• Founder’s confession: How I lost and rediscovered empathy along the startup path

    Posted by The 4.0 Team

    Sep. 5th, 2013

    I asked Cameron Middleton, founder of Nomad Schools, to take a look back at what she’s learning as she builds a really interesting company dedicated to teaching those furthest from the interwebs. Here’s a rare look inside the 4.0 Launch experience.

    “When people talk, listen completely.  Most people are not good listeners.”             —Ernest Hemingway

     I came to 4.0 Schools feeling that empathy came naturally to me. In my experience of being exposed to the new toolkits from 4.0 Schools to rethink schools and learning—from improv theater to human-centered design–I felt like the one area where I was solidly grounded was the ability to see things from another’s perspective.  I lived by Ernest Hemingway’s advice: I not only tried to be a good listener but I had turned it into a quasi-profession, and spent much of the past year in Afghanistan interviewing people who lived lives quite different from my own in order to understand their hopes, fears and concerns.  From students to police officers, the lack of education opportunities was often a central concern.

    Those Afghan conversations, coupled with years of experience as an ESL teacher, had indirectly led me to 4.0 Schools.  I was convinced that the world needed better language learning opportunities that did not depend on bricks and mortar schools or even Internet connections.  I did not set out thinking: I am going to found an education startup. But, one day, I woke up to the realization that I had stumbled into a new identity: I was becoming an entrepreneur. This realization led me to 4.0’s Launch program and a disturbing wake-up call when my coaches asked me: “Are you more in love with the problem or your solution?” That was when I first realized that I had forgotten my most important listening skills.

    Somewhere along the path of lovingly crafting a solution, I had forgotten the number one rule of good design:  Listen to your user, to the people whose experiences and challenges had first motivated you.

    Are entrepreneurs poor listeners or just crazy?

    What had happened between that first Essentials and Launch that had caused me forget to test my ideas with the learners who would actually be using them?  Our 4.0 Launch director/drill sergeant, Brian Bordainick, would answer this question with: It’s simple.  You’re crazy.  He repeatedly reminded our cohort: “You are all insane for doing this and I’m going to keep telling you your idea sucks until you can prove me otherwise.” Yes, we were all crazy to quit our jobs and take the risks we did. And yes, our Launch class took on elements of a self-help group, where even in our weekly required readings—from Heart, Smarts, Guts and Luck, to Rework, we were basically reading about other crazy people like us, somehow taking comfort from the .000001% of people who manage to launch successful ventures.

    I believe most entrepreneurs are actually both crazy and may be prone to empathy deficits.  It is not just unique to my experience.  The day that I decided to start an education venture to bring my own duct-taped, humble little prototype into the world with the conviction that it was the first step to creating my own personal Sistine Chapel for literacy, was the day when I started to experience what I call “entrepreneurial hearing.” This is a distant cousin to beer goggles and gives the entrepreneur the ability to selectively filter out reality. There must be evolutionary reasons why this occurs.  All diagrams of entrepreneur’s brains hit on the same themes of ability to create one’s own reality, heightened ability to ignore fear, criticism, or doubt, and…I would argue: listening to advice and feedback from others which was so central to my own experience and why I was building a business.  I knew I wanted to build an organization together with the people who needed new ways to learn English, but I had to figure out how best to work with them to design the solution together.

    But surely SOCIAL entrepreneurs are empathetic?

    While social entrepreneurs like Ashoka’s Bill Drayton or Oxford Business School’s Pamela Hartigan are quite right that you cannot be truly profitable if you are not wired for empathy, this does not mean that it’s not hard.  It’s not just technology and social media that’s to blame. Based on my own experience, there is something that happens from that “road to Damascus moment” (essential to the foundational tales of many social entrepreneurs from Jacqueline Novogratz’s moment of finding a boy in Africa wearing her old blue sweater to John Woods discovering the need for libraries in the Himalayas) in which a stubborn, passionate person is confronted with the immediate and direct experience of an obstacle that they are determined to remove, come hell or high water.  But now as people strive to create the most social change and demonstrate the data of their impact, does something still get lost? One of our queen word smiths, Monika Smyczek, asked over a late-night “Launchathon” (our own version of hackathons where we dissected and championed one another’s businesses) the key question that anyone must ask as they try to retain empathy in the DNA of an organization: “How do you scale Gandhi?”

