All Hail the Entrepreneurs (and the Carnitas They Bring Us)

Those of you who regularly visit my Facebook page or see my posts at The Beacon blog may recall that I have posted from time to time about Lucio, my hero and savior.

His heroism pertains to his dedicated entrepreneurship in the service of the consumer (that’s where I come into the story, as a purchaser of the fruits, vegetables, and assorted other foodstuffs he brings to my gate three times each week from markets more than a hundred miles away).

His salvation has nothing to do with my immortal soul, but everything to do with my mortal body, which, thanks to him, I am able to nourish regularly with high-quality food.

A few days ago, in response to our special request, he brought something we had never bought from him before: a substantial portion of carnitas (a dish akin to pulled pork in the USA), along with some serious salsa picante and a bag of delicious pico de gallo. I used the tortillas I had on hand to make these ingredients into two outstanding tacos for my lunch that day, and I ate more of the meat with boiled eggs for dinner. I still had enough left for another two or three nice meals. And the price was certainly affordable.

This might all seem completely ordinary to you, but bear in mind that I am able to enjoy these culinary delights even though I live at the ends of the Earth, at the far reaches of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. For Lucio’s making it possible for me to live here so well, I feel much indebted to him.

All hail the ordinary, unsung entrepreneurs of the world who feed not only Paris and New York, but also poor little Xcalak. Markets don’t arise and function automatically. Entrepreneurs establish them and keep them going incessantly. It’s not the government that stands between the people and starvation. It’s the entrepreneurs.

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The Call to Entrepreneurship and Our Excuses

Think starting up your dream business is a daunting task?

Imagine going straight from being on vacation to starting up a complex refugee rescue mission under the nose of the Nazis – with no prior experience and no preparation.

That was 29 year-old stock broker Nicholas Winton’s entrepreneurial story.

From 1938 to 1939, Winton successfully organized the evacuation and foster care assignment of 667 Czech Jewish children – without special skills, with funds he raised, and without more than a few staff. He dropped everything, “cut all kinds of corners,” and worked furiously against time and the Nazis and the restrictive immigration policies of the Western democracies.

As he explains drily in a documentary made (much) later (rough quote):

“We even had (fake) passports made because the Home office was moving a bit slow. . . We didn’t bring anyone in illegally – we just sped up the process.”

This man had every reasonable excuse in the book to not take action. We certainly wouldn’t have blamed him if he had deferred action until he had returned from vacation and set up a nonprofit first.

But Winton was not that kind of human. And neither should we be.

I have lots of excuses for why I haven’t started a business yet: I’m looking for the right idea. I’m building skills. Im building capital.

My excuses will allow me to feel OK about delaying this challenge until I look examples like Winton in the eye. They saw clearly that their call to entrepreneurship was a matter of life and death for some people – and they acted accordingly, without the slightest preparation.

Oh, and Winton? At the age of 89 he was working on (not staying in) a home for the elderly. If you let yourself start as well as Winton did, it will be pretty hard for you to stop.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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The Changes in Culture

I don’t believe in the power of culture as much as most people. I tend to rank it: economics, technology, and then culture in a distant third. I believe the vast majority of the changes in culture are a response to economics and technology.

While I believe that culture is highly responsive to economics and technology, I believe it isn’t nearly as responsive to “movements,” and this makes it so I don’t believe it is very changeable. I think we recognize “renegades” because they are the ones who often seem to trigger the changes in society. However, I think this is only the visible representation of something deeper.

It took a radical change in the economy and radical economic growth to make women a more equivalent economic resource (within the market.) This shift happened gradually from the mid 19th century to today. This shift in economic power naturally meant that social and political customs would accommodate change. We can point to renegades, “movements,” political actions that changed things to a degree, but this is usually just a surface analysis that misses the big picture.

We see the same thing with almost every shift in mankind. Something shifts in technology or in human incentives (economy) to radically shift the balances that previously existed. Then some people, or institutions tilt the scale more towards a new balance and we credit those people and institutions more than the incentives that are really due the credit. In fact, most of these movements were inevitable.

Of course, I could take this analysis way too far. Political changes and individual people have had radical effects over the economic, and migratory effects over a region and this has radically shifted the incentives and culture. I just tend to think people tend to overweigh this phenomenon.

