Research shows that people make snap judgments about who you are as a person within two seconds of looking at your headshot.”

“Handshake to headshot, people judge everything.”

“I want their ZMOT (zero moment of truth) to be confident and approachable.”

“Your headshot is the first line of your story…that’s the way I look at it.”

As we continue our series of professional development workshops with eStem Schools, the individual identity workshop will add significant value to cultivating a healthy school culture. We believe that individual identities feed into the collective identity, and it starts with valuing teachers for who they are.

As JDP would say, “It’s time to get tuned in.”

 

Startup Day: Tip of the Entrepreneurship Spear for High School Students

Startup Day: Tip of the Entrepreneurship Spear for High School Students

In November of last year, we had the opportunity to launch our first ever High School Startup Day. In partnership with Junior Achievement and the Innovation Hub, we welcomed over 100 students, 10 teachers, and 10 mentors to engage in the startup process to tackle a social sector issue.

Since beginning in the summer of 2013, our constant experimentation process at Noble Impact has afforded us the opportunity to learn in an environment that embraces ambiguity and organized chaos. Developing new experiences and events for students requires that we do this type work if we want to challenge the status quo while offering entrepreneurial curriculum and programming. Startup Day is just one example of our work, which is supported by our certified curriculum through the Arkansas Department of Career and Technical Education (CTE), which any Arkansas High School may utilize as a program of study.

Startup Day is special in its own right because it introduces students to the dichotomy of “What is…” and “What could be…” while exposing them to new environments outside of the classroom and outside of the school building. My friend Nick Seguin stated it best when talking about how a startup event benefits students. Nick says, “it serves as an access point to entrepreneurship.”

At Noble Impact, our purpose is to increase access and opportunity for every student we serve. Therefore, we are excited to announce that our 2nd High School Startup Day will take place at the University of Central Arkansas within the UCA College of Business. Through this event, our partnership continues with Junior Achievement and we’re also developing a new partnership with the Conductor, which is spearheaded by Jeff Standridge and Kim Lane. We will again be sponsored by Startup Junkie Consulting, who continues to be a champion of entrepreneurial growth and education throughout the state of Arkansas.

Although we’ve been fortunate to accomplish a lot since beginning in 2013, we continue to ask ourselves, “What if?”

And so, it begs the question…

What if we launched High School Startup Days around the state of Arkansas that served as the access point to entrepreneurship for all students?

Answer: Maybe we’d get more feedback and reflection like we heard from North Little Rock Senior, Jayvin Johnson.

If you’d like to know more about High School Startup Day, come out and see it in action…just RSVP!

When: March 16th | 9:30am–1:00pm

Where: UCA College of Business

Non-tech MVPs: Why Every Tech Startup Should Start With One

Non-tech MVPs: Why Every Tech Startup Should Start With One

SXSW 2016 LogoThis post was inspired by a SXSW 2016 panel called, “No CTO, No Problem: Building A Non-technical MVP,” which featured Noble Impact VP of Product Erica Swallow, Fruitkit Co-founder Fernando Leon, Bain Capital Ventures investor Stephanie Weiner, and Contently Studio Director John Hazard.

Non-technical entrepreneurs often hold themselves back once they’ve got an idea, because they feel like recruiting tech talent to build a proof of concept is essential. Technical entrepreneurs, on the other hand, tend to exercise their strengths as builders early on, before validating their business ideas. In both cases, the outcome tends to be wasted time, either building a product that no one needs or not putting an idea through the validation wringer.

In a SXSW 2016 panel called “No CTO, No Problem: Building A Non-technical MVP,” three colleagues and I presented a case for going non-technical as a necessary step towards product validation. A Minimal Viable Product, or MVP, is a term coined by Eric Ries, defined as the “version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.” What better way to minimize effort than to make an MVP that doesn’t require a single line of code?

Below are our panel’s key thoughts and recommended resources for would-be entrepreneurs who are looking to test an idea. Above all, we hope that this conversation around building a #NontechMVP will inspire potential startup founders to get started ASAP on tackling the problems they hope to solve!

The Argument For Starting Non-tech

Nontech MVP Sketchnote by William Donnell
UX designer William Donnell included our panel in his SXSW Sketchnotes!

Starting non-technical when you’re trying to build a tech company may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s actually a great way to validate a concept and save a lot of time before you get to coding. Many smart and eventually successful entrepreneurs, with or without technical backgrounds, have started with non-technical tests.

One entrepreneur that comes to mind is Aaron Patzer, founder of personal finance app Mint. In a talk he gave at Princeton’s Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education, Patzer explained how he grew to 1.5 million users and sold for $170 million in just two years. To validate the idea, Patzer started with a simple beta signup landing page, which asked people to sign up to be emailed when Mint launched. Mint also launched a personal finance blog, which provided users with relevant finance-related resources and promoted the beta launch page, as well. In the end, after 8-9 months, nearly 30,000 emails were collected for beta launch. Not a bad turnout, right? And mind you, Patzer holds degrees in electrical engineer and computer science from Duke and Princeton.

