Tag Archives: Civic Entrepreneurialism

‘They Are Able to Turn Deficits into Positives’

Learning shared by The Possible Project from working with high school entrepreneurs.

Cambridge, Massachusetts

In continuing the exploration of how innovation and entrepreneurialism can empower people to better their own situation, I discovered The Possible Project. Having seen firsthand The Possible Project’s positive impact with high school students using entrepreneurialism as a motivator, I believe it is important to share the lessons learned here in the Work of Start.

Illustration of Megan Dolan, Leah Camhi, and Jacey Buel of The Possible Project by Jason Freeman

The Possible Project serves as an afterschool program for Cambridge Rindge & Latin School (the main public high school) and two public charter schools, Prospect Hill Academy Charter School and Community Charter School of Cambridge. I sat down one morning with Leah Camhi (Executive Director), Megan Dolan (Development & Communications Manager), and Jacey Buel (Entrepreneurship Education Director) at The Possible Project workspace in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to talk about working with high school students as they become entrepreneurs in the program.

Megan first shares how The Possible Project has evolved over the program’s existence. This evolution has been spurred by having the opportunity to listen to the students directly and learning from their individual situations. She elaborates on the importance of adapting the program based on understanding the individuals they serve, and that there was no way to “account for the difficulty and challenges that many of our students face in their lives” until the actual work was underway. Megan also shares her appreciation for Jacey’s strong encouragement to move away from strictly planning the curriculum and more toward accelerating the timeline of actually working with students when the program was initially being developed. Leah reinforces the importance of learning through doing and shares that as The Possible Project continues to grow their intent is to be “malleable enough that we can figure out what is working and isn’t working.”

Traveling abroad, taking care of younger siblings, and participating in school activities such as sports are all examples of “life happening” for students in The Possible Project. The organization has responded with big changes such as moving from a semester to a trimester system to give students additional entry (and reentry points) into the program, and small changes including adjustments to the student incentive programs (students are now rewarded with prize redemption points instead of gift cards for progress in developing their individual businesses). It is the pragmatism and flexibility seen in working with The Possible Project that has so impressed me, and I ask the group to share more about their unique approach to encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit in their students.

“Everything that we try to do is really built around teamwork because there is more accountability if you have got a partner or partners,” shares Leah. The importance of starting with teamwork is elaborated by Leah through an observation that “if you infuse something at the very beginning then it becomes commonplace.” During a discussion about how to foster a collaborative environment, Jacey explains that the majority of the time a student is at The Possible Project “there is no such thing as speaking out of turn.” For instance, a Possible Project student is not going to have to raise a hand and be addressed formally to actively participate in a team conversation about developing their business.

It is a discussion about The Possible Project’s emphasis on teamwork along with differences from a traditional high school curriculum that prompts Megan to impart “we are purposefully not school-like in our approach, but we have a very strong connection to the schools.” These ties to the high schools include their nomination of students for The Possible Project, maintaining a formal point of contact at a school, and reports about the students’ academic and behavioral progress. While Leah points out how critical it is to have these formal affiliations to the schools and the students they serve, she also notes the importance of having people from the Cambridge community such as Jacey on The Possible Project’s staff.

Leveraging ties to the community also involves tapping into other resources such as a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem in Cambridge. Megan describes what she has coined the “e-shuffle” where students are able to interact with various local entrepreneurs who are also building a business. Leah smiles as she quips that the students are energized by bringing back the numerous business cards they have collected during these interactions and that “they love to have ‘business contacts.’” It is this external contact that gives the students perspective on the challenges of building a business and opens their mind to new opportunities.

The Possible Project students are also able to glean from the e-shuffle a passion that is usually invested in a startup by the founders. Starting a business imparts a sense of ownership and dedication, according to Jacey, because students in the program “pick things that are personal to them, or that bring out a part of them that would not be brought out in school.” The discussion on passion also highlights an interesting and counterintuitive element of The Possible Project: entrepreneurism used as a motivator for the students that are struggling in school as well as for the students who are doing well academically. Jacey points out that for the academically-successful, entrepreneurialism “gives them the opportunity to have fun.” He shares an example of a student who uses time to bake cookies for her business as an outlet to counterbalance the pressure of homework and tests.

