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This post was written by Nina Portugal: teacher at OUSD’s Castlemont High School, recent founder of Rock Your Voice and winner of Startup Weekend Education (SWEDU) Oakland. Watch her demo here: http://bit.ly/1iiIUov

Like an itch, my start-up idea kept creeping back into my mind. Sometimes I would take a second to scratch it and do some research, but usually I would just ignore it. I was a teacher, not a coder. I was a mentor, not a designer. I was a coach, not a businesswoman. I couldn’t imagine nor did I understand how to make my idea a reality.  Yet I knew it would be a game changer in my room and many others.

Then I got an email about SWEDU Oakland. The itch returned. Maybe, I thought. But I quickly returned to lesson planning or grading papers; my reality.

However, that itch was persistent and I decided to reach out to John Baldo, one of the event organizers, about the opportunity. I went back and forth, but like a good teacher, he stood by me. He wrote me encouraging emails and kept telling me, “You are enough.”

This mantra is one I employ in my classroom with my youth and one that guides my own teaching on my hardest days. However, it was a mantra I had forgotten to listen to at this moment.

Before I knew it, my roommate forced me to sign up and there I was Friday after school practicing my pitch in my living room. There were two voices in my head. One encouraging me to go and another reminding me of my endless to-do list of lesson plans, unit plans, and parent phone calls. I entered Cole Elementary carrying a mixed bag of emotions and a post-it note with my pitch.

Now many of you may be thinking, how could a teacher be scared of public speaking? It is true that all day long I am in front of a crowd talking. I am dancing around, putting myself out there, and trying my hardest to sell skills like paraphrasing, summarizing, and vocabulary. However, my students feel more like a family than an audience. As loud as my teacher voice may be or as comfortable as I am in front of my class, I was immediately intimidated.

Then that voice inside my head began:


Pitches began. I listened and took a few notes on my post-its and, in round two, finally had the courage to get in line for my pitch. For the first time my idea was entering the public space and before I started my minute I reminded myself once more that I was enough.

The next three hours sped by. People voted for me, and I quickly advanced to the top ten and even more quickly had an amazing team of two business people and three coders. We began to brain dump and I soon saw that our passions aligned and my idea could become a reality. I left that night full of adrenaline.

The next morning, I was the first one to arrive – teachers are never tardy – and a bit scared. The teacher in me also made up a “norms” poster with the number one rule being, “you are enough.” I knew, just like in my classroom, if we believed in ourselves we could move mountains. Before we left that night, the impossible was made possible and our voice recognition software existed.

Before I knew it, Sunday arrived and it was time to put our product to the real test. As the team leader, and face of our product, I would be giving the pitch. Once again, I had to talk in front of a room full of people and experience the “Shark Tank” experience once more. However this time, I was a little less worried. I had been talking to my students all day long and they seemed to like the product. I kept reminding myself that I was doing this for them and our class. With my focus clear I walked up to the front of the gymnasium and turned on my teacher voice.

At the mention of Castlemont the crowed erupted in claps and whistles. I not only had the support of my team and my students, but also my community. The pitch began and I could feel the engagement. My blood was rushing as I made sure the crowd was absolutely silent for our demo, which worked perfectly.

I knew whatever the outcome was in regards to prizes, my goal had been achieved. I had workable software for my young people and that’s what mattered most. However, winning is never bad either…

As I reflect on the experience, I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunities it provided. It is easy to stick to our comfort zones and put our selves in boxes. I almost kept my idea locked inside my head because of my own fears. Thanks to SWEDU not only did my idea become a reality and a working product with plans to move forward, but I also learned so much. I learned a little about coding, design, marketing, and business. I got to talk to amazing coaches and individuals in the field, and I saw the wide range of ways I could greatly impact my students and students throughout Oakland, California, and internationally.

So you’re probably thinking, what now? Sunday night I came home and lesson planned for about three hours and today at school I ran my classroom business as usual. Tomorrow I will do the same, as will I the next day. However, I love this idea and I am dedicated to turn it into a scalable reality for OUSD and other districts. Our team continues to meet and thanks to SWEDU I can confidently say, “I am enough” and I am ready to move mountains.

Inspired yet? Sign up to attend or organize a Startup Weekend Education in your town at swedu.co

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John Baldo