“Number one is to validate your idea. I actually didn’t write a line of code until I did about three or four months’ worth of thinking on Mint, which I think is counter to what a lot of people will suggest. A lot of people will say ‘Just get the product out there, just iterate very, very quickly, (and) just make a prototype.'”
— Aaron Patzer, founder of Mint

Everyone on our SXSW panel shared both success and failure stories when it came to validating quickly or beating around the bush with an idea. I, for example, had an idea for a peer-to-peer delivery platform and was able to see the technical product come to life after participating with a team of four at a 72-hour hackathon on a bus called StartupBus. We called it Deliverish, and some of us stayed on board for about 9 months after the hackathon, working on our free time, mocking out better front-end design concepts, interviewing potential customers, participating in more hackathons, building our own beta launch list, researching competitors, and trying to decide which beachhead market we wanted to address. After 9 months, we had a working prototype, but no customer transactions.

Had Deliverish started with a non-technical test, we might have actually gotten off the ground (though, in the end, it’s for the best that we didn’t… all the market research I did while at MIT Sloan actually helped show how competitive and oversaturated the last-mile delivery market is). A #NontechMVP could have come in the form of having people text the co-founders when they needed something delivered. From there, we could have deployed a contracted delivery person or conducted the delivery ourselves. We could have worked from there to automate aspects of the service that were the most annoying for the customer experience.

For any startup, it’s important to validate an idea as early as possible. Believe me, 9 months of building and researching — while valuable in its own right — is far too long to go before landing a single transaction.

Three Panelist Case Studies: PennLets, Fruitkit, and Noble Impact

fruitkit fruit delivery
Fruit subscription service Fruitkit started with a non-technical MVP to prove that its service had great enough demand.

On the SXSW panel, Stephanie Weiner, Fernando Leon, and I shared our own recent #NontechMVP stories, with PennLets, Fruitkit, and Noble Impact, respectively.

PennLets is a sublet listing service created by Weiner and some of her classmates while she was at the University of Pennsylvania. The team used a WordPress theme and got the service off the ground in one day. After 24 hours, the site had more than 500 active users (10% of the UPenn undergraduate community) — in a couple of months, the userbase had hit 2,000 students, says Weiner. In the end, the crew sold the site, as-is, to the university, and it still exists as the central subletting portal for UPenn students. To boot, Weiner and her colleagues are still listed on the site as the site creators. Weiner says the benefit to going non-technical is that the site was up in no-time, it didn’t crash (due to the support WordPress offers), and it validated the team’s concept in less than a day.

Fruitkit is another exceptional #NontechMVP example, in which a startup was able to turn a $100 investment into more than $100,000 in revenue in just over one year. Leon, a native of Colombia, and two friends founded fruit subscription service Fruitkit after living in cold, dark Finland, which lacks the year-round fruit market that South America boasts. The crew set up an out-of-the-box website, and after they unexpectedly received their first order (through a face-to-face conversation with a potential customer), they went into overdrive to figure out how they were going to fulfill the order. It turns out, they unknowingly had themselves a non-tech MVP, which consisted of sending an invoice, procuring the fruit through an importer, and delivering the fruit the following Monday (and every week thereafter). Leon collected feedback manually through customer calls, and gathered customer fruit preferences through a postcard that was included in each. Today, the startup has implemented automatic payments, tested delivery options (including an Uber partnership and its own delivery staff), and has relationships with three fruit importers and local farmers for summer (berries) and autumn (apples) procurements. (Check out Leon’s retrospective blog about how to create a non-tech MVP.)

Finally, there’s Noble Impact, where I serve as product lead. We are an education initiative with a mission to provide students everywhere a relevant and purpose-driven education. We began operations in Arkansas as a summer program, and then a K-12 course selection for public service and entrepreneurship education. To date, we’ve worked with more than 500 students at eStem Schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, building out a series of courses that engage students in project-based, portfolio-driven education that gets them engaged in their communities, solving problems that are connected to their interests. After more than two years of innovating on the Noble Impact curriculum, it became evident that the part of our classroom curriculum that was digital, was the part that would enable Noble Impact to scale outside of our first school.

Each student at Noble creates a digital portfolio that helps him or her define his or her personal narrative, values, interests, and related projects. These portfolios also drive student participation — once a student realizes that he or she can (and has already) contributed to society in some way, a spark for service is ignited. Our classroom facilitators originally built our 10-week portfolio curriculum using a site-building tool called Weebly. After nearly a year of testing and collecting student feedback on the experience, the team realized the pros and cons of an out-of-the-box solution, and as of this year, we’ve begun building a digital portfolio platform that’s customized for our classroom experience. Would we have started with our own platform, though, we would have wasted a lot of time building tech features that weren’t valued by our students. It’s only by testing on Weebly that we’ve been able to see what works and doesn’t in the classroom. Along the way, we’ve also used countless tools, many of which are listed below.

Getting Started With A Non-tech MVP

Nontech MVP Panel SXSW 2016 Speaking
SXSW Interactive 2016 speakers for the panel, “No CTO, No Problem: Building A Non-technical MVP”

So, how do you get started validating an idea with a non-technical solution? In short, you should aim to break down the process to the simplest means of testing. Leon recommends doing a role play of users. In his case, one of his co-founders played a customer in need of a fruit subscription, and Leon played the role of the Fruitkit product (or seller). “I’d like to order a basket of fruit,” the potential customer starts. “Alright, let’s get you signed up,” says Leon. “What’s your name and where would you like the fruit delivered?” And the role play goes on.

