what I did and learned about ecosystems while at 4.0
As I was preparing to leave 4.0 Schools, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on this incredible journey. It started when I attended a 4.0 happy hour in NYC in April 2013 while still in investment banking at Barclays. A few other encounters and steps later, I joined part-time September 2013 and full-time January 2014 because Brian, Matt, Cam and especially Katie saw potential in me and gave me a shot. As an example of my eagerness and slight naiveté, I chose ‘NYC Chief Hustler’ as my title, which in hindsight was more a reflection of my bias and strength rather than of the role itself: to hustle, aka make your own opportunities as well as to maximize those opportunities through sheer will of force.
Upon reflection, here’s what I did (for ecosystems); and here’s what I learned (about ecosystems). (IHMO, dividing between those two (doing and learning) is possibly one of the best frameworks for planning and reflection, whether professional or personal). Part 1 includes what I did for 4.0 Schools separate from the impact on ecosystems, and what I learned about growth and organizations.
What I did for ecosystems
While at 4.0 schools, I supported the growth of people, leaders and communities.
I supported the growth of people (and their ideas) through direct coaching and through connecting them to each other in NYC and across different communities. A specific example is that I connected three members of the Denver community who did not already know each other who now have two partnerships in support of the local education innovation & entrepreneurship ecosystem there (I believe they may have eventually met, but I accelerated it; an intriguing research question would be how to find a reasonable control or comparison case, and then find enough similar cases to analyze on a statistically significant scale).
I supported the growth of leaders through a variety of ways, including inspiration, training, expertise, coaching and feedback. A specific example includes co-organizing SWEDU in NYC in 2014 and inspiring an attendee to organize the first ever SWEDU in Providence in 2016. I’ve come to increasingly appreciate this kind of support because it represents a double bottom-line — there’s the direct impact of your work (an incredible event, people connecting, startups launched), but this is another equally important impact. (Again, this is an example that is easy to trace, as are the startups that are ‘born’ at the events, but it’s much harder to trace the other secondary and tertiary impacts of these events — another potential research question).
I supported the growth of communities through organizing, funding & inspiring events; coworking opportunities; building community; and helping individuals launch organizations to support this work locally. A specific example includes helping Keaton launch a local catalyst and education innovation cluster (ReinventED Lab) that is radically student-centered and has produced a student-led course on education innovation, a youth summit showcasing the ideas of students, and a high school design submission that made it to the finals of the XQ Super School Project competition. They’re now trying to create their own graduate school of education, and work with local universities (UVA and Piedmont Virginia Community College, to name a couple) to share their lessons to inform existing institutions. (Yet another research question arises: how can a local organization accelerate ecosystem development, and what are the kinds of activities, frameworks, resources it takes to do so effectively and efficiently.)
I want to be clear that while all of the above was attributed to me in some way, shape, or form, NONE of this was possible without 4.0 Schools and countless other individuals along the way. Thank you.
What I learned about ecosystems
Ecosystem work takes a long time, and the health and trajectory of an ecosystem is the aggregate result of a number of complex factors from the history of the ecosystem, to the different actors and organizations that work there (both local, regional and national), to the policy environment and beyond. My current universal theory of ecosystem health is as follows (adapted from a variety of sources including: The Kauffman Foundation, Bellwether Education Partners, 1776, Steven Johnson):
In other words, the best analogy is to think about the original concept of ecosystem as applied to living systems (and the parallels between natural and human systems came specifically from Steven Johnson): a complex set of relationships among the living resources, habitats and residents of an area. As a result, we truly to stand on the shoulders of giants, and it takes a long time develop. A huge topic of interest and research is how intentional and coordinated efforts can accelerate or strengthen the development of an ecosystem. Some of my points made earlier indicate that I obviously believe it is possible, I also believe that analyzing how an ecosystem arrived at its current state/maturity will yield insights as to which variables to double down. But, even without those insights, it is beneficial to create more connections and fluid networks to allow for collisions of people and ideas that might not otherwise connect.
Relatedly, I have a hunch that in most communities that are not as networked as New York City or San Francisco, it is easier to start with a specific strategy and focus-area for improvement and over time, to work toward a greater diversity of innovations. For instance, it is crucial to build up the base level of talent that is or stays local. Examples of a convener or catalyst who focuses on a specific theme to model and catalyze improvement and innovation in their communities include 4.0 in New Orleans with education entrepreneurship in New Orleans; CityBridge in DC, Highlander in Providence/Rhode Island, or LEAP in Chicago with personalized learning; ReinventED in Charlottesville with student-led education; Strive in Cincinnati with a collective vision & impact for education; Remake in Pittsburgh with connected, everywhere learning. THEN, as that organization grows its reach, presence, brand and trust, it becomes a lighthouse for all ships passing by, increasing its power and reach over time, and allowing more ships (aka teachers and others) to see that what the lighthouse stands for (aka entrepreneurship) is a pathway to their destination.
(My next goal: use what I learned from a variety of contexts and communities to help serve in an international context, and see how I might shape a new city by encouraging and inspiring existing orgs to collaborate and people to launch new ones that will help improve the ecosystem for students, teachers and communities)
I believe 4.0 Schools will continue to have an impact on ecosystems, and their focus on entrepreneurs as users will allow them to do so via theory of change I described in the conclusion of part 1. To quote the key paragraph:
My current theory of change for 4.0 is that the 20-year versions of people it invests in will someday be system and district leaders, at which point we’ll use our collective experience and perspective to unbundle and remake those systems to be empathetic, flexible and impactful. We’re only just passed our 2nd community summit (at 7, in organization years), but I’m already dreaming about the 4.0 community summit at 10, 15, 20 and beyond.
I also believe there are other organizations who are helping share lessons learned across different ecosystems, about each of the organizations I described above and more who are doing tremendous local work of improving their education ecosystems. One of these is Digital Promise with the Education Innovation Clusters initiative. And, I’m excited by the different organizations doing research on these critical questions I pose above (see again right above my universal theory of ecosystem maturity).
As for me, the next part of my journey will take me to Johannesburg, South Africa where I will join an incredible founder & organization as their COO. It’s a cause and a project that’s near and dear to my heart, as I’ve been helping it come to life on the side for the last 3 years. I’ll still be trying to change education, except as a startup leader/operator (internationally) rather than startup coach/connector (domestically). And, I’ll have the benefit of doing and learning directly in Johannesburg, a new ecosystem that is very different from NYC.
Colleagues with whom I’ve worked ::::::::: 25
Early-stage entrepreneurs coached :::::::::: 200+
People with whom I’ve engaged directly ::: 1,000+
Experience gained :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: priceless