In the fall of 2014, I had the opportunity to leave my Toronto kindergarten classroom behind and re-locate my life to sunny San Francisco. With very little certainty about what awaited me on the Sunshine Coast, I took the biggest risk of my life and embarked on a 2200-mile move to a new coast and a new country.
To help ensure that my big move didn’t just turn into one big vacation, I endeavored to immerse myself in as much professional development as possible. EdTech was a relatively new concept to me, as was the intense entrepreneurial culture of the Bay Area. Before my furniture had even arrived, I was volunteering with children regularly, had launched my first edu-blog, and was attending weekly EdTech meetups.
As I learned about local EdTech startups and met with some of their founders, I was inspired by the passion that drove these people to think beyond the confines of the “this is the way we have always done it” mentality that so often holds back education reform. Being surrounded by so much ambition, experience and success made me feel like a small fish in a very big pond – a feeling that I was un-accustomed to experiencing.
I considered that I needed to get involved with something where I could explore the depths of my own experience and knowledge to help me gain back the confidence that I had felt slipping away in the months following my transition to this new city and culture. When I stumbled across an advertisement for Startup Weekend Education San Francisco, I was hopeful that it would be the new opportunity that I was looking for.
On the first night of the weekend, I barely had time to sign in and loot the swag counter before I was bombarded with people pitching me their ideas and shoving their business cards into my hands. The intensity was overwhelming, and I spent the next 25 minutes wondering whether I had made a huge mistake signing up for this event. Did I really have what it would take to crack into this entrepreneurial culture? But after listening intently to the pitches, I promptly found a startup team that was incredibly excited to have me on their team. With my spirit slightly lifted, I drifted off late that night dreaming about all of the work that lay ahead of us.
To say that the weekend was exhausting, demanding, and pushed my brain and body in ways I have never experienced is an understatement. My lack of experience in business and technology did not last long, as I was forced to learn foreign concepts by the minute. I held no reservations about asking questions and soaking in as much knowledge from my teammates as possible – after all, this was why I was here. I also quickly realized that everybody had an important role on the team, including me. Only I acknowledged my notions about my lack of entrepreneurial know-how, and my team came to depend on me for my educational expertise just as much as I was depending on them. Our respectful ebb and flow continued, producing new ideas and helping us to re-investigate previous ones. By the end of day two, all of our “to-dos” had been crossed off the white board, and we left the workspace with a cautiously optimistic attitude about how well we had worked together and how far along in the project we were.
The wind was knocked out of our billowing sails on the final day of the weekend, when a brutally honest coaching session deflated our egos into stunned silence. Not only was our general business plan given some harsh feedback, but my personal ability to deliver our final pitch was also questioned during the coaching session. Once we had left the coaches, I explained to my group – admittedly through teary eyes – that I didn’t feel prepared to give our final pitch. It had not been my idea for me to pitch, but somehow over the course of the weekend my team had evolved to have this faith in me that I did not have in myself. The support my team offered me was akin to the support I have felt from friends that I have known for half of my life. Hugs, snacks, fresh air, words of encouragement, and an incredibly productive breakout session between myself and one of the founders helped put me back on track – I would be delivering our final pitch to the judges.
At pitch time, I found my inner teacher, who can manage to inspire the toughest room of uninterested students, and delivered a solid presentation. People laughed, nodded their heads in understanding, and I was met with many pats on the back afterwards. In that moment, I felt as though I had achieved so much more than I knew I was capable of: I learned about business models, validating a product, and market research; I supplied a great deal of content and research for our product; and I had confidently explained to a room full of esteemed judges and colleagues why our startup was important.
In the aftermath of Startup Weekend Education, I have continued to reflect on my experiences. In a 50 hour span, I felt my confidence crumble and soar, I taught others and became the student, I made connections with strangers that often take years to form, I began re-thinking my impact on education outside of the classroom, and I pushed myself into new and uncomfortable situations, only to come out a better teacher, professional, and person in the end. Thanks to the guidance and support I received from taking part in this event, I was able to experience first-hand the very philosophy that has become such an integral part of my professional, and personal, life – a dedication to lifelong learning.