Aaron Walker: Changing Education By Changing The Face Of Social Entrepreneurship

Aaron Walker: Changing Education By Changing The Face Of Social Entrepreneurship

This post is part of our Education Innovators Series, which highlights today’s top leaders, innovators, and educators who are making a noble impact in the education sector.

Consider the facts that 87% of venture-backed entrepreneurs are white, while less than 1% are black, and less than 5% of ventures that receive equity capital have women on their teams. Entrepreneurship — and the many sectors within it, including social innovation — has traditionally been predominantly led by white males. Aaron Walker, founder and CEO of nonprofit social venture fellowship and seed fund Camelback Ventures, has a new vision for the future, though — one with diversity and inclusion in the ranks of leadership.

Walker is a man on a mission to change the face of entrepreneurship and social innovation in one generation, in order to ensure that every child receives a high quality education in communities across the United States.

Camelback Ventures is his answer. Launched in 2013, Camelback Ventures seeks to diversify and close the opportunity gap within the social innovation and entrepreneurial space by providing coaching, capital, and connections to local entrepreneurs of color and women who are creating social impact in their respective communities.

Walker and I sat down to discuss his work in education and social innovation, how he got to where he is, and where Camelback Ventures is heading. Here’s what he had to say.

This Story Begins With A First-Generation College Graduate

Aaron Walker Law School Graduation
Aaron Walker with his wife Ify Offor Walker at his graduation from the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Born in Irvington, New Jersey, his parents moved to South Orange, New Jersey at the age of five to provide him and his brother with better life opportunities. Irvington, like most American cities, was devastated after the 1967/68 riots, struggled during the drug epidemic in the 1980s and still lives under the weight of lack of investment in urban centers where people of color often live. In retrospect, although he had fond memories of growing up in Irvington, he attributes his parent’s move to South Orange instrumental in his education trajectory. “We lived on the street that divided South Orange from Newark, New Jersey,” Walker says. “I have always seen this as a metaphor. We all walk a thin line. One block in the other direction, and I am assured that the opportunities afforded to me would be drastically different.” South Orange and Maplewood shared a school system, which instilled a college-bound mentality, he explains, while Newark, then as well as now still faces challenges that impacts the education it provides to its children and their families. Opportunities should not exist based upon what side of the street you live on, it is truly the responsibility of all of us to ensure that we pave the paths of opportunity for young people.

With the encouragement and guidance of his family and teachers, he became the first person in his family to attend and graduate college; he attended the University of Virginia and subsequently became an English teacher in Philadelphia through the program, Teach for America (TFA). His TFA experience exemplified the following, “My classroom teaching experience taught me the importance of cultivating an authentic leadership presence, collaboration with my colleagues to drive student achievement, and the realization of the African proverb, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’”

Going Fast And Going Far

That African proverb and Walker’s work with TFA, it turns out, drive much of Walker’s present-day decision-making processes. While collaboration was a huge part of his teaching experience, it also inspired him to “go fast alone” at times — he, for example, took the personal journey of attending law school at the University of Pennsylvania. Through that experience, he gained a deep working knowledge of how legal systems and structures affect our current education ecosystem. After law school, it was time to “go far,” he says — by joining forces in numbers to innovate. He worked at a large law firm for a short stint before returning to the education field as a Portfolio Director for the Fund of Public Schools. In this role, he raised more than $30 million in private investments for education reform efforts for the New York City Department of Education. From there, he founded two entrepreneurial ventures focused on talent management and student success within the education sector before heading his latest venture, Camelback Ventures, with his wife, Ify Offor Walker, as his first investor.

Camelback Is Born

“When I initially pitched the idea to my wife, we were thinking about having another child,” Walker says, noting the financial burden of both potential endeavors. “She was very supportive of my idea, which required us to use a majority of our savings to start. My inspiration for Camelback Ventures stems from the notion that we can elevate the genius of all people. For far too long, women and people of color have not been heard in this space. Yet their voices are needed at the table to ultimately change our current educational landscape for all children, not just a select few.” Subsequently, many have lent their support to make Walker’s vision a reality, including New Schools Venture Fund, Walton Family Foundation, Kapor Center for Social Impact, among many others.

