Nontech MVP Panel SXSW

Non-tech MVPs: Why Every Tech Startup Should Start With One

SXSW 2016 LogoThis post was inspired by a SXSW 2016 panel called, “No CTO, No Problem: Building A Non-technical MVP,” which featured Noble Impact VP of Product Erica Swallow, Fruitkit Co-founder Fernando Leon, Bain Capital Ventures investor Stephanie Weiner, and Contently Studio Director John Hazard.

Non-technical entrepreneurs often hold themselves back once they’ve got an idea, because they feel like recruiting tech talent to build a proof of concept is essential. Technical entrepreneurs, on the other hand, tend to exercise their strengths as builders early on, before validating their business ideas. In both cases, the outcome tends to be wasted time, either building a product that no one needs or not putting an idea through the validation wringer.

In a SXSW 2016 panel called “No CTO, No Problem: Building A Non-technical MVP,” three colleagues and I presented a case for going non-technical as a necessary step towards product validation. A Minimal Viable Product, or MVP, is a term coined by Eric Ries, defined as the “version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.” What better way to minimize effort than to make an MVP that doesn’t require a single line of code?

Below are our panel’s key thoughts and recommended resources for would-be entrepreneurs who are looking to test an idea. Above all, we hope that this conversation around building a #NontechMVP will inspire potential startup founders to get started ASAP on tackling the problems they hope to solve!

The Argument For Starting Non-tech

Nontech MVP Sketchnote by William Donnell

UX designer William Donnell included our panel in his SXSW Sketchnotes!

Starting non-technical when you’re trying to build a tech company may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s actually a great way to validate a concept and save a lot of time before you get to coding. Many smart and eventually successful entrepreneurs, with or without technical backgrounds, have started with non-technical tests.

One entrepreneur that comes to mind is Aaron Patzer, founder of personal finance app Mint. In a talk he gave at Princeton’s Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education, Patzer explained how he grew to 1.5 million users and sold for $170 million in just two years. To validate the idea, Patzer started with a simple beta signup landing page, which asked people to sign up to be emailed when Mint launched. Mint also launched a personal finance blog, which provided users with relevant finance-related resources and promoted the beta launch page, as well. In the end, after 8-9 months, nearly 30,000 emails were collected for beta launch. Not a bad turnout, right? And mind you, Patzer holds degrees in electrical engineer and computer science from Duke and Princeton.

“Number one is to validate your idea. I actually didn’t write a line of code until I did about three or four months’ worth of thinking on Mint, which I think is counter to what a lot of people will suggest. A lot of people will say ‘Just get the product out there, just iterate very, very quickly, (and) just make a prototype.’”
— Aaron Patzer, founder of Mint

Everyone on our SXSW panel shared both success and failure stories when it came to validating quickly or beating around the bush with an idea. I, for example, had an idea for a peer-to-peer delivery platform and was able to see the technical product come to life after participating with a team of four at a 72-hour hackathon on a bus called StartupBus. We called it Deliverish, and some of us stayed on board for about 9 months after the hackathon, working on our free time, mocking out better front-end design concepts, interviewing potential customers, participating in more hackathons, building our own beta launch list, researching competitors, and trying to decide which beachhead market we wanted to address. After 9 months, we had a working prototype, but no customer transactions.

Had Deliverish started with a non-technical test, we might have actually gotten off the ground (though, in the end, it’s for the best that we didn’t… all the market research I did while at MIT Sloan actually helped show how competitive and oversaturated the last-mile delivery market is). A #NontechMVP could have come in the form of having people text the co-founders when they needed something delivered. From there, we could have deployed a contracted delivery person or conducted the delivery ourselves. We could have worked from there to automate aspects of the service that were the most annoying for the customer experience.

For any startup, it’s important to validate an idea as early as possible. Believe me, 9 months of building and researching — while valuable in its own right — is far too long to go before landing a single transaction.

Three Panelist Case Studies: PennLets, Fruitkit, and Noble Impact

fruitkit fruit delivery

Fruit subscription service Fruitkit started with a non-technical MVP to prove that its service had great enough demand.

On the SXSW panel, Stephanie Weiner, Fernando Leon, and I shared our own recent #NontechMVP stories, with PennLets, Fruitkit, and Noble Impact, respectively.

PennLets is a sublet listing service created by Weiner and some of her classmates while she was at the University of Pennsylvania. The team used a WordPress theme and got the service off the ground in one day. After 24 hours, the site had more than 500 active users (10% of the UPenn undergraduate community) — in a couple of months, the userbase had hit 2,000 students, says Weiner. In the end, the crew sold the site, as-is, to the university, and it still exists as the central subletting portal for UPenn students. To boot, Weiner and her colleagues are still listed on the site as the site creators. Weiner says the benefit to going non-technical is that the site was up in no-time, it didn’t crash (due to the support WordPress offers), and it validated the team’s concept in less than a day.

