How a Colorado company is reworking social entrepreneurship

One obstacle to doing good we often hear people talk about is a lack of skills and/or knowledge. Boulder-based recruiting firm ReWork tackles this obstacle by connecting a skilled talent pool to the social enterprises who need them most. 

You’ve probably heard the term “scrimmage” before. In sports talk, it’s a practice game that doesn’t count.  In ReWork’s vocabulary, it’s an event that matches startup social entrepreneurs with willing volunteers to help them problem-solve.

Here’s how a typical Scrimmage works: Participants are presented with a challenge or project , and then break off into teams. At the heart of the event is rapid prototyping as inspired by Google. Instead of brainstorming at length, for example, the teams hammer out ideas on the fly, continually testing and iterating on them in the moment to help get them in the best shape possible. Failure is viewed as an opportunity to learn.

The process is then repeated throughout the day until the teams report their solutions to the rest of the group, and everybody (of age, of course) can celebrate with a beer!

Since starting the Scrimmages last year, ReWork has collaborated with a variety of local incubators such as HUB Boulder, Social Venture Partners, Unreasonable Institute, and more.

Scrimmage in action

Meet Shane 

Shane Gring launched Denver-based BOULD in 2011 after becoming interested in energy efficiency and the ways it could create savings for the low-income families he was serving while working for Habitat for Humanity via AmeriCorps in Boulder.

Like most startups, BOULD, which strives to greenify affordable housing projects, had a few kinks to work out. Needing help on simplifying the enrollment process and creating enticing messages for potential participants, they partnered with ReWork for the very first scrimmage in November 2012.

Two teams took on one problem each. One streamlined the enrollment form. The other team came up with messages and tested them right there with people on the street and at CU Boulder’s architecture school, eventually coming up with simple, accessible communication.

“I like that this process allows you to see how people react, right away, without the space of waiting to roll out an idea and seeing how people like it,” Shane says.

Because of its success, rapid prototyping is something they do at BOULD all the time now in their day-to-day work as well as special events like their Green Building Hackathon.

Meet Brett

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Photo credit: ReWork team.

After a stint with TOMS shoes and living abroad to pursue a master’s degree in sustainability, Brett Dioguardi moved to Colorado and found himself without a gig. He learned about ReWork through Twitter, and was accepted to their talent pool in the midst of his move.

Brett was familiar with BOULD before the Scrimmage, having worked with them in a volunteer capacity, including helping to get them ready for the event. The day of, he worked on the team that was responsible for putting together messaging.

“I was a great fit for this group because although I had some knowledge of BOULD beforehand, I was still able to bring fresh ideas and thoughts to the discussion in a group of folks who were new to the company,” he says.

To him, it was an amazing experience where he got to meet new companies and people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. More significantly, however, after helping out BOULD pre and post-Scrimmage, Brett was offered a full-time position to work on partnership development.

“When I reflect on the experience, prepping for the Scrimmage and all the work before and after was even better than a job interview because I got to show [BOULD] what I was actually capable of,” he says.

Ultimately ReWork’s Scrimmage taught both Brett and Shane a lot about the power of face-to-face interaction, how iteration is key, and that continued problem-solving can help them tackle a constantly evolving business model.

In your everyday life, how do you practice the principles of Scrimmage?

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While they’re mostly in Colorado right now, this year ReWork will be holding open Scrimmages across the country as well as private ones for companies. Get in touch by emailing info@rework.jobs. 

To learn more about green building, starting your own social enterprise, or any of BOULD’s programs, contact Brett and Shane.

Learn more about Colorado month at Idealist!

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Stuck? Try problem-solving like a designer

The idea

People first, ideas second. Might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many of us forget this – even in the social good world.

This idea of empathy is the key driver behind design thinking, a creative approach to problem-solving that’s gained buzz in recent years thanks to the mammoth design and innovation consulting firm IDEO.

But it’s not just the territory of big companies. Brooklyn-based The Design Gym is taking design thinking and putting it in the hands of the community. Through facilitation and storytelling workshops, giant hackathons, and their Weekend Workout, (which attempts to solve a problem from a real organization or company)  their belief is that anyone can be innovative – if you just exercise that muscle.

“There are lots of organizations that don’t talk to customers. That part of what we’re doing isn’t groundbreaking, it’s just showing them a new approach. You get so stuck in management and growth and systems and all of a sudden you lose touch with those people who can provide you very simple solutions,” co-founder Jason Wisdom says.

