Home » BIF10 Highlights and A Random Act of Collision

BIF10 Highlights and A Random Act of Collision

I heard about the Business Innovation Factory (BIF) last year while attending the International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC) in Boulder, Colorado. A friend I met there, Matt Murrie, had attended BIF for a couple years and raved about this event where “innovation junkies” come together to share ideas and create space for random collisions to occur among attendees.

I have only attended education-specific conferences before and I looked forward to the potential to collaborate with other innovators across different fields. To me, what I created with ALC Mosaic isn’t just reinventing a school – it’s a shift in thinking about how to address life in general. A redefinition of what it means to be “successful” in this world. From the description I was given about BIF, I felt that I could have a real opportunity to learn from others redefining how to start and run businesses, as well as share about how I am doing that with this school.

Entering BIF on Tuesday, I was immediately humbled. I was younger than most of the attendees and, while I have done a lot in my 31 years, I felt much less experienced than those around me. I decided to sit back and just listen and learn, hoping that along the way I’d experience the random act of collision that BIF prides itself on. (I did, read on!)

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A few speaker highlights 

Christopher Gergen, founder of Queen City Forward, told his perspective about the distinction between “Leading Others” and “Leading WITH Others.” Gergen also shared how the world tends to promote “learned helplessness” rather than “learned hopefulness.” One question he seeks to find the answer to is “How can we unleash the potential of next generation problem solvers?”  I was excited to hear from someone who’s line of work seems so fundamentally aligned with mine. It was interesting to go all the way to Rhode Island to learn about someone doing powerful work in the state where I live. Click here to see Gergen’s full talk.

Vala Ashafar described his incredible story leaving Iran in August of 1981 during a period of civil unrest to find refuge in the states. He left Iran as captain of the soccer team with many friends, to arrive in the United States having to readjust to being unpopular and last picked for sports games. However, through his moving story, he describes how there are times where it’s important to learn how to earn your right to be picked. Ashfar also said something that reminded me of a recent article with advice from the president of Harvard telling parents to “Make your children interesting!” if they want to get into Harvard (rather than putting focus on being valedictorian). Ashfar says in his talk, “If you’re interesting enough, people may find you interesting.” How I interpret this: if your focus is on getting good grades or meeting another person’s definition of success, you lose who you are along the process and are thus less in tune to who you are – making you less interesting to others.  Ashfar also talks about finding purpose through connectivity, saying “If you’re not helpful, you’re not influential,” and “The most fulfilling work may be the ability to help people discover their awesomeness.” I couldn’t agree with him more on that!  Click here to see Ashafar’s full talk.

Camille Beatty, a 14 year old Robotocist in Asheville, reconfirmed my belief that school is no longer needed. Beatty, her dad, and her sister learned how to build robots through watching Youtube videos. They do their hands-on building in their garage and make their robot parts from scratch. Their families operates on the belief that “if you can imagine it, then you can do it.” Last year they built two Mars Rover replicas for the New York Hall of Science, and then learned more about entrepreneurship as they built robots for other museum displays. With Beatty living so close to Charlotte, I hope one day some of our students could meet her and see the family garage!


Alexander Osterwalder’s talk started with a question that immediately grasped my attention: “Why I Want My Kids to Fail.” This is a topic near and dear to my heart since a huge part of Agile Learning Centers (ALC) is creating a space for children to develop a healthy relationship to failure. Osterwalder states, “The more you fail, the less you fear failure,” and tells a joke to reinforce how failure actually drives more learning, “Do you know what we call a failed entrepreneur in Silicon Valley? Experienced.” One reason I cannot teach in traditional schools is because of the unhealthy relationship children develop with failure since so much of what is important in school is to get an A, and if you aren’t getting the grades, something is wrong with you. I agree with Osterwalder when he states, “Fear of failure is holding us back from experimenting.” Sir Ken Robinson has a TED talk called “How Schools Kill Creativity” that drives this point home. If children are not taught how to use failure to stimulate and drive growth in a playful and exciting way, experimentation of ideas and creative thinking will be replaced with just trying to do things the way the teacher tells you to so you can get the grade. Click here to see Osterwalder’s full talk.


A not so random collision

After every break, I made a point to change my seat in hopes of meeting someone new and making a meaningful connection. As I said earlier, I felt like a young novice in this crowd – someone who had not yet “arrived” like so many of the other speakers, and I was slightly intimidated about how I could connect with others who might be interested in hear about the work I’m doing ALCs.

After the last break, I decided to sit closer to the front to get a different view of the stage. The man I sat next to started a conversation with me, first with small talk, then with growing interest as he discovered I started a school in Charlotte. Lo and behold, this random seat choice ended up being the spark to a very incredible collision for me. I was sitting next to Dennis Littky, the co-founder of Big Picture Schools and The Met School in Providence, RI.

Dennis and I grabbed what conversation we could during and in-between each speaker. We ended the day exchanging cell phone numbers on our business cards with a date to have him pick me and my ALC partner, Tomis Parker, up in the morning so we could tour The Met School before catching the rest of the afternoon speakers at BIF10.

The next morning Tomis and I had a thorough tour of the Met campus and got to spend a good bit of time asking Littky questions. I am still blown away at Littky’s generosity of time – picking us up and taking ample time to answer our questions and tell us his story. I enjoyed Littky’s spunk, he seemed like a cut-to-the-chase, down-to-earth, passionate individual determined to create an educational alternative that works – and he doesn’t let anything get in his way! Littky shared his failures and lessons along the way, including how he’s been fired a lot before and how, at one point, he stopped what he was doing to move to the mountains for 3 years.

One could easily say that Littky has “arrived” or has “made it,” after all, he was given 25 million dollars by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. You would think that at this time in his life, he would have hired others to run his school and projects. Yet, talking to Littky, it is clear that his work is not done and he is still in the trenches, working with students daily to show them that school can be about following your passions and interests. He knew the high school students and spoke to them as equals as we toured the campus, and then at night, he works with adults with a his new initiative, College Unbound.

I am so grateful for the time Littky gave to me and for the important reminder he gave me: None of us have “arrived” when it comes to the work of changing the education paradigm, and I am no lesser of a contributor in this work than he is. I’ve lived less years on this earth, and certainly have many more lessons to learn as I experience my own successes and failures through my journey, but I am creating valid and needed change with the individual students, educators, and parents I come in contact with. I’m always going to be journeying and working with children, while challenging parents and educators to look outside the box of traditional education. I hope that when I’m Littky’s age, I will still be interacting with the people I serve daily as he is. I hope that the educational paradigm will have shifted and changed quite a bit by that time, but I never hope to be down working with children!

Final thoughts

BIF prides itself on delivering an experience involving inspiring stories and random acts of collisions that bring innovative people together. I found both, and the latter without even expecting it. I guess that’s truly random, but I don’t believe that. I have to say it was a divine universal intervention that led me to meet the one person at this conference that has dedicated their life to a cause so similar to mine! BIF was the catalyst of that experience, and so generously gave me a scholarship to attend. I’m greatly appreciative of their inclusiveness to support early entrepreneurs like myself to bump shoulders and learn from those who have being in the game longer.

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