The Best Way to Learn is to Teach

My son, Stephen Gurney, taught me that students teaching students has great power to foster learning–and that when students teach, they learn much more than the skills or content that they’re teaching.  Stephen taught bilingual English and Social Studies at Virrey Solis, a K-11 school in Bogota, Colombia.  Last year, he started a school called Student Promotion of English and Kindness (SPEAK).  Every Saturday, his 10th grade students traveled up to Cerro Norte, a barrio in the hills of the city, to teach the preteens in this underserved community.  

By trial and error, Stephen and his team worked through the problems and challenges to start SPEAK.  They learned a few lessons that apply to any peer instruction endeavor:

  1. Structure each lesson. This included having a stated outcome, clear expectations, and a realistic time frame.
  2. Have fun.  His students used a didactic pedagogical model, planning lessons that included games and fun activities.
  3. Don’t give up.  There were a lot of bumps–and the students learned some lessons in grit as the year progressed.
  4. The teacher has to be a coach.  Stephen learned that the school worked best when he coached his students through the process.

The year was a great success and SPEAK will continue in 2019.  In addition to their English test scores soaring, the student teachers grew immensely from their immersion in compassion, kindness and resolve.  They forged lasting bonds with each other and their pupils.  And, they created a path to opportunity for children whose lives previously were limited by their challenging environment.

Advice From Rock Start Investors

Wsj tech cafe for blogLast night, my son, Matt, and I attended the Wall Street Journal Tech Café event at Think Coffee in New York and learned about how tech investors think from three of the greatest.  Here are a few nuggets on how to approach and pitch to investors…

Steve Case , uber entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist, advised that you should do a little research before you approach an investor and get to know his sweet spots.  Every investor has his own criteria, so for example, Steve invests in later stage start ups and generally in big ideas or platforms, rarely in products or features.    His main criteria for investing in a company:  people, passion and persistence.

Jay Samit , a top gun in LA, says, know your stuff! Too many entrepreneurs come to the pitch unprepared and unable to handle Jay (the typical investor in my experience), who gets impatient after about the second slide and shifts from presentation mode to Q&A. He also emphasized people—surround yourself with great people (a typical theme on this blog).  He hit home for me by stating that those closest to you should invest, endorse and support you on your startup; if they don’t, there is something wrong with the picture.

Brian Cohen, the mayor of Angels, says “make the Angel fall in love with you”.  Angels aren’t in it for the big win as much as to save the world, and their investment is much more emotional. Also, get them to say NO. Nobody likes to say no, so force the question and get a no (or yes) answer.  Finally, be coachable.  All startup investors offer much more than money; you need to be able to take their criticism and coaching.

Thank you, Brian, Jay and Steve and thanks to the Wall Street Journal—always my favorite news venue—for hosting this insightful event.  It came at the perfect time for me, as I have just lined up my initial friends and family capital and am looking for angels to help me launch Café Learn (more on that later….)

Time Flies!

In early May, I will be speaking at the SIIA Ed Tech Industry Summit about the opportunities and challenges that innovators and entrepreneurs face.  And, one of my topics will be that time flies!!  Bringing innovation into educational markets is hard work, and there is way more to do than there are hours in the day.

This past month, I have created pieces of my business plan, financial projections, a website, overviews of the company, and a concept video. I have traveled nearly half the time meeting customers, partners, advisors, investors, developers and my team. I have worn more hats than I can imagine.  I haven’t managed to cross everything off my list in months.  And, has suffered from this flight of time!

Here is what I do when time is flying (and spinning out of control!):

  • Focus on the 2-3 critical success factors for your company today, and give yourself milestones with due dates for these priorities.  For me, it’s setting up pilots and seed funding.  I know what I need to accomplish and when.
  • Take things off your list.  You can’t do everything, but it is better to delegate or postpone than to regret that you failed to complete something critical. Jim Collins, one of my favorite leadership gurus, argues that we all need a “stop-doing” list, because we have too many projects and initiatives.  Isn’t that the truth!
  • Build a team that is GREAT and brings the expertise, skills and passion for things that aren’t your forte.  If you don’t have a lot of money to hire people (most of us don’t), your team can include partners, advisors, potential and current vendors, and friends and family.
  • Take a day off every week.  Starting a company is grueling work, and you need to get away from it or you will burn out. About 10 years ago, I learned this the hard way when I landed in the hospital and spent 3 months recovering my health.  Even when I am swamped, I try to take off one day a week.  And, I find time every day to clear my head.  I exercise or practice yoga nearly every day, and I take walks with my dog, Luna.
  • Give yourself a break when you fail or fall behind.  You are only human.  And, you know that every successful entrepreneur encounters many pitfalls along the way.  You will be a lot less stressed and more effective if you  acknowledge your failure to get something done or that big SNAFU and let it go so that you can move on.

