Anne grew up on a farm in Nebraska before attending Dartmouth College. She pursued her love of science and education, which led to a formative five years as a middle school science teacher. After earning a Doctor of Education degree in Education Policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Anne worked as a consultant for Harvard's Data Wise project where she helped schools around the country implement data-based improvement practices. From there, Anne became Chief Program Officer at Project Lead The Way, a national nonprofit and leading provider of STEM curriculum. She helped expand access to hands-on STEM curriculum and professional development to over 8,000 schools across the US. Anne and her husband founded District C, an organization focused on preparing our next generation of talent, leaders, workforce, community members and family members for the “three-point economy.”
Shantel: Hi, Anne. Welcome to The Imagine More Podcast.
Anne: Hey, thanks so much for having me. This is a great opportunity.
Shantel: Of course. We're so excited to learn more about your nonprofit and how you got started. And to kick things off, do you mind telling our listeners a little bit more about what District C is?
Anne: I'd love to. And actually, if you don't mind, I'll explain what we do with a bit of a story that has to do with basketball. So if I can just digress for a minute. I promise-
Shantel: Please, yeah.
| THREE POINT GAME |
Anne: I promise I'll get there. So District C, my husband and I actually co-founded District C. So we were out to dinner the other night, and we were sitting at the bar, because that's how we roll, and we were watching the TV. And on the TV comes this ESPN retrospective of the 1984 NBA Finals. And I know this is kind of going way back, but this is Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, short shorts, tall socks, seven games series. It's a legend. And so we watch the whole thing, of course. And but we walked out and we looked at each other and we said, "Oh my gosh. I don't remember seeing one three-pointer in that whole hour of highlights from this seven-game series," which seemed odd to us and to most people that follow basketball these days. So as we do, we decided to Google it. So we looked it up and come to find out, at that time, 1984, an average team in the NBA took only 2 3-point attempts per game, which is crazy when you compare that to what's going on today, where the average NBA team takes 29 3-point attempts per game. And in the WNBA, it's 23. And for those of you that follow the WNBA and the Seattle Storm ... congratulations, by the way, to the Storm ... even Breanna Stewart, who was the MVP there, 6'4" power forward, even she, the tallest player on the floor, takes 4 3-point attempts per game. So clearly, the game has changed from 1984 to today, over this roughly 40-year period. But what's also striking and important for this story is that so is the preparation. And if you look at young boys and young girls that are starting to learn how to play basketball, elementary and high school, into college, no matter how tall or short you are, you're learning to take the three, you're learning to guard the three, and you're learning the three-point offense, because it's a three-point game. And that is the reality. And if you don't have a three-point game as a player, you will not thrive at the highest levels.
Well, if sports is a metaphor for life, let me throw out sort of a sobering statistic that you and many of your listeners may be familiar with, or something similar. Gallup did a survey recently of hiring managers and executives and leaders across sectors in a number of companies, and asked them the question, "All right, how many of you think that recent college graduates ... So that's college graduates. That's 16 years of investment in time and money. How many of you think that recent college graduates are prepared with the competencies they need to work for you at your company?" 11% strongly agreed with that statement.
Anne: Yeah, wow. And so that is to say, what's happened? That seems like the alarm bells are going off, and they should be. So what is going on here? Well, people will say, "Well, it's the schools. The schools are failing our children." Well, if you look at some very interesting research by Dick Murnane and Frank Levy, who are economists from Harvard and MIT respectively, who have been doing great work around this for years, what they have found and will tell you is that schools, in fact, have been getting better at preparing students for what they needed to know and be able to do 40 years ago. So the problem is the game has changed but the preparation hasn't. We are continuing to prepare two-point shooters for a three-point economy. So what's a three-point shot? What's the three-point economy? Well, it's really clear. And actually, just yesterday the World Economic Forum came out with their Future of Jobs report, and this information is out there at the global, at the national, and frankly, where I live, also at the local level in the Triangle Region of North Carolina. There are two things that you have got to be able to do and be good at and get better at, I would say, over time.
Number one, you have to be able leverage the strengths of a diverse team. Number two, you need to be able to do that to solve complex problems. That is the three-point shot. That is the three-point economy. And it is clear. And I will tell you that the urgency around this is increasing at a rate faster than I think any of us are ready for. So what is District C? District C is focused on preparing our next generation of talent, leaders, workforce, community members, family members, for the three-point economy. We work with high school students primarily, but we are also preparing coaches. So we are working with both adults and students to get these kids ready for this three-point game, because if they are not, same as in the WBNA and the NBA, they will not be able to perform at the highest levels in their future. So that's what we do. And we feel a tremendous amount of urgency around this work.
