Sep 4, 2010

The Startup Time Machine

What if you could go back in time with your current experience for a second chance at solving problems or making decisions? Everybody has this daydream at some point or another but few of us actually get close to the opportunity. As an advisor to startups, I often get the chance to view problems and opportunities that I've faced in the past all over again. This time around, I can bring the perspective of having already made lots of mistakes. Advising is an extremely rewarding experience if you can add value.

When my friend and colleague Abdur Chowdhury asked me if I would be an advisor to something he was working on, I leaned forward, eager to hear more. "Hold on," he told me. "You don't know what you're getting into just yet." Well, now I was very interested. That's when he told me, "I want to start an elementary school in San Francisco." He went on to explain that the school would emphasize science, math, and technology with small class sizes. Oh, and we had two months before his daughter starts first grade.

Abdur was right, I didn't know what I was getting into—that's why I said yes. Too often we refuse to stray from what we know. New experiences help us abandon a linear way of thinking and enable us to draw unexpected connections from variety. Suddenly, I found myself along for the ride with seven founding families. We were able to secure an amazing Head of School in Ed Walters and took over the space formerly occupied by the Waldorf School classrooms at the Greek Orthodox Annunciation Cathedral in San Francisco's Mission District.

The big questions where whether or not the families would be able to raise the money, whether they'd be able to stick together as a group considering the aggressive timetable, and most importantly, would more families bring their kids? The key was to stay focused. It was important to get a stellar faculty in place and design the classrooms, the library, the play areas, and other spots to really look like the school the families envisioned. Once these pieces of the puzzle came together, The San Francisco Chronicle ran a story and word got out.

The Alta Vista School opens in three days! There are sixteen children enrolled (up from the original seven from the founding families). Classes will be small and range from Jr Kindergarten to Kindergarten and first grade. Each year as the current first graders move forward, new grades will be added. Classes are conducted in English and playtime is conducted entirely in Spanish—a fun way for the kids to grow up bilingual. Alta Vista is community oriented so it will be connected to surrounding public schools and community projects.

My experience with Alta Vista has me time traveling a bit. When my mom tried to drop me off for my first day of preschool, I clung to her leg. Later, they couldn't get me to leave. The public school system in my home town was awesome. When I dropped out of college, it was to immerse myself in learning as an apprentice. These days, there are opportunities for me teach as well as learn and places dedicated to learning inspire reverence. I'm always open to learning because, as the old proverb goes, "When the student is ready, the master appears."

In this case, I suppose Abdur is the master. Please don't tell him that.