I’ve been thinking a lot about the college cheating scandal. As a poor kid, higher education was the ticket I chose to build a better life for myself as an adult. I worked incredibly hard in high school and I was so fortunate to have an amazing guidance counselor.
My college tuition was more than my mother’s annual salary. I am forever grateful to Penn that they had need-blind admission and that they had (and continue to have) a guarantee to meet 100% of a student’s need through loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study.
I worked 3+ jobs all through college. It was tremendously difficult to be a student who struggled financially in a school full of privilege. That shame left a scar that took years into my adult life to heal. I’ve learned to be proud of those scars; they show what I survived.
Now w/ college 20 years in my rear view mirror, a graduate degree from the Darden School (another wonderful school), and currently enrolled in a second graduate degree in biomimicry at The Biomimicry Center at Arizona State University. I understand the pressure to get into a top school and the opportunities it affords.
What’s most tragic to me about this college cheating scandal is how many students there are today who are in the same boat I was in at 18 years old. How many spots were taken from them at these colleges by people who had parents pay their way in? That loss is what hurts most.
My great hope is that this situation will lead to greater equity in higher education. I’m living proof that it is a path to a better life, and it’s an opportunity that should be open to all who are willing to work for it, regardless of the financial status of their parents.
I’m so excited to share that I’m joining Cornell Tech as a Critique Advisor for their Fall Product Studio Course. During the course, students answer “How Might We Challenges” posed by leading startups, companies, and organizations. Students use their learnings from the course to develop their ideas and products, demo a compelling product narrative, and validate their product with users.
To aid in this process, students participate in weekly critique sessions with external practitioners to drive momentum and receive validation, feedback, and critique. These practitioners are active, product owners, technical managers, and entrepreneurs in New York City who come to campus to provide practical feedback and instruction, encourage progress, and help address any blockers or risks the students are facing.
I’m so excited to use my work as a product leader and practitioner to help these incredible students. To learn more about Cornell Tech’s exciting new campus on New York’s Roosevelt Island, see my earlier post about the grand opening last month.
I’ve been doing a lot of research on career planning as I craft the materials for ACanofCoke.com, my program to provide college- and career-readiness guidance to high school and college students who need additional support. I came across Mike Rowe’s video entitled “Don’t follow your passion. Do this instead.” I don’t agree with his entire outlook though I think his point has value. I think passion is an important part of building a life and career that brings us happiness and fulfillment. But passion isn’t enough; it’s only one part of a more complex equation:
Passion + ability + opportunity = a career (and life) worth having
Identify what you love to do. Evaluate whether or not that’s where your talent lies, or where it could lie with practice and a strong work ethic. Determine the size of the opportunity that could utilize your passion and talent, or develop a plan that creates that opportunity if it doesn’t exist.
Building each piece of the left side of that equation isn’t easy, though it’s the only way to turn that right side from a dream into a reality.
Exactly two months ago, I decided to try to make ACanofCoke.com, my online college- and career-readiness service, a reality. This week I scheduled meetings with 3 NYC public high school principals to talk about doing a pilot with their students this summer and fall. It took emailing 398 principals to get this response. Hey if it’s a numbers game, then I’m ready to play.
The mission of this idea matters so much to me that I’m not bothered by the rejection. I could look at this as ~1% of the schools I emailed are interested or I could see it as ~99% aren’t. I’m going with the former.
Rejection is a part of business, art, and life. We will be rejected far more often than we are accepted – at least that’s been my experience and the experience of just about everyone I know. It’s not the amount of failure we endure, but the persistence and passion that matter most. As Babe Ruth once said, “It’s tough to beat someone who never gives up.” Keep going.
F*ck it. I’m going for it. I’ve been kicking around the idea for a new business I’d like to start, and after several months of gnashing my teeth and wringing my hands, I decided I’m just going to do it. As I’ve mentioned several times, I was lucky to have an amazing guidance counselor, Jim Wherry, when I was in high school. I’ve learned over the last few months that I was luckier than I thought. In some schools, the ratio of guidance counselors to students is 1:500. And though we spend thousands of dollars every year per student on educating them, we spend the equivalent of a can of Coke per student on guidance counselors. A can of Coke. Bill Symonds, Director of the Global Pathways Institute, calls this “the black hole in the American education system.” I can’t get that idea out of my mind so I decided to embrace it and do something about it.