Shantel: Well, that is amazing. And I just have so many initial questions and kind of thoughts around the analogy and ... I think it's fascinating. I think the 11% certainly stood out and made me think. Did you think some of that just comes of just the lack of faith in the younger generations because of a bad reputation, which ...
| COLLECTIVE PROCESS |
Anne: Yeah, it's a really fair question, and certainly both anecdotally and, again, just in some survey things that have been done, I do think that you hear it's the millennials get blamed. This is sort of where I've seen this mostly, in terms of articles and that kind of thing. And I think that you hear frustration around some professional etiquette, I guess is what I would say. They need to know to show up on time. They need to know what professional attire is. They need to know how to write a professional email. Those are some of the things that I hear, anyway, that creates a source of that frustration. So I think I don't know that it's the belief that they can't do the work, necessarily. I think that they sort of tie it up into, again, maybe professional skills or maybe work ethic, those sorts of things. But I do think that there's something much more than that, because I'll tell you, every student that we've worked with ... We've worked with schools from all over the Triangle. Students will come to us and say, "We have never done anything like this before." And I believe them. If you really look at the kind of work, again, back to the comment about "We're preparing kids for the two-point game," much of their schoolwork is about individual achievement, and this is about collective process. So I do think that what you're hearing from the business community may be layered. There may be more than one thing going on, certainly. But I do think that there is a real gap in the kinds of opportunities and experiences that we're providing for students as they are preparing for ... and honestly, not just their job, but certainly a part of it. But understanding that how to leverage the strengths of diverse teams and solve a complex problem is not just something you do at your job. It is something that you do as part of a family or in a friendship group or as part of your church or in a civic role. So it's bigger than that. But I do think there is a real gap.
And I will also argue I don't know that we have as clear a point of view on how to do that as I would like. And so part of what Dan and I have done with District C is also to create a very clear point of view, not only on what it is that we're doing ... so this idea of collective problem solving or working in teams to solve complex problems ... but we've really broken this down into the four mindsets that are needed to do that, being able to describe what people with those mindsets do ... so getting really specific, really concrete here, observable behavior, and also getting the kids the tools that they need to actually do this work. So certainly it's not, from our perspective, "Well, just have kids go at it. Like, here's a complex problem. Here's a team. Good luck with that." That is not our approach at all. We've actually taken a lot of time to develop a really clear point of view on the what and the how, which I think is important as well.
Shantel: Well, do you mind if we rewind just a little bit, Anne? Did you and Dan come from the background in education? When you kind of were watching this game, did the idea just kind of hit you guys from that or ... Let's rewind a bit.
Anne: No, I wish I had a great sort of lightning moment story. We don't. We both are from education backgrounds. Dan taught high school physics. I taught middle school science, both sixth-grade physical and eighth-grade earth science. And we also both were part of organizations and businesses, so sort of moving throughout the sort of career trajectory for both of us. And I mention that because we saw this before we sort of jumped into this whole entrepreneurial endeavor here. We saw this problem from both sides. So we saw it from the perspective of the classroom and the students. And while neither of us were doing District C as teachers, because that hadn't occurred to us yet, there were certainly elements that we can point back to around giving kids agency and putting them in a position where they can solve problems and not being afraid of things that are a little messier. We can certainly point back to that and see the power at sort of the individual student impact level. But also, as hiring managers, Dan worked in for-profit education. I worked in nonprofit education. Both of us had teams and responsible for both hiring and growing and building those teams, and also really felt that, this need that when you're going out to do the hiring, you know exactly what you want. You want the people that can work in teams to solve complex problems. That is the best candidate you can find. And we understood how hard that was to find them. So yes to your question about coming from an education background.
Actually, often when we talk to people in education, they say to us, "You sound like businesspeople," because we certainly are thinking about this in a different and a new way, and I think much more aligned not sort of maybe with sort of the traditional decisions that education companies or folks have made, but really giving ourself the entrepreneurial freedom to be completely innovative and say, "All right, look. If we need three-point shooters and not two-point shooters, let's free ourselves of all the kind of structures of school for the time being." Obviously, we understand that is where all the kids are, and we have to address that. But we really did. We gave ourselves the freedom to do that and build this model in a way that we really felt like would prepare students for this three-point economy.