Design thinking in action

A typical Weekend Workout works like this: You come in on Friday night for a crash course on design thinking complete with beers and improv exercises. On Saturday, you go through the entire process on a problem that everyone can relate to, like park services or airline issues, using the 5 phases: learning from all the people who touch this problem in someway, making sense of what you learned, generating solutions from those learnings, experimenting or testing those solutions (many failing), and telling the story of what you learned. When Sunday comes around, you’re challenged to use that process again on a real client.

mIles

Kelly presenting the user journey her team created for miLES.

There’s been seven workouts so far, with past clients including the Acumen FundMakeshift Magazine, HolsteeThe Future Project, and Made in the Lower East Side (miLES).

With miLES, for example, students were asked to find a way for artists, teachers, and more to utilize the 220+ vacant storefronts in the Lower East Side, and also keep the landlords who wanted to rent them to higher paying customers (i.e. bar and restaurant owners) happy. They came up with pop up shops. And not only that, but a central hub of carts where people could find signage, seats, tables, and more so they could set up and take down their store with ease.

A few of the clients from the Weekend Workout, such as Makeshift and Holstee, took on students after it was over to help put their ideas in action. That’s one of the big goals of Design Gym: develop relationships with companies and organizations so the students can gain both experience and exposure.

“They’ve been our biggest evangelists in terms of helping us find new opportunities, “ Jason says. “And we support them getting jobs or consulting gigs, or give personal coaching around their careers. As long as people know you’re absolutely committed to their success, they’ll bend over backwards to help you as well.”

Tips for replicating the idea

Jason and his team would love to first get The Design Gym firmly planted in NYC, then expand to other places.

But if the idea of a Weekend Workout makes you want to immediately start to do the heavy (or light) lifting of bringing one where you live, here are his tips on how to make it successful:

1. Find a point of focus.

Sit with the organization or company beforehand and tease out the problem. “We want the problem to be big enough to satisfy the organization and do something significant, but small enough that it can be implemented,” he says. Things like, “What’s the future of our organization look like?” is way too wide for a short timeframe, narrow down those problems or opportunities.

2. Tap into different communities and locations.

Bounce around to different spaces. Or if you can’t do that, partner with a space that can bring in diverse clients. Design Gym frequently hosts their classes at the Brooklyn Brainery, an eclectic, community-driven education space where you can find classes on everything from how to run a marathon to making marbled papers to being a connector.

“One of our primary drivers is to continually enforce that diverse community. Because the solutions are so much more interesting due to the communities diverse backgrounds and it’s fun to connect with people who would never get  to be around each other otherwise,” Jason says.

3. Make everything in the space fair game.

class

A team, client (Holstee) and community celebrating after a fun-filled and exhausting weekend.

During the prototyping phase, when students are experimenting with ideas to see if they’ll work, encourage them to use whatever is front of them. At the Brainery, students will often use stuff from the classrooms: frying pans, duct tape, 2×4’s, etc. “The more props you can show us, the better off it is. We’ve had students present back in haikus and built structures, also some teams presented through brilliant songs,” Jason says.

4. Embrace your students’ inner geek

Anyone can attend the Weekend Workout and everyone who does is there for one reason: to learn new things. While most students tend to be in their late 20’s to early 40’s, their backgrounds run the gamut from novelists to 5th grade science teachers to product leads at Google.

“With the problems we’re working on being so diverse, people start to feel this applies to them, whether they’re in healthcare or a tech startup or construction,” Jason says. “What they have in common is that they’re geeky people.”

5. Don’t be a helicopter instructor.

The less you do, the better off your students are. “We found if do a really good job at the explanation and creating structure, and leave them alone, the better off they are,” Jason says. “Allowing them to go through and fail a little bit and do things wrong and learn from that is an important part of the process. And it takes us standing back a little bit for that to be able to happen.”

Another tip: Don’t try to force groups based on personalities you think might work well together. Whether you group people together or randomize it, the results ware usually the same.

6. Show your appreciation.

“Everybody has busy lives in this city. So we want to thank people for deciding that out of all the places they could possibly be, they’re spending time with us,” says Jason. They’ve shown their gratitude by giving students a bag with a Moleskine notebook, bottle of wine, and handwritten thank you card.