I like to point to a recent non-tech MVP I participated in as a user. The startup, CartDelivered, is based in Little Rock, Arkansas and is a grocery delivery service. Founder Joshua Ayres is a branding and logistics veteran, having worked at mainstay institutions including Kraft Foods, Cadbury, Unilever, and P&G. He wants to grow the grocery delivery market in the cities outside of the top 100 by population in the United States, unlike his competitors which focus their services in large, metropolitan regions. The CartDelivered beta test was quite simple; it aimed enable a user to:

  1. Make a grocery list
  2. Send the list to CartDelivered
  3. Be connected with a delivery person
  4. Receive their order within a pre-determined timeframe
  5. Pay for the order

Ayres was able to pull the beta test off using existing tools. He recommended the customer use Grocery IQ to make a grocery list and email it to orders@cartdelivered.com, which could be done within the app. Then, he contacted his available delivery people, who he had pre-recruited to find someone who was available to make the delivery. After finding a match, he emailed the customer to convey that someone would arrive at a designated time. And lastly, once the order was final, he had the delivery person email him a copy of the receipt, which was used to send a PayPal invoice to the customer. All of this accomplished his goal, without him needing to spend anytime either learning to code or recruiting a technical teammate.

From our own experiences, here are some steps that were necessary for us, along with some non-tech tools that helped us achieve those goals:

  • Find and talk to potential/existing customers: Email, phone, Twitter, Craigslist
  • Building a “coming soon” page: LaunchRock, Unbounce, Kickofflabs, Quick MVP, Instapage
  • Collect feedback en masse: Google Forms, SurveyMonkey, Qualtrics, TypeForm
  • Design mockups: Napkins, paper, PowerPoint, Keynote, Moqups, Balsamiq
  • Build a basic product: WordPress, Wix, Squarespace, Cratejoy
  • Deliver contracts: Print/sign, Docusign
  • Develop a functioning app: Bubble
  • Communicate with our team: Slack, Whatsapp
  • Collect a payment: PayPal, Stripe, Venmo
  • A/B test options: Optimizely

If you’re an entrepreneur trying to validate an idea, our panelists urge you to break your idea down to the most basic test you can fathom. The sooner you can validate your idea, the sooner you’ll be off to actually building a technical product that people want.

For thoughts and ideas on how to strategize the simplest non-tech MVP, join the conversation on Twitter, via #NontechMVP.

How High Schoolers Are Using Lean Startup

How High Schoolers Are Using Lean Startup

Lean Startup Conference LogoThis video was produced by the Lean Startup Conference, where Noble Impact VP of Product Erica Swallow gave an IGNITE talk about Lean Startup in the high school ecosystem. Learn more about Lean Startup in the high school setting in the blog post she penned leading up to the speech.

High schools across the nation are implementing Lean Startup methodology in entrepreneurship, business, and marketing courses. Erica Swallow, VP of Product at education non-profit Noble Impact, at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference, shared the story of how her team is empowering students to get out of the building and solve the problems they see in their communities. See the video recording of her five-minute, lightning-style IGNITE talk below! (IGNITE talks, by the way, are five minutes total, with 20 slides, 15 seconds each. Phew!)

Learn more about how Noble Impact uses Lean Startup in the classroom in Erica’s more extensive blog post.

How Lean Startup Is Changing High School Education

How Lean Startup Is Changing High School Education

Lean Startup Conference LogoThis post originally appeared on the Lean Startup Company blog, where Noble Impact VP of Product Erica Swallow guest blogged about Lean Startup in the high school ecosystem in anticipation of her IGNITE talk at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference.

All across the world, educators are seeking ways to better engage students and prepare them for life after high school. In poll after poll, students tell us that their education doesn’t seem relevant; they don’t see a purpose behind the daily grind, the homework, the standardized tests.

For some, Lean Startup is a part of the solution.

The Problem

So, what is it about high school that disengages students? Take a look at most high school classrooms across America, and you’ll find the answer. Students sit chair behind chair, desk behind desk, in a seemingly endless matrix, wall to wall, while at the front of the room, a teacher commands the class and delivers content, only stopping to answer the occasional question.

Teamwork is practically unheard of, and students are asked to memorize formulas and historical dates to regurgitate on tests that will rank them within their class, school, and the entire national education system.

Students aren’t ignorant, though – they see the difference between the education system and what the “real world” looks like. They want an education that will set them up for success in life after high school, not one that will deflate their creativity year-by-year, until their only hope is to graduate and go to college or get a job.

We must give students a better system, one that is deserving of their time, efforts, and talents.

Coaching Up the Classroom

Noble Impact Scholars

Noble Impact scholars choose words that
resonate with them about the entrepreneurial journey.

What would it look like if we flipped the classroom equation and put students at the center of their education? What if we challenged students to determine the course of their own educational journeys, to customize it based on their interests and the problems they ultimately want to solve in the world? Instead of teachers, we’d act more as coaches, facilitators of learning.

