I’ve never been ashamed of my education, but it’s a tricky topic in business circles.
That’s because I dropped out.
Not once, not twice, but three times before reaching 25. I don’t suggest it to others, and it’s potentially the most dangerous life decision you can make. But in my case, for unusual reasons, I got more from quitting school than I could possibly have achieved by staying put. And each time I bailed, I left the building practically bouncing across the lawn with a smile across my face.
Here’s a quick review:
The first time, I had just turned 17 and was midway through my Junior year. Within months, I was following the Grateful Dead up and down the East Coast. Before long, I was waiting tables and living at my Mother’s house. Eek!
The second time was while at the University of Memphis and I felt like I just HAD to get out of the South. I packed up and moved to Chicago. A year later, I was teaching myself HTML, Java and Visual Fox Pro. Things were looking up.
The third time, I was 1 full load away from finally graduating Columbia College. I’d just sold my 2nd company and was eager to start a new one. Within months, I received my first 5-figure check. College was already a shadow.
Choosing not to enroll in higher education when you have the ability to go means never knowing what you missed, whilst narrowing your field of awareness. University and college education are launchpads from which you can mature in a safe container, access an infinite supply of knowledge, and find inspiration, relationships, ideas and career tracks to follow.
I spent over 7 years in college, several while enrolled in just one class at a time. I travelled the world on study abroad programs, lived on and off-campus, worked day and night jobs, and crammed for finals like any other kid. Meanwhile, I started creating businesses to reduce my dependence on student loans. Some worked, some didn’t. But I never would have succeeded in business without the self-discipline and constructive reasoning I picked up in school.
Dropping out also created a world of hardship. I’ve been passed over for dream jobs because I didn’t have a degree. I can’t sign up for Singularity University, which drives me nuts! And perhaps the most painful blow: no school in America will allow me to teach full time. But through it all, the pros have always outweighed the cons.
You Are Your Education
I was 1 of 5 children. Dad had a voracious appetite for new experiences, and that meant every summer we packed up our stuffed animals and loaded in the car. When I was 3, we lived in an Airstream camper that my parents drove all over the United States. At 4, we lived in Ringgold, Georgia. At 5, Walterborough, South Carolina. At 6, Memphis, Tennessee. By the time I was in 3rd grade, we’d lived in more places than I can recount now.
After a year living on Ebeye, my parents split. We returned to the USA mainland, but the annual relocation continued. Instead of moving from region to region, we moved from one neighborhood to another in Memphis, Tennessee. I attended public, private, experimental and religious schools, and was often transferring. Later I learned that many moves were related to missed rent payments. With each passing year, we swung from one extreme (food stamps and shared bedrooms) to another (private schools and extra-curricular activities).
The schools I attended weren’t able to read the signs. I made mostly C’s and D’s. From 4th grade on, I was suspended over and over for behavior problems. I never had many friends due to our moves. It didn’t help that I spoke with a lisp, had a straying eye, and very little self confidence. In today’s system, I would have been singled-out, supported and encouraged. I would have been put on an IEP and assigned resources. But it was the 80’s.
Both parents held lead roles in their respective fields, and both were among the first in their families to complete college. My father earned degrees in medicine and psychology from Princeton. To him, a degree was necessary to escape his roots and become something more. Mother carried an MSN, but had a very different perspective. Dad was raised by soldiers. My mother, by entrepreneurs. As we signed the papers in front of a glaring Vice Principal, she said “Well, your grandfather dropped out, and he turned out just fine”. And I took it to heart, because my grandfather seemed to me to have been the most successful man I’d known.
Now Put It to Work
I am a strategist and community organizer. Always have been. You could say that I am the opposite of a “self-made” man. Regardless of my title, I help people who want to come together, make a plan, get to work, and improve the lives of others. I can’t really say that “I” create the outcomes at all. Whatever is missing, WE find. Whatever is possible, WE do. Sometimes WE are building up businesses, sometimes neighborhoods. Investing in communities means investing in people, and there is no work on earth that is more rewarding. My own success, even with those early startups, can be mostly attributed to what I call “Community Investment Marketing”. It is my specialty and the secret to my results, but its also a direct product of my experiences in dropping out.
Over the years I’ve been fortunate to work with companies who understood my approach and model. It began in Chicago in 2004, when executives from Promethean attended an awards ceremony I produced for the Black Star Project. Led by Phillip Jackson, BSP was the only organization on the radar that was getting notable results from their programs that exposed and reduced the racial academic achievement gap in Chicago area schools. What made the whole event work was an awards program for Principals who were making strides, outside of the spotlight. During an intermission, Mark Elliott, only 2 weeks on the job as President of Promethean USA, approached and asked if I would bid for the company’s PR contract.