Fruitkit is another exceptional #NontechMVP example, in which a startup was able to turn a $100 investment into more than $100,000 in revenue in just over one year. Leon, a native of Colombia, and two friends founded fruit subscription service Fruitkit after living in cold, dark Finland, which lacks the year-round fruit market that South America boasts. The crew set up an out-of-the-box website, and after they unexpectedly received their first order (through a face-to-face conversation with a potential customer), they went into overdrive to figure out how they were going to fulfill the order. It turns out, they unknowingly had themselves a non-tech MVP, which consisted of sending an invoice, procuring the fruit through an importer, and delivering the fruit the following Monday (and every week thereafter). Leon collected feedback manually through customer calls, and gathered customer fruit preferences through a postcard that was included in each. Today, the startup has implemented automatic payments, tested delivery options (including an Uber partnership and its own delivery staff), and has relationships with three fruit importers and local farmers for summer (berries) and autumn (apples) procurements. (Check out Leon’s retrospective blog about how to create a non-tech MVP.)

Finally, there’s Noble Impact, where I serve as product lead. We are an education initiative with a mission to provide students everywhere a relevant and purpose-driven education. We began operations in Arkansas as a summer program, and then a K-12 course selection for public service and entrepreneurship education. To date, we’ve worked with more than 500 students at eStem Schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, building out a series of courses that engage students in project-based, portfolio-driven education that gets them engaged in their communities, solving problems that are connected to their interests. After more than two years of innovating on the Noble Impact curriculum, it became evident that the part of our classroom curriculum that was digital, was the part that would enable Noble Impact to scale outside of our first school.

Each student at Noble creates a digital portfolio that helps him or her define his or her personal narrative, values, interests, and related projects. These portfolios also drive student participation — once a student realizes that he or she can (and has already) contributed to society in some way, a spark for service is ignited. Our classroom facilitators originally built our 10-week portfolio curriculum using a site-building tool called Weebly. After nearly a year of testing and collecting student feedback on the experience, the team realized the pros and cons of an out-of-the-box solution, and as of this year, we’ve begun building a digital portfolio platform that’s customized for our classroom experience. Would we have started with our own platform, though, we would have wasted a lot of time building tech features that weren’t valued by our students. It’s only by testing on Weebly that we’ve been able to see what works and doesn’t in the classroom. Along the way, we’ve also used countless tools, many of which are listed below.

Getting Started With A Non-tech MVP

Non-tech MVP Panel SXSW

SXSW Interactive 2016 speakers for the panel, “No CTO, No Problem: Building A Non-technical MVP”

So, how do you get started validating an idea with a non-technical solution? In short, you should aim to break down the process to the simplest means of testing. Leon recommends doing a role play of users. In his case, one of his co-founders played a customer in need of a fruit subscription, and Leon played the role of the Fruitkit product (or seller). “I’d like to order a basket of fruit,” the potential customer starts. “Alright, let’s get you signed up,” says Leon. “What’s your name and where would you like the fruit delivered?” And the role play goes on.

I like to point to a recent non-tech MVP I participated in as a user. The startup, CartDelivered, is based in Little Rock, Arkansas and is a grocery delivery service. Founder Joshua Ayres is a branding and logistics veteran, having worked at mainstay institutions including Kraft Foods, Cadbury, Unilever, and P&G. He wants to grow the grocery delivery market in the cities outside of the top 100 by population in the United States, unlike his competitors which focus their services in large, metropolitan regions. The CartDelivered beta test was quite simple; it aimed enable a user to:

  1. Make a grocery list
  2. Send the list to CartDelivered
  3. Be connected with a delivery person
  4. Receive their order within a pre-determined timeframe
  5. Pay for the order

Ayres was able to pull the beta test off using existing tools. He recommended the customer use Grocery IQ to make a grocery list and email it to, which could be done within the app. Then, he contacted his available delivery people, who he had pre-recruited to find someone who was available to make the delivery. After finding a match, he emailed the customer to convey that someone would arrive at a designated time. And lastly, once the order was final, he had the delivery person email him a copy of the receipt, which was used to send a PayPal invoice to the customer. All of this accomplished his goal, without him needing to spend anytime either learning to code or recruiting a technical teammate.

From our own experiences, here are some steps that were necessary for us, along with some non-tech tools that helped us achieve those goals:

  • Find and talk to potential/existing customers: Email, phone, Twitter, Craigslist
  • Building a “coming soon” page: LaunchRock, Unbounce, Kickofflabs, Quick MVP, Instapage
  • Collect feedback en masse: Google Forms, SurveyMonkey, Qualtrics, TypeForm
  • Design mockups: Napkins, paper, PowerPoint, Keynote, Moqups, Balsamiq
  • Build a basic product: WordPress, Wix, Squarespace, Cratejoy
  • Deliver contracts: Print/sign, Docusign
  • Develop a functioning app: Bubble
  • Communicate with our team: Slack, Whatsapp
  • Collect a payment: PayPal, Stripe, Venmo
  • A/B test options: Optimizely

If you’re an entrepreneur trying to validate an idea, our panelists urge you to break your idea down to the most basic test you can fathom. The sooner you can validate your idea, the sooner you’ll be off to actually building a technical product that people want.