Aaron Walker, Camelback Ventures founder and CEO
Aaron Walker, Camelback Ventures founder and CEO
The heart and soul of Camelback Ventures is its Fellows Program, which “offers seed-funding and support to new leaders with promising ideas, and empowers them to enact change within their communities.” It is a seven-month program that currently prioritizes education related ventures. They are particularly interested in education ventures that touch on the following areas: STEM, Innovative School Models, Higher Education, and EdTech. Uniquely, the fellowship doesn’t have a residency requirement like most venture philanthropy fellowship programs. In addition, Fellows receive a $5,000 matching grant and the opportunity for up to $40,000 in additional investment, strategic coaching and leadership development opportunities in partnership with education nonprofit City Year, and networking opportunities with investors, tech talent and other partners. In five to 10 years, Walker hopes to develop a network of 100-150 Fellows in addition to the 11 Fellows currently enrolled in the program. He hopes to change the narrative regarding women and entrepreneurs of color — he hopes all aspiring entrepreneurs one day know that their ideas and dreams, too, are valued and supported in our society.

When asked what habits and mindsets have attributed to his successes, he thoughtfully responds “Get clear on vision. Start small and enlist the help of smart people, people who believe in you and your idea. Take each mistake and failure as an opportunity to begin again. Rome was not built in a day. Keep trying. Keep trying. You also have to adapt to unexpected changes strategically while keeping your end goal in mind. Maintain a high level of quality and consistency in how you approach your work. And always approach your work from a learner’s mindset. And, spending time with your family or pursuing an avocation, in my case, reenergizes me after a long day of work, to keep going.”

Moving forward, Walker hopes to expand Camelback Ventures into other major cities in the United States as well as growing its coaching team, which provides entrepreneurs with the guidance in numerous expertise areas, including technology and financial modeling.

Building a new Rome brick by brick, day by day.

Photos courtesy of Aaron Walker

A 16-Year-Old’s Thoughts On Entrepreneurship

A 16-Year-Old’s Thoughts On Entrepreneurship

Noble 201 and 301 students attended the Arkansas Fellowship speakers series this week with serial entrepreneur and investor Steve Clark. Steve is an Arkansas entrepreneur who made himself through his opportunities and determination; he also happens to be the chairman of Noble Impact.

Noble Impact allows young minds to expand their entrepreneurial experiences, and what better way to be doing this than listening to the founder of Noble Impact himself, Steve Clark?

Below are three very moving quotes for any entrepreneur that Steve relayed during his talk. As a student, these quotes help me, and other Noble scholars, understand what this world of entrepreneurship is all about.

“Entrepreneurship is like living in a jungle, and you have to be aware of the chance you have to make something and take it.”

Steve Clark and Kyla WebbTo me, this quote means a lot as a learner and expander within my own world of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is, in fact, like living in a jungle. It gets crazy sometimes and you have to step back and take it all in. But as the head of the food chain within this hectic ecosystem, you, as the lion, have to take advantage of the kingdom and work within it. YOU have to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to you, whether you take the chance or not. Not every opportunity given to you will be worth your time. It is up to you to figure out the pros and cons of the situation. Take the opportunities that will give you experience and that will move your knowledge along further.

“I wasn’t learning a new song, I already knew all the words.”

Steve Clark Speaks With Noble Impact ScholarsYou have to bring forth your previous knowledge. Point blank, end of discussion. Always attach to the things you learn; this instinct will always help you in the long run. You won’t have to waste your time each time you do something if you can have the knowledge already at your hands. Training is something that you can do within jobs, you can take the things that you learned and apply them to your profession. Having and gaining experience comes with time and lots of patience with yourself. Companies do not want to invest in something or someone who doesn’t know what they are doing, so start off slow. Get a job within the field that you want to be working towards. Then use all the experience and knowledge that you gain from that experience and bring it to new opportunities. Know what you are talking about!!!

“Change occurs no matter what… It’s the velocity of change you have to pay attention to.”

Noble Impact Scholars with Steve ClarkEverything changes, but being where we are today, things are going to change a lot faster than they did when my parents were my age. Being aware to the relevance of time is a skill that you have to incorporate into your entrepreneurial life. Wasting time isn’t an option when you are working to make things better. Be productive in the way you adjust to changes within the world, yourself, and your entrepreneurial life. This is an amazing quote, probably the best one, because it is vital to everyone. Getting left behind on the social realm of entrepreneurship isn’t a good thing by any means. People’s needs and wants change just as much as technology. Know what your customers, or the people you go after, want. Within your own company or business things change, too. Adjustment and flexibility are necessary in order to become a successful entrepreneur.