“The Fourth Path”

Phoenix Wang and Startl

Startl likes to think of itself as the Sundance Institute for digital learning. It is a not-for-profit organization that identifies and nurtures creative new ideas in digital learning technology, helping innovator-entrepreneur teams turn these ideas into real marketable tools for learning. Part idea boot-camp, part incubator, and part marketing school, Startl has helped launch dozens of innovative new companies. Phoenix Wang, co-founder, comes to Startl with a background in education and also in social entrepreneurship, and finds that the two go hand in hand. Here she reflects on mentorship, entrepreneurial skills, and offers up a few must-reads.

How did you folks at Startl define and identify this niche and need?

There are three co-founders and managing partners in Startl and we all come from different backgrounds and have had different relationships to some of the key philanthropic investors in this space. I was program officer at the Hewlett Foundation; Diana Roton was at the National Science Foundation and also a consultant at the MacArthur Foundation; and Laurie Recine was also a consultant for the Hewlett Foundation. So through our relationships with foundations we have been involved in some of the more forward-looking projects in digital learning. We realized that there is this tremendous gap and decided that we ought to bring together investors and entrepreneurs and create a much more nurturing environment for them.

So you were in the unusual and kind of lucky position of having your funders ready – having foundations already on board?

Yeah, we already had some level of working relationship so we decided to collaborate and come together as a team. We’re funded by Hewlett, MacArthur, Gates, Kellogg and Lumina.

And then the rest of the Startl team is contractors or do you have an employee base?

We are actually a full-fledged 501(c)(3) and right now we’re a virtual organization with Diana and myself as staff, and the part-time administrative assistant.

And as you work with entrepreneurs and designers, what are you identifying as some of the key skills people need and haven’t gotten in traditional ways?

With digital media technology-based learning ideas, people often lack either strong technical development expertise or strong user experience expertise. From more of a soft skills or 21st century skills expertise standpoint, I think a lot of what’s lacking is what we call human-centered-design-thinking – being able to develop a kind of empathy for your target audience and then be able to identify the problems they face and generate creative insight into solving those problems.

Being an entrepreneur, whether you’re in education or in other certain sectors, is a very, very tough road. There are a lot of barriers and there are very few resources; having the wherewithal to persevere and also having the creative talent to mobilize people to find the kind of resources that could help you achieve the goal without a whole lot of money, is a kind of talent that is very difficult to teach in a school setting. In education in particular, the willingness and patience to work with a lot of different kinds of stakeholders.

Do you consider yourself a social entrepreneur?

I would think so. I received my Master’s in Education back in the mid-nineties and there were three paths: I could have been a teacher, an administrator, or a researcher. I chose not to be on any one of those paths. I’ve always seen myself as someone who’s trying to find creative solutions to social problems, not in the typical, conventional sense. If the label had existed 20 years ago, I probably would have gone down the social entrepreneur path.

Who have been your important mentors on that path?

A couple major influences in how I think – one is Ron Heifetz at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches leadership and talks a lot about adaptive change and systemic change. How do you solve complex social problems systemically, and what really is behavioral change? When I was a consultant at an Internet company, I had the fortune of running into a couple of executives who were very, very compassionate and also empathetic but at the same time had incredible business acumen. They taught me to look at things systemically but also find ways to get things done in spite of the complexity of problems. I think a lot of strategists come up with strategies that sound great on paper but are very difficult to execute. What I learned from these mentors is that it is one thing to analyze problems and find solutions but to find executable solutions that you can actually go out and do is a whole different kind of skill.

How would you suggest that people seek mentors or maintain those mentor relationships?

I would advise folks in their 20s to actively seek out a mentor wherever they are, whether it’s the job they’re in or an organization they belong to. It’s incredibly important. In terms of maintaining – I sought them out whenever I could. I think it’s important to see them as critical friends, and treat these folks not as business associates but as close friends to whom I could turn whenever there was a problem.

How would you define leadership?

I actually follow Ron Heifetz’s definition of leadership which is much more facilitative. Ron makes the distinction between the hero version of leadership, in which one person comes in and solves all the problems, and facilitative leadership, which is much more about creative problem solving and being able to look at the problem systemically, identify all the stakeholders, being able to unpack all the elements, tease out all the underlying issues, and then be able to propose solutions. It’s more about mobilization of people.

Any recommended reading?

One book I would recommend that everyone in the social entrepreneurship community read is Leadership on the Edge, Ron Heifetz’s first book. Also Influencer by Kerry Paterson, Here comes Everybody by Clay Shirky, From Good to Great by Jim Collins, and Drive by Daniel Pink. Also look at storytelling and how to tell great stories, because I think a lot of social entrepreneurs don’t know how to tell their stories in an effective way.