Students at Noble Impact take a purposed-based approach to their work, and they frequently ask, “Why?” We train students to dig deep – whether they are in the classroom, at one of our out-of-school events, or at home – to question the purpose behind what they’re doing. When students see the purpose in their work, they find relevance, and they’re excited to contribute.

The Lean Canvas and Lean Startup methodology have been invaluable tools for those exercises.

Applying Lean Startup to the High School Setting

Greta Kresse and Olivia Fitzgibbon Noble Impact Scholars

Noble Impact scholars Greta Kresse and Olivia Fitzgibbon white board
at an event about challenging the existing opportunity gap in education.

Lean Startup as a business development philosophy prioritizes speed and learning over perfection – it asks the entrepreneur to define success in terms of “learning how to solve the customer’s problem,” as Eric Ries, author of “The Lean Startup,” puts it.

Lean Startup, then, is a natural fit in a project-based learning environment, where students are challenged to work on projects in line with their interests and the problems they want to solve. Lean Startup teaches students to focus on people, to understand what a customer is and how to solve his or her problems.

Instead of sitting in chairs all day long, students are asked to “get out of the building” to do customer research, define a problem, build MVPs (minimum viable products), and validate the assumptions their business models rely upon. Students aren’t used to adults handing over the reigns, but with the right facilitation, students can and do shine when they’re asked to build, measure, and learn.

Building Noble Impact Initiatives

At Noble Impact, students work in many different environments with Lean Startup methodology, both in the classroom and beyond.

Last year, in partnership with the Clinton School of Public Service, for example, we launched the country’s first-ever High School Startup Weekend, devoted solely to high school entrepreneurs. With 80 student participants in grades 9-12, the event saw ideas that included an online homework management tool, a portable storage locker company for outdoor events, a nail polish pen, and a “don’t forget your cell phone” smartwatch app, among others.

Innovation isn’t just an after-hours affair, though. Students also work on business ideas in class using Lean. At eStem Public Charter Schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, for example, Noble Impact scholars work with local businesses and on their own ideas, interviewing customers, mocking up MVP ideas, and actually building their own businesses. In fact, we currently expose Lean Startup to students in grades 5-12 and will soon expand all the way to kindergarten.

Bolstering High School Entrepreneurs

Sydney Brazil Noble Impact Entrepreneur

High school entrepreneur Sydney Brazil founded her own “donut holery”
called The Hole Thing through her Noble Impact coursework.

High school entrepreneurs are treated as rare creatures in our society, probably because we crush the creativity out of them in their day-to-day schoolwork. I get to work with a lot of fresh minds through Noble Impact, though, and we teach them that anyone can contribute to society or solve a problem, as long as they’re willing to put in the work and research.

I’ve had particular glee watching one entrepreneur, Sydney Brazil, flourish in our entrepreneurial environment. She used Lean Canvas to turn her idea for a donut hole business into a reality by founding The Hole Thing, Little Rock, Arkansas’s first “donut holery.” She makes the most delicious donut holes to ever grace the earth, from lemon lavender to chocolate chip cookie.

She started her journey much like any other entrepreneur twice her age (she was 15 when she got started) – she built a business plan, pitched at some local startup pitch competitions, caught the eye of potential partners, and launched a minimum viable product. Instead of buying a store location and setting up shop, Sydney went lean. Her MVP came in the form of a partnership with local restaurant Copper Grill, in which her company’s donut holes appeared on the restaurant’s dessert menu, alongside their house ice cream. Copper Grill also let Sydney use their professional grade kitchen to prepare the holes. The partnership enabled her to test her concept for donut holes, see if there was actually demand, and collect sales data about which donut holes were selling better. Build, measure, learn.

In Sydney’s words, the “grown up business community” has completely embraced her, Copper Grill and beyond. That’s what excites me as an education reformer. We need more connectivity between students and their communities, because business leaders and mentors are the ones who open up opportunities for students to learn and get experience. When a student has an idea for an MVP through a Lean Canvas exercise, it is local community that can help make that plan a reality.

Lean Startup Around the Country

Hawken School Entrepreneurship Educators Workshop

Entrepreneur and educator Jeanine Esposito presents a Business Model Canvas
at Hawken School’s summer entrepreneurship educators workshop.

Noble Impact isn’t the only organization teaching Lean Startup in the K-12 education system.

DECA, one of the largest co-curricular student club organizations, rolled out the Lean Canvas this school year for all of its state and national competitions related to entrepreneurship. Students used to write full 20+ page business plans, and now they’re going lean.

Likewise, educators at Hawken School, a private PS-12 school in Gates Mills, Ohio, is one of the first organizations I’ve worked with that not only teaches students about Lean Startup, but also trains teachers from across the country how to use and teach Lean Startup in their own schools. This summer, Hawken educators Doris Korda and Tim Desmond held the first-ever Hawken School Educators Workship for Entrepreneurial Studies at Babson College and made sure that each educator left having built at least one Lean Business Model Canvas.

Preparing Students For Their Futures

I strongly believe that it is our duty as world citizens to make sure that our children have the best education possible, so that they are prepared to thrive in an ever-changing society after they leave the halls of their hometown high schools.

