How to Grow Unicorns

By Nancy Conrad

The occasion was an advisory board meeting of a young tech startup company. The group attending was filled with brilliant, millennial tech-wizards, entrepreneurs, success stories, and me. As dinner was served at a beautiful table, in a magnificent penthouse apartment in Gramercy Park, they each introduced themselves. One by one, they told the story of the company they created, got funded, took public and sold for boatloads of money. All were excited to be there… maybe this startup could be the next big thing.

I sat silently. I was completely immersed in their stories of success, when all of a sudden, I was next to introduce myself. What the Sam Hill was I going to say? Then I heard myself respond, “I am a farmer.” There was total silence. “Oh, and what do you grow,” they asked. Without hesitation I proclaimed, “I grow unicorns.”

Let me explain. Unicorns are a dynamic group of disruptive companies valued at $1B or more. Facebook, Amazon and Google are paradigm examples.

The question is how do you grow unicorns, the companies and the visionary leaders who create them? Traditionally, we have subscribed to the theory that there are two ways to think about a challenge: inside the box and outside the box. But, to grow unicorns, we must embrace the new idea that there simply is no box. It is bold, it is audacious and it is transformative.

When the Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge was created twelve years ago, we designed our program based on the concept of no box thinking. The annual Challenge is an online global competition for students ages 13-18. Working in teams of 2-5, our students create commercially viable products to solve complex global, national or local issues in one of four categories: Aerospace & Aviation, Cyber-Technology & Security, Energy & Environment, and Health & Nutrition. At the core of our competition is the opportunity for students to learn how to think, how to learn, how to be no box thinkers and how to potentially become unicorns.

Our desire to provide our students with tools and resources to solve real-world challenges created an opportunity for us to use our own no box thinking skills. The result is an online, organic framework called The Conrad Design Method (CDM): Sprint 4 STEM. This digital platform is where students can collaborate across the globe with teachers, other students and subject matter experts to understand innovation and experience entrepreneurship.

CDM: Sprint 4 STEM aligns seamlessly with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). These standards require students to undertake design projects related to major global, national or local issues, design solutions, test and refine to identify the best solution to a challenge. Inspired by the Google Ventures Design Sprint, CDM: Sprint 4 STEM offers a real understanding of how to integrate these standards with no box thinking and practical learning skills. Our five-phase organic collaboration framework is for teachers and student teams to understand and accomplish their innovative and entrepreneurial solutions. Step-by-step, teams identify and understand a problem, sketch solutions, prototype and validate.

To create this method we utilized an off-the-shelf-system, Trello, to visually present curriculum and guide student teams and their teachers through each step of the design process. Through the CDM: Sprint 4 STEM students and teachers gain access to on-going personalized lesson plans, subject matter experts, training modules and online support. This platform also provides the framework for teachers and students to share and guide each other.

This year’s Challenge marked the launch of the CDM: Sprint 4 STEM. While the platform is new, the method is not a new concept to our Director of Education and Professional Development, Claude Charron. He has fine-tuned the process for over three years with hundreds of students. As student and teachers engage with others across the world, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Our system encourages student teams to become no box thinkers.

Students who become finalists in our competition are invited to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, where they present their products before industry leaders. This is Shark-Tank meets the Academy Awards for global high-school students. Every year, students exceed our expectations with their innovate no box solutions to challenges in sustainability.

With this fantastic new tool at their fingertips, I cannot wait to see what our students create. Who knows, we may even be meeting the next generation of unicorns.

For more, see:

Nancy Conrad is Founder and Chairman of the Conrad Foundation and the Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge. Connect with her on Twitter: @inventioneer

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