In conclusion … I like a lot of Thaddeus Russell’s analysis. I believe he is right that people who run against tradition trigger many of the changes that occur. However, in the US, entrepreneurship and invention advanced the world in many realms. It has always been visionaries and people who ran against trends that did this. It would be problematic to say that the people in the US are just special, or the root of it was American’s being innovators at their core. The better answer is that the incentives of 19th century US harvested something incredibly unique throughout human history and this has made it so individuals could trigger amazing and interesting things. So, he is right, but I just think people often overvalue individual contributions without acknowledging the underlying trends and forces.

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Can For-Profit Schools Revolutionize Education? One Entrepreneur Is Betting Yes.

As much as we (rightfully) decry the persistence of factory-style mass schooling, we should remember that this remnant of the Industrial Age was, at its time, quite innovative.

Schooling for the Industrial Age

To our 21st-century eyes, the continued emphasis on standardization, order, and regimentation in government schooling seems, at best, out of place in a rapidly changing economy. But to 19th-century education reformers, these were novel ideas that transformed civilization from agriculture to industry. It’s no wonder that earlier schools would reflect these cutting-edge practices. Brown University historian Carl Kaestle writes in his book, Pillars of the Republic:

Schools thus became in some respects like factories, but not necessarily because they were mimicking factories, or preparing children to work in factories. Rather, both the workforce and the schools, as well as other nineteenth-century institutions, were partaking of the same ethos of efficiency, manipulation, and mastery.

Schools didn’t try to emulate factories as much as they tried to implement the then quite modern and revolutionary techniques that made factories and similar institutions so successful. In other words, 19th-century factory-style schooling was considered to be state-of-the-art. David Tyack, an educational historian at Stanford University, explains how 19th-century educators drew inspiration from the economic and industrial progress of the era. He writes in his book, The One Best System:

They were impressed with the order and efficiency of the new technology and forms of organization they saw about them. The division of labor in the factory, the punctuality of the railroad, the chain of command and coordination in modern businesses—these aroused a sense of wonder and excitement in men and women seeking to systematize the schools.

All this is to say that maybe we should cut these 19th-century educators some slack. While it’s clear to us today that factory-style schooling is mismatched to our contemporary economic needs, it mirrored the innovations of the Industrial Age.

The Innovation Era

Today, as we leave the Industrial Age for the Innovation Era, educators and social reformers should once again look to the new ideas, pioneering practices, and other drivers of our modern economic success to transform education and schooling.

Some educators are already doing this. Drawing from his decades of work as an education reformer and entrepreneur, Michael Strong has created a network of US high schools designed to reflect the needs and possibilities of the innovation economy. The Academy of Thought and Industry now has campuses in Austin and San Francisco and a new one opening soon in New York City, with ambitious plans for expansion. These high schools blend the learner-centered philosophy of Montessori education, where Strong spent much of his career, with a bold focus on entrepreneurship, peer collaboration, intellectual rigor, and the skills necessary for success in the 21st-century economy.

“We encourage all of our students to think entrepreneurially whether or not they will be creating a business,” says Strong, author of Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World’s Problems.

A big motivator for Strong in creating these innovative high schools is what he sees as the need to get more adolescents out of conventional schools. “I feel a sense of urgency to create alternatives,” says Strong. “The current system is so top-down and trains teachers to be top-down. This is actively causing damage to teens, with rising rates of suicide.”

For-Profit Education for the Future

The Academy of Thought and Industry schools, which serve students ages 12 and over, are for-profit and backed by venture capital funds from Higher Ground Education, a disruptive startup that has launched a network of Montessori schools across the country.

Strong thinks the for-profit model for schooling alternatives is important for catalyzing large-scale educational change. “The only reason to go non-profit is if you have donors,” he explains. “Any time something is profitable, that is what makes it able to go to scale. The reason we have low-cost groceries now (compared to 100 years ago) is because it’s profitable to bring food to millions and millions of people.”

Strong believes the philosophical lynchpin of his schools—intellectual agency and entrepreneurial autonomy—is reflective of our contemporary economy and culture. Cultivating creativity, fostering an entrepreneurial mindset, and inspiring learners to take control of their own lives and livelihoods are essential qualities for success in the innovation era. If the industrial economy of the 19th century valued order and standardization, the 21st-century economy values originality and imagination.

