From Ramen to Real Change
In June 2020, five people gathered over Zoom and Ramen. Who were these people? A software engineer, a nonprofit guru, a Microsoft maverick, a long-time education insider, and a Harvard-educated lawyer-turned-dean.
What did they discuss? Their worries about college kids and Chicken Karaage.
What was their goal? To flip the nonprofit sector on its head - one step 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 transformational change-making.
A bit more background
The origins of Normal Next began in June 2020 when we realized that many of the most promising students in higher education had lost their summer internships due to COVID-19. Within two weeks of launching, we assembled a team of interns from UNC-Chapel Hill, Dartmouth, Emory, King’s College London, and the University of Virginia.
We began virtual meetings with the associates (this title change became a large aspect of our program, that these young people are not just “interns” but rather an integral part of the Normal Next ecosystem and evolving network.) online each morning for check-ins and providing pilot training in disciplines that the Normal Next principals were experienced in and knew to be transformative. Some of the ‘modules” included: design thinking, organization behavior, closed feedback loops, and more.
The associates would then go on to work on outside projects that Normal Next had been hired to accomplish. The work would be an entirely collaborative effort, utilizing Zoom meetings as well as independent work. These projects focused on issues ranging from COVID-19 response by foundations to engaging virtual cohorts of health-equity leaders, to conducting oral interviews and creating the design concept for a new type of music museum that would bring a community together by demonstrating the interconnected roots of blues, jazz, and rock.
We found three stand-out aspects from our first cohort:
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.
Since our first cohort, we have had nine (soon to be ten) additional cohorts, where we have formalized the structure into a three-month internship, where associates work collaboratively to either create a new product for a client or continue to pursue an agenda set by a previous cohort.
This project focuses on students who are still in school (even if on leave), or recent grads preparing for their next steps, and does not place them in organizations, rather focuses them on specific projects on teams for defined periods of time, working remotely, together.
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 engage 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.