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.

SXSWedu Takeaways From An Education Newbie

SXSWedu Takeaways From An Education Newbie

Last year, I made a career switch to education, joining Noble Impact, because education has had a profound impact on me as a first-generation college student.

With my new role, I’ve taken on an immense amount of learning opportunities including attending dozens of educators summit and professional development events; hosting student programming with the team; and conducting research both at a sector level and within Noble Impact’s own initiatives.

Being a newbie in education, this year was my first time to attend SXSWedu, one of the most well-reputed and fastest-growing education conferences in the nation. Though I had attended its predecessor, SXSW, a series of Music, Film, and Interactive festivals, edu was a whole new beast for me. I have to say, I’m quite pleased with the experience. As I transition to SXSW, which starts the day after SXSWedu ends, I’ll be ruminating on the key takeaways SXSW’s education-obsessed cousin event invoked in me around diversity, professional development, and technology.

Educators Have Meaningful Discourse About Diversity

SXSW Finding the Medium Panel
Education equity was such a present topic at SXSWedu that it slightly derailed, but also enhanced (in the end), this panel about teacher voice.
All over the web and in the news, I’m continually appalled by the amount of racist, sexist, classist, and generally offensive and ignorant behavior that goes on in America. In the past months alone, multiple peaceful protesters were attacked at political rallies, Asian children were mocked on the Oscars’ stage, and Navajo beliefs were written into Harry Potter plots, much to the dismay of many Native American communities.

Just today in Little Rock, a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt was pulled from the gift shop at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, a museum about African American history and culture in Arkansas, reportedly because “being a state agency, the museum must represent all Arkansans.” Interesting, because the last time I checked, the mission of the center was to “collect, preserve, interpret and celebrate Arkansas’s African American history, culture, and community from 1870 to the present, and to inform and educate the public about African American’s achievements – especially in business, politics, and the arts.” The Mosaic does an exceptional job of that… when it’s not being censored, apparently.

All over the place, I hear people insisting that these injustices, based on skin tones, sexual preferences, economic background, don’t exist. At SXSWedu, though, it was a topic that came up in nearly every session I attended, whether it was the focus or not.

I have an inkling of a hypothesis that educators — who spend time every day in classroom, where a projected 51.5% of K-12 students are non-white, a majority for the first school year in American history — might be the group of people who are talking most about diversity and inclusion within their industry. I don’t have those stats, but my experience at SXSWedu at least was that it was a topic atop many people’s minds. It’s an ongoing theme I’ve seen at other conferences and events, too, which surprised me, because it sometimes feels like most of America is oblivious to the inequity that still exists in our country.

Teacher Training Can Be Awesome

Noble Impact at SXSWedu
Noble Impact co-founder Chad Williamson and I stormed SXSWedu to learn all the best that’s going on in education.
Only 29% of teachers are satisfied with current professional development (endearingly called PD, I’ve learned). That’s a stat I picked up from a SXSWedu session focused on redesigning teacher PD.

We often talk a lot about redesigning the student experience: Flipping the classroom, personalizing curriculum, implementing project-based learning. But what about teachers? They’re humans, too! And sitting in a conference hall for 8 hours straight, listening to lectures, is certainly not anyone’s idea of fun.

SXSWedu itself proved to me that ongoing teacher PD can be fun and engaging. This is one of only a few teacher training events I’ve attended in the past year, where I’ve legitimately had fun. There were all types of sessions — panels, team-based workshops, 15-minute talks, solution-driven summits. The only thing I’d add is more students… we talk about student voice, but there was a major lack of it, which is chronic across all PD and educator’s events. If we’re serving students, let’s have them there to contribute thoughts and ideas!

This summer, I should note, Noble Impact is launching its own inaugural educator’s professional development summit, and we hope to build it around the things we believe to be important in the classroom… Stay tuned for more! And in the meantime, try to spice up any PD you go to by suggesting some SXSWedu-style engagement!