As Strong scales his schools to more cities nationwide, he finds that his main challenge lies with the lingering belief system characteristic of factory-style schooling. Recruiting and training teachers to let go of their long-held notions of what education looks like and embrace a different way of interacting with young people has been perhaps the biggest challenge.

“Teachers are trained to be condescending to kids, and if we want to respect student agency, we can’t be condescending. This deschooling process takes a lot of time,” says Strong. “Respecting the kids is the biggest thing for us, and it’s the biggest problem with hiring traditional teachers.”

Factory-style schooling may have been avant-garde a century-and-a-half ago, but it fails to reflect the needs, innovations, and best practices of the modern economy. Investing in learner-centered schooling alternatives that emphasize human creativity and personal agency will ensure both economic prosperity and individual flourishing in this new era of progress and invention.

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How To Be A Successful Edupreneur

During the 1960s and early 1970s, there was a flurry of innovative schools. The “free school” movement was underway, swept along by a strong anti-establishment current during Vietnam War-era America. The modern homeschooling movement was also born, birthed first by countercultural “hippie” liberals before growing rapidly within the religious conservative sphere.

When the social protests faded and the countercultural stream dried up, the majority of the “free schools” also disappeared. Homeschooling, with its agility, hyper-personalization, and rootedness in the family unit, expanded and flourished, ultimately becoming a bipartisan movement that today educates over two million kids.

But most of the “free schools” and similarly small, ideologically-driven schools of the countercultural era vanished. Ron Miller writes in Free Schools, Free People that “when, in the 1970s, American politics stabilized and hippie fashions, rock music, natural foods, and other trappings of the counterculture were transformed into commercial commodities, the tension between consciousness and politics, between personal wholeness and social change, developed into a split, and radical pedagogy was largely divided into its constituent elements.”

A few lucky schools remained, like the Sudbury Valley School, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary and serves as a beacon for edupreneurs looking to launch self-directed, Sudbury-style schools. Most of the earlier edupreneurs were not so fortunate and a primary reason may be that they launched schools based on a mission mindset as opposed to an entrepreneurial one.

This continues to be a problem today. Small, innovative schools and self-directed learning centers frequently fail or constantly teeter on the verge of collapse, often because they are driven by ideology and not by business savvy.

Some of these edupreneurs openly declare that they don’t want to embrace sound business practices, wrongly associating successful entrepreneurship with greed. They may run their school as a non-profit, arguing that they are not about maximizing revenue but are offering unmeasurable value through relationships and positive experiences.

Newsflash: Whether you run XYZ learning center or Nike, you are creating a value proposition for your clients that hinges on relationship-building and positive experiences. Relationships and positivity are not unique to non-profit edupreneurs. Clients are paying you for a product. This is a free-market exchange.

Successful edupreneurs–whether for-profit or non-profit ones–recognize that a clear and persuasive mission is an essential starting point, but if you stop there, you’ll fail. Ideology can only get you so far. Generating revenue, whether through tuition, or donors, or venture capital funds, is the key to an enduring enterprise. So here are four tips for launching–and sustaining–a successful school or learning center:

1. Go beyond mission to value.
By all means, start with a clear and powerful mission statement, but quickly move to your value proposition. Why should clients pay for your service? Why is that service special? What do you offer that your competitors don’t? When I launched my corporate training company pre-parenthood, I saw a specific need that was not being met by my competitors and I focused exclusively on a niche market. I created value for clients and built a highly profitable company with paid employees. You can do this, too.

2. Revenue should be the goal.
Some non-profit edupreneurs cringe at words like “revenue” and “profit,” but unless you have a rich uncle bankrolling your venture, you need cash. Time and again I hear from edupreneurs who tried to launch learning centers or schools and they failed because they could no longer work for free. Building a business may require sacrificing some initial income and security, but it should be temporary. Revenue should be your goal.

3. Think like an entrepreneur. 
What is the opportunity? Where are your competitors failing? Where are the gaps? Successful entrepreneurs seize that gap. They create a product or service that is new and needed. They talk to their customers and their potential customers and then they work their tails off to offer a commodity that is not currently offered–or not offered well. And yes, you are selling a commodity. Even if you are a non-profit, social entrepreneur, you are in the commodity business. Unless you are bartering, clients are paying you for a service. They are giving you money in exchange for something of value. Your job is to sell them on that value.

