Hope Street Group Network Member Interview with Alex Chisholm, President and CEO of Skylab Learning
Your career has spanned academia, private enterprise, and the nonprofit sector. How has working within these different systems impacted your view on the best way to make meaningful change?
Great question. I’ve been really lucky over the past 25 years to move across different systems completely by accident. Navigating from a communications firm in Silicon Valley early in my career to a research university like MIT to a young public company at Leapfrog to a global media powerhouse at NBC before starting the non-profit Learning Games Network, and now our our latest venture, Skylab Learning, I’ve had a chance to meet, work with, and learn from some world-class problem solvers.
This journey wasn’t something I’d planned or even imagined but has unfolded because of the people I’ve met, admired, and wanted to support. Some have been extraordinary coaches and mentors and others great collaborators. As different as they are, the people in each have demonstrated a profound desire to be productive and make change in the world. I’m really drawn to people who are passionate and creative, regardless of the sector or system. Because of who they are and the problems they’re trying to solve or opportunities they create, they’ve helped me embrace risk and think about how to toss out rule books to come up with something new.
Today, with so much upheaval in every system and discipline under the sun, finding the potential in uncertainty and being willing to embrace change aren’t just survival mechanisms they’re job requirements. I think if one starts there, it’s easier to see that meaningful change isn’t as out of reach as one might think. There are no tethers to be afraid of cutting. You just have to go, do, and make the future.
You recently attended our 7th Annual Colloquium, where participants were tasked with working across sectors to build blueprints for social change. How do you think organizations can move from working within silos to finding the best solutions where ever they are?
That’s a hard one. I wish it could be more organic and obvious. Unfortunately, interdisciplinary conversations have to be engineered by those with a sensitivity and understanding that the world is a dramatically different place than it was when we had neat and tidy market sectors and disciplines, each with its own vocabularies, protocols, rules, and expectations.
A big part of the challenge is that in elementary, secondary, and higher education, we’re conditioned to compartmentalize the way we learn and think: math is one subject, history another, and science, language arts, etc. are others. We then carry this segmentation into adulthood when we think about jobs and careers. Unless our parents or teachers help us make connections across subjects or we have opportunities to explore relationships through extra-curricular activities, most people end up looking at education as “the end.” They don’t crossover to the other side and realize that education is simply “the means” to a lifelong adventure of learning, building bridges from idea to the next, and making the world what they think or want it to be.
I think successful organizations make a concerted effort to engage or hire people that aren’t afraid to learn and experiment. I also they think they encourage people to translate topic-specific jargon and theory for others, which helps to eliminate barriers for collaboration. By encouraging people to work outside of comfort zones and explore ideas and models from new but related and relevant areas, organizations can help cultivate a greater sense of interconnectedness for those charged with doing the hard work of making change.
Your work leading the Learning Games Network and now Skylab learning has involved finding innovative solutions to social challenges. How would you like to see innovation fostered in social good markets and what area do you believe is most ripe for disruption?
I have a fantasy that we’ll someday soon find a big reset button to clean the cache. That’s an easy answer for fostering innovation: get rid of all the “old ways” or “usual ways” that muck up the new system, inform decisions, and set expectations. But, since this is reality and not a J.J. Abrams re-boot, we need to create more opportunities for young people to participate in and understand the complex world they’ll inherit.
It’s great that Hope Street Group and other organizations are leading the way to map critical issues and create blueprints for change with current professionals and practitioners. But, we need more mechanisms and channels for young people to play a role in and learn from the rich interdisciplinary conversations that spark new ideas and innovation.
Someone recently sent me Jack Andraka’s book, BREAKTHROUGH, which details how he invented a better way for early detection of pancreatic cancer — when he was 15 years old. Clearly, as he worked through each challenge, explored strategies, and eventually landed on his invention, he “got it.” Andraka emerged with a much better sense of how science and medicine and public policy all crash into one another, either to suffocate a new approach or, thankfully in his case, to spark something gloriously new.
The areas most ripe for disruption are the ones that are most stale as they operate today: education and health care. That’s pretty obvious. But, I think there are areas where people can zoom in and target specific challenges. With a smartphone in the hand of almost every individual above the age of 13 in the U.S. (it seems to get younger every day), there is still tremendous potential to more effectively leverage what has become truly personal computing. “There’s an app for that” is a throwaway catchphrase but if you really think about it, why couldn’t mobile and personal computing technologies be more robust tools for intellectual and physical well being. We’ve only scratched the surface on what’s possible here, at both the levels of personal empowerment and big data aggregation.
Technology has already causes massive shifts in how we learn. What future role do you see for technology in addressing challenges within the education sector and how do you believe public and private entities can support it?
Again, I wish I had that reset button. Having worked in trying to bring innovation to K-12 education for close to 20 years, the biggest challenges have been created by the stewards of a system created to support a 20th Century industrial economy. The complex relationships among public and private stakeholders in that system — textbook companies, testing groups, selected officials at local, state, and federal levels, and teachers unions — make it almost impossible to affect the kind of seismic changes needed to change the landscape to support a global, knowledge- and service-based economy.
We need more individuals willing to take chances on creating technology solutions that don’t just enable the old system, which is where many entrepreneurs have seen a quick buck — I’m going to build a better mousetrap — but that transform the way we unlock someone’s potential, spark imagination, and enable success. We need more investors willing to take calculated risks on things that seem completely wild and unmarketable today but that could prove transformative. Remember, the original promise of the first iPod was “your music library, digitized, in your pocket.” In it’s evolution over the past decade, it’s gone from that to disrupting the music industry’s long-held business models to becoming a primary communications and computing device while inspiring tablet and wearable computing devices. Sometimes it just takes one small innovation to ignite a wildfire of change. I’m hopeful that spark is going come in education and turn the whole thing on its head. We’re doing what we can with the flint and stone in our hands.