7. Empower.

Design Gym just launched a train-the-trainer program, where they have students come back from previous weekends and learn the skills necessary to become a really strong facilitator. Finding them long-term engagements with organizations or companies is another priority, and they’re toying with creating a consulting firm run by students.

8. Create continual opportunities for community. 

They’ve hosted happy hours, rotating potlucks, and more. “Our big epiphany was our first happy hour. We had 23 students in the class, and 21 came out to happy hour and said they wanted to continue to be involved in whatever it is we’re doing,” Jason says. “That to me was such validation we’re doing something right. And in the end, they become close friends.”
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Are you an organization in the NYC area that could use some creative problem-solving at a Weekend Workout? Or want to implement a similar project where you live? Get in touch with Jason: jason@thedesigngym.com.

If you’re in the NYC area and want to participate, the next Weekend Workout will be May 31-June 2.

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How one Idealist is bringing affordable e-learning to Malawi

Gail and teacher Boyce Mhone at the Ching'oma school

Gail and teacher Boyce Mhone at the Ching’oma school

When Gail Swithenbank made a trip to Malawi this January, e-learning wasn’t on her mind. She was visiting the Ching’oma school to check in on a scholarship program she’d helped create for children to attend secondary school and study permaculture—low-tech, sustainable agriculture methods.

But when she visited one of the high schools the scholarship recipients would attend, she saw that they needed more support than just tuition.

“It was two rooms, no windows or doors, few desks. No books or paper. Just two blackboards. The teacher had one book that they all copied from. Kids are walking seven kilometers each way to get there,” she says.

Gail realized that for the scholarship to make much of a difference, the students would need textbooks and materials. A library full of books could really help, but it would be better if they could ‘leapfrog’ directly to e-learning using low-cost laptops.

Bridging the digital divide

But an e-learning program would be challenging to implement; only about 5% of Malawians have internet access, according the World Fact Book. Even if provided with low-cost computers, the students wouldn’t be able to reliably access the trove of knowledge and learning platforms online.

Some new technology offers a way around this problem. Developer Jamie Alexandre and a team of volunteers recently released a free, portable version of the content and software produced by Khan Academy, a free online educational platform. This new version, called KA-Lite, is designed to work offline. In addition to video lessons and interactive exercises, it allows teachers to track the progress of each student while they learn at their own pace.

When Gail heard about this, she saw the potential. She found more educational content provided by the RACHEL Initiative—free courseware, libraries, and an offline version of Wikipedia. By putting all of this on a Raspberry Pi, a $35 computer the size of a Smartphone that plugs into a T.V., she could provide a complete platform that’s nearly free and requires very little infrastructure. She’s spent the last few months learning about the technology and reaching out to her contacts in Malawi, who are excited about the idea.

The tools are new. The lessons are timeless.

As amazing as these new tools are, some of the most important takeaways from Gail’s story have very little to do with technology, and could apply to almost any project. Here are a few:

1. Expertise not required.
Gail admits she didn’t know much about e-learning or computer science before she started working on this project. So she reached out to people with related experience, like Janice Lathen of Powering Potential, who has been setting up computer labs in Tanzania since 2007. Gail has also spent hours on Skype with a nephew who studied computer science to get help with the technology. Sometimes, tenacity trumps knowledge.

2. Build on existing relationships and create new ones.
Great ideas can sometimes die on the vine without the right support. After working with school headmaster Gilbert Kaunda on the permaculture scholarship, Gail now has a local partner. He’s in a good position to make changes at the school and work with the local government.

She’s likewise reached out to potential partners, like Nathaniel Thayer Wight, who teaches science and sustainability at Bronx Design and Construction Academy in New York, about a possible collaboration between the two schools. Ultimately, Gail hopes to work with them and others to build a new e-learning facility.

3. Use what’s already out there.
Gail could have started a new nonprofit to support this project, done lots of fundraising, hired a staff to curate the e-learning materials and build the building. Instead, she’s leveraging existing institutions and tools: the school in Malawi, content from Khan Academy, and the community that’s sprouting up around Raspberry Pi.

By focusing first on the problem in front of her and connecting the dots, she avoided getting bogged down in details and spending extra cash. Sometimes being innovative just means assembling the pieces in front of you.

Gail’s story is just one example of people using new tech to solve stubborn problems. Do you know of another? Share it in the comments below.

 

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