Of all the things impacted by COVID-19, education sits near the top of the list. Seemingly overnight, millions of children across the globe were forced into remote learning, with teachers and administrators rewriting curriculum and policies on the fly. And now, as school districts everywhere grapple with how to safely and effectively educate their students, one thing is clear: learning must be able to extend beyond the four walls of a classroom.
Thankfully, in addition to all the wonderful teachers and staff working overtime to create quality learning experiences, many entrepreneurs have taken up the cause as well. In fact, several founders from our own Fall 2020 Cohort of the Blackstone LaunchPad Fellowship – an 8-week entrepreneur development program run in partnership with the Blackstone Charitable Foundation and Techstars – are using their time in the program to create better teaching opportunities for youth everywhere.
We sat down with four of these founders to talk about their organizations, and the innovations they’re creating to bring learning experiences beyond the traditional classroom.
Founder – Miles Maxcer
Montana State University
What is The Ant Network?
The Ant Network is an organization that uses ants and other arthropods to get people excited about the natural world through educational and engaging videos, inspiring physical exhibits, and unique, accessible merchandise.
I can hold an entire ant colony in my hand. They’re portable. They’re easy for people to have. They’re economical. [An ant colony] is something that you can have both in your home and in a classroom, and be able to observe and do activities and experiments with.
For me, ants are fascinating because they’re social insects. And people, especially kids, can relate with ants more than they can a lot of other animals because they live in societies like we do. There’s a whole other layer of social complexity with ants that we relate to, and that tends to get kids a little bit more excited with them as compared to some of the other insects and arthropods. So, we have found ants to be really useful.
There are also 12,000 species, so we’re never going to run out of things to share!
What lessons do you try to teach through ants?
One thing that we have been talking about recently is invasive species. How humans have brought animals and plants from all over the world into new environments. And sometimes when they arrive there, they do tons and tons of damage. So, we talk about fire ants, and how they’ve caused billions of dollars in damage to American agriculture.
We also try and talk about the roles that ants play in our local environments in both urban and wild ecosystems. If a kid drops their ice cream cone on the sidewalk, who’s going to come clean it up? Chances are it’s the ants that are going to come clean it up. We call it “ecosystem services”…what do ants do for us? And that helps build a little bit of empathy with insects that they don’t always receive from people.
How has the Blackstone LaunchPad Fellowship helped further your mission to educate youth beyond the classroom through ants?
By a stroke of luck, I went to a presentation by the Blackstone LaunchPad my freshman year, learned about what they were doing, and realized I could apply some of my ideas towards building a company rather than just a website or something like that.
I really appreciate what the Blackstone Launchpad Fellowship has been doing to reach out to those demographics that are less likely to ask for help. And I’m seeing that reflected in this cohort. There are a lot of people that I’ve talked to as a part of this Fellowship that are not your most classic entrepreneurs. And this Fellowship appealed to me because I saw that it had such an emphasis on social impact and on helping people who otherwise wouldn’t be building a startup company.
Founder – Talia Bailes
What is Ballet & Books?
Ballet and Books is a community-based organization dedicated to improving the lives of young children through dance and literacy. We employ a diverse staff and pride ourselves on serving a diverse community of families through our free and inclusive programming.
Can you give me some examples of your programming?
So, for example, let’s talk about syllables. You have to teach syllables to young kids 3 to 5-years-old. That’s a part of emergent literacy, which are the skills you learn before you learn to read. Teaching syllables is really rooted in dance and rhythm. So, we teach syllables through our movement and dancing… we clap and stomp out syllables in a word. And then we’ll do different dances incorporating that lesson.
Another example incorporates rhymes and poems. We’ll have the kids write a poem. Then we’ll dance to the poem. We’ll talk about what the poem is and make up a little dance to it. And then of course, we also do read a lot of books. We try to find books that have diverse dancers in them, and try to expose our students to characters that look like them, that are dancers. But we also try to get them to dance while they’re reading the book too. Show me that dance position and show me that move…it kind of brings the two together.