The students in The Possible Project and the businesses they create are “not treated as some off-hand hobby,” as stated by the staff. The dedication to treating the students and their businesses in a serious way comes through very clearly when talking to Leah, Megan, and Jacey. When asked why the group is so passionate about the program, I’m given the analogy of those inspirational entrepreneurs who go out to solve problems using their own unique set of skills and resources. In a similar way, The Possible Project works for the students because, with respect to talent and passions that might not be appreciated in the high school setting, “they are able to turn deficits into positives.”

Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.

‘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.  **

‘If They Have an Education it May Save Their Lives’

The founders of Village Help for South Sudan offer their innovative perspective on promoting community development.

Cambridge, Massachusetts

The world’s newest country, the Republic of South Sudan, struggles with deep-seated challenges, many of which can be attributed to a Sudanese civil war spanning decades. As seen in the news recently, conflict has begun again after several years of peace. Understanding the underlying roots of the conflict is important, but I also believe it is important to know that there are people who are continuing to work diligently for improvement in the everyday lives of South Sudan’s citizens. I reached out to two of those people, Franco Majok and Ron Moulton, who are actively trying to support growth and development in South Sudan with the organization they founded, Village Help for South Sudan (VHSS).

Illustration of Ron Moulton and Franco Majok

Ron and Franco met with me in Cambridge, MA to discuss the important work they are doing with VHSS. This work includes program management and coordinating village mobilization around specific projects such as building a school and health clinic in the South Sudan village of Wunlang. The VHSS organization also has helped facilitate the installation of a water pump in Wunlang and is now looking to expand their efforts to another village in the region.

What makes VHSS an innovative organization in my mind is the way in which projects are accomplished—Franco and Ron seek to empower and provide resources to the local community members to better their own situation. In the way that many other innovative ideas have originated, Ron shares that the model of “leverage[ing] the talents of the local peoples and local materials…to accomplish something that we could not do ourselves” was unplanned and developed out of necessity, but then it actually “grew into the model.”

Franco and Ron both share that in order to successfully undertake projects that are accomplished by the local villagers and supported by an outside organization such as the VHSS there must be a strong foundation of trust established. The villagers must trust that VHSS will follow through on the commitment in funding for the project while the VHSS organization and donors must also trust that the village can complete the work. Franco says that in Wunlang village the initial seeds of trust were established in how the first project was selected. He shares that “the one thing we did before we started the [school building] project is we asked for a meeting with the local community [about]…their priorities.” Franco then restates the importance of asking “what did they want us to do first?” After stating his strong agreement of Franco’s assessment Ron adds that “we couldn’t have done the Wunlang school without Franco” who is originally from the village and had established credibility with the community thus setting the stage for a trusting relationship.

The power in the model of empowering local people and purchasing local materials for development is, shares Franco, that people become more independent. He goes on to state that a tangible building was created as an accomplishment from the school project but states that “at the same time, also, we created hope for job opportunity for the local people because they were employed” in the development of the structure.

Not fully understanding the power that one building can have on the people’s lives in the village of Wunlang I ask Franco and Ron to elaborate. Franco shares that “a school building is not for the sake of seeing the building; it is giving hope to families that their children are going to have a future. That is what the building does.” Ron followed up Franco’s assessment with the statement that “permanent structures mean prestige.” Prestige gained by having a permanent school building offers advantages that surrounding villages without schools don’t have including support from the government to pay teachers a salary.

There was another unexpected benefit that the first project provided to the Wunlang community—having a permanent school structure allowed for the development of a local market where parents dropping off children could buy and sell goods. This newly developed marketplace led Franco and Ron to strengthen a belief that the best way to support South Sudan was to focus on, as shared by Ron, “addressing the needs in a more holistic way.” He elaborates by saying a regional approach focusing on multiple projects in a couple of neighboring villages will have a bigger impact by not diluting their available resources. The hope in concentrating efforts, according to Franco, is to support a region until development is sustainable with local people, now empowered through education, experience, and resources to change their own situation.