For thoughts and ideas on how to strategize the simplest non-tech MVP, join the conversation on Twitter, via #NontechMVP.

Erica Swallow NYU in China

The First-generation Struggle: A Letter From My 22-year-old Self

In 2008, I wrote a letter about my financial aid experience in college, at the request of my college’s content department. I re-discovered it today and am reminded we still have a long way to go until everyone, regardless of their personal backgrounds, has equitable access to education. But I am hopeful, and I hope this letter spreads that optimism.

As a first-generation college student (first in my family to attend college) and Pell Grant recipient (which is awarded to students from low-income families), I had always dreamed that education would change my path, but reflecting upon my life so far, it is almost surreal how much education has made a difference in my life.

The below email was sent on September 18, 2008 to Dana Rasso, who was a content writer for NYU at the time and in charge of the newsletter to parents of prospective students (among other publications) in which my story eventually appeared. I was 22 years old and had made it through the toughest times in college, including a semester when I nearly dropped out due to financial constraints. I am forever grateful for programs like the Pell Grant and the many scholarships and loans that got me through college. I hope the following words can provide hope for students — like 22-year-old me — who scrape by every day, encouraged by a vision of a better life.

Hey Dana,

I’d love to help out with [sharing my financial aid story], since financial aid was my biggest concern in coming to NYU. I only applied to NYU, because I felt in some way that it was the place for me… but my mother makes less that $14,000 a year, and I didn’t think we’d be able to afford it. I only had a few hundred dollars saved for college, since I worked in a pizza shop, but had to pay for my car insurance and gasoline to get to school. It was hard, but I managed. I’m going to be very blunt, though, it’s difficult. Here’s my commentary (it’s a little long, but I just got really passionate about it! If you want to cut it down, feel free.):

NYU was my dream school, but there was only one problem in my way after I decided to only apply to NYU: Financial aid. My mother is a single parent, earning an annual wage well under the poverty line. Most recently, she has undergone multiple surgeries, making it impossible for her to work. She now has no income and has lost a lot of our belongings as a result. In fact, I just found out a few weeks ago that all of my personal belongings were sold in an auction for $15, due to a foreclosure on our storage unit. Life at NYU has been heartbreaking, as I’ve watched my family fall apart from a distance. Financial aid is crucial for my enrollment at NYU.

Luckily, I am within the small percentage of students who get a large amount of scholarships. Above and beyond that, I have multiple loans, including subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford loans, Federal Perkins loans, and an NYU Weiss Memorial Loan. I also use my credit cards to pay for my remaining bill balances on most semester bills. Lastly, I receive Federal Work Study, which enables me to work 20 hours a week at an NYU job, earning money, which usually goes to food, my credit card bills, or the occasional splurge. It’s difficult going to a school where everyone seems to have a bank accounting that’s exploding at the seams, especially when my bank account is usually on the verge of hitting $0 most of the time. (Example: This week my bank account is at $4. It has been one big spaghetti marathon!) But every now and then, I treat myself to a night out, a fancy dinner, or some great shoes. I figure that everyone has to live a little bit.

I’m not going to sugar-coat it for you — if your family is in the situation that my family is in, it’s going to be tough throughout the next four years. Each year, after applying for the FAFSA you will be tearing out your hair wondering what the damage to your credit will be this time. The Financial Aid Office has a great staff, though, that will try their best to work with you. The biggest piece of advice that I have for you — perseverance. Keep calling, keep asking, keep applying. There are a ton of scholarships out there. Within a few years, you’re going to be tired of applying for scholarships, but keep doing it. Education is the most important asset a person can have. Do not miss the opportunity to have a great education at NYU, just because your family is not financially stable. Education is an investment in the future. I had a dream and I was not going to let it go. Hopefully when I graduate and get my first job, I will be making enough money to get my loans and credit card bills paid off within the first few years. Then, I hope to give back to NYU and the institutions that made my education possible. I hope that you, your student, and your family will have the spirit to challenge the system and dream your wildest dreams. This is a very sensitive subject for me, but I am more than happy to share my insight with anyone who is worried about financial aid at NYU. Please feel free to contact me with any further questions at [email].

Erica Swallow
NYU Stern Class of 2009

This is just one snapshot in my college experience, but it hit a nerve for me. Reading it, I can see myself back in my dorm room, typing away at my desk, loving the mind-expanding experience of rigorous, thought-provoking, life-changing academic discourse — an experience I had rarely had growing up in Arkansas. While meanwhile, I’m getting calls from home that my family is in utter disarray. That things are going wrong left and right. That people I love very dearly are falling into the tragic situations that statistics said they would, and that I should. Unemployment, addiction, homelessness, violence, abandonment, illness.