My therapist, Brian, once said to me that the best way for me to make my past mean something is to pay it forward. I think about how hard I worked and how much I struggled as a student and as a young adult. I think about the free lunch program that I was simultaneously grateful for and embarrassed by. I worked, and worked, and worked so that my life as an adult could be more secure than my life as a child. I think about the fact that despite my many hardships, there are far too many kids today who are in the same boat or even worse off. The boy I met on the streets of D.C. a few nights ago is a prime example of the people who need me to make this business a reality. Every student deserves to have a Jim Wherry. And I’m going to find a way to make that possible while also creating a company that creates jobs and has the kindest, bravest, most passionate, and most respectful culture imaginable because our work is something we should love to do. Our kids all across this country need us to stand up for them and support them as they make their way in a world that is becoming an increasingly difficult place. This is my act of resistance.
That’s my side hustle for now that I hope becomes a full-time venture over time. I’ll still need to work full-time in another job I enjoy (and let’s face it, the world is now full of opportunities for me to do good work) so that I don’t have to worry about money while I build this new idea. And that’s A-OK with me because I want to do what’s right for our kids without making choices based on my own personal finances.
So here we go back into the world of entrepreneurship, and this time a little older, hopefully a little wiser, and just as determined to use my business skills to build a passion project that builds a better world.
If you’d like to offer advice, help, ideas, or encouragement, I’ll take them.
I recently took an Amtrak train up to New York for a long weekend. I love the train for many reasons, especially because it gives me a chance to roll past my alma mater – the University of Pennsylvania. I always get a little teary eyed. Those years were hard for me. I learned a lot. Struggled a lot. Grew a lot. And growth is often painful. It’s uncomfortable to become something. It’s scary and difficult. And yet, it must be done. To become the people we’re meant to be, we have to grow and evolve. We need to learn hard, painful lessons about life, about the world, and about ourselves. Sometimes I think it’s a miracle of the highest order that I even survived. Do I wear my diploma like a badge of honor? You bet I do. I earned every letter of that sucker and then some. I wouldn’t want to do it over again, and yet I’m grateful for it. It taught me to stare into the fire and smile instead of flinch. And that kind of strength is invaluable. It erases fear.
Last night, I volunteered at 826DC to help teens with their college essays. It turned out that the essays were the least of their issues. The student I was helping turned to me at one point and said, “I’m so overwhelmed. I know I need to do this and I don’t know what I’m doing and I don’t have anyone to help me.” She’s the first person in her family to go to college, she doesn’t have a guidance counselor who cares, and she feels a lot of pressure from her family to make this happen.
This interaction brought back all those feelings for me. I was incredibly fortunate to have a guidance counselor, Mr. Weary, who did so much to help me. I knew he was in my corner and he was rooting for me every step of the way. (When I didn’t get into Princeton, my first choice school, he called their admissions office and gave them a piece of his mind. That’s how invested he was!) He was a gift and I knew it.
Not everyone has a Mr. Weary so in that moment at 826DC, I decided that I needed to play that role for this student. We each took a deep breath, and we went through the online application step by step. It wasn’t difficult to explain the parts of the application; this student just needed someone, anyone, to be in this with her.
Then we got to the financial section and she got really nervous. She doesn’t want to take loans. To her, debt is a frightening prospect. And I get that, too. I started working at 14 to help my family, and then I put myself through college and grad school thanks to financial aid of every conceivable kind and a lot of part-time jobs in college. I know debt is scary though when it comes to college, it seems to be a part o every solution in which parents aren’t paying outright for college. I don’t know if I convinced her to reconsider this idea, but at least I could offer myself as an example of someone who was in her shoes and worked hard to get into and through school.
As I walked home, I thought about what I could do to help more students and parents, particularly ones who feel overwhelmed by all of it. And then I got myself caught in the train of thought that senior year is too late. Student need to have their eyes on the prize of college in late middle school and early high school. They need to learn about how to get in, how to stay in, how to graduate, and how to pay for all of it while keeping themselves healthy and sane during an insanely stressful time in their lives. Education, writing, yoga and meditation, finance, technology, and healthcare. I have all that professional experience, and I’ve been where those students are. And I know what it’s like to climb the mountain and then enjoy the view you never even dreamed was possible.
If you have ideas of how I could do more for students like the one I helped at 826DC, I’d love to hear them.