Sustaining progress in South Sudan comes down to small incremental steps that, according to Ron, seem “pretty basic, but have a huge impact.” The work of VHSS has done in the village of Wunlang can stand as an example for other people promoting positive change, but Ron warns that “the first project is always the toughest.” He attributed the challenge of initiating change to lack of experience and a track record. Both Franco and Ron believe that a proven track record is the key to keeping momentum and sustaining progress on the ground in South Sudan. Franco then shared the reason why their projects and work need to continue in the region stating his strong belief that “if they have an education it may save their lives, they may save their community.”

Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.

** Please note that the Work of Start founder interviews will now be published quarterly instead of monthly in order to accommodate the historic start articles.  **

‘Weaving Stress Prevention Right into the ABCs’

The Founder of Wellness, Inc. and inventor of Alphabet Fitness® offers insight on a creative process used to advance child literacy.

Boston, Massachusetts

Continuing my discovery of civic and community engagement in the New England region, I met Karen Voght, founder of Wellness, Inc., Boston, and inventor of Alphabet Fitness®. Having been recently recognized as a 2011 Literacy Champion by the Massachusetts Literacy Foundation [1], Karen’s passion is supporting children’s wellness by integrating physical activity and literacy. Over several discussions, Karen shared insight into the creative process of developing her innovative literacy tools since founding Wellness, Inc. in 1995.

Karen VoghtInspired initially by her own children’s inherent capacity to discover by interacting with their environment, Karen began to seek ways to unlock the creative energy of children by engaging both mind and body in the learning process. Her innovations include developing the Alphabet Fitness workout in which the letters of the alphabet are formed by imitating a playful chimpanzee character and building a letter’s shape with the body. The letter “P” can be formed, for instance, by standing straight with arms in a half-circle and imitating the ‘Chimp P’ font letter. Karen describes this activity as “getting their muscles into the alphabet” and does not believe that our understanding of the letter “A” should be strictly limited to a left pinky typing on a keyboard.

Being “boxed in by tools” that are rigid in nature can be stifling to a child’s ability to learn, warns Karen, stating that children are naturally built to develop understanding through fun and play. She believes that each child’s individual process for learning is part of what makes them wonderfully unique and by allowing a child to be creative while developing literacy skills offers the opportunity for having fun. After excitedly expressing the cutting-edge research of various groups on related topics including ‘cross lateralization in the brain’ and children’s ‘neuromuscular development,’ Karen works to distill down for me the work of Alphabet Fitness as attempting to create “flexibility of the mind and body.”

Karen also emphasizes the importance of developing partnerships in fostering the creative process. These partnerships, as expected, include collaboration with researchers, thought leaders, and organizations focused on supporting literacy, but Karen also highlights the importance of not limiting collaborative partners to one area of expertise. Karen goes on to describe her involvement in civic organizations such as Rotary International as an example of an opportunity to collaborate creatively with people maintaining a passion for service but not necessarily expertise in child literacy.

Understanding the importance of partnerships is attributed by Karen to working for thirty years in the Real Estate Industry prior to her current work in promoting children’s wellness. She also credits a deeper understanding of the negative effects that stress can have on wellness to lessons learned in the Real Estate industry—being a home developer taught Karen how important it is to “build an environment that is safe, secure, and stimulating.” In a similar fashion, Karen aspired to promote children’s wellness through creating a safe learning environment using Alphabet Fitness by actively “weaving stress prevention right into the ABCs.”

Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.

** Please note that the Work of Start founder interviews will now be published quarterly instead of monthly in order to accommodate the historic start articles.  **


1. Acquired from Massachusetts Literacy Foundation website – MassLiteracy.org

‘Don’t Assume it’s an Obvious Idea’

The CEO and Founder of Cradles to Crayons talks about what is required to be successful in civic entrepreneurialism.