This week has been a time of reflection, and I just happened upon this letter, because I had forgotten what I knew about the Pell Grant back in my days at NYU. I knew I had received it, but that was about it. This week, I attended SXSWedu, an Austin-based education conference, for the first time. Education equity was a topic that came up many times, even in talks in which it was not the focus. It is, of course, a highly important topic. Not everyone in America receives the same education and has the same access to opportunity. College graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients was a topic that hit my radar randomly as I was scanning the conference schedule. There is, on average, a 5.7% graduation rate gap within institutions between Pell recipients and all students, and a 14% gap nationally, I learned. The increased national average is due to larger gaps at institutions where graduation rates are low overall for all students (regardless of Pell status) — these are the institutions, sadly, where Pell Grant recipients are more likely to attend. At NYU, the gap is smaller than average, but still present, at a 4.5 percentage point difference. That is, 83.3% of all student graduate after 6 years, and 78.8% of Pell grant recipients graduate in the same time frame.

It’s been nearly 7 years since I graduated from NYU, but it wasn’t until today that I realized how important it is for students like me — graduated or not — to bond together. I wish I knew more Pell Grant recipients, more people who shared a difficult financial path through school. It turns out that nearly 20% of undergraduate students at NYU in 2013 were Pell Grant recipients. I wish I had known that when I was in college. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so alone.

I felt that same isolation in graduate school, which I completed last year. I finally had the courage, though, to share my story in a public, student-led storytelling forum. I spoke about how those labels — low-income and at-risk — can weigh on a person, and how they had for me since I was a child.

Nationally, I wasn’t alone either. About 1/3 of students are first-generation college students and just over 1/3 of students receive Pell Grants. But who wants to fly the “hey, everyone! I’m poor!” flag when they’re trying to make friends and fit in? There is a social stigma that keeps people from sharing these parts of their lives.

Today, more than just sharing my story, I feel it’s necessary that I wear my past proudly, that I embrace that part of my journey. Hopefully my story will resonate with students who may be feeling like college is a struggle that wasn’t meant for them. Today, 7 years later, I haven’t paid off my loans yet, as 22-year-old me thought might have happened by now. Instead, I have taken jobs that appeal to my passions and contribute positively to the world, and I have been able to give back along the way. I still hope, though, that one day my work will scale well beyond my reach and my life.

The education I’ve received, that so many have sacrificed their time and resources for, is the most pivotal achievement I will ever provide to my family and the world. Without it, nothing I have achieved would be possible. I am completely changed because I had the opportunity to learn. I hope that one day we will live in a world in which everyone who wishes to study will have the opportunity to do so. Through education, we can change the world.

Header image courtesy of New York University, circa 2008


Dream Big: Notes From Visiting A Junior Achievement Competition

When I get the chance to speak with Arkansan high school students, my first goal is to impart a sense of “I can do anything!” through the sharing of my personal story of growing up in poverty in Arkansas to finding my calling in life and being able to support myself and others around me. If I can leave a room and have empowered at least one student to reframe his or her story and understanding of what the future could hold, I won’t be able to contain my smile for the rest of the day.

Erica Swallow speaks at Junior Achievement

Erica Swallow speaks at the Junior Achievement competition.

I was honored, then, to give the keynote presentation at the AT&T Youth Business Challenge, hosted by Junior Achievement of Arkansas, a non-profit organization that has brought financial literacy, career readiness, and entrepreneurship curriculum to students in Arkansas since 1987 — where I got to experience just that… A handful of students thanking me in person afterwards for sharing my story. [Thank you to Junior Achievement of Arkansas board member Mitch Bettis for the invitation to speak — one of my passions is working with driven, young leaders.]

Speaking with students is just as meaningful and educational for me as it is for the students, though. I arrived early, so that I could see the business competition in action. It consists of a multi-quarter business simulation, in which students work in teams to analyze market trends and set business budgets accordingly, for each quarter. At the front of the room, a couple of Junior Achievement staffers run the simulation, while students buzz away energetically at their team stations. Like in the “real world,” students aren’t notified of how many quarters their businesses will “run” — it’s simply an ongoing cycle that they must plan as they go, feeding on market performance.

Though the simulation software was old-school, 64-bit design, the learnings behind what the students were doing were only lessons I learned in college. Students were asked to look at past market performance — including units of their product sold, profits achieved, and total market share achieved — to adjust marketing dollars, number of units produced, and pricing, among other details.

As I’ve been from time to time since moving back to Arkansas six months ago (after a decade on the East Coast working and attaining two degrees in business management), I was impressed with the education and performance of some of Arkansas’s students. Had someone thrown me into a simulation like the one presented at Junior Achievement when I was in high school, I’m not confident I would have grasped the concept immediately. It is thanks to the resources that have been presented to or available to these students that they have the opportunity to attempt and excel at such exercises — exercises that help build an analytical mindset.

