I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Mistakes can be useful — and other takeaways from innovators promoting equity in higher ed.

Even if you build it (and build it well), your intended users won’t necessarily come. That’s one lesson Michael Ellison learned a few years into his work on CodePath.org, a nonprofit he founded in 2017 to prepare students who’ve been underrepresented in computer science to land prestigious tech jobs. His mistake, he told me, was to expect that helping students develop key academic and professional skills would be enough to attract employers’ offers. He hadn’t recognized at first how many students never even get a look from hot-shot companies that don’t recruit on campuses that enroll high shares of low-income students, not incidentally the places where CodePath was operating.

The organization eventually came up with a solution: It created a series of mini-courses and seminars designed specifically to help students enter the tech sector’s hiring gauntlet and succeed.

Those specifics matter, and you can hear more about them in my podcast with Ellison here. But to me the bigger point was how a mistake could prove useful or even pivotal to an organization, much in the same way that another founder, David Helene, shifted the direction of his company after realizing that its initial model — as an app financially guiding students’ college choice — wasn’t really getting at the issues most critical to the students he wanted to support.

I spoke recently with Ellison and Helene, the CEO of Edquity, as well as two other equity-minded higher-ed entrepreneurs for my Innovation That Matters podcast series: Beyond 12’s Alexandra Bernadotte and Braven’s Aimée Eubanks Davis. This week I’ll highlight eight prevalent themes from those conversations. My hope is that they’ll prove useful to like-minded nonprofits and companies — and to colleges, too.

The value of mistakes — and relatedly, the significance of chance decisions — struck home the most for me. Both Ellison and Helene were flummoxed by their missteps at first (Ellison said he and his co-founders were “stunned and a little bit demoralized” when students weren’t getting hired), but then used them to make a change. When Helene realized that “many students don’t really have the luxury of choice when they think about where to go to college and how to finance it,” Edquity converted its app into a tool that students now use to request emergency aid from their colleges.

In the same vein, one of the nonprofit Braven’s key networking and career-preparation offerings now — local employers’ mentorship of students — came into being when the organization was in its early stages, and Eubanks Davis welcomed corporate support in whatever form she could get it. Accidents can pay off.

Successful organizations often feel pressure to expand their scope, but there’s merit to staying in your own lane. Beyond 12 is primarily a student-success organization that uses automated systems and human coaches to keep students on track to graduate. And while Bernadotte believes that student success includes helping undergraduates get ready to begin a fruitful career, she’s determined to stay “hyper focused” on the college-completion piece of the puzzle. “The impact that we wanted to have,” she said in our podcast interview, “is to ensure that students from traditionally under-resourced communities would earn college degrees.”

Likewise for Braven: During the pandemic, it extended its offerings to students at many more colleges than the four with which it has formal partnerships by developing a two-week online version of its typical yearlong training. Eubanks Davis said she was glad to do so, but the experience redoubled her belief that the Braven model works best when it’s “not only campus based, but really city based.”

That said, there’s value in expanding when it seems to fit the bill. Beyond 12’s acquisition in 2020 of GradGuru, another student-coaching organization, made sense, said Bernadotte, because it served community-college students that Beyond 12 wanted to reach. And Edquity’s acquisition in 2019 of the company BridgeEdU brought added expertise about students’ financial needs. That company “really knew the ins and outs of the types of financial difficulties that students were experiencing,” Helene told me. (That part of our discussion didn’t make it into the final cut of the episode.)

As organizations form and evolve, founders’ lived experiences have a powerful influence on the mission and approach. Bernadotte, Ellison, and Eubanks Davis each described their upbringing as anything but privileged, and explained how that guides the way their organizations operate today. With goals of serving low-income and underrepresented-minority students, they make a point of recruiting coaches, mentors, and teaching assistants from similar backgrounds. When it comes to establishing role models, Ellison said, “being able to see people that look like you is important.”

Founders also recognize the opportunities — and limits — of lucky breaks. As Bernadotte, an immigrant from Haiti, put it on the podcast: “It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I would be sitting here talking to you today as a college graduate and advanced-degree recipient or as a social entrepreneur.” It was a chance conversation overheard by her mother that put her on the track to Dartmouth, and a professor’s noticing her initial academic struggles that kept her there. She and the others said they were grateful for what helped them along, but in devising their programs, they aim to, as Ellison said, “make sure that our nation’s pathways to success don’t depend on luck.”

Of course, effective, empathetic equity work isn’t done only by people raised in disadvantaged circumstances. By developing authentic connections, organizations can still go a long way to minimize disparities. Helene, who grew up comfortably middle class, makes a point of steeping his company in research on how best to deploy emergency student aid, and the Edquity app is heavily informed by input the company has gathered from testing with students themselves.

From delivering services to shaping policy?

All four of these founders run ventures focused on delivering services. Yet I was struck that at least two — Bernadotte and Helene — voiced ambitions to use their organizations to advocate for changes to higher-ed policy and practices. Helene sees a role for Edquity in shaping government policy on emergency aid. Bernadotte is developing offshoots of Beyond 12’s coaching program to give students a chance to redesign the college experience to better suit their needs. To me that makes a ton of sense. Day in and day out, these organizations respond to policy parameters others have set for them. That gives them insights that policy makers themselves may not have.

The organizations have something else that could be precious to sound policy making at the federal, state, or institutional level: data. The groups know whom they’re serving, what they’re offering, and (at least a little bit of) how students are faring as a result. That information guides their self-improvement efforts, and Beyond 12, Braven, and Edquity have also each published findings on their work from third-party evaluations. I hope they all continue along that route. Each of these organizations is a mini-laboratory of innovation, and the chance for higher education as a whole to study their experiences — the missteps and successes — is a gift that should not be overlooked.

The first four episodes of Innovation That Matters can be found here. And check back this summer for a couple more episodes.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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