Frame the Problem

The 6 million disconnected Americans of which I am once a proud member will soon become the backbone of this country. It is our turn. Better make room.


I received a request for proposal from Village Capital to submit credentialing curriculum for them to orchestrate a cross-country initiative. I don’t typically respond to requests for me to send my years of hard work and sweat equity through an online form. Instead, I wrote this.


In the email you, Village Capital, sent out (to I’m sure hundreds if not thousands of individuals) I noticed the following data points:

6 million vacant jobs

according to leadership, jobs are vacant because they are unable to figure out who, where, and how to find the skilled labor required for the jobs

6 million unemployed Americans

These data points seem to be used as the foundation for why you request early stage startups to submit concepts for credentialing and wraparound programs etc.

It is my contention that investors become self-aware by asking themselves, “How many hands does my money pass through before it gets to the focus of impact?

As a “venture capital firm that finds, trains, and invests in early-stage ventures solving major global problems in agriculture, education, energy, financial inclusion, and health,” it seems rather presumptuous to jump to a solution such as the one you posed.

This is similar to how the foundations, nonprofits, and public policy orgs have done for the better part of this last decade. I watched hundreds of millions of dollars poured into that correlation of data points masquerading as an untapped opportunity from orgs like Aspen Institute, MacArthur, LRNG, etc.

One of the problems with free money, is that you don’t have to iterate your business model until you solve a problem. In order for a business to survive, it first focuses on identifying the unsolvable problems of its customer.

No one will pay you to solve a non-problem. -Vinod Khosla

Fall in love with your problem, not a solution. -Ash Maurya

A business does not have the luxury of not serving our stakeholders needs. We are unable to hold our hands out at the end of the year and say, “Oh well.

We failed. Let’s get more free money and keep doing the same thing anyway.”

Years ago, I realized that I already built my bridge across the chasm of education and economy. I was convinced that I would attract the attention of global nonprofits and venture philanthropy funds. I applied to those organizations because I wanted to show them, “Here, look. I did it this way. I fixed the problem for myself like this. Perhaps you can enable me to share this process with the rest of the individuals who may be struggling as I was not so long ago.”

I never heard from any of them.

What would the world look like if those suffering from the social problems that our nonprofits “serve” were to learn that everything they could ever need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and build a better life for themselves is looking back at them in the mirror. If I ran a nonprofit working with disconnected youth ages 18-24 who aren’t working nor enrolled in school I would feel threatened if someone like me encroached on my territory.

I have been testing my hypothesis over the last few months. A profound moment is triggered when different socioeconomic classes clash. Our ability to leverage collective impact strategies to work together seems to get stripped away. Almost instantly. Fight or flight is triggered, and it becomes a question of “who is the wolf, and who is the sheep?”

Your RFP clearly asks for a specific type of solution to the same framing that has been exhausted on all fronts.

Perhaps challenging the way you frame this initiative is the first place I would start. In fact, upon reading your request for proposals I was impressed because I assumed we had the same vision of how we might reframe this work. I was willing to take the risk and be wrong, in the event you were expecting me to design curriculum stacks for you to profit from at my expense.

In reality, I consider this a win if we all figure out a way to work together – nobody should be sent home when the stakes are this high.

Designing a system – a society – that has the capacity to evolve itself in certain directions because of the nudge-driven strategies we plant throughout the nation is a process that requires some type of shared understanding of what we’re doing.

Where are we going? What is your vision? Who are all the parties involved? When do we all get together to start discussing the plan?

These foundational questions seem to be missing from your request for proposals. How would anyone be qualified to participate without first aligning under a shared vision? How would we ever align under a shared vision without in-depth personal conversations? How would we be qualified to collaborate across sectors without an empathetic understanding of one another?

I am the founder of NJ’s first-ever social innovation conference, Cooperative Impact, which is the strategic tool I used to organize the cross-sector stakeholders of a city to come together, around one table, attend weekly meetings, and work on shared problems from a unified front. Once this network was established, I connected the postsecondary / professional development pipeline into the network of mentors. I called that organization, Action Horizon Institute, and it’s where we grew the next generation of social entrepreneurs by cherry picking existing disconnected youth who were self-motivated enough to not just “fill an occupation that will evaporate perhaps even by tomorrow”, but, instead, I empowered human beings with the ability to self-direct their lives, design their own futures, and carve out a place for themselves in the new economy.

Your RFP makes a clear call for solutions around credentialing and pathways related to college etc.

I am curious, why does credentialing have anything to do with your vision? How do you know, with complete certainty that we should continue investing resources into building abstract constructions that we call “bridges” for a population that isn’t even involved in the decision process?

I recommend getting back to basics.

Think more inclusive.

Think burner cell phone, not smart iPhone.

Less tech.

More in-person grassroots boots on the ground creation of social capital.

Why does the vision require the same pathways that we always have known to be “the way”? If the vision is the destination, then we must use our imagination to design pathways to our own future.

If one of the disconnected Americans decides they want to build a badging system or figure out a credentialing method to help them feel more like an equal to their wealthy counterparts, then so be it. However, I strongly urge you to consider completely scrapping the thought of the old economy because who is to say we should be encouraging 6 million Americans to work their butt’s off just because some outdated CEO thinks she or he can’t find the skills needed to make her company grow?

That symptom doesn’t tell me they need a unique type of skill that is somehow onobtainable in this country. That symptom tells me an entirely different story about the leadership of that company. That tells me the company will likely become irrelevant as we move forward into the evolving future.

Perhaps focusing on actively creating our future would amplify the impact and return on this investment by empowering those who we view as ‘the problem’ to have an opportunity to transform into the solution.

Perhaps we should not encourage 6 million Americans to sit back and wait their turn – wait for there to be enough opportunities for them – tell them they must learn things they aren’t passionate about – all the while, the rest of us are living during one of the most socially mobile times.

From the data proposed, it seems like corporations say, “We do not have the skills needed to compete. We would be so much better if we just had the right talent…but, wait, I’m not sure what we need, but I definitely know we don’t have it.”

These leaders are simply saying they would rather pass the buck than figure out how to carve out a place for themselves in the new economy.

My question for the 6 million leaders who responded to that survey, “Why wait for the future to be created by someone else? Your team must be equipped with growth mindsets, but how do you expect them to feel comfortable using their imaginations when their leader is a prime example of keeping his or her own mindset?”

This is also a prime opportunity to work with the leadership of the organizations who claim to have 6 million unfilled jobs. I want to coach them through the digital transformation process. Once the company gets their ducks in a row, the culture is properly designed and emoting through the frontlines of the company, then we should revisit this conversation about credentialing and whatever else. Until then, we should develop the disconnected Americans into the next frontier of this great nation who lays the foundation of our new economy by building their local economies back up from scratch.

The 6 million disconnected Americans of which I am once a proud member of will soon become the backbone of this country. It is our turn. Better make room.

Before rushing into solutions of “credentialing” or “college tools” etc I bring the ability to frame our design challenge in a new way.

The startup I am currently raising a seed for brings all of this experience, and all the other notables that didn’t make it into this 1,000 word brief explanation, into a scaleable tech platform that isn’t for disconnected Americans, necessarily. It’s disrupting the agency model, institutional asset managers, and most professional service providers who haven’t transitioned to a productized e-commerce type of offering for their customers (as lawyers, doctors, and many others already have done).

I want to level the playing field. That is why we must be selective in who we first introduce to the platform. They will become the leaders of tomorrow.

It’s time for us to Prethinc of new pathways into the future.