What I also enjoyed seeing was that attendees included high school teams from all backgrounds, including Benton High School, eStem High School, McClellan High School, Maumelle High School, Conway High School, Little Rock Christian, the Boys & Girls Club of Whetstone, Hall High School, Bauxite High School, and Second Baptist Church, among others. While many of the schools boast funding and special interest in economics and business education, some of the representative schools don’t have as many resources, though they likely have educators who are determined to give their students just as much access to opportunity.

2004 FLBA State Conference Scrapbook

The 2004 FBLA State Conference made my scrapbook.

These are the types of early opportunities that made me who I am today. Though I hadn’t heard of Junior Achievement while in high school, a very similar experience — participating in the Future Business Leaders of America state competition — was a perspective-altering experience for me. A few things happened. I:

  • Traveled to our state’s capital for the first time ever
  • Was given an opportunity to showcase my talent in impromptu speaking
  • Witnessed other driven students excel at their work
  • Was coached and given feedback by our FBLA advisor, and
  • Bonded with my classmates who cared about their futures, too.

Perusing through the handful of scrapbooks I made while in high school, it’s easy to see that the moments that made a huge impact on me all shared the above traits. Other meaningful entries in my scrapbook include competing in the first national electric vehicle competition with my high school team in Atlanta, Georgia; marching in a parade with my high school band at Disney World in Orlando, FL; and attending Universal Dance Association dance camp with my high school dance team in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

The Junior Achievement business competition I attended this month brought back those memories for me. For some students, I learned, it was the first time they had visited their state capital. For others, it was the first time they had worn business attire — in one case, a club advisor had helped the school’s team shop for proper attire.

These are the events and moments in Arkansas that mean a lot to me. I hope we can do more of this moving forward.

And on dreaming big… I took one sticky note with me to the podium to remind myself of the key points I wanted to hit in my keynote speech, as well as in the questions and answers session. I’ll share those four points with you, as well as a few sentences about each:

  1. Dream big. As a senior in high school, my high school counselor advised me not to attend my dream school, New York University, because my “family couldn’t afford it.” Little did she know, I would be supporting myself, and I wasn’t letting anything get in the way of me and my dreams.
  2. Take initiative. When I got to NYU, I needed to earn money to pay for school. I immediately noticed these flyers that said I could be a part of consumer behavior studies; after the first one, I was so intrigued that I contacted the professor who was running the experiment to learn more about the study. He was so impressed with my curiosity that he offered me an internship. I was the first freshman to ever work for him; his other interns were graduate students. Initiative pays off.
  3. Know your worth. Coming from Arkansas, where I had worked at Mazzio’s Pizza for three years prior to college, I had understood that my “worth” was about $5.15 per hour, the then minimum hourly wage I was earning. New York was a whole different ball field, though. I nearly tripled my wage with that move. And had I not had a mentor who explained salary negotiation to me right out of college, I would have cheated myself out of about 50% of my “worth” at my first full-time job. Research and knowledge are key. Don’t fall in the trap I did for a year out of school! That’s a lot of potential earnings I could have put towards my student loans!
  4. Never settle. Lastly, we are all capable of anything we put our minds to — it’s not always a lone endeavor, remember! Early in my career, I accepted a few roles that were definitely not a fit for me, all for the wrong reasons. I settled, because I thought it’d lead to something I’d like more. I settled, because I thought I’d be able to morph the role to better suit me once I got there. I settled, because the team really wanted me. Settling only leads to feeling unsettled. When you feel like you’re about to settle, keep moving forward and ask yourself, “What is it that I really want?” Find the answer, and do that!

In a nutshell, the above is what I hoped to convey to the Junior Achievement competition teams when I took the stage. One indication that I made an impact was a particularly thoughtful question from a student in the audience named Afraz, “What gave you the drive to become an entrepreneur?” For one, I answered, it was being a first-generation college student, knowing that by going to college, I would change the history of my family. Secondly, though — and I’m only just now reflecting on this — it was the opportunities that were provided to me that enabled me to see that I could be more than what was expected of me, and that I could attain any future I imagined for myself.

I hope that my talk was inspiring for students — that they, too, realize they can achieve their biggest dreams in this lifetime. I’m certainly still reaching for mine!

If you’d like to get a better look at what the day at Junior Achievement was like, check out Junior Achievement of Arkansas’s “AT&T Youth Business Challenge” Facebook photo album.

Erica Swallow Lean Startup Conference

How High Schoolers Are Using Lean Startup

Lean Startup ConferenceThis video was produced by the Lean Startup Conference, where I gave an IGNITE talk about Lean Startup in the high school ecosystem.

High schools across the nation are implementing Lean Startup methodology in entrepreneurship, business, and marketing courses. Erica Swallow, VP of Product at education non-profit Noble Impact, at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference, shared the story of how her team is empowering students to get out of the building and solve the problems they see in their communities. See the video recording of her five-minute, lightning-style IGNITE talk below! (IGNITE talks, by the way, are five minutes total, with 20 slides, 15 seconds each. Phew!)

