In 2007, I needed two credits to complete my undergraduate degree. Was this it? Was this the end? It seemed as if I was standing at the end of a hallway surrounded by closed doors. I said to myself, “Okay. So, now what do I do?”
There I was with no meaningful work opportunities on the horizon, few marketable skills, and little hope. In that moment, I decided to dropout of college.
18 months went by before coming to my senses, “Just take the last class. Get it over with. Move on to the next chapter.” Actually, those were my mother’s words. Thanks, mom!
I went online to register for the last class. I searched for what looked like the easiest. I found a course that met 6-7 hours per day, everyday, for two weeks. I was sure this was the best choice to show up, sleep through class, and get my diploma.
I walked into the class on the first day. To my surprise, there were no desks. The chairs were in a circle. Video cameras surrounded the room facing the circle. It became quite clear that I would not be sleeping through this class.
I found myself immersed in a new pilot program designed by the previous chair of the English Department who is also a nationally recognized higher education reformist. He received funding to launch a culture lab and experiment with a new approach that reimagined higher education.
The class was sponsored by Apple. Participants were each given a backpack that contained a 17-inch Macbook Pro, video camera, and external hard drive. An Emmy winning backpack video journalist trained us in Final Cut Pro, in-depth and impromptu interviews, and how to leverage ethnographic research methods for storytelling within the infrastructure of the two week immersive.
It was an organic environment. A safe space for experimentation. A place where leaders encouraged us. Where I heard things like, “Question everything. Don’t accept what’s handed down to you. Go your own way. Here are a few of the tools you may need along the way.” We were surrounded by mentors, coaches, and professors with a ratio of approximately 1 leader for every 4 students.
Anytime I asked, “Am I doing it right? Like this, right?” The leadership refused to give a seal of approval. Reflecting back on these moments are a beautiful thing. This was one of the first times I was confronted with ambiguity and not-knowing and being left to wonder. It wasn’t about right or wrong, yes or no. It was about building self-trust and confidence. It was about swimming in the ambiguity to learn the world is not black or white. It is grey and often messy. It’s complex.
I learned how to collaboratively use new media, technology, and the internet to immerse myself in the local community to analyze complex social problems. The service projects I created in the community reconnected me with my humanity. Listening to diverse groups of stakeholders share their stories led to cultivating a deep sense of empathy. I woke up in the morning and went to sleep at night intrinsically motivated to serve.
It was liberating.
After the two week class ended, I met with the culture lab director to share my state. I said, “This is exactly what I have been looking for.” He invited me to come back and work from the lab as much as I wanted. I invested the next nine months immersed in the local community while refining my craft.
I learned to pursue my passion, cross pollinate, pull from different skill sets to solve a given problem, and ask for support when hitting roadblocks. With on-demand access to cutting edge facilitators and production equipment I became the storyteller of the city.
The culture lab served as a preincubation pipeline for me. I was able to access the tools and support to build my own bridge across the gap between education and economy.
90 days after graduation, I filed the incorporation papers for my first social enterprise. The university invested in the project, granted me access to a private new media studio, and the English Chair invited me to design the curriculum for, and teach, my first undergraduate course.
“I’d like you to teach the undergraduates what you’re learning.” The English Chair said to me.
“Should I make a syllabus?” I asked.
“I don’t know. What are your thoughts?” He ambiguously replied.
I picked up the project and ran with it. Here’s a short video from my first cohort in 2010.
In less than one year, I went from college dropout to graduate, hired by 10 university departments to share my story, run workshops, co-design curriculum, and reimagine higher education by transforming the university from the inside-out.
Reflecting back on the culture lab as my “preincubation pipeline”, the environment influenced my entrepreneurial intent in a unique way.
Something magical happened to me where I reconnected with my humanity, cultivated empathy, and began to evolve. The person I was prior to entering the last class was a different person than the one who completed the class two weeks later. I felt called to serve humanity. This transformation brought with it a specific entrepreneurial intent that is motivated by service, alignment, hope, and opportunity.
Social mobility was now possible as I began to experience it through empathetic entrepreneurial intent which influenced my decision-making, my daily behavior, and the purpose behind the ventures I launch.
It helped me to become human again.