The Forbes’ “30 Under 30” Social Entrepreneur Democratising Access to Education
Beth Schmidt is the founder of Wishbone, a scalable web platform that links at-risk high school students with the online donor community to fund their educational dreams.
A Kauffman Labs Education Ventures Fellow, Beth was recently celebrated on Forbes’ 2013 “30 Under 30” list for her work in education.
Estelle spoke to Beth about her advice for female social entrepreneurs; how the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities helps students identify and pursue their passions and career goals; and the most pressing issue facing today's young women.
EA-K: Where did the idea of creating Wishbone originate from?
BS: I was a 10th grade English teacher at Locke High School in South Central, Los Angeles. I assigned a research paper in my first year of teaching and less than 10% of the class turned it in. I realized that my students were disconnected from the relevance of school and decided to instead assign them to research any local after school or summer program that was in line with their passion.
Most of my students responded with the statement, “No one has ever asked me what my passion is.” From there, over 85% of my students handed in the paper—and on time.
I knew I was on to something in terms of putting students’ passions at the forefront of the school day. That year, I ran a marathon to send seven of my students on program experiences, and from there, I was committed to doing whatever I could to reach as many low-income students as possible with these path-changing opportunities.
EA-K: Did you encounter any obstacles when you first got started?
BS: Yes. I am someone who is very used to succeeding within structured systems where there is a formula to success: you work hard independently and put in the time for clear rewards.
Entrepreneurship is the opposite. There is no system or clarity or structure, and you cannot work in a silo.
In the very early days, I had such inhibitions in asking people for money. I very quickly realized that Wishbone is not an independent effort—these are all of our children, this is all of our efforts and the communities who want to invest in future generations are all on our team.
TNW: What are some of the organization’s future projects?
BS: Wishbone sends low-income high school students to afterschool and summer programs.
We source low-income students with a specific passion and work with their teachers to send them on out-of-school programs.
There is another huge portion of this commitment that starts with the program providers themselves. We work directly with programs to advocate on behalf of our students for tuition discounts and financial aid packages. From there, we work to cover the rest of the cost through online funding via our crowd-sourced funding platform and through traditional offline fundraising.
We just recently launched our Programs feature, which allows program providers to have representation on our site. Our goal is to work very closely with high-quality program providers to increase the scholarship capacity awarded to high-potential, low-income students.
EA-K: Did you always know that you wanted to work within the social profit sector?
BS: Not at all, but I am a firm believer that you have to closely examine what type of work feeds your soul. You have to inherently believe that what you are doing matters more than anything else you could be contributing to society. Because there will be extreme challenges along the way where the authenticity of your passion is literally all that keeps you motivated.
EA-K: Who have been some of your greatest influences?
BS: My own students have influenced me the most on this journey.
There is no greater risk than a kid hardening to her own potential, and if we can prevent that from happening even once a year, this job is worth it to me.
I could describe one hundred students’ faces who I think of when this work gets difficult.
EA-K: What does a typical day at work look like for you?
BS: I am the hardest boss I have ever had! There is never a day that work isn’t on my mind—what we could be doing better, how we can increase our impact…etcetera but I think that’s when you know you are in the right work. My work is truly just an extension of myself.
EA-K: Tell us a bit more about your educational background. What program(s) did you take and how did you find out about it?
BS: I was fortunate to have access to a wonderful education. I attended a boarding school called The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, CT during high school. It is a rigorous academic environment, but one also where the focus is on developing the entire student—her character, passions, confidence, and grit. Throughout high school, I played three sports, participated in the arts, and had this incredible opportunity to pursue any passion. When I started teaching 10th grade at Locke High School, I realized that without the opportunity to pursue passions, students often are left struggling to identify who they could become.
Many important skill sets are lost through this inequality to access extracurricular activities– these skill sets should not be developed only by those who can financially afford it.
EA-K: What do you love most about your job?
BS: The best part of my job is meeting the students we serve. We host video interview days where all potential Wishbone students come and tell us about their passions and what they want to pursue and why. I never miss one of these days- literally never one. No matter what is going on in the organization, these video days are more important because they re-invigorate my passion for this mission.
EA-K: What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
BS: The most challenging part of the job is needing to have a basic understanding of a lot of various industries.
Wishbone runs like a for-profit business so operations are no different. I solve issues in everything from accounting to legal work to product design.
It can sometimes be exhausting having your attention spread across so many different verticals.
EA-K: Is there any advice you have for young people who are starting to envision their future?
BS: Turn inward for the answers; not outward. Don’t go pursue what your parents want you to pursue, or your teacher or your sibling or friend. You may feel successful for a while pursuing that, but others’ praise for what you choose in life is fleeting.
At the end of the day, you are stuck with the choices you have made, and if those choices don’t make you happy and don’t make you thrilled to get out of the bed in the morning, choose something else.
Go against the grain, take a risk and be malleable. We are not a “one track career” generation. Employers look for many experiences and most importantly look for people who are self-reflective and living passionately within their own truths. Go pursue the thing that keeps you up at night with excitement!
EA-K: Is there anything that you would like to tell young female social entrepreneurs who want to create their own startups?
BS: Don’t create a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist. Test the market. The most authentic creations are those that come from experiencing a real need. Secondly, there are various directions that many people will think your efforts should go in, and sometimes there are powerful people behind important levers with these opinions. While taking input is incredibly important, it is an absolute requirement to remain streamlined in your own vision and realize you cannot and will not be all things to all people.
EA-K: What do you see as the most pressing issue for girls locally and/or globally at this time?
BS: Education - locally, nationally, and globally. Education is the largest issue.
When you educate a girl, no matter what her background, we have seen time and time again that she has the capacity to lift herself out of her own circumstances and thrive.
I am so empowered by the girls I see applying to Wishbone. They are from the lowest socioeconomic brackets in our country, with parents who have never even graduated high school. Yet, they want to go to Mock Trial Institutes and Stem Cell Science Programs. They want to learn how to code. They are taking control of their education and believing in the potential of a successful future in a way that is absolutely mind-blowing. I am so inspired by them.
EA-K: What gives you your inner strength?
BS: I practice yoga daily. Even if I can’t make it to a full class, I pull out my mat anywhere- in the office, at home. It is really important for me to have structure I can rely on and to be connected to my body the first moment of the day. In this work, everyday there is a near-death experience for the organization—it’s just the nature of running a start-up non-profit so, you have to know what grounds you and do that so your emotions don’t fluctuate with the constant successes and failures of the organization itself.
Born and raised in Mauritius, a small island off the coast of Africa, Estelle Ah-Kiow is currently based in Mississauga, Canada. She is a writer at Swiggtalk.com and a member of PLAN Canada's Because I am a Girl Speakers Bureau. A student at the University of Toronto, Estelle has been recognized with local, national and international awards for her writing and social justice advocacy.
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