From Ramen to Real Change
In June 2020, a software entrepreneur, nonprofit guru, Microsoft maverick, long-time education industry insider, and Harvard-educated lawyer-turned-dean came together over Zoom and noodles.
Their worry? College kids and chicken karāge.
Their goal? Virtually (pun intended) flip the nonprofit sector on its head — one step, or slurp, at a time.
Their creation: Normal Next — a network of seasoned executives, entrepreneurs, and young leaders from diverse backgrounds dedicated to helping the world thrive through profound economic, social, and environmental turbulence. In other words, a recipe for delicious change-making.
A bit more background
The roots of the program began in June 2020 when we realized that many of the most promising students in higher education had lost their summer internships because of COVID-19. Within two weeks, we assembled a team of interns from UNC-Chapel Hill, Dartmouth, Emory, King’s College (London), and the University of Virginia.
We began meeting with them online each morning for check-ins and providing pilot training in disciplines that the Normal>Next principals had experience in and knew to be transformative: design thinking, organization behavior, closed-loop feedback, and more. Students then self-organized into teams to work on projects that the principals had been asked to do on issues ranging from COVID-19 response by foundations to engaging virtual cohorts of local leaders focused on health equity, to conducting oral interviews and creating the design concept for a new type of music museum that would bring a community together by showing how blues, jazz, and rock derive from and benefit from one another.
Three things stood out from our first experience:
Student teams were able to actually advance the agenda on three important initiatives;
They achieved this in eight weeks;
They acquired a set of core skills that allows them to be redeployed (or redeploy themselves) in a self-organizing way on future initiatives without heavy additional training.
We are seeking funding to formalize the design, try out a 3-month work period, and seek input and support from additional senior leaders and foundations as we prepare to widen our reach.
This project focuses on students who are still in school (even if on leave) and does not place them in organizations, rather focuses them on specific projects on teams for defined periods of time, working remotely, together.
The inter-disciplinary skills required to mobilize complex change are hard to teach in traditional siloed academic environments. This has become more apparent as colleges and universities face increasing stresses related to cost, access, and effectiveness in equipping students for thriving lives and careers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated pressure on higher education, resulting in a proactive shift to fully online classes and large numbers of students deferring enrollment.
These factors are resulting in large numbers of high-potential students who are poorly engaged in learning the practical, hands-on skills required to be effective agents of change. Our program puts these students to work.
Instead of a typical internship model, where most work is apprenticeship-based and often has little lasting impact, in a time when understanding and creating change is vital, the program’s projects are designed by senior sponsors to focus on real-world problems in a context where the teams have practical and oftentimes pivotal value in addressing complex challenges.
The goal is to demonstrate how the program can unleash the idle potential of the most promising undergrad and graduate students in a way that demonstrates new forms of experiential education that both engages students and develops the leadership skills they will need for the 21st century.
Key among the design elements of the program is showing how equitably engaging diverse and inclusive teams is not only the right thing to do morally and ethically, but also the smart thing to do for liberating the skills and perspectives needed to solve society’s most difficult challenges.
We are driven to focus and act now by the urgency of the moment. There isn’t time to hold back even if we wanted to.
Leadership team experience
Our 5-person founding team has deep experience in addressing complex challenges and launching initiatives that have gone to scale. We have created and operated several systems-changing platforms (both within large organizations and as separate startups) in a wide variety of sectors including crowdfunding, feedback, enterprise technology, educational technology, publishing, and lifelong learning. Our team members have taught at the secondary school, university, and corporate levels, and one has been a dean and academic administrator, as well as having long experience in educational policy.
We bring extensive experience in design thinking, entrepreneurship, organizational behavior, innovation, strategy, economics, law, public policy, creation of communities of practice, and technology. We have worked in the private sector, public sector, and the nonprofit world.