After watching the speech, you can learn more about Lean Startup in the high school setting in the blog post I penned leading up to the speech.


How Lean Startup Is Changing High School Education

Lean Startup Conference LogoThis post first appeared on the Lean Startup Company blog, where I blogged about Lean Startup in the high school in anticipation of my IGNITE talk.

All across the world, educators are seeking ways to better engage students and prepare them for life after high school. In poll after poll, students tell us that their education doesn’t seem relevant; they don’t see a purpose behind the daily grind, the homework, the standardized tests.

For some, Lean Startup is a part of the solution.

The Problem

So, what is it about high school that disengages students? Take a look at most high school classrooms across America, and you’ll find the answer. Students sit chair behind chair, desk behind desk, in a seemingly endless matrix, wall to wall, while at the front of the room, a teacher commands the class and delivers content, only stopping to answer the occasional question.

Teamwork is practically unheard of, and students are asked to memorize formulas and historical dates to regurgitate on tests that will rank them within their class, school, and the entire national education system.

Students aren’t ignorant, though – they see the difference between the education system and what the “real world” looks like. They want an education that will set them up for success in life after high school, not one that will deflate their creativity year-by-year, until their only hope is to graduate and go to college or get a job.

We must give students a better system, one that is deserving of their time, efforts, and talents.

Coaching Up the Classroom

Noble Impact Scholars
Noble Impact scholars choose words that
resonate with them about the entrepreneurial journey.

What would it look like if we flipped the classroom equation and put students at the center of their education? What if we challenged students to determine the course of their own educational journeys, to customize it based on their interests and the problems they ultimately want to solve in the world? Instead of teachers, we’d act more as coaches, facilitators of learning.

Students at Noble Impact take a purposed-based approach to their work, and they frequently ask, “Why?” We train students to dig deep – whether they are in the classroom, at one of our out-of-school events, or at home – to question the purpose behind what they’re doing. When students see the purpose in their work, they find relevance, and they’re excited to contribute.

The Lean Canvas and Lean Startup methodology have been invaluable tools for those exercises.

Applying Lean Startup to the High School Setting

Opportunity Gap Event
Noble Impact scholars Greta Kresse and Olivia Fitzgibbon white board
at an event about challenging the existing opportunity gap in education.

Lean Startup as a business development philosophy prioritizes speed and learning over perfection – it asks the entrepreneur to define success in terms of “learning how to solve the customer’s problem,” as Eric Ries, author of “The Lean Startup,” puts it.

Lean Startup, then, is a natural fit in a project-based learning environment, where students are challenged to work on projects in line with their interests and the problems they want to solve. Lean Startup teaches students to focus on people, to understand what a customer is and how to solve his or her problems.

Instead of sitting in chairs all day long, students are asked to “get out of the building” to do customer research, define a problem, build MVPs (minimum viable products), and validate the assumptions their business models rely upon. Students aren’t used to adults handing over the reigns, but with the right facilitation, students can and do shine when they’re asked to build, measure, and learn.

Building Noble Impact Initiatives

At Noble Impact, students work in many different environments with Lean Startup methodology, both in the classroom and beyond.

Last year, in partnership with the Clinton School of Public Service, for example, we launched the country’s first-ever High School Startup Weekend, devoted solely to high school entrepreneurs. With 80 student participants in grades 9-12, the event saw ideas that included an online homework management tool, a portable storage locker company for outdoor events, a nail polish pen, and a “don’t forget your cell phone” smartwatch app, among others.

Innovation isn’t just an after-hours affair, though. Students also work on business ideas in class using Lean. At eStem Public Charter Schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, for example, Noble Impact scholars work with local businesses and on their own ideas, interviewing customers, mocking up MVP ideas, and actually building their own businesses. In fact, we currently expose Lean Startup to students in grades 5-12 and will soon expand all the way to kindergarten.

Bolstering High School Entrepreneurs

Sydney Brazil Noble Impact
High school entrepreneur Sydney Brazil founded her own “donut holery”
called The Hole Thing through her Noble Impact coursework.

High school entrepreneurs are treated as rare creatures in our society, probably because we crush the creativity out of them in their day-to-day schoolwork. I get to work with a lot of fresh minds through Noble Impact, though, and we teach them that anyone can contribute to society or solve a problem, as long as they’re willing to put in the work and research.

I’ve had particular glee watching one entrepreneur, Sydney Brazil, flourish in our entrepreneurial environment. She used Lean Canvas to turn her idea for a donut hole business into a reality by founding The Hole Thing, Little Rock, Arkansas’s first “donut holery.” She makes the most delicious donut holes to ever grace the earth, from lemon lavender to chocolate chip cookie.