4. Sharpen your business skills.
A major reason why the mission-driven schools of the ’60s and ’70s failed, and why new ones continue to fail today, is that the founders focused on principle and neglected the practical. Don’t do this. Accomplished edupreneurs know how good businesses–even non-profit ones–work. They understand revenue and expenses. They know the difference between fixed and variable costs. They recognize how sales and marketing work, and why they are so important. Do you know what a balance sheet is? If not, start there before launching your enterprise.

You can avoid the fate of the earlier edupreneurs whose ventures dried up when their ideology could not sustain them long enough to pay the bills. Launching a school or a center is running a business. You are an entrepreneur. Your customers are the key to your success. You are selling a commodity.

The sooner you adopt the mindset of an entrepreneur, and embrace sound business practices, the better able you will be to create and grow the school or center of your dreams.

Originally published at Whole FamilyLearning.

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Safety Regulations Could Kill the Scooter Revolution (But They Totally Won’t)

If you live in a major city in the US, you’ve probably already borne witness to the scooter revolution.

For short distance trips down city sidewalks, the motorized, smartphone-unlockable scooters provided by companies like Bird and Lime are kicking butt and taking names. The scooters are easy to ride, easy to access (they’re just lying there on the side of the road), and easy to dispose of (again, you just leave them lying until a Bird or Lime employee comes by). Just grab and go – that seems to be what has made these scooters such a big hit.

With so many Birds and Limes already scooting around Atlanta’s Midtown district, I decided that I wanted to give one a try. I downloaded the app and headed eagerly over to a Lime scooter parked on the side of the road. I was giddy with excitement, dreams of zipping down Atlanta sidewalks scooting through my head.

Then I came upon the Terms and Conditions:

I was aghast. *No one* I had seen using these amazing scooters had been wearing a helmet. No one had been crazy enough to get off the sidewalk and onto the dangerous car-packed Atlanta streets. And since then I have seen at least a couple of couples sharing a scooter safely.

What’s more, if people actually followed these posted rules, they wouldn’t be using scooters as a way to get around in the first place. Bird and Lime and companies like them have swept the country because they have offered unmatched convenience for young people who want to get around in their cities. And the funny thing is, everything that makes Bird and Lime convenient (and successful) is either against safety regulations or against Bird and Lime’s own terms of use.

Two of these rules in particular (no doubt related to government regulations) reflect the very reasons we *haven’t* had a scooter revolution before now:

  1. Helmets – No one is walking down the street carrying a helmet on the off chance they might take a scooter ride. The beauty of scooters is their spontaneity as a transportation mechanism. You pick one up and go for as far as you need to go. You don’t *prepare* to take a scooter.
  2. No Sidewalk Riding – Simply insane. These scooters are great, but they are not roadworthy. To require people to take these electric scooters on actual roadways is like sentencing rollerbladers and skateboarders to death by car traffic also.

I didn’t take a ride that day, as I decided not to agree to terms of use I wouldn’t keep. But I was furious. These safety regulations (if followed) could stop these wonderful machines cold and kill the scooter revolution.

The key words there were “if followed.”

I may be a rule-follower, but I’ve been around long enough to know that the world needs rule-breakers. And while Bird and Lime may be taking the legally sound route of strict terms of use, their early adopters are taking the technologically-sound route of doing whatever the hell they want.

This is the great secret behind Bird and Lime’s success: no one is following the restrictive helmet and sidewalk rules, and few people ever have. Without much of a conversation, I think we have all realized that the safety regulations that would attempt to constrain the scooter revolution are ridiculous.

And this is why the safety regulations won’t succeed. In choosing to ignore them, we consumers have given fuel to a new industry that will soon be here to stay. Lyft and Uber had a rough few years of battling it out city by city against conservative local governments and corrupt taxi cartels, but they won because people prize convenience. Now the scooter revolution – also offering convenience – is here to mop up the remainders of old guard resistance against transportation innovation.

Judging by what I see on the streets, the war is already won, and with hardly a single political shot fired. The mundane (and even unintentional) mass civil disobedience of Bird and Lime users is a model of how entrepreneurship and creativity can change industries and cities for the freer. And that’s a reason to be hopeful.

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