From what I’ve witnessed, there are educators all across this country, focused on changing the education system, so that our students are prepared to not only thrive in, but also change the world.

Lean Startup, for many students, is the catalyst that gets them engaged and on that path. I encourage all educators to give it a try and to consider what it means when we ask students to take the reigns of their own educational journey. To build, to measure, to learn, and to rise to their fullest potential.

What If… We Reimagined How We Attract And Retain Young Talent?

What If… We Reimagined How We Attract And Retain Young Talent?

This post is part of our community blogging program, which chronicles the thoughts of students, parents, and community leaders on the intersection between education, entrepreneurship, and public service. Here, Venture Center Director of Digital Strategy and Membership Steve Rice writes about his experience working with Noble Impact and young talent in Central Arkansas.

The Talent Drain

Nearly every community faces the obstacle of attracting and retaining talent at one point or another, and companies invest millions of dollars in attraction and relocation of talent. Retaining the best talent is an eat-or-be-eaten world. But what if the way we’ve always done it isn’t the best way? If there were a better way, what would it look like?

Noble Impact has stepped out to rethink education and what that would look like, and I see this as a great opportunity for the business community to begin to reimagine talent attraction and retention. What if we as the education and business communities worked more closely together to nurture and cultivate the raw talent that already exists in our city?

In the past, we as the business community have often ignored the student community until they come to our doors, degree in hand. At that point, we tell them, “get some experience” and dump them into a pile with other job seekers.

What if there is a better way? What would it look like?

A Better Way

Noble Impact students ideate on changing education

What would happen if we worked together to help students begin to identify and nurture their real-world interests, strengths and aptitudes? And what if we began to do this as early as primary school?

What if, in addition to helping them to identify their interests, we taught students how to tell their story? Imagine that we showed them how to position their skills and the knowledge they are gaining in the classroom within the context of the modern workplace and market. How would their chances of success change if we taught them how to work on teams, set goals, prioritize and achieve objectives? How would it set them ahead of their peers if we helped them build a platform to display those skills and achievements before they left high school?

Imagine that our students had already learned both soft and hard skills to give them experience and prepare them for the job market even before they arrived as freshmen at the doors of our halls of higher learning.

This is the path Noble Impact has begun to identify with the apprenticeship program and their new scholar portfolio development product. This program seeks to create relevant, purpose-driven learning opportunities for students in the Noble program, and provides the scholar with a digital tool for presenting their successes in a narrative that employers are looking for. The scholar enters the workforce fully equipped to achieve success. This is the early stage of talent acquisition and retention.

Bradley Poindexter's Digital Portfolio from Noble Impact
A digital portfolio created by Noble Impact 301 scholar Bradley Poindexter.

Partnering with Noble is a perfect blending of the mission of the Venture Center to create a pipeline of viable, scalable businesses that drive real, economic impact in our city and community. In order for businesses to grow and succeed, they need a local pool of strong, knowledge-based talent. Our goal is to leverage our community partners like Noble Impact to create an environment in which the best, brightest and most talented minds of our state are educated, grow, and then build their professional lives right here in Central Arkansas.

Through this process, we have learned a lot, but there are three things that we have learned that stand out as key components that will incentivize young talent to stay closer to home as they move into and build their careers. These are insights that any community can use to improve the success of talent retention from the very earliest stages of a student’s academic career.

How to Keep Local Talent

1. Connect Students to the Community

At the Venture Center, as we observe the talent and potential of the young professionals in the Noble Impact apprenticeship program, we are able to leverage our connections in the community to connect students to professionals in our community.

For example, just last week, we had the pleasure of introducing Noble Impact 301 scholar and young fashion designer Kennedy Smith to local couture designer, Linda Rowe-Thomas of fashion house Romás. These types of “intentional collisions” help to connect young professionals to business experts and influencers in their community.

2. Give Them a Reason to Stay

Once students are connected to their community, it is easier to provide reasons for them to stay in and build their career in the community where they have begun to make connections.  Identifying what a student wants or what she is looking for in the future allows educators and community partners to work together to help provide the incentives that will help to retain the student in the state.

3. Give Them Experience

Apprenticeship programs like Noble Impact’s embody all three of these components to talent retention. A real-world, project-based and results-focused apprenticeship program connects students to their community, partners with community members to give the student reasons to stay and build their career in the city and it provides them an opportunity to gain valuable, hands-on experience prior to entering the workplace. Noble Impact apprentices are contributing and leading to projects at local businesses that include Few, Apptegy, Strengthen, the Museum of Discovery, John David Pittman Photography, Freiderica Pharmacy And Compounding, CHI St. Vincent Infirmary, River Market Boot Camp, and yes, the Venture Center. This is real-world, hands-on learning.

What If?

Asking ‘what if?’ opens us up to a wide world of potential. That is what Noble Impact has begun to do as it reimagines education through its apprenticeship program. Community partners like the Venture Center and established businesses broaden and strengthen the pool of local talent when they support and enhance the work that Noble has begun.  There is a part for each of us to play in the success of our community.

You can create the same impact in your own community. We hope you’ll join us on this exciting adventure!

