2012-10-03-teacherpreneurs
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What it Takes to be a Teacherpreneur

How teacher/entrepreneurs are doing what teachers have always done best: innovate and reinvent

Entrepreneurial guru Eric Reis put it something like this: Centuries from now people will laugh about entrepreneurship today, the way we laugh at other industries and processes that were getting their start a century ago. What we know of entrepreneurship today is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Here's the first long-standing question: Is an entrepreneur born or can people learn entrepreneurship and adopt the necessary characteristics and skills for success? 

I conducted a very unscientific bit of research among teachers, investors, and entrepreneurs. Everyone agreed: people can learn entrepreneurship. That fits nicely with the framework of what those of us who work in education believe -- namely that given opportunities and access to an excellent education, all children have the potential to succeed. So wouldn't we say the same about the “potential” of someone with a great idea and the drive to make it happen? Jeff Scheur, who founded NoRedInk after years of teaching English, puts it this way:  “I've devoted my career to education precisely because of the conviction that people can learn and evolve when provided the right resources.” And Wayee Chu, who helps pick seed investments  at NewSchools Venture Fund, says it simply:  “Entrepreneurship is a mindset."

On Becoming An Entrepreneur (Starting a Venture)

So what characteristics suggest that someone has an entrepreneurial bent? Here are the six that came up in my conversations:

  • Visionary
  • Passionate
  • Creative
  • Empathetic
  • Persistent
  • Fundraiser

That last may cause belly aches, but  I couldn’t in good conscience skip it. If you’re considering starting a business, you’ll need to ask people to believe in you and to convince them to give you money. This involves some additional combination of winning personality  and unrelenting self-confidence.

A few more that perhaps should be on the list: Adaptable, resourceful, driven. As both a former teacher and entrepreneur, I love that “pure endurance” appeared!

Sound like a few great teachers you know?

So true… from Sunday night lesson-planning, to the last hour of a long teaching day, to working most hours of seven straight days to launch a new product. And then waking up and doing it over, again and again.

And Alan Louie (Imagine K12) shared the imperative to be comfortable with ambiguity. Louie likens it to whitewater kayaking--embracing a paradigm in which you must course-correct at lightening speed. While teachers may be perceived as professionals who thrive on schedules planned down to the minute, many also have this knack for quick reactions. If you get very frustrated with the unknown, entrepreneurship may not be for you.

On Teachers in Developing Education Innovations

So what’s the tipping point for deciding to start something? Nicole Tucker-Smith, a teacherpreneur at LessonCast, said, “I decided to stop talking about what would make a difference in education and start building it.” Mike Metzger describes realizing we aren’t just fighting an achievement gap but an opportunity gap. As a second-year teacher in Arizona, he started an ACT test-prep program and advocated to make his school a testing site, helping to eliminate test-taking barriers. Sheer drive, but also luck (such as the right time and place) contribute to taking the leap.

One cautionary note for starting a venture: it helps to step outside of your own experiences. Meredith Ely of Learnboost wrote, “Being able to iterate on the thoughts, suggestions, and real-world use-cases of teachers practicing in a variety of settings is much more meaningful than building a product that would have helped me.”

Risen

So are teacherpreneurs on the rise?  Maybe, if we’re literal (teacher-turned-entrepreneur). But if we define them as “teacher innovators,” then they’ve always existed. And they share many of the above characteristics.

Great teachers innovate every day. They write and rewrite lesson plans, find out new ways to reach struggling students, contribute summer hours to overhauling curricula or giving feedback to a new education technology venture. They learn continuously, hone their craft and keep up with emerging technologies. They set a vision for their students derived from empathy for them, their families and communities and hold on tenaciously to those visions.

That's all about innovating within the system; innovation for (or really, disrupting) the system is critical too: sometimes, only disruption brings substantial change such as a more level playing field for all students. .At the end of the day, you may have what it takes to start a venture, or you may have a powerful impact through innovations in your classroom or other work. But some of you will take a huge leap of faith, embrace risk and deep uncertainty and disrupt entire systems.

I, for one, can't wait to see the power of the innovations that teacherpreneurs will unleash on education.

Nihal ElRayess works on Teach For America's Technology Solutions team. Her career has ranged from teaching 1st grade to  product management at a TechCrunch50 Finalist startup. She resides in the Bay Area with her aviation-obsessed 2 year-old daughter, Leila, and husband, Brian. The comments expressed here are her own views and do not represent Teach For America.


About the Author

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Nihal ElRayess works on Teach For America's Technology Solutions team. Her career has ranged from teaching 1st grade to product management at a TechCrunch50 Finalist startup.

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