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Forbes: How A 10-Year-Old Can Convince You To Do Amazing Things

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

In January 2017, Babur Habib described on Forbes.com how Khan Lab School inspired him to found the Portfolio School in Manhattan: 

Portfolio School
Babur Habib's Portfolio School in Manhattan

In November 2015, I had a chance conversation with my friend’s 10-year-old daughter. Three months prior, she had started attending — along with her 13-year-old sister — the Khan Lab School (a one-room school with a focus on self-paced mastery of skills) in Mountain View, Calif. Even though both girls had previously attended what is considered the best private school in Silicon Valley, they had struggled with — and as a result "hated" — math. After just a few months at Khan Lab School, there was a complete turnaround in their attitude. Math was no longer something they were afraid of. In fact, both girls started enjoying math. When I asked why, the 10-year-old said (and I'm paraphrasing) that the school gave her the time and resources to learn at her own pace. She was not pressured to go to the next level before she was ready. Instead the teachers and software tools helped identify the gaps in her understanding and gave her the time and encouragement to work on, and ultimately master, those gaps. Seeing the different effects these 2 schools had on the girls, convinced me of something: traditional schools aren't meeting the needs of students and allowing them time to immerse themselves in the subject matter.

As the Co-founder of an ed tech company providing digital content in the university and then the K-12 space, I’ve always believed that technology can transform education. However, working closely with schools and school districts internationally, I saw first-hand that technology – on it’s own – wasn’t going to transform teaching and learning. When the company was acquired by Intel Education in 2013, I knew that sooner or later I wanted to embark on a new venture to fundamentally revitalize how education is approached today.

At Intel Education, I was managing a team of 130 engineers across 4 different regions of the world. Among all the capable engineers, I began noticing something: Those on the “executive track,” were not necessarily those who were the best coders, although certainly there was a basic level of competence necessary. Beyond that basic competence in technical skills, the most successful were those with the strongest “soft” skills – things like adaptability, empathy, strong written and verbal communication, openness to giving and receiving feedback, the ability to work well in teams and flexibility in solving problems creatively. The combination of seeing the ways in which technology, on its own, could assist but not revitalize education, and the insight into the skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace, I recognized the potential of creating a school from scratch – one that is not encumbered by tradition or the inertia of a system already in place.

Immersing myself in exploration of educational innovations, I found afterschool programs engaging students in creativity using technology and the arts in dynamic ways, as well as schools imagining anew what education can offer students. Inspired, I further refined my ideas about what innovation in education might look like and came to the conclusion that implementing my ideas successfully and contributing in meaningful ways to ongoing transformation in education would be most impactful by starting a network of micro schools open to redefining the way time, space and creative tools are used in order to transform the experience of school and prepare students for the rapidly-changing technological, entrepreneurial and global world they are inheriting.

I soon teamed up with my longtime friend and a fellow father, Doug Schachtel, and so began Portfolio School, which will redefine what’s possible in education and eventually serve as an effective model that can be replicated by schools around the world.

Rapidly moving forward with a compelling vision, we officially welcomed children ages 5-8 for the 2016-2017 academic year in our Tribeca location in Manhattan. As a micro school, each campus has a capacity of 80 students. Our small size enables us to be agile and develop the curriculum and learning philosophy that we have envisioned for the future of schools everywhere.  We are thrilled to invite our students to respect their imaginations, develop their curiosity and talents, ask insightful questions and design meaningful projects incorporating the arts, technology, science and the humanities.

It hasn’t been easy to build a startup that will inevitably disrupt an antiquated industry and an already highly-regulated sector: education. And we have a long way to go. In this series of blog posts, I’ll write about how Doug and I assembled an amazing team and pulled together everything from investors, real estate, enrollment and technology to open a school in less than a year. To give you a flavor of what these challenges have been, I'll let you in on our dealings with government agencies. As we started to plan for our first school in February of this year, we approached the various city and state departments to get the governmental requirements fulfilled. The main governing body is the state department of education that grants permissions to open independent schools in New York. When we first approached them, they flat out told us that it’s impossible to get an application approved so late in the year. They were incredibly backlogged and we didn’t stand a chance since schools that had applied 7 months ago were still waiting to be reviewed. We were taken aback. We couldn’t believe that we wouldn’t be able to open. Doug and I called a number of law firms specializing in schools to see what we could do. But they all advised us to postpone another year and open in 2017. If Albany was saying it’s not doable, then that’s it. Period.

We didn’t give up. We decided to ‘poke’ around the ED department to see if there is any other way we could approach the application. After some digging around we found names of a few folks who may be able to help. Only problem was there was no way to approach them. Appointment times were at least a month away and we were losing precious time every day. Then in a moment of desperation, we looked up these officials on LinkedIn, connected with them, never expecting a response back of course. One of them responded, gave his official email and said please contact me on it. Once we did, the gentleman was very helpful and said we can’t move you above any of the other schools, but we’re taking steps to ease the backlog. So do apply and we’ll do our best to get your application reviewed! We couldn’t believe it. Just thinking outside the box and not giving up had given us hope that this hurdle will be surmounted. The ED department came through in the end and we got all our approvals. I always think of new ventures as a series of small and big roadblocks and the successful ones are those that keep tackling each one of them.  In this case for us, a simple thing like LinkedIn worked. In the tech world, LinkedIn is perhaps the default go to place to ping folks, but in many industries its not. When we were lost on what we can do, but didn’t want to give up, we immediately looked at options which would not be front and center to folks applying for a new school.

There have been numerous other challenges as well. For instance, convincing parents to apply and then enroll their child in a new school, convincing investors that in some sectors technological innovation will only happen if we do a fully integrated vertical solution, and dealing with government agencies like department of buildings, health and education at the city and state level. In the coming set of posts I will touch on all of these as well as some of the exciting developments that we’ve encountered. Stay tuned.

Read Habib's original post on Forbes.com.