At the Startup Weekend SEA EDU I organized, we had the honor of having Mitch Kapor keynote our closing ceremony. One of the greatest things I took away from his keynote directly related to my experience being the lead organizer for Startup Weekend EDU and passionately wanting to make the most impact.
Mr. Kapor talked about entrepreneurs in the ED-tech space and broke them down into 2 specific groups; “Social entrepreneurs” and “Tech entrepreneurs”. Social entrepreneurs (relating to the ed-tech space) are people he considered to be deep in the education space and see major problems they want to solve. Tech entrepreneurs in the EDU space are people who may see problems in education from an outsiders perspective and want to help to fix it, but since they aren’t fully engulfed with experience in the K-12 market they tend to build “cool products” that don’t truly solve the big problems in the education space. In the graph showed in the above picture, there is a big question he would ask to each type of ED-tech entrepreneur that caters to their weakness. Social Entrepreneurs would have little to no experience organizing and scaling a tech company. Tech Entrepreneurs usually don’t have the expertise of the education market to truly build disruptive startups that address the bigger problems in the EDU space.
This is exactly what happened at Startup Weekend Seattle EDU and is something future EDU events need to address. We had too many “Tech Entrepreneurs” and not enough collaboration with “Social Entrepreneurs”. There are a couple tough areas that need to be address for Startup Weekend EDU’s to really make an impact.
1. Startup Weekends have been branded for “Tech Entrepreneurs”
Everywhere around the world the tech startup communities see Startup Weekends as a fun way to spend a weekend to launch some cool products (The exact weakness that causes many ed-tech entrepreneurs to fail in the K-12 market). Since Startup Weekends are heavily focused on actual building, there is a high need for developers/designers who may not have any expertise in the K-12 market. The majority are “Tech Entrepreneurs” not educators.
2. Slow hunches build to great ideas (which the education system needs)
The typical format for a Startup Weekend is to come to the event with an idea. There is no cross-pollination of diverse mindsets to cultivate regular ideas into great ones. It’s just, you come on Friday, pitch what you think is a good idea and if it gets voted, then you build a team to crank out some details to make it into a better idea. This ultimately leads for about half of the day on Saturday to really dedicate time towards bouncing ideas off of each other and with mentors to build a great idea. Teams don’t have a lot of time to pivot because the developers have to build a product to be demoed on Sunday. This is more of a forced process to building mediocre ideas, not necessarily ones that really change communities. Great ideas need time to incubate and it’s hard to do that in the little amount of time people see each other at a typical Startup Weekend. (Here is a great RSA animate on Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From”)
The reason why I address this part is because the success of the Startup Weekend EDU vertical is extremely dependent on the quality of ideas that come out of the weekend. If a lot of “cool products” come out of the weekend (which happened at mine), it’s really not disrupting the EDU space. Now reflecting and hearing some feedback from great people in the EDU space like Audrey Watters and Frank Catalano, if the Startup Weekend EDU mission is truly about attacking the K-12 market, cool products is not enough. We need great social ideas that are sustainable to truly achieve its mission.
3. The problem in education is vastly different from community to community
If you ask educators what they believe are some of the major problems in the K-12 market, their answers will drastically vary from community to community. I had a great discussion with Katherine Kleitsch, Teach for America teacher in New Orleans and now NW regional recruiter for Teach for America, and I asked her a very similar question. She had a very difficult time trying to come up with an answer because the problem in education in the New Orleans community she taught in (directly after Hurricane Katrina) has a far different perspective on education than someone addressing that question in, say a place like Laguna Beach. Even in Seattle, the community in South Seattle would have a very different perspective on education than the East side of Seattle. Having only a few educators from all different communities attend one event may be difficult to find synergy on what exactly are the biggest problems in education.
My Radical Idea for Startup Weekend EDU
Taken my experience with organizing a Startup Weekend EDU and building non-profit communities, here is a suggestion for Startup Weekend EDU that, though may be ambitious, I believe better addresses the true mission of revolutionizing the education and learning markets through citizen-driven EDU reform.
Part 1. Create smaller community driven weekend EDU events that aren’t focused on building, but about generating solutions for problems specific communities face.
For example, what if there were events based around schools/school districts instead of the entire metropolitan city. The focus around these community events would be to bring educators, parents, students and community leaders together for an entire weekend and then discuss the major EDU problems they specifically see in their communities. The goal would be to develop 5-10 great solutions they hypothesize will make an impact from the problems they see in their community. This event shouldn’t be focused on the “tech-entrepreneur” and you may only want 5-10% of your attendees to be developers.
i.e. “Castle High School Weekend EDU”
A possible format for these community events could be:
- Keynote speakers (The mayor, awarded local teacher, ed-reformer)
- Community pitches major problem areas they see in their education community
- Group narrows down to top few problems they would want to tackle for the weekend.
- Teams form around problems
- Teams focus on building idea
- Mentors work with teams
- Start building a presentation to pitch Sunday
- Teams continue to flesh out idea
- Community Speaker
- Finalize idea pitch
- Pitch to a panel of community judges
- Select a top 5 ideas
The value for this event is that you gather experts in your community who know the EDU space, but even more specifically know the EDU space and how it affects them and their community directly. This type of event allows for a space where true experts can have ideas/hunches that collide with another. The goal for this community weekend event would be to give time to incubate fleshed out ideas, not to build them. Talk about validation, this community event lives it.
Pt. 2 Each Community Weekend EDU event leads to a big Startup Weekend EDU held in their major metropolitan city (i.e. Startup Weekend Honolulu EDU). The top ideas from each community event would be asked to pitch to the group at the large EDU event to actually be built. Now, all ideas pitched on the first night are the more fleshed out and thought through than just one person pitching an average idea.
This event is where developers, designers, entrepreneurs, and educators can come together to focus on the execution and business model of the ideas (typical Startup Weekend model). The main goal here is to collaborate the tech and education worlds to build a sustainable ed-tech startup. Can you imagine if all these communities came together for one weekend to build some truly community changing ideas? You could invite legislation reps, experienced entrepreneurs from out of town, education reformers and providing them with a list of what needs to be fixed in the entire metropolitan area from the communities who live within it could be a very powerful thing. Mitch Kapor referred to the importance of having “Collective Intelligence” in whatever market you enter, and this event would be it.
I believe the main things I faced when organizing my event was that time was not on our side to develop these slow hunch ideas and there wasn’t enough collaboration between, what Mitch Kapor would call, “Social Entrepreneurs” and “Tech Entrepreneurs”. I believe my suggested model truly attacks those pain points and could make for a world changing EDU initiative. Now this would take a while to scale but maybe start in one metropolitan area and then roll out events in different cities as the Startup Weekend EDU events really start to show the high quality ideas that the community comes up with. I know Honolulu would be a perfect location to test this model out on and know people who would love to be on board for this type of event 😉
Also, I think this type of model could build a great partnership with an organization like Code for America or Venture for America if they wanted to build an education arm. These organizations could help find talented grads from all over who want to help build thriving communities. Being able to connect them at a Startup Weekend EDU event where all communities come together and provide high quality ideas to directly improve their community could take this initiative to even a further level.
(Here is the Code for America video. I love the concept)
I think Startup Weekend has done an incredible job building thriving startup communities all around the world. The idea of combining the tech startup worlds and education has been something I have been truly passionate about for a while, which is why I jumped at the opportunity to organize the first one in Seattle. I truly believe that the Startup Weekend EDU vertical has the opportunity to disrupt the education space and this is just my feedback and suggestion help achieve the mission. What are your thoughts on how to truly change communities? Do you think this model could work?