You mention diversity – is there a big equity gap in dance?
Most definitely. I mean, dance is extremely expensive, especially ballet. If you’ve ever been to The Nutcracker or another ballet, you will notice most of the dancers are white. There are not many people of color, specifically not many black dancers. That said, our goal is to make it accessible to all.
We have diverse dancers, and that also includes people with learning disabilities or people with other types of abilities that might not typically be included in a traditional dance class. They come to our dance class and are included in the Ballet & Books family.
Why did you choose ballet as a vehicle for education?
Yeah, that’s a really good question that people don’t usually ask me. It was very intentional.
So, taking a few steps back, in high school I was a ballet dancer, and grew up competing in ballet. [After high school], I took a gap year to live in Ecuador. And because I wanted to understand the world and understand myself, I was really interested in health. I was really interested in how kids learn to learn. And so, when I came back from Ecuador, I was doing research with a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital on emergent literacy. He was studying how kids learn to read when kids fall off track, specifically kids with less economic means or low resources at home fall behind.
He was doing MRI scans on their brains, looking at how kids learn through stories and reading time. That was so cool to me, and I was like, “oh my gosh, early intervention really matters.” You know, there’s this research that shows that kids who are behind by age nine are going to stay behind for the rest of their student career. That’s why emergent literacy is really important.
That’s really what inspired me. I had just come back from Ecuador where I was in a dance group and dance was so big and the kids didn’t love to read, but they loved to dance and tell stories through dance. And then I had this experience with literacy and I was like, “they go together!” They totally go together. And that’s where the idea came from.
What drove you to apply for the Blackstone LaunchPad Fellowship?
I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur until I started meeting with the Blackstone LaunchPad Director at my university. He was like, no, you are. This is a business you’re doing. You’re running a business.
The interest in taking [Ballet & Books] national was starting to grow, and I was like, “oh, I need to run a business right now. I don’t know how to run a business. I know how to do organic chemistry, but I don’t know how to run a business!”
And so, I guess that’s what really drove me to apply. I just never thought of myself as an entrepreneur and felt like I really needed those skills. I just never thought of myself as an entrepreneur and felt like I really needed those skills. This program is very intentional in teaching entrepreneurial skills to help us to better serve our communities.
Founder – Shelby Kratz
What is Little Justice Leaders?
Little Justice Leaders is a subscription box company that provides parents and teachers (K-8) with a monthly box of curated resources addressing social justice topics. Each box contains information about a different topic, such as racism, feminism, immigration, and ableism.
What comes in the box?
Every single box is going to have a book that’s related to the theme as well as a hands-on activity. That’s usually some kind of craft that the kids can engage with as they’re learning about the topic. They’re also going to have a set of information cards for the teachers or the parents to learn enough about the topic to be able to engage with the kid or their students. So that might be, for instance, conversation starters that give them prompts to engage with the young people. It might be action steps, a real history lesson, or resources for parents to learn more if they don’t know anything about that topic so that they have everything they need to teach it.
They’re also going to get at least one piece of activist art. That might be a sticker, a poster, or a magnet that represents the topic and that they can put up and display publicly. And they’re always going to get an info card with “how to’s” for using every single thing that they get in the box.
How did you develop this idea?
It was really a combination of things. I’m a student in education at UCLA, and before that I worked at a school. And my role specifically at the school was liaison with families. So I spent a lot of time talking to families. I spent a lot of time talking to teachers. And then, of course, in my PhD, I was also in school all the time.
Around the time of the election in 2016, I heard from a lot of folks that they just didn’t know how to have these conversations with kids about what they were saying in the media. They were just avoiding the conversations, which was very unsettling to me, because of course kids are getting this information from sources somewhere. And if parents and teachers aren’t taking control of the narrative, then there’s a lot of misconceptions and a lot of fear that can arise for young people who, you know, are hearing about these things on the news.