I told him I didn’t know much about PR.
In response, he gestured to the row of TV cameras in the room. Promethean had been operating in the USA for over a year and seen very little press. In one week, pairing one of his distributors (hat tip to Cynthia Nielsen-Morgan) with the Black Star Project had produced a flow of results. After the event, Debbie Yasenka, also new to Promethean, encouraged her colleagues to take a chance on the kid with a community marketing idea. The next year, the unthinkable happened. Promethean helped me turn years of shelved or minimally applied local community investment ideas into a scaled system that supported Promethean sales.
But I had tough criteria. They had to agree to go with a community events and investment model. No brand wear, brochures or sales pitching. They had to allow me to spend half of my time inside of classrooms and community institutions, and allow independent relationships with their customers. During the next 5 years we created over 200 classroom and community events and invested in awards and donations. The end result was thousands of mainstream TV news features in every media market in the US. Add in the magazine and newspaper features, and Promethean enjoyed more mainstream coverage than any other company dedicated to K12.
Time to Drop Out Again
Fast forward. It’s been 12 years since that night and I’ve been fortunate to work with many of the best companies and cultures in K12. These include Qwizdom, Evernote, Livescribe, Schoolnet, Solution Tree, Polyvision, Alive Studios, PSS, Boxlight, Excent, and many others have all embraced, in different ways, the community investment model. From funding individuals and projects (like Adora Svitak and John Hunter), to deeper partnerships such as Sharon Campbell’s “Spaceship Classroom”, I never found another company willing to go as deep in as Promethean, and in 2012, I closed the community marketing agency that Mark Elliott’s vision helped us build.
My next move was to get closer in. For a few years, I engaged in interim and long-term executive appointments, only to find myself more restless than ever. On July 8th, I chose to leave the classroom technology market for good. I’ve reached a clear limit in what I can do from inside of corporations, and it’s been a blessing.
I’ve seen and heard too much. Companies will participate, but by no means will usher in the changes that need to take place now. And lets be honest: much of what needs to change does not sync with their (understandable) agendas.
My Short Term Plan (for dropping out of corporate Edtech)
So I am being called back to the core. Back to who I am, what I stand for, and what I was born to do. I’ll need an army of compassionate warriors, so if you’ve just read this, please send me a note. No matter who you are, if you want to strike deep into the heart of the matter and make a difference, we should talk.
Step 1: Write a Book
My first book focuses on today’s Edtech “marketplace” and asks the reader to examine how classroom technology is made, marketed, sold and supported in the United States. Along our path we’ll meet students, parents, teachers, principals, salespeople, software developers, executives, investors, consultants and do-gooders of all kinds. Each have a personal relationship with the end products we are consuming right now, and each of their experiences connect like dots a map. With an understanding in place, I will share visions and warnings about how corporate brands can directly impact our learning communities. We’ll look at where innovation is taking place, be honest about where it is not, and reframe the promise of educational technology in terms of human rights and equal access. Its coming this fall.
Step 2: Launch New Media
I’ve been studying the teacher-leaning media culture in the USA for over a decade. We all know print media has largely declined and online media has flourished. In most markets, innovation has given rise to a “new normal” which meets the people’s and the publisher’s needs. But in education, we’re lost. It seems that we define ourselves in buzzwords, products and how-to’s. The soul of teaching and the gritty truths that educators face are not represented. I want to do something about that, and its coming in January.
Step 3: Get Busy Doing What I Do Best
Anyone who has worked with me knows that I am a voracious problem solver and conceptualization strategist. But to really make an impact, you need a team and a cheering crowd. So with a number of micro-projects underway, I’m now readying for the epic one. Here are some examples of my past work in community development, to give you ideas of to invite me to work with you:
- Get the network and resources you need
- Get the funding/partnerships/community buy-in you need
- Make that event happen, or make that idea turn into something
- Design, develop and/or launch that immersion, classroom or school
- Extend something that works in your school to the whole community
My only rule is to stay away from any projects which involve me selling or helping to sell a classroom technology product. If you are on the business side, here are a few “old reliables” to jog your thinking on how to work with me:
- Termed marketing outreach campaigns
- Web & app development projects
- Digital initiatives from top to bottom
- Strategy & business plan development
- Business & marketing plan auditing
- Behavioral trends analysis & reporting
- Branding/Design/Digital Creative projects
Gosh! That was a lot! Thanks for reading…