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A year of spectacular accomplishments (and total flops)

Before we begin again, reflect we must.

It is truly remarkable what can happen in only 365 days, especially when you are running a marathon - building an organization capable of scaling its impact - at the pace of a sprint.

More often than not, successes and failures occur at a pace too rapid for the brain to digests the implications and learnings of said events. My comfort zone is action as opposed to reflection, perhaps because I am always in solutioning mode as CEO. It is also because of this role that I feel a responsibility to pause for a moment before jumping into 2020.

This reflection is a celebration of the total flops and spectacular accomplishments at UpstartED in 2019. It is radically candid, because if there is one thing we need more of this decade it’s the unvarnished truth so that we can have honest conversations. It is also optimistic, because we must lead with hope if we want to build a better future.

The spectacular accomplishments of 2019

Being in constant solutioning mode as a team, we always find it easier to work on fixing what is not working than to celebrate what has been accomplished. It is why I want to start my reflection with this list.

Scaling impact: from 40 lives to 4,000

When we ran our first program in 2016 - before UpstartED was incorporated as a nonprofit - we celebrated the fact that we empowered a whopping 40 students in Montreal to access our local innovation ecosystem. Although we had the ambition of reaching more young people, even we could not have foreseen the growth in impact that UpstartED would achieve in a few short years.

Through our growing team’s belief in youth’s capacity to drive social innovation, we have brought entrepreneurship, technology and design thinking to over 4,000 students and teachers in Quebec and Ottawa in less than three years.

What makes this accomplishment spectacular is that we have continued to deliver hands-on experiences for young people in spite of our small team and limited resources. We learned to connect and empower like-minded and like-hearted people in our community to our mission and hence to scale the delivery of our programs through a strong network of volunteers.

UpstartED alumni launching startups of their own

It takes time to see the impact of education. This year, we started to see the first tangible impact of the programs we have been running since 2016, making it a truly spectacular accomplishment.

Our organization exists because we believe that young people can and should be empowered to build the future. Some have started doing so already through their own startups (i.e. The Eco Company and Marble amongst others), and we could not be prouder to see them embark on this journey. We have said it from day one: age is not a factor when it comes to changing the world. These young people are proving it every day, and I am confident they will continue doing so in 2020 and beyond.

Joining forces with dozens of visionary educators

When we launched UpstartED we understood that, to have a scalable impact on young people, we needed to work with actors within the current education system; we needed to join forces with like-minded educators who shared a similar vision for the future of education.

Thanks to the scaling of upGen Explore (our in-school workshops), we have been able to forge partnerships with visionary teachers across 25+ schools in Montreal. These enterprising educators welcomed our upGen curriculum into their classrooms so that their students could be exposed to social innovation.

This year we also joined forces with Cedar Ridge High School, Miss Edgar and Miss Cramp’s School, and College Durocher Saint Lambert to tackle some very ambitious projects focused on youth entrepreneurship. All three schools have consistently demonstrated great courage and leadership in experimenting with an education model that better prepares students for the future.

It is an honour for UpstartED to accompany all these schools on their journey towards reimagining education, and I am beyond excited to see what we will accomplish together in 2020.

Forging partnerships based on shared values + vision

Everything we do at UpstartED, we strive to accomplish with integrity, candor, humility, and hope. Given that we serve (and set an example for) so many young minds, we have a responsibility to live these values every day. It is why we also seek out these values in the individuals and organizations with whom we collaborate.

In 2019, thanks to the leadership of UpstartED’s other co-founder, Abdaal Mazhar Shafi, we forged eight corporate and community partnerships* that have elevated and inspired UpstartED’s work. Of these, half have contributed financially to the upGen Program, and the other half have shared their expertise to help us build the upGen curriculum.

Most importantly, all of these organizations have dedicated time and resources towards empowering young people to build a better future. They understand that enabling individuals to learn how to innovate from a young age is a must (rather than a nice to have). Who could ask for better partners?