What If Students Were Encouraged To Be Innovation Junkies?

What If Students Were Encouraged To Be Innovation Junkies?

Have you ever thought about what we expect of students, and what they expect of themselves? If so, imagine if the expectation for students was to be innovators, instead of simply learners and knowledge sponges. What if we encouraged students to change the ratio, flip the equation, disrupt the system? What if the basis of our education system was built on the concept of enacting innovation?

Opening this year’s Business Innovation Factory Summit (also known as BIF2015), BIF founder Saul Kaplan declared the event the gathering of the innovation junkies, saying that in the past “the stories have been incredible, as have the 500 plus innovation junkies who are here.” Now there’s an intriguing phrase. Innovation junkies.

Over the two days I spent at BIF2015, I embraced the innovation junky title. Storytellers — as BIF calls its presenters — spoke about topics that ranged from brain surgery, expressive art, social identity, and education to blockchains, opera, game development, and prison. The premise of the summit is that “a good story can change the world,” that by listening and telling good stories, we soak in the inspiration and impetus to go out there and make a difference.

Students As Innovation Junkies

At Noble Impact, like at BIF, we believe in storytelling and impact. During the first weeks of class across all Noble courses, scholars are challenged to share their personal stories with their classmates — to define who they are, what they’ve been through and accomplished, what they care about and why, where they’re heading, and how they’re going to get there. Much like BIF storytellers, they’re asked to leave a piece of themselves on the stage, to be their authentic selves.

Big Piph and Bradley Poindexter Noble Impact Apprenticeship
Hip-hop artist Big Piph speaks with Noble Impact scholar Bradley Poindexter about the apprenticeship they’re collaborating on through Noble Impact.
Noble courses, too, push students to work on projects within and outside the classroom that are aligned with their interests and aspirations. Scholars are asked to seek out opportunities to provide value in their communities, while also learning important skills that will push them towards their goals. Scholars grow throughout the course to consistently ask how they can help solve the problems they see around them.

Noble Scholar and spoken word poet Bradley Poindexter, a senior at eStem High School, for example, is apprenticing with hip-hop artist and philanthropist Big Piph, focused on show production. The two are working on Big Piph’s next show, and I’ve heard it through the grapevine that Poindexter may either have some stage time or be producing a show of his own. Either way, it’s exciting to see Poindexter working on a project in line with his passion for poetry, spoken word, and music, alongside an incredible mentor. This is what education should look like everywhere.

Going back to the thought of “innovation junkies,” it occurs to me that that’s what we’re doing at Noble Impact: Getting students hooked on innovative thinking. And on collaboration.

BIF Food For Thought

Tampon Run Mobile Game Screenshots

Teen coder Sophie Houser introduced her mobile game, Tampon Run, at BIF, showcasing the introduction that aims to break the taboo of talking about menstruation.

If any BIF talk embodied this idea of encouraging today’s students to think disruptively, it was that of Sophie Houser, a student herself, and one of two teenage coders behind the eight-bit, side-scrolling web and mobile game Tampon Run, which was created to combat the taboo of talking about menstruation. Houser and fellow developer Andrea Gonzalez met at Girls Who Code, an organization that aims to help close the gender gap in tech by teaching girls how to code.

Houser and Gonzalez are certainly innovators. Just take a look at their introduction to the game (which gamers see before getting started):

“Most women menstruate for a large portion of their lives. It is, by all means, normal. Yet most people, women and men alike, feel uncomfortable talking about anything having to do with menstruation. The taboo that surrounds it teaches women that a normal and natural bodily function is embarrassing and crude.

“Tampon Run is a way of discussing the taboo in an accessible way. Instead of holding a gun, the runner holds tampons, and instead of shooting enemies, the runner throws tampons at them.

“Although the concept of the video game may be strange, it’s stranger that our society has accepted and normalized guns and violence through video games, yet we still find tampons and menstruation unspeakable. Hopefully one day menstruation will be as normal, in not more so, than guns and violence have become in our society; Normal enough to place in a video game without a second thought.”

Articulate and analytical, these first few screens that gamers see (screenshots above) address a very real problem: That women are shamed and ostracized for having a period, a natural body function. In fact, during her BIF talk, Houser spoke to a number of stats about women around the world and how the stigma behind menstruation holds them back from attending school or interacting with others during their period. She shared stories of students in her own school being traumatized from white-jean-leaks and that first-period-menstruation-product-purchase.

Houser recalls that she even felt embarrassed suggesting a tampon game for the duo’s Girls Who Code project. The program’s all-girls environment, though, provided a bit of support for her to finally speak up. When the two approached their instructor, the idea needed to be vetted through the “higher ups” just to make sure it was an acceptable topic. Though it was deemed controversial early on, the organization encouraged the girls to continue forward.

At this point in Houser’s story, I let out a big sigh — I was so happy the students were encouraged to create, rather than reprimanded for their concept. Speaking of encouraging versus reprimanding, another story was abuzz at BIF: The recent incident where 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed built a clock to impress his teacher and was instead arrested, because the teacher confused it for a bomb. Inventiveness deserves encouragement, not arrest. I was pleased when leaders, such as Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg, stood up to invite the young inventor to the White House and Facebook headquarters. I am proud, too, that my alma mater, MIT, which Mohamed identifies as his top school of choice, invited him for a visit, as well.

