Monthly Archives: September 2011

A Historic Start

Walking Boston’s Freedom Trail and seeing the Old State House, site of the Boston Massacre, provides some historic context for today’s innovation.
Old State House

Exploring what is required to start something with sustained impact, I have found over several months of research various examples of organizations or programs that have continued to maintain a positive impact for at least seven years or more. [1] Once identified, I reached out to a founding member to learn more about these starts, all of which were originated in California and were focused on education or civic engagement. [2]

Having recently moved to the Boston, Massachusetts area, I hope to continue my exploration of starts, now in the New England region. My focus will be on relatively recent civic entrepreneurialism for the next few months, but I wanted to also begin to understand the historical context of a place with a long history of innovation.

My study of the historic importance of the New England region includes the spark that began a revolution—a revolution which established the United States of America’s independence. The location of that spark is part of American folklore and can be found where the Boston Massacre took place, marked by a circle of cobblestones on Boston’s Freedom Trail, in front of the Old State House. The Old State House is Boston’s oldest remaining public building [3] and the view seen in the above illustration comes from my standing on the marker for the Boston Massacre, which is placed in a pedestrian island (currently closed off due to construction) between the busy, three-way intersection of Devonshire, State, and Congress Streets.

Standing on the stone marker, having cars and people rush quickly past, I can imagine the chaos and disorientation of those gathered in this very spot on March 5, 1770, when British soldiers fired into the rowdily protesting crowd. This tragic occurrence took the lives of five Americans, the stories of which hardened a resolve to gain independence from British rule. [4] My mind also goes to the Deborah Nankivell’s comment (see ‘Start Thinking with the Whole Mind’) regarding historic transformations being initiated by dire circumstances, stating these changes are often “born of desperation.”

Looking up at the balcony of the Old State House under which the pages of American history have been written, my resolve to find the people developing something with impact is both renewed and amplified. I hope you will continue to join me on this journey of discovery.

Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.

1. Average time in operation is approximately 15 years.
2. Five posts were focused on educational starts and one on civic entrepreneurialism.
3. Acquired from The Bostonian Society –
4. Acquired from The Bostonian Society –

‘This is a Pioneering Task’

The founding president of California State University, Monterey Bay shares insight about starting a university.

As I continue to identify and discuss some of the bright spots in the California State University system (see ‘The Trick is Just Doing’ and ‘Make an Impact at the Core of People’s Life’ articles), I realized the recent founding of California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) was an opportunity to better understand the dynamics of starting a complex organization with substantial impact. This realization came through my attendance of the 2011 CSUMB graduation ceremony, where I went to support a good friend who was graduating. Having read about the school’s past, which includes the interesting historical note that the university campus grew out of a former army base named Fort Ord, [1] I set out to learn more about its start. That research led me to a wonderful and insightful discussion with the founding president of CSUMB, Dr. Peter Smith.

Peter SmithHaving started his tenure at CSUMB in 1995, Peter served for over ten years in the role of President until his departure from the university in 2005. He describes the time there as exciting—an excitement based in large part on an opportunity to give life to a vision. Peter elaborates on the meaning of a living vision by stating that their team’s long-term goals were “not just on a wall in someone’s office.” The group of CSUMB founders, Peter believes, was ever focused on the vision of accomplishing a successful launch of an innovative university that would still achieve accreditation (CSUMB became Western Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation candidate in 1998 and achieved full accreditation in 2003 [2]). Thus, the education model of CSUMB was built around creating something new while adhering to an accreditation standard framework.

CSUMB works to provide students with a distinct environment including the promotion of service-learning opportunities. Peter recalls that the idea of service-learning, which is an integration of service in the community with graduation requirements, [3] as a new concept to many people and not always understood or embraced for the college environment. Another differentiating factor that CSUMB provides students is the required completion of a senior capstone project prior to graduation. [4] Upon approval, the self-selected project is a chance for students to explore and integrate various disciplines learned through their academic experience and apply that theory to a passion or interest. Peter boasts that the projects also give students valuable presentation practice because each project outcome is presented to an audience by the student. Betterment in learning outcomes is the stated driving force behind Peter’s passion for innovation and was expressed in his promotion of new ideas like the service-learning and capstone projects.

In an attempt to give context to the CSUMB start-up opportunity, Peter talks about the lessons learned from his prior involvement with the start of the Vermont Community College system. He says that being successful in these ventures requires the ability to stay proactive. While preparation is important, innovation necessitates strategic planning to give way to “doing” at some point. Peter warns against perpetually “sharpening your [planning] pencil” and never implementing a plan. “Innovation often requires the ‘ready, fire, aim’ mentality,” shares Peter, based on the practice of trying new things with knowledge that missing the targeted goal is a possibility. He goes on to try and explain the concept further through the analogy of building a bicycle while riding it—the process has to sustain forward movement while development is occurring.

Another important part of the innovative process is to take time to review what is and is not working, explains Peter. He stresses the concept with an example from his time at CSUMB where the university broke from class sessions for a full week in the first semester to assess the university’s progress. Taking the time to troubleshoot issues, align resources, and, as Peter states, “collect our wits,” was believed to be a critical component of CSUMB’s administration and growth as an institution. This brief timeframe was also important because it allowed the faculty to realign their activities and efforts toward what was successful and to stop doing what was not.

It is Peter’s opinion that finding faculty members who would provide the highest likelihood of success was a very important step in the process of developing CSUMB. He went on to relay that the newly formed organization needed instructors willing to help “invent this university.” To locate the type of person willing to be an innovator, Peter describes the selection process as “looking at the trees and not the forest,” meaning the qualities of the individual were most important in their selection as instructors. Peter needed faculty who could understand and embrace the idea that their work was creating something new and he would communicate this idea often.

Leading an educational start-up such as a university requires the careful communication of expectations, shares Peter.  This type of innovative work is fundamentally different than managing an established institution, and Peter believes that everyone involved had to rise up to the task with the knowledge there would be various issues encountered along the way. He describes how important it was to consistently “broadcast to people” the unique and challenging nature of starting a university, and, to increase their resolve, he would often state to administrative colleagues, faculty, and students that “this is a pioneering task.”

Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.

1. Acquired from the California State University, Monterey Bay website –
2. Acquired from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges –
3. Acquired from the California State University, Monterey Bay website –
4. Acquired from the California State University, Monterey Bay website –