She started her journey much like any other entrepreneur twice her age (she was 15 when she got started) – she built a business plan, pitched at some local startup pitch competitions, caught the eye of potential partners, and launched a minimum viable product. Instead of buying a store location and setting up shop, Sydney went lean. Her MVP came in the form of a partnership with local restaurant Copper Grill, in which her company’s donut holes appeared on the restaurant’s dessert menu, alongside their house ice cream. Copper Grill also let Sydney use their professional grade kitchen to prepare the holes. The partnership enabled her to test her concept for donut holes, see if there was actually demand, and collect sales data about which donut holes were selling better. Build, measure, learn.

In Sydney’s words, the “grown up business community” has completely embraced her, Copper Grill and beyond. That’s what excites me as an education reformer. We need more connectivity between students and their communities, because business leaders and mentors are the ones who open up opportunities for students to learn and get experience. When a student has an idea for an MVP through a Lean Canvas exercise, it is local community that can help make that plan a reality.

Lean Startup Around the Country

Hawken Entrepreneurship Educators Workshop
Entrepreneur and educator Jeanine Esposito presents a Business Model Canvas
at Hawken School’s summer entrepreneurship educators workshop.

Noble Impact isn’t the only organization teaching Lean Startup in the K-12 education system.

DECA, one of the largest co-curricular student club organizations, rolled out the Lean Canvas this school year for all of its state and national competitions related to entrepreneurship. Students used to write full 20+ page business plans, and now they’re going lean.

Likewise, educators at Hawken School, a private PS-12 school in Gates Mills, Ohio, is one of the first organizations I’ve worked with that not only teaches students about Lean Startup, but also trains teachers from across the country how to use and teach Lean Startup in their own schools. This summer, Hawken educators Doris Korda and Tim Desmond held the first-ever Hawken School Educators Workshop for Entrepreneurial Studies at Babson College and made sure that each educator left having built at least one Lean Business Model Canvas.

Preparing Students For Their Futures

I strongly believe that it is our duty as world citizens to make sure that our children have the best education possible, so that they are prepared to thrive in an ever-changing society after they leave the halls of their hometown high schools.

From what I’ve witnessed, there are educators all across this country, focused on changing the education system, so that our students are prepared to not only thrive in, but also change the world.

Lean Startup, for many students, is the catalyst that gets them engaged and on that path. I encourage all educators to give it a try and to consider what it means when we ask students to take the reigns of their own educational journey. To build, to measure, to learn, and to rise to their fullest potential.

Not Your Typical Wednesday: Taking the Stage in Dublin in Front of 5,000 People

Erica Swallow Speaks at Web Summit
Representing the Sloan School of Management, I spoke on a panel alongside fellow MBAs during the 2014 Web Summit in Dublin.

On a typical Wednesday, I only have two standing appointments: a marketing class and a comparative literature class focused on leadership stories and ethics. The rest of the day is filled with group meetings, homework, a visiting speaker session every now and then, and of course, sleeping in, thanks to my afternoon classes.

This past Wednesday, though, was everything but typical. I had been invited to the Web Summit in Dublin, Ireland as an MBA Scholar to shed my experience and wisdom on a crowd of 5,000 soon-to-be university graduates.

My morning shower was the tip of the oddities iceberg that day. I had rented a room via Airbnb, a peer-to-peer apartment rental site, and my host, it turns out, was one of 250 Airbnb employees based in the Dublin office. I had grown accustomed to her being gone by the time I woke up, and that was true that morning when I pitter-pattered on the cold, hardwood floor to the bathroom. Seconds after I undressed and turned on the shower faucet, though, I heard the front door open and her voice on the other side of the door saying, “Erica? Hello?” Confused, I answered back, and she told me the plumber was in to fix the water heater — for the past two days I had taken cold showers, assuming it was normal.

That morning, I learned about my host’s mysterious water system. The plumber told me that the water heats up from 4–8 a.m., and in the case of a later shower, I could use the magical “boost” knob to heat a small batch of water. Since it was my big day to hit the stage, I decided to go all out and boost it up! It turns out a boost really is exactly what it sounds like — just a wee bit warmer. As the Irish might say, a little nudge up the hill; a bump, a push, nothing more. But I was ecstatic to have a lukewarm shower to start the day off in what felt like near luxury.

By this time back in Cambridge, I’d be running to my first event or meeting, struggling to get my coat on, all while texting someone that I was running late. My time in Ireland, though, was refreshingly on-schedule. I arrived at conference panels on time; I showed up to dinners early; and I always seemed to find a taxi quickly, as I was traveling off-peak. So, I did just that — called a cab using Hailo, an Uber and Lyft competitor that’s popular in Europe — and zipped off to the Web Summit.

A panel, a speech, a fireside chat. Lunch. Two more panels. I took it all in, typing out nuggets of inspiration that flowed from the stage. As my speech time got closer, I began observing how speakers entered the stage, where they placed their hands, when they paused, whether they crossed their legs or not. At one point, I caught myself planning out my “body language strategy” for later that evening. Crossed legs, I determined, looked more relaxed. Hands in lap seemed nervous. Arm over couch arm, calm and collected. And lastly, facial features. If my face was going to be blown up 10 times its size, I was going to take this big screen opportunity to play up my facial features and keep the audience entertained.

