Insights from an Uncommon Journey — from Hamilton College to Uncommon.org
How would you describe UNCOMMON and your role to someone unfamiliar to the field — what are your favorite parts of your job, and what are some of the biggest challenges you've faced getting there?
Uncommon.org is an EdTech nonprofit. Our mission is to provide the technology education and employment opportunities low-income community members need to lift themselves from poverty. We do this by running free Technology Bootcamps and after school coding programs. The heart and soul of our organization is the "Innovation Hub" — the solar powered co-work spaces built from recycled shipping containers that are placed in the low-income communities we serve.
As CEO, my job is to set the long term vision of the organization and to map out our path to success. I am responsible for fundraising, partnerships and business development, strategic planning, and generally motivating, encouraging, and inspiring the team. Our goal is to impact lives at scale and to change the way people think about work, and my main focus is on trying to figure out how we can achieve those goals.
We decided to launch this program in some of the poorest communities in some of the poorest parts of the world. There have been countless challenges along the way, ranging from not having reliable access to fuel, electricity or internet to networking, fundraising, and navigating life in a foreign country.
The best part about my job is the people I get to meet and work with. I am so inspired by our students and team, and am honored to be in thisposition. Likewise, it has been a real privilege getting to meet ambassadors, CEOs and ministers who have encouraged, helped, and supported us along this journey.
What did you plan on doing (if anything) when you arrived at Hamilton, and how did that evolve throughout your four years on the Hill?
In regards to what was supposed to happen after Hamilton, I never had too much of a plan. I was lucky to have parents that didn't pressure my siblings or I into pursuing a straight and narrow path, and I loved to remind my friends of the Mark Twain quote, "never let schooling interfere with your education."
When I arrived at Hamilton, my goal was simply to try as many things as possible. I was lucky to make incredible friends who I still see all the time. At Hamilton we joined a fraternity, played on the basketball team, DJ'd a radio show, started clubs, volunteered locally, and collectively had very broad social groups. Staying super open minded at Hamilton was a big part of what made our time so special and we stuck to that plan throughout the four years.
What from your Hamilton education do you continue to use to make UNCOMMON the organization it is today?
The liberal arts education is terrific for entrepreneurs. Getting to pursue so many different academic and social interests made me well rounded, creative, and curious. Hamilton's emphasis on writing has also been a great benefit to Uncommon. Being able to tell stories in a clear and compelling way has helped us tremendously.
What advice would you give to a student interested in combining multiple fields like non-profit work, business, and computer science?
Building a nonprofit is very hard. You don't have a traditional product to sell and the donations landscape is very competitive — there are so many great causes to support!
It's been extremely important to us, from day one, that we think like a business. We're lucky that the technology skills we teach are inherently monetizable. The fun part now is figuring out how to create a sustainable business model that will allow us to scale our work. We are very excited by the potential of our various revenue streams and can't wait to really pursue "profitability" in 2021.
To anyone that is considering combining nonprofit, business, and tech to start their own initiative, make sure you really think about the sustainability and scalability of the model. You don't need to have all the answers right away, but you should have a general idea of how you think you can scale, and the more pressure you can take off of traditional fundraising, the better. Dream big, start small, start now.
What are some of the biggest takeaways you've had from your career/career path that you wish you could have told your past Hamilton self?
Well, I definitely wish I would have told myself to take a few computer science courses while I was at school. Generally speaking though, I'm pretty happy with how everything has turned out. I've had some crazy experiences — military coups, internet blackouts, lions and elephants outside the tent, and every day I wake up feeling extremely grateful for this opportunity and the interesting memories and great friends I've made along the way.
When I was in school, I had no idea "what I wanted to be when I grew up," but to me that was OK. I was lucky to have Mentor figures that encouraged me to try things, and personally I felt no shame after graduation uber driving or bartending while pursuing various business ideas — even if my peers were at Goldman Sachs or Deloitte.
Sadly, I was given the best advice for college on the day of my graduation. The speaker told a story of her time at Hamilton and a friend of hers who was a writer had enrolled in a physics class. She couldn't understand why because he hated science, and when she asked him his response was that he wanted to write a poem about light, so he needed to understand how light works. At the end of the semester she asked him how the physics class went. He said it was pretty awful, he failed the course, but he wrote one hell of a poem.
The pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, is what school should be about. One of my freshman year professors tried to hammer this into our brains when he kept saying, "grades schmades," but still — there's pressure in a school environment. If I were starting my time at Hamilton today, knowing what I know now, I'd sign up for the most interesting courses taught by the most renowned professors. To hell with the grades, we've got bigger problems to solve.