Religious, ethnic, gender, and other types of profiling should not be commonplace in society. What message are we sending to young girl in this nation? To young Muslims in America?

The Next Generation Of Innovation Junkies

The message we’re sending to our youth should be that everybody is capable of contributing to their society, of learning something incredible, of being inventive, of innovating.

BIF storytelling Jaime Casap, who serves as chief education evangelist at Google, shared during his talk that he believes all people are problem-solvers. When people challenge him on that notion, he points to his one-year-old as an example, saying that she problem-solves all day. Giving a prime example, he added that she recently solved the problem of: “How can I get the contents of this Sharpie onto that wall?”

Random Collisions with Unusual Suspects at BIF
BIF2015 attendees take part in the tradition of having “random collisions with unusual suspects,” or #RCUS, during break times.
As adults, we’re given the freedom to travel to distant lands to attend conferences about innovation and changing the world — Providence, Rhode Island and BIF, you were great this week! But as children, we’re relegated to sitting in a classroom and listening to an adult tell us what we need to know.

What if we challenged students to be the adults we all aspire to be? To take on titles like “innovation junky” and make a hobby out of seeking out information about and stories of how people are improving the world? To insert themselves into new situations with new people and then attempt to make sense of it all?

I’m just thinking out loud here, but I have a feeling that if students knew how much fun we’re having as professionals, as “innovation junkies,” they’d wanna get to the innovation much sooner than we’re currently enabling! Just a thought to chew on… What do you think?

Thank you BIF2015 for the adventure!

Header image and last image courtesy of Stephanie Alvarez Ewens of BIF

The New High School Essentials: LinkedIn, a Resumé, and a Digital Portfolio

The New High School Essentials: LinkedIn, a Resumé, and a Digital Portfolio

The Huffington Post LogoThis post originally appeared in The Huffington Post, where Noble Impact VP of Product Erica Swallow is a guest contributor, focused on the intersection of education and technology.

In a world where more than a third of college admissions officers visit applicants’ social media pages and 93% of job recruiters review candidates’ social profiles before making hiring decisions, a digital presence is now an essential for hopeful college admits, entry-level apprentices, and future employees alike.

A decade ago, high school students were sent home with supply lists that included a backpack, binders, notebooks, and pens. Today, it is becoming increasingly important for a high schooler to come prepared with his or her digital records of achievement, including a LinkedIn profile, a resumé, and a digital portfolio. These tools increase a student’s odds of success landing college admittance, job offers, and scholarships, interviewees told me.

Building Credibility

Anna Albers High School LinkedIn Profile

Recent Alma High School graduate Anna Albers has had a LinkedIn profile for years.

Anna Albers, an incoming freshman at the University of Arkansas has had a resumé since she was a freshman at Alma High School. For her, it’s a tool for building credibility. She says what began as a homework assignment, grew into a useful resource for her career progression. It started as a place to list her extensive volunteering experience with organizations such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association and Ronald McDonald House, but now also showcases her academic achievements and work experiences. Her resumé, too, is highlighted on her LinkedIn profile, which she also launched as part of her course work at Alma, through a career-focused, co-curricular student club called DECA, which aims to “prepare emerging leaders and entrepreneurs in marketing, finance, hospitality and management in high schools and colleges around the globe.”

“My resumé has been incredibly useful,” Albers says. “It helped me in the process of being elected and serving as a state officer for DECA. It also helped me get a job [as a life guard manager at a local state park], receive college scholarships, and push along my college applications.” Albers says the hiring manager at Lake Fort Smith State Park, where she works, was surprised she even had a resumé. “It helped me gain the managerial position. Most high school and college students don’t have a resumé,” she says. “When I spoke with other applicants applying for one of the scholarships I ended up receiving, too, no one else had submitted a resumé and many didn’t even know what a resumé is. The resumé, though, created the backbone for the interview and provided talking points for my interviewer.”

Albers assessment of her interview seems accurate, according to Chad Brown, president of the Harvard Club of Arkansas and director of research at hedge fund Circumference Group. Brown and fellow Harvard alumni conduct interviews with Harvard College applicants from Arkansas. He says he receives minimal information about an applicant leading up to an interview, including the interviewee’s name, high school, and contact information. He typically requests a resumé during his first call with an applicant and later searches for the candidate on Facebook and Google to “see if there’s anything of note,” he says.

“An applicant may be nervous or not know what Harvard is interested in knowing about them,” Brown says. “Some students don’t realize that what they’re doing is different from their peers. When I find those details online, and they’re not mentioned in the interview, I try to bring them up.” Brown adds that students seem to be getting better at hiding their social presences. Which begs the question, why aren’t more students aiming to showcase their digital goods?

It may be because most colleges don’t proactively ask for online resources yet. “For undergraduate admissions, we don’t utilized LinkedIn or online portfolios to make admissions decisions,” says Tyler Bittle, admissions counselor at University of Central Arkansas, noting that it’s not part of the college’s admissions rubric. “We look at transcripts and ACT scores. Supplemental materials become important when students apply to specific, more competitive academic programs, such as our Honors College,” he adds. Bittle says even then, online resources aren’t directly part of the application process, but they can come in handy for recommendation writers, who may use such resources to better articulate a student’s accomplishments.”