*The organizations supporting the 2019-2020 edition of the upGen Program include the City of Montreal, Shopify, Blue Cross Quebec, Deloitte, SAP, Kids Code Jeunesse, Element AI, Montreal AI Ethics Institute to name a few.

Recruiting our dream team

It takes a lot of courage, hope and vision to join a nonprofit - especially in the education industry - that is still in its infancy. It is why I was deeply humbled when our dream team found us this year.

Through a stroke of luck, we grew our leadership team by 100% this year with the arrival of Celine Godard Aron and Monica Paraghamian. It is thanks to their passion and tenacity that we were able to celebrate so many wins and to push through the flops listed below. Under their leadership, UpstartED has grown our community of active volunteers, facilitators and educators to 60+ people this year alone. Considering how young our organization is and how limited our resources are, it is fair to also call this feat a spectacular accomplishment.

Finally, retaining talented people is just as important as recruiting new ones. That is why I am personally grateful to celebrate three years working alongside my partner in crime, Abdaal Mazhar Shafi. Beyond his incredible ability to forge the meaningful partnerships that have financially scaffolded our programs, Abdaal is a visionary leader whose insights have transformed UpstartED into an organization that has impacted thousands of people.

I encourage you to remember the names of the people above, because this is just the start of their social impact journeys.

The best flops of 2019

There is no learning without failure, which makes this list as important to write as the one above.

The failed experiment(s)

This was the second year in a row that we dreamed of launching a two-week summer program for youth on the topics of design thinking and technology. I believe that many factors led to this experiment’s failure:

1. Promotions for the program started in March of 2018, by which time most parents had already confirmed all their summer plans.

2. Although popular across the US, this type of program was novel on the Montreal market.

3. We did not know how to reach the customers who did understand the value of the program and who were willing to pay for it.

4. Most importantly, as a team we struggled with the fact that this program was not financially accessible to all young people. We needed to cover our development and delivery costs, but could not do so without putting the burden on the customer.

In addition to all the take-aways above, there is a bigger lesson here: there are only so many experiments a small team of humans can run in one year. We tried jam-packing the summer program into an already busy winter and spring. Our team did not recognize this pattern at the time, so we ended up having a few more business flops throughout the year. I won’t list them because they follow the same pattern.

This experience taught us the importance of focus: both in choosing our experiments in a way that aligns with our mission, and in investing our limited resources with intention.

A regrettable departure

Like every person reading this post, I too have walked away from certain organizations in my past due to feeling disillusioned. It is the reason why, as CEO, I invest a lot of my time building UpstartED’s culture and getting to know every person who joins our organization. I believe the organization should serve the individual just as much as the individual serves the organization. This starts with understanding why people are there in the first place; it ends with respecting their decision to depart once their journey comes to an end.

Seeing as UpstartED is a volunteer-driven organization, we have become used to the ebb and flow of people’s involvement. This is completely understandable - once the organization has served them to the best of its ability (and vice versa), their involvement peters out. This year was the first time in UpstartED’s history that someone left our team because they explicitly disagreed with our approach to building and delivering our programs. They called our process bureaucratic, lacking transparency and trust.

For a team of unseasoned social entrepreneurs, hearing this was truly disheartening. Our team evaluated all the events that led to this regrettable departure and, while there are things we could have done better, we arrived at the conclusion that the accusations were unfounded. We also concluded that it is impossible to make everyone happy.

This was a hard but necessary failure in 2019. This situation brought our team closer together and allowed us to have important conversations about values and culture. We are entering 2020 as a stronger, more aligned and cohesive family.

Final thoughts

I started writing this reflection on the first of January and I have been putting my thoughts together since (I did mention in the beginning that reflection is not my strong suit). Only two weeks into the new year, our team has already hit the accelerator as we race towards our first challenge of 2020, the upGen Bootcamp. We are equipped with learning aplenty and with a heart full of hope. Here’s to another year of total flops and spectacular accomplishments!


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