Know Who You Are

If you don’t know who you are, and why you are doing all of this, then nobody else will. And, who you are begins with your mission and values.  Wow, these are important!

I learned a long time ago that values are critical to helping your team create a winning roadmap. Values provide a barometer for making important decisions.  We frequently cite our values to keep everybody focused on what is important.  Our values are simple:

  1. Learning.  Learning is fun.  We learn from each other, from our successes and from our mistakes.
  2. Honest and clear communication.
  3. Innovation and creativity.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, one of the famous Harvard Business School thinkers, recently wrote a good blog post, Ten Essentials For Getting Value From Values. Much more eloquent than I ever could be, she points out that it’s not just values that count, it’s keeping them alive by creating a conversation about your values.

If values are your barometer, then your mission is your guidepost.  When I think about my mission, I think:  what do I really love?  And what do I want to change?  What will guide me and inspire me, even though every business changes frequently (especially lately, and if you want to be around next year)?  My mission is as simple as my values:  transform the educational experience so that people love learning.

Missions are huge! Larger than life!  They need to be big enough to get you out of bed to slog away at your company day after day and year after year, even when the problems are totally stressing you out. And, they need to give you the inspiration to imagine the possibilities and do great things.

It is really good to find a community of like-minded entrepreneurs who will help you get out of the day to day weeds to work on your business and the critical path to success.  I belong to Women Presidents Organization, which has over 100 chapters of 20 Presidents who help each other succeed.  This month, my chapter is working on, guess what, mission and values…

Get Some Sleep!

I do some of my best thinking in the early morning. Sometimes, I wake up at 3 am, and these riffs play in my head. I worry about that difficult phone call coming up, or some stressful situation. Have you noticed that these worries are never as big as they seem in the wee hours?

Sometimes, I wake up with a great idea. I learned that the best thing to do is to grab the little notebook I keep nearby and write it down. This allows me to capture that great idea or to release that worry.  And, then I can go back to sleep!

Sleep is also really important for entrepreneurs. Starting a company is hard work. I am tired at the end of the day, and I need a good night of rest to prepare me for the next day.

So many of us entrepreneurs have trouble sleeping that I wanted to spend a little time on this.  Here is the Mayo Clinic’s good advice, Seven Steps To Better Sleep. And, this is a fun little Inc. magazine article, 11 Ways To Sleep Better At Night, on the things that entrepreneurs need to let go in order to sleep at night.

Years ago, I learned this little meditation for sleeping.  It it a little out there (in the yogic sense) but I promise it works:

  • Sit in a comfortable and warm place, on a mat or pillow, cross legged, with a straight spine.
  • Put your hands in your lap, right hand resting over the left, and make sure your shoulders and face and hands are relaxed
  • Breathe in through your nose deeply, in four parts, rather slowly. In your mind, as you take the four partial breaths, think SA-TA-NA-MA. Do this 4 times, so that you breathe in with 16 partial breaths.
  • Then you will hold the breath for 16 counts, at the same slowish pace you inhales the four-part breath, saying SA-TA-NA-MA to yourself 4x
  • As you exhale, say to yourself, WAHAY GURU.

The yogis tell you to do this for 3 or 6 or 11 or 31 minutes. To me, it doesn’t matter how long, just practice this for a bit each night as you are getting ready for bed, and you will sleep better!

I Have A Dream

What an appropriate day, on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, 50 years after his famous speech, to begin this blog. I too have a dream…that all of the children in this country, no matter the color of their skin or the neighborhood they live in, have the opportunity to shape, as Dr. King would say, “the content of their characters” by completing college.

So begins my journey to create the company that will help schools transform traditional courses into engaged, individualized and collaborative 21st Century learning.

I am Carrie O’Donnell, an ed tech entrepreneur with a unique perspective, having spent 20 years running a business that helps education companies design, develop and launch new brands and products. In those years, I learned a lot about what to do, and what not to do, lessons that I am planning to explore as we launch this new venture.