Good Work: People That Can Do No Other

Jay Kimmelman moved to Africa to launch Bridge Academies

I love people that do what they do because they can do no other.  You can see it in their clarity, persistence, and the ability they say no to the BS most of us put up with.  In some cases their pathology renders them street musicians, in other cases billionaires.  I think there are three prototypes.
Inhabited by a gift.  Did you see Jackie Evancho, the 10 year old girl with the giant voice on America’s Got Talent?  That’s one version of what I’m talking about—a gift obvious to all.  The other version is the personal pull of art or an idea that simply must be expressed—a book that must be written, a song that must be song, a mural that must be painted, a program that must be coded, a game that must be won.
Inhabitation is pretty common in teenagers but our one size fits few secondary schools offer few avenues of expression.  Big Picture schools, on the other hand, are designed specifically to leverage student interest.
Captured by a calling.  A broader cross section of the population finds, at some point in their life, the pull of a profession when interests, aptitudes, and a reward profile line up with a job cluster.  I think this is most common in education and health professions.  If you interviewed your favorite teacher, you would inevitably uncover a predilection to serve and an attraction early in life to the rewards and challenges of teaching.
Inspired by a vision.  There are a few that have become clear about their gifts, feel compelled by a calling, and become inspired by a vision of things could work better at scale.  Three gentlemen come to mind

  • Geoff Canada, propelled as much by a righteous anger as a sense of possibility, claimed ownership of 80 blocks in Harlem and created Harlem Children’s Zone.  A combination of new schools and new services put into action a new attitude about kids and the future of the neighborhood.
  • John Danner was a teacher that became a successful businessman who couldn’t resist his initial calling.  But he returned convinced of the need and potential for a big national chain of high performing schools—it looks like he’s off to a good start.
  • Jay Kimmelman sold an assessment company and moved to remote China with his wife to think about the next step.  After a year, they moved to Africa where Jay launched Bridge International Academies, a network of low cost private schools serving the slums of Nairobi.  His chain of more than 30 schools is achieving literacy rates approaching urban American schools.

The ‘can do no other’ trait is pretty easy to spot in an interview by asking a candidate how they got started and what the future looks like.  I used to ask principal candidates to describe, with no constraints, their ideal school.  If they couldn’t answer that question, they were employed not inspired.
As an investor, you need to a bit cautious regarding the ‘can do no other’ trait as it may reduce a CEO’s agility to move from a good idea to a great idea or to move from start up to scale up.
We need schools that encourage young people to find and develop their gifts and to test and clarify their calling. That suggests a high degree of customization and strong community connections.  Both are entirely possible now.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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