Monthly Archives: July 2012

‘Active Participants in Their Own Learning’

 Lessons learned from BUILD in Boston after the  first academic year.

Boston, Massachusetts

While searching for a better understanding of the work required with starting and building something innovative, I have come to a deep appreciation of those that empower other people to better their own situation. This appreciation has been greatly influenced by my involvement in the business startup community of the Greater Boston area where entrepreneurs are surrounded by resources to support innovation. Two venues for this entrepreneurial support include the MassChallenge accelerator program and startup competition as well as the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) that provides flexible office space as well as opportunities for entrepreneurs to network and develop professionally. It was at an event held at the CIC where I first encountered BUILD, a program that uses entrepreneurialism to foster students’ engagement and success in high school.

Illustration of Ryan Oliver and Ayele Shakur

BUILD launched fall 2011 in Boston after successfully establishing programs in East Palo Alto, Oakland, and Washington D.C. Now that BUILD in Boston has completed its first academic year I took the opportunity to sit down with Ayele Shakur, Regional Executive Director for BUILD in Boston, and Ryan Oliver, Site Director for BUILD in Boston, to talk about lessons learned.

BUILD motivates high school students to achieve academic success through starting a business. Ayele shares that the program “helps young people tap into their own self direction” through academic learning in the context of entrepreneurialism. She explains that a critical element of motivation is helping students realize, in the process of building their business, “that [their] locus of control is no longer outside of them” and for many of the students it is “the first time that they’ve connected that level of success with school.”

In my attempt to better understand ways to cultivate motivation Ryan points out that students are building a business around a product they are already excited about “because they have chosen it or they have bought into it in some way.” Developing a business also offers a student a chance to win on different levels, he explains. The problem, as Ryan sees it, is that a lot of students “have decided already by the time they get to the ninth grade that academia is not a competition they can win.” Ayele then follows up on the importance of exposing the students to real world opportunities and competition. She uses an offsite field trip to the MassChallenge accelerator and startup competition as an example of showing “this whole idea of a business plan competition was not just some exercise that they do in school.”

An interesting piece about the BUILD program for me is that students will not only receive a grade for their academic achievement but they will also get to keep the money earned from selling their products. When asked about the power that money has as a draw for students Ryan states that “we can sometimes overplay how much the money is ultimately the hook that gets them in.” Both Ayele and Ryan reiterate the idea that there is a stronger appeal which comes from nurturing a sense of usefulness and developing the student’s belief that their work actually matters. They believe the primary value of the program is not created from the act of making money, but the real value derived from combining the relationship building, academic rigor, and the real world elements in the context that entrepreneurialism provides. This is a “mix of something that is real world and relevant but has boundaries,” explains Ryan.

When asked about the things that make the program innovative, Ayele states that BUILD is “one of those models that you see best played out in some of our best charter schools, but this is actually now taken out of that charter school setting and applied to traditional public schools.” She goes on to explain that the successful scalability of the program is unique—charter school models that are successful in one location are often difficult to replicate in another. BUILD is a program that has proven to be successful in the public school setting while maintaining the practice of reaching out to those students who are struggling to engage academically.

Both Ayele and Ryan relay that the BUILD students each come with their uniquely individual struggles as well as their talents and passions. When describing the growth that the students achieved with BUILD, Ryan shares that “there were obviously some kids that were just sort of naturals…we’re doing a service on one hand just by giving them a stage.” He goes on to share that the “beauty of entrepreneurship and the BUILD model is that there are all different kinds of roles and ways that they can sort of find their piece.” Ayele then states the importance of recognizing that the students who may have struggled in the program at the beginning all “learned over the course of the year to standup and represent their team.”

Ayele shares that the focus in the past has been predominately on reforming the system through such things as better teacher training, decreasing school size, and providing stronger curriculum. The exciting opportunity, according to Ayele, is to figure out ways that students are “not just passive and they’re not just showing up to school because it’s the social place where their friends are hanging out. “ Ayele believes that BUILD can use entrepreneurship to engage students to be “fully bought in and active participants in their own learning.”

Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.

** Please note that the Work of Start founder interviews will be less frequent while we explore the historical context for innovation.  **