Shantel: I think that's great. And I'm also glad you touched on the kind of what the traditional model has been. And I'm curious what the adoption and the sentiment has been with the system and the teachers today, because I do think, just from a disruption standpoint, it's different. And this is a very old, traditional way of doing things, how school has been in the past. Have you felt some tension when you're introducing this to teachers and schools?
| ENTREPRENEURIAL THINKERS |
Anne: Yeah. I will say two answers to that. In the Triangle area, I have to say we have found folks that get this, that care deeply about it, that understand it may require folks to do some things differently. But they know the importance of this work for the students and are making those changes happen. It's been incredibly heartening. I have to say I know that sort of on average in the national conversation, the conversation's not so positive about schools and teachers. And I certainly understand that. I certainly understand also, as being a part of that system, some of the reasons behind all that.
But there are also a lot of very, I would say, entrepreneurial thinkers in education. And we actually this summer worked with our first 10 teachers. And they came to us from around the Triangle. And the first thing that we had them do was actually do the work that our students do. So in short, we put them in teams of four, which call C Squads. So that was, in this case, four teachers from four different schools. For our students, that's four students from four different schools. And then we have those C Squads partner with a local business and solve a problem for that business, which this summer was a wonderful, amazing pay-what-you-can cafe called A Place at the Table, founded by Maggie Kane in downtown Raleigh. And so our teachers spent a week coached by us, learning again these mindsets and tools for collective problem solving. And they brought, at the end of the week, Maggie and her team a solution that actually she did, like a week later. It was remarkable. And she has seen real results for her company. Now, I tell that story, going back, because when they were pitching their solution to Maggie and a member of their board named Beth, they were just having all these light bulbs go off as the teachers were really sort of unpacking the problem and sort of reshaping the problem and explaining their solution and how this would add value and how they would actually execute against this idea. And they were just delighted ... I wish you could've seen the look on their face ... and so excited and so energized and so into it, and asking the teachers a ton of questions about how and why and when and ... It was just really a powerful conversation. And Beth turned around and she looked at me and she said, "Uh, they are such teachers." And you know what really struck me about that was, again, oftentimes when people say that they mean something pretty negative. But what Beth meant when she said that was they're entrepreneurial. They are deep, critical thinkers. They are thoughtful. They are empathetic. They are energized. They are change makers. They are making a difference. And I'll tell you what. Those are the kinds of teachers and schools that we are meeting, that are doing this work with us. And it is absolutely exciting and heartening.
Now, I said I'd give two answers to that question. There are also certainly folks that we are meeting ... and I would say that what they feel isn't that this work is important. They understand, too, that this work is important for students. And again, if they are going to be able to thrive in the three-point economy, they agree this is stuff that they need to be helping students with. And they want to do more. The other group just is feeling like they don't have a way forward. And again, I understand that. And my hope is that as we began to sort of work with these early adopters, some of the obstacles, some of the challenges, some of the things that need to be changed, we can figure that out, which sort of starts to clear the path and make it easier. And I also think, just sort of also creating some momentum around this work. I tell you what. Doing things differently is scary, not just for us as entrepreneurs but for schools and for teachers. And there's a lot of things that they have to do and are expected to do. And that's just the reality. So sort of taking this leap of faith and trying to find a way to do something different is not easy. And so while those folks are ... we do have that group of people. We also believe they're still listening. And it's not that they don't want to find a way forward. It's just that they need a little time or a little more support or to have a more clear path on how to do this. And we also hope as we work with our early adopter school partners that we'll be able to sort of continue to clear that path forward for all schools.
Shantel: I think that's certainly fair, and I appreciate you kind of leaning on both perspectives. And it sounds like you have a very good grasp of how, because of your experience, how people could feel and what the reaction'll be and how you guys can help navigate them through. When you and Dan are launching District C, did you experience a little bit of that chicken-before-the-egg-type scenario, where you needed teachers, you needed students, and you also needed that business with a problem? So how did you go about tackling that? Where did you go first?