    I’m not sure that you can, but the story of my startup journey taught me that, much like Mary Gordon’s Roots of Empathy program, it can be trained and encouraged in elementary school children, with the right experiences. I would argue that it also can and must be instilled in grown adults, particularly wannabe entrepreneurs.  So, in the spirit of Launch group therapy sessions, I will share my personal four-step recovery plan to getting back on the road to empathy:  

    1)   Admit that your business plan for saving the world is rubbish if you don’t have a specific user

    Image source: Adaptastraining.com

    Image source: Adaptastraining.com 

    My Nomad Schools epiphany moment did start with a specific user and story. I was part of the process of getting a tent to the wife of a village elder (and mullah) in eastern Afghanistan who wanted to offer midwifing services in their village as well as train the trainer classes. All they needed was a tent so that the clinic could be separate from their house and some solar panels and what had been one of the worst regions for maternal mortality could be turned around.  The infantry unit that operated in that village found a creative local solution to get the tent in a way that cut through red tape. Thus one of the cheapest clinics the Coalition ever helped construct came into being. Not long after that, I set out to create an education venture that would address the types of education constraints that village had experienced with light footprint education solutions. I knew that I wanted to provide English language and literacy development opportunities in communities of the world where people were either too overworked or too far off-the-grid to benefit from innovations that sought to bridge opportunity gaps.  But, I couldn’t really empathize with my users because I wanted to serve everyone.  That was the first time I started to lose touch with empathy as the problem became increasingly general and the voices of my interviews faded into aggregated data and think tank reports. My co-founder Perry and I dutifully tried to answer questions like: “How big is this problem?” and went down research rabbit holes of literacy trends, ICT4D success stories, and lessons learned.  We created a business plan that was a complete exercise in futility.  I had lost from my original purpose by focusing primarily on technology and delivery mechanisms of radio and cell phones without actually thinking through what had led to the successful conditions for the maternity tent clinic in the first place: weeks of conversations and months of trust-building; people closest to the problem identifying the requirements for the solution.

    2)   Make user feedback and participation integral to your program.

    Student feedback on Course design for Nomad Schools Pilot

    The Genesis of Nomad Schools First Pilot User Group

    Part of my journey to New Orleans this past July was a process of finding my specific user by becoming reacquainted with the education inequalities and deficits for English language learners in my own country.  Access to language training is a major part of that challenge.  In researching language barriers for the 35,000 members of the immigrant community in New Orleans who identify limited language proficiency as a major obstacle for their employment and academic progress, I was fortunate to link up with Cristi Wijngaarde of VAYLA (the Vietnamese Young Leaders Association of New Orleans) and member organization Mundos Unidos. I found them through their student-led report ESL: Lost in the System.

    Cristi embodies the principles of community-based participatory design and youth-led action. When I shared my iPod prototype with her for self-paced, portable ESL lessons, her first question was: Where’s the Spanish? If you want this to be self-paced, you’re going to lose half of the people I know who really need this.” She has become a friend and an honest sounding board for my ideas in developing bottom-up ESL curriculum.  Her next suggestion was to work with her community members to allow them to become Last Friday we had our first meeting (conducted in Spanish and English) between Mundos Unidos and Nomad Schools.  In addition to the Mundos Unidos discussions of community updates and school plans for the Common Core, the group discussed ESL options and how the Nomad Schools plan could best meet their needs.  Participants actively engaged in a brainstorming session on content.  And 16 people signed up to be pilot participants.

    Mundos Unidos meeting at VAYLA where Nomad Schools signed up the first pilot users, August 30 2013

     The Mundos Unidos meeting occurred on the day of the eight-year anniversary of the tragic events of Hurricane Katrina.  Hearing the stories again of how people survived dislocation and closed schools after the storm, I was reminded of parallels with the harsh realities of students out of school in Afghanistan and the desperate need for learning options in refugee camps throughout the world.  4.0 helped me recognize the importance of developing an idea locally in order to work together with the users I hoped to serve.