It wasn’t until I was standing backstage with a pop star-style microphone wrapping from ear to ear that I realized I hadn’t spent any time preparing for the panel content. Granted, it was about my MBA experience at MIT, so it wasn’t really a topic that demanded much preparation.

The stage manager signaled for the other panelists — also MBAs, from Harvard and HEC Montréal — and I to head up the backstage stairs towards the fancy sliding door that I had seen reveal speaker after speaker in the previous days.

The door slid open and lights flooded the opening; 10,000 eyes watched us move across the stage, and the first thing I thought to do was wave. And second? “Snap a picture, you fool!” I reminded myself. “There are 5,000 IRL people looking at you! How often does that happen?”

Souvenir shot taken, the panel began and the stage countdown clock started. We shared our backgrounds, why we decided to pursue an MBA, and how we were enjoying Ireland.

I took body language inventory as the others spoke: Legs crossed? Check. Arms relaxed? Check. Smile? Check. Looking at speaker? Check. Breathing? Check.

I was the last to speak on the panel, with 30 seconds left on the clock. Moderator and Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave had asked us to give our final bits of advice. “Don’t do your homework,” I said, getting a few chuckles from the audience. “Back in college, the most life-changing moments for me turned out to be studying abroad, learning a new language, going to art galleries and shows, traveling. Whatever you do, don’t spend too much time worrying about homework, because you’ll discover your true passions and make your best friends outside of class.”

With that, it was all over. Five thousand of Ireland’s future leaders had hopefully soaked in our words. It’s cheesy, but I hope I become one of those fabled inspirations for at least one person in the audience. A decade from now, one of them might be on a similar stage as the one I sat on, responding to a well-worded question on leading a passionate life, saying “I went to a panel when I was in college, and this MBA student from MIT said something that will always stick with me…”

After all, the only reason I find myself on stage after stage — though not typically as large as this one! — is because I was inspired by those who came before me.

This post was originally published on The Tech, MIT’s oldest and largest newspaper and the first newspaper published on the web.

Martha Coakley: Ambiguous or Contemplative?

Martha Coakley at Women's Leadership Council roundtable
Above: MA Attorney General Martha Coakley, alongside U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand at a Women’s Leadership Council roundtable held on September 14, 2014, at which I was honored to be a guest.

In her campaign for Massachusetts governor, Attorney General Martha Coakley is — as of late — being criticized for giving ambiguous answers as to her views on important issues, including a graduated income tax, increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, and granting drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants. Her recent Democratic gubernatorial nomination over State Treasurer Steve Grossman, instead of being hailed as a victory was seen as a “showing that raises doubts,” by more than one political analyst, about her ability to run a state. Over at The Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh put it:

“Coakley ran a vague values campaign, talking a good deal about what she had done as attorney general, but far less about what she would do as governor. Light on specifics and hyper-cautious in her comments, the front-runner largely confined herself to broad themes and a general discussion of areas where she hoped to expand state services. Queried on specifics issues, her predictable answer was that she would ‘look at’ or ‘consider’ this matter or that.”

Having recently attended Coakley’s September 14th Women’s Leadership Council roundtable in Dorchester, I’ll be the first to say I approached this news with a skeptical eye. While Attorney General Coakley may have answers some of the tough questions in the primary with caution, I believe that she’ll take this new criticism seriously and not only step up her transparency game, but also get down to the nitty gritty.

As her background is in law, though, it should be fully expected that she has a risk-averse nature to making brash decisions. I, for one, am intrigued by her “let’s-review-it-first approach,” as long as those reviews turn into thoughtful strategies for a better future.

Having spoken with Coakley in an intimate, though brief, conversation with two others after last week’s roundtable on earned sick time, I was able to see her decisiveness in action. I thanked her for inviting me and gave her the feedback that the Women’s Leadership Council may find greater movement by including working out a more balanced male/female ratio. Incorporating more diverse opinions and getting buy-in from the current male majority in politics and business could be the tipping point, I said.

Without skipping a beat, Coakley responded, “I believe it’s important to first gather women to give them a comfortable space for sharing and speaking.” She went on to discuss her time in law and how the male-dominated culture, while now slightly better, still hadn’t dissipated and was still being echoed in other industries today. I agreed, but countered that we’ve been gathering in mostly-women groups to discuss women’s rights for decades and that it seemed about time for the conversation to be more balanced between the genders. “It’s all about finding the right male advocates early on,” I suggested. The conversation came to an amicable stop, due to time constraints, but I walked away feeling that I had learned something from her and that she had absorbed my feedback and would let it brew for future events.

My takeaway and first impression from meeting Martha Coakley is that she’s a woman of her word — someone who researches the facts, opinions, and options; chooses a course; and sticks with it. For some, that methodical strategy may seem slow, but for me, it seems wise. I look forward to seeing what conclusions Coakley lands upon.