A couple of months ago, I ran into an acquaintance almost a year after college in Ann Arbor, MI. The second we made eye contact and before I could even process I had seen him, he asked me, “Hey, Ankita! How is Acorn?” I had already been caught off guard and did not expect the conversation to initiate in such manner. So, without giving much thought, I honestly and disappointedly answered, “okay….we are doing okay,” and instantly changed the topic.
That night, I couldn’t fall asleep. In fact, there have been countless nights when I have stayed up thinking about what is happening with this organization.
2018 has not been the most eventful year for Acorn compared to the previous two when we ran a successful pilot at Oakland Tech High, released a curriculum, and partnered with Oakland Public Library (OPL). This year, we tried working more on the curriculum, shared our learnings with our audience, and worked on expanding our network in the midwest and the east coast with the hopes of working with a school or makerspace. Despite our sincere efforts, we made little progress.
Several social entrepreneurs, who my team and I look up to, often speak about how painstakingly slow the process of starting a successful social venture is. This is something I need to remind myself and, most importantly my team, because during any meeting when a member talks about the stagnancy of the organization, I sense a tone of self-reproach. It is also the feeling I try to fight regularly. Even for a for-profit venture, scaling can be tedious and difficult. So the magnitude is a lot higher especially for a NGO run by a bunch of broke college grads trying to tackle one of the most difficult social issues — access to education.
In the past, we have let go of members who have been in the midst of recruiting for jobs or were applying to graduate school. Every other week we cancel our meetings because one of us is stuck at work later than usual. It is understood amongst us that our health and job is our top priority because each of us have student loans to pay off and a savings account to build before we can even think about investing fully in the cause that we immensely care about. We must be well ourselves so that we can take care of others.
Although the adult lifestyle and managing a full-time job with several other commitments is affecting our productivity, I am not convinced that it is the only reason Acorn might seem stagnant. We started this organization during the most stressful years of our college, yet we were able to make time for it. So I don’t believe that “lack of time” is really a hurdle.
In our recent meeting, Michelle, Ashlee, and I started reflecting on the past three years as we were talking about this exact topic. Retrospectively, we were never completely confident about our strategy and now, after failing repeatedly, we lack confidence even more.
Acorn launched with a naive, one-dimensional understanding of the problem of access to education. In spite of this, I think that we received funding because we demonstrated determination to understand the complexities and depths of this issue. Sadly, we lost sight of this goal soon after due how some events played out. A few months after receiving our initial funding, we were encouraged to run a crowdfunding campaign for a makerspace. With a successful crowdfunding campaign and funds allocated for a makerspace, we felt obligated to build one despite some hesitations.
During this period we stretched ourselves too thin trying to work with schools to run a curriculum and partner with OPL to build a makerspace, and found ourselves in strategic and financial predicaments. To combat our financial situation and to focus effectively on our target schools/audience, we ceased our work at OPL. In the pursuit for more funding, we became fixated on implementing a curriculum and were functioning like every other STEM outreach organization. Which, again, was not working because we did not have a strong success record.
It was after failing repeatedly for three years that we finally realized our naive, one-dimensional perspective of understanding and tackling the problem. I now believe that the education sector does not need another organization that bombards students with slightly new tools and curricula. The education system needs to change so that schools, teachers, and districts that are in serious need are empowered.
In 2018, we were able to get a deeper understanding of the issues relating to STEM education needs and access, and recognize where we had gone wrong and why. One of the best things about having a team dispersed around the country is that we are able to better connect with teachers, NGOs, and policymakers from these diverse areas. So I will rephrase my words from earlier and say that we have made significant and valuable progress in this past year. I’d argue that in the social sector, thoroughly investigating an issue is just as or more important than implementing efforts.
I hope that our story and experiences help others learn and grow just as much as they have helped us! I hope that funders and corporate sponsors acknowledge the value received from efforts/programs failing, and reevaluate their impact assessment tools to track, support, and promote the study of problems and failures. I hope people spend more time investigating the root cause for whatever they are working on. One of Einstein’s famous quotes reads: If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions. Solving for the wrong thing can hurt the issue at heart.
Finally, I hope this post is somewhat consoling to my team. We definitely have a long way to go, but we have surely come a long way too!