| STICK WITH IT |
Anne: That's a great question, and the answer is yes. It's a delicate dance. Everything's kind of got to line up at the right time. So we actually had our first students about a year and a half ago, coming up on two years ago. This is just how life works. In the case of the school, it was an introduction to an introduction to an introduction, maybe even a fourth layer there. We were eventually introduced to the North Carolina School of Science and Math, and particularly their online program. And I'll say to the entrepreneurs out there, "Stick with it." This was a classic case where we met the first person and they're like, "Yeah, that's great. Let me introduce you to some people," which is nice, but usually you want to come out of those conversations with a "I want to work with you" as opposed to "Let me introduce you to some people." And after about the third time, "Oh, that's great. Let me introduce you to some people," Dan and I really did kind of walk out of that conversation and say, "Oh my gosh. Is ... Like, do we just need to stop pursuing this trail? Like, after just so many times getting handed off, when does it end?" And I said, "No. We need to do this. We need to go." And we met Melissa Thibault and Kendall Hageman from NCSSM. And bam. Again, you just ... these moments of magic. You know in the first two minutes of talking to people that, again, they get it and they're there and they want to find a way. And that was the case.
And so we worked with them, and our whole first cohort of students actually all came from NCSSM Online. But because of the way that program is structured, their students are already coming from different schools all over the area. So we were still able to hold to our model, which was this idea of four students from four different schools. We also got very lucky on the business. And we were not finding a business. And some of that was on us because we were still really in that place of churn, where we were trying to figure out kind of what's the right business to even approach. So I think there were a few sort of false starts and iterations in terms of that. But again, just this is the making of penicillin, I think. But my husband had to go buy running shoes. And so we went to Fleet Feet Sports, because they're best. We walked into the store. And my husband is a really slow shopper, which I say because this actually was important because it gave me time, while he was working with one of the sales associates getting his shoes, it gave me time to strike up a conversation with a man named Matt Logan, who was really at that time involved with their community outreach. And 45 minutes later, Dan has his shoes and we had a business partner. And they said, "We love it. We want ... We want to bring a problem to your students." And in fact, Fleet Feet, I think at this point they've provided three or four different problems for different cohorts of students and, again, have implemented those solutions and gotten back to us and said, "This is making a difference in our business." So incredibly grateful for that partnership.
And the third piece of the equation, we haven't touched on yet, but it's very important. It's where we do this work. And there's two answers to that question. But this work is sort of bookended by in person. So basically, in short, one of the problem cycles would be these students, again from these squads, so four students from four different schools, they show up on a Saturday. They've never met each other before, and they spend a full day Saturday in person getting coached by us, and at the end of the day meeting a businessperson they've never met before, a business they maybe have not heard of. And that's where this all starts. They they go away for about three, three and a half weeks. And their work between that first day, called Launch Day, and what we call Pitch Night, where they come back to the business, which is also in person, that whole time in between is done virtually, because remember, these kids are from all over. So they could be an hour's more drive apart. So they use the Google products. They use Google Drive and Google Hangouts. But where this work happens on those face-to-face times was hugely important to us.
And here's how we got that partnership. We walked in and met with a gentleman whose name is Christopher Gergen. And Christopher Gergen is an amazing leader and involved in many things in the North Carolina Triangle area. And one of the things that he started and is deeply invested in is called HQ Raleigh. And HQ is a coworking space, but I want to emphasize that it is a community first and foremost, unlike, frankly, any coworking space that I've been in. And we sat down with Christopher Gergen and started to explain this idea. And again, he clearly got it. And he started telling us about HQ. And it was such a fit. HQ is a community of entrepreneurs who meet and talk and work with each other. It isn't just a real estate play. It isn't just a series of offices that happen to be rented out to small startups. It is truly a community. And you walk into that place and you just know, and you just feel it. And Christopher said, "Anything we can do to help, let us know." So the work started with NCSSM and Fleet Feet and at HQ. And all of these groups have continued to be amazing partners. And the chance that they took on us was amazing. They didn't know us. We were just starting to work. And I can't stress enough the importance of finding those early champions and the people that are really willing to take that chance on you and do this work with you. It just doesn't happen without those first partnerships and relationships.
Shantel: Absolutely. I think, one, though it certainly speaks volumes for the work that you guys are doing, and people believed in you and in that vision. And I think that goes back to you being able to articulate that and really feel passionate about it, but then also being in the right place at the right time and, like you mentioned, Dan spending 45 minutes in a shoe store. It's the small moments and having such big impact, which I think we need to reflect on that sometimes.
| THE LITTLE THINGS MAKE THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCE |
Anne: One of our students, I was just talking to him. He's actually an alum of our program at this point. And he said to me, he said, "You know, I really understand now that it's, it's the little things that make the biggest difference." I said, "Mm. Right on." It is so true. It's those moments that are many times unexpected or unanticipated that can make a big change. And going back to Christopher Gergen for a second, he's written a wonderful book on entrepreneurship, really kind of thinking about your life through the lens of entrepreneurship. And one of the many key messages I took away from that book was, as entrepreneurs you have to really stay open to these kinds of things. And you want to have a sense, a clear sense, a clear North Star of where you're headed. But you also really have to be able to sort of continue to take all of the information in and make decisions that maybe weren't decisions you thought you were going to be making. But this idea of kind of following the opportunities and ... Those things happen all the time, as a business in an early startup phase and ... There's no right answer. Some you say no to. Some you say yes to. But they really do usually become part of the story years later.