Technology Is A Means, Not An End

SXSWedu YouTube's Top Teachers
Even a panel about teachers on YouTube wasn’t about technology in the end!
Lastly, but not least, I was pleasantly surprised that though SXSW-organized events are focused on innovation, most of the conversation at SXSWedu was not explicitly about technology. The two — innovation and technology — are often lumped together. But not at SXSWedu.

Even at panels in which I expected the focus to be around the wonders of technology and the Internet, such as the one about top educators on YouTube, the session content was focused on solving educational problems.

In the technology and media sectors, where I hail from, we often get caught up with the latest technologies for technology’s sake: “Oh my gosh, I can get notifications on my wrist with this watch! Holy moly, I can send a message and it disappears after reading? YAS. Wait, I can put on these goggles and feel like I’m across the world? Neat!” Ok, they’re all fun ideas, but are we utilizing them to solve problems? Or just dilly-dally our lives away?

I didn’t see a sense of technology ogling much at SXSWedu, except maybe among some of the technology providers. Educators, though, get straight to the point: How am I going to use this in my classroom? How does it enhance my students’ experiences? What are the key educational outcomes? Now, that’s some pragmatism I can get behind.

Were You At SXSWedu?

What about you? Did you attend SXSWedu 2016? If so, tweet us your thoughts on what you found interesting: @ericaswallow and @nobleimpact. Until next year!

Header image courtesy of official SXSW photographer Jessy Ann Huff. All other photos by Noble Impact.

Find Noble Impact at SXSWedu and SXSW Interactive!

Find Noble Impact at SXSWedu and SXSW Interactive!

Are you going to be at SXSWedu or SXSW Interactive, two of the biggest and most influential education and technology conferences, this year? If so, we hope to cross paths — Noble Impact co-founder Chad Williamson and VP of Product Erica Swallow will be out and about, seeking out the best new ways to transform education and build Noble Impact’s culture, curriculum, and digital portfolio tool. Here’s where you’ll be able to find us!

Speaking about Education Innovation

For all of the would-be technology entrepreneurs or innovators out there, please join Noble Impact product lead Erica Swallow at SXSW Interactive, where she’ll be speaking on a panel called “No CTO, No Problem: Building A Non-technical MVP” — this marks Erica’s fourth year speaking at SXSW Interactive. This year, she’ll share the story of how Noble Impact tested a concept for a student digital portfolio platform without writing a line of code.

A quick panel overview: Non-technical entrepreneurs often hold themselves back once they’ve got an idea, because they feel like recruiting a CTO to build the proof of concept is essential. This session, though, will debunk the myth that tech startups must start with a technical product. Erica will tell the story of Noble Impact’s own “non-technical MVP” and will be joined by Finnish entrepreneur Fernando Leon, venture capitalist Stephanie Weiner, storyteller John Hazard, all of whom will contribute to a conversation centered around three key questions:

  1. What are the benefits and drawbacks of building a non-technical MVP to validate or invalidate my business idea?
  2. What tools, resources, and approaches can I use to build and test my non-technical MVP as quickly as possible?
  3. Is it possible to raise capital with a non-technical MVP? If so, what are some examples of startups that have raised VC rounds without a tech product?

Join us to get inspired about starting your own venture, regardless of industry, business type (private, public, non-profit), or where your product currently stands!

Geeking Out at Panels

SXSWedu Student Privacy Panel
One of the first SXSWedu panels we attended was on student privacy. Great content and resources!
At SXSWedu (March 7-10), a four-day education summit focused on innovation in learning, our Noble duo will be focused on culture building, entrepreneurship education, student privacy, and student voice. Some of the panels and events we’ll be attending include:

At SXSW Interactive (March 11-15), a five-day conference focused around cutting-edge technologies and digital creativity, we are focused on following education technology trends and furthering our mission to build a digital portfolio platform that enables students to write and tell their personal narratives. Some sessions that have us particularly intrigued include:

Are We Missing Anything?

Let us know in the comments below or reach out on Twitter to let us know about important #SXSWedu and #SXSW sessions and events that we might be overlooking.

We look forward to seeing you at SXSW to collaborate on the future of education!

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 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