Brighton, Massachusetts

Searching for opportunities to learn about my new community upon arriving to the New England region, I came across Cradles to Crayons. This group serves children in the Boston area, and its organizational focus is on collecting donated items such as backpacks and school supplies from the community to help families meet their children’s educational needs. Storage and processing of these donated items takes place at the Giving Factory, a 37,000 square foot facility in Brighton, Massachusetts, where I had the opportunity to participate as a volunteer. Standing in amazement at the sheer size of the Cradles to Crayons’ Giving Factory operation during my volunteer orientation, I decided to learn more about the organization’s development.

Lynn MargherioFounded in 2002 by Lynn Margherio, Cradles to Crayons is based on the seemingly simple idea that children should have the materials necessary to succeed in education. Cradles to Crayons has grown to serve tens of thousands of children in the Boston area and in 2007 expanded to support families in the Philadelphia area with a second Giving Factory. Lynn and I sat down one afternoon to discuss the work that was done to start an organization capable of service at the size and scope of Cradles to Crayons.

When discussing the challenges that Lynn faced in building Cradles to Crayons she recalls the beginning when it was just her and a truck picking up donated items. Lynn explains that she is originally from Michigan and navigating the unfamiliar streets of Boston proved to be quite tricky at the start. Not being from the area also meant that Lynn had to develop new connections and support in the region, sharing with a smile, “I did not have much of a network here.” Building this network was part of building an organization, Lynn explains, citing as an example the chance meeting and recruitment of a future board member while picking up donations from his home.

The logistics of collecting donated items proved more challenging than simply the pickup—the unpredictable timing of the donations also presented obstacles. Lynn states that “it was not like I could pick up the phone and order from a supplier.” In developing the process of stocking her store, Lynn began to learn the rhythm of giving trends around the spring and fall “cleaning swaps” when people were most likely to donate. And in order to accommodate the unpredictable nature of collection, Lynn needed space to hold and process the donated items.

Finding space presented its own unique challenges which Lynn sought to address, again using the resources available. A couple of instances prior to the development of the current, expansive Giving Factory, Lynn’s consulting office served to store and process the initial donations. Often “necessity breeds innovation,” explains Lynn, and that creative force went beyond commandeering office space to eventually recruiting her office colleagues to help out in the cause. It was during this time when Lynn, simultaneously doing the business and public policy consulting and founding Cradles to Crayons, resolved to run the fledgling not-for-profit with sound business principles.

“You have to take an idea and flush it out,” Lynn says, making clear Cradles to Crayons’ work and commitment to validating the concept from the start. This validation process was accomplished by reaching out to various targeted organizations serving children and asking if there was a need not being filled. Upon discovering a need, Lynn worked to understand if there were partners willing to supply inventory through donation drives. Lynn states that establishing these partnerships also provided Cradles to Crayons another critical component beyond donations—these groups extended credibility by association, promoting Cradles to Crayons in the community.

Once Cradles to Crayons had established an organizational credibility through sustained accomplishment and impact, other people and groups recognized the potential scalability of the organizational service model. Jennifer Case, inspired by the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, began work to understand if the Cradles to Crayons model could be replicated in the Philadelphia area. Regarding a potential expansion to a new city, Lynn shares the questions asked of Jennifer Case during the initial discussions—”Is the service unique and is it something people want?” Again, Lynn highlights the importance of sustaining sound business principles in growing Cradles to Crayons when she describes the extensive effort to develop a business plan for Cradles to Crayons Philadelphia.

Lynn believes that Cradles to Crayons is a positive example of a simple idea that worked. When vetting a concept as a business or civic entrepreneur, Lynn warns against abandoning an idea because it is seemingly too simple and concluding that someone must already be doing it. Lynn’s advice to aspiring civic entrepreneurs is just “don’t assume it’s an obvious idea.”

Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.

** Please note that the Work of Start founder interviews will now be published quarterly instead of monthly in order to accommodate the historic start articles.  **