So all of that was in the back of my head as I was working. And I was in a program that’s centered on social justice, so I was very involved in a lot of activist spaces. And it really did kind of just hit me one day, like, “oh, I could I could really help people with this,” because I do a lot of connecting with parents and teachers and taking complex topics and breaking them down. So I started putting out content and got a lot of attention really quickly from parents and teachers, which was how I got the validation to move forward.
Do you think current events and social issues need to be more of a core focus in education?
I do think current events need to be a focus and I think humanity needs to be a focus and empathy and understanding of different people’s experiences. That’s something that is very much missing.
History is such a great example. I think so many people have a bad experience with history classes because they are so out of touch with anything that is relevant in our lives. The reason I think this is so important is because kids these days have so much access to information and other sources of education and learning. And if it’s not made relevant to them, we’re not going to be able to keep their attention because they have so many other things that their attention can go to these days.
I think making it relevant is the way that we’re going to make education actually something that kids want to engage in. We traditionally see kids as learners and not so much as creators of community or of our world, our justice system, our society as a whole. We don’t see them as active participants. And I really think that transforming the way we think of kids as being active participants in our society, in our democracy, gives them so much more stake in caring about education and also caring about who they are and who they are going to become, which I think is really important.
What’s been the most beneficial part of participating in the Blackstone LaunchPad Fellowship?
The biggest thing is the mentorship and coaching and the community. The grant is great. But for me, more importantly at this stage is mentorship.
I’ve never built a business before. So that’s huge for me. Being around other people who are starting social ventures and having people around me who understand what a typical day might look like was very appealing to me.
Founder – Maggie Lau
University of California, Berkeley
What is Sherpa?
Sherpa is a platform where students can explore and try out careers before committing to them so they can make informed post-secondary education choices.
What problem does Sherpa solve?
College tuition is really expensive. Based on our research and interviews with students and parents, we found that schools today don’t really prepare students for a long-term career. And students don’t see the connection between academics and potential future career choices. Counseling, even if it’s provided, is mainly focused on school-related items like GPA and test scores.
So, we set out on a mission to maximize students’ college ROI by helping them identify the right majors that map with their future career paths. Through our platform, students can get exposure to career paths from real world professionals, and have the opportunity to try out different careers before they make a commitment so that they can make better and more informed postsecondary education choices.
How did you uncover this problem?
I’m an immigrant coming from Hong Kong, and am the first person in my family to attend a four-year university. So, there was nobody to guide me, or say, “OK, Maggie, you should choose this career over another, because this is what you’re interested in. This is what you’re passionate about and this is what fits your personality the most.”
This is where Sherpa comes in, exposing students to career paths and providing access to alternatives to internships that are not traditionally there for students. Students act as a consultant, for example, or investment banker or software engineer. And we’ll give them a project to see what that career is like, and introduce the lifestyles of that particular profession so that they can see if that’s what they want to be before they decide to pursue that path. At the end, they walk out with a roadmap to their chosen career destination.
What prompted you to join the Blackstone LaunchPad Fellowship as a means to grow your business?
I heard about it from our [Blackstone LaunchPad] campus advisor, Rhonda Shrader. She’s very supportive of what we’re doing, and [encouraged us to apply] to get more resources and mentors, and solicit more feedback on what we’re doing and how to propel Sherpa forward.
For example, I’ve had an amazing Mentor Week. I’ve already talked to four mentors to get their feedback on where we are in terms of product market fit. Some even looked at our website and gave feedback on how we can have better outreach, how to incorporate security measures to our site, and how to collect user data.
That’s what we want to achieve as part of the Fellowship…to have a better understanding of the big problems to solve so that we know how to develop our solution better to address the users.
With founders like these, the future of education looks incredibly bright. Learn more about the work they’re doing, as well as all the other incredible young founders participating in this cohort of the Blackstone LaunchPad Fellowship, by visiting the Blackstone LaunchPad Virtual Programming Page.
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