Shantel: Absolutely. And I just have a couple more questions for you, to wrap things up. I'm just curious, as newer company, is there something when you and Dan ventured out that you weren't expecting to happen when you first started and you kind of took on this journey of being an entrepreneur?
Anne: Yeah. I'll tell you what has been such a happy surprise in this. I should have known this, but I just didn't. How much we enjoy and are inspired by and humbled by the businesses and the entrepreneurs we work with. I guess I would say it wasn't that we didn't realize or think we would enjoy or learn from the businesses. I think we knew that. It has more to do with sort of the order of magnitude. We both have worked with students and had the great opportunity to work with teachers and adults through professional training and professional development. So that part we knew, and we knew how deeply those experiences can really impact us. But the chance to meet these folks who are just out there every day, putting it all on the line to do these businesses and make a difference in their communities and for their employees and the products that they have, it's been one of the coolest parts of the work. And we just did not realize how much we would actually enjoy and be impacted by them as well.
Shantel: It is so nice to be surrounded by other driven entrepreneurs. And I kind of put in air quotes the people that just get it. And I know that's very basic and sounds kind of silly, but it's nice to be able to lean on other people or hear the true pain points of a business. And I imagine when they present this problem to the squads, you're kind of hearing maybe "I went though something similar" or "Wow, I didn't know that a business like that could be feeling the same things." So I imagine just having that camaraderie is really impactful.
Anne: It is. It is. And just inspiring. One business we worked with, who is now a board member for us, is Jess Ekstrom and Headbands of Hope. Hearing her story, which is a model where if you buy a headband, that headband goes to a child with cancer, and again her story to get to this point and to create this business and to continue to grow it, that's ... and Maggie, at A Place at the Table, and Raymond with Appliable, which is a new software that he's designing that is really taking head on the idea of racial bias in hiring. These folks are taking on real, serious problems. And I don't know. It's been really inspiring for us.
Shantel: Well, how can people help? And how can people get in touch and learn more and even help from the community that they're in?
Anne: That's a great question. Our website is just districtc.co. I'd watch your autofill, because it will want to make it a dot-com, but it is a dot-co. We really, really want people to begin to learn more about this. So I think the first piece is come test us out. Bring all the healthy skepticism you can. Have a look at our website. If you're around the area in North Carolina Triangle, come to one of our events. Hear our students pitch those solutions back to the companies. See it for yourself. The work is powerful. And the work is really different. And so I think the importance of seeing it, whether that be through a video online on our website or actually having the chance to come in person, is really important. And talk about it. Again, for our schools, for all of our schools to be able to do this, we have got to create the ecosystem to support this work. This is going to take, yes, schools. But it's also going to take higher ed partners saying, "This work matters. And we want students. We have invested in this three-point game." We need businesses who are saying, "We want to get kids started. We want ... We see teachers and students as value to the community, right? Not just in 10 years, but today. We understand that students can solve problems, that teachers can solve problems and add real value right now." That is not how we necessarily orient right now, when we think about our students and our teachers and our schools. So what people can do is begin to learn about this work, hopefully be able to see it, understand it, and help us get this message out. I think that is probably the most important thing nationally that we can do.
And again, if you're local, if you are a business and you are in and you have a problem that you would love for us to solve, get in touch. If you are a student and a parent right now in the Triangle area that says, "I want to invest in this," get in touch. Go to your school board. Go to your principal. Let them know this work matters. It is really going to take a team effort. We actually call this movement First in Talent. And we really believe, here in the Triangle we can be the first region to really model how to do this, to prepare all of our students, all of our community members, for the three-point economy.
Shantel: Well, I am so honored and thankful that you carved out the time to be on the podcast, because you're doing such amazing work. And I'm excited to help spread the message and help however we can. I appreciate you being on the show.
Anne: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed this.