Secondary educators, though, are stepping up to meet growing demand for online media. New York-based high school counselor Steve Brown forecasts, “In the next 10 years, you’ll probably see more college admissions counselors accepting digital portfolios as a part of the application process to feel out what kind of a student body they want to bring together. Smaller private schools will likely start that trend, because a lot of them have already moved away from SAT and ACT score submissions. In the end, colleges want a well-rounded student body. Digital portfolios tell a student’s story, beyond his or her traditional academic records.

As recent high school graduate Albers puts it, “These digital resources are most valuable for high school students. A resumé is your foundation. It’s what gets you started thinking about your passion and what you’re doing in life. It’s so helpful to have those conversations early on.”

Show, Don’t Tell


High school senior Jadon Barnes has a film reel that rivals other much more established professionals in his field.

One of the key tenants of storytelling is to show, rather than tell. Digital portfolios enable students to do just that by sharing their stories in engaging, visual ways.

At education non-profit Noble Impact, where I serve as vice president of product, we expose students to 21st-Century tools that empower them to build their credibility through storytelling. Among other activities, each student is challenged to build his or her online presence to showcase his or her story, values, passions, and related projects.

Senior Jadon Barnes, for example, showcases his work via his professional-grade website and film reel, which showcases his love for and talent in videography. While still in high school, Barnes has already been a showcased filmmaker at the Little Rock Film Festival. It’s easy to see why, when viewing his online footprint. Barnes’ Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram profiles are also in line with his professional image — something most adults can’t say themselves!

Professional videographer Lukas Deem, owner of Retrocat Media, commented on Barnes’ portfolio, “His digital game is on point. Jadon’s site showcases that he collaborates with other people and organizes his own projects. It shows that he’s doing something outside of school hours — which means that he’s a driven individual.”

High school junior Bethanie Gourley, also a filmmaker, tells her story through a frequently updated YouTube channel and a digital portfolio. In fact, Gourley wrote a blog post last month about how her digital portfolio enabled her to connect with her favorite filmmaker, director and producer Casey Neistat, last year. “Through Twitter, I had tweeted him many times in the past,” she writes. “But this time, he actually read what I had to say through my digital portfolio. The fact that Casey complimented my work showed me I had potential, even though I was just a sophomore in high school.”

The possibilities are endless as to how high school students can use their online presences to create and seize opportunities.

The Make Or Break

Bethanie Gourley Digital Portfolio

Bethanie Gourley used her digital portfolio to connect with her favorite filmmaker, Casey Neistat, during her sophomore year in high school.

An informative social media and digital presence is increasingly the make or break for college admits and job applicants. It’s certainly a must-have in some circles.

“We know applicants through their online presence weeks before we even talk to them,” says Retrocat Media Creative Director Joe Lusby, who is currently on the search for a high school apprentice. He adds, “Everybody has social profiles these days, so we look for anything that stands out. Furthermore, if you don’t have an online presence, we’re not going to find you. Our business operates entirely online. That’s how we network.”

High school counselor Steve Brown says he focuses his students’ efforts on building digital tools that enable them to be better prepared for life decisions after high school. Based in Lake Shore Central School District in upstate New York, Brown has been helping students build digital portfolios for three years now. Using a tool called CollegeOnTrack, his students are guided through tutorials on building a resumé, creating a digital portfolio, choosing a career path, and researching college options.

“From what I’ve found,” says Brown, “Digital portfolios are a chance to highlight and tell a story about a student’s growth and the things they do outside of school. I had a student who was very much into racing cars on the weekends. I had no idea, until he uploaded videos to his portfolio. He’s now a student of engineering and diesel mechanics. I had another student who was a figure skater — I learned through her portfolio that she volunteers for the Skating Association for the Blind and Handicapped, an organization that teaches blind children and adults how to skate on ice. As a counselor, it’s helpful to see what the students do, and it’s important for students to showcase these stories on college and job applications.”

Across the country in Michigan at similarly named Lake Shore High School, students — such as Sean Neal, Jessica Old, and Caitlin Beirne — use online site creator Weebly to create in-depth academic and professional track records of their work, including uploads of resumés, reference letters, academic awards, blog posts, and even work samples. For example, in her spare time, Beirne is a cake decorator and baker, and her work samples look delicious enough to prove it!

These resources are just the type of content that recruiters and admissions officers cite as make-or-break assets. A video goes a long way in showing what a student has done and can do. Show me a picture of a delicious cake, and I’m ready to hire you for my next party!

The Bottom Line

A digital presence is no longer a nice-to-have for high school students. Competition is high, and schools across the nation — and world — are preparing their scholars for a 21st Century workforce.

To students and the parents and educators who support them, I challenge: Is your digital presence ready for life after high school? These tools are the new high school essentials for those hoping to jump into a college program or the workforce. If you haven’t considered building a resumé, LinkedIn profile, and/or digital portfolio to showcase your experiences, what’s holding you back?

Header image courtesy of Noble Impact