The jarring school bell rings as my students, a mixture of 32 ninth and tenth graders, take their seats. “You have five minutes to answer the question on the board,” I say to my Earth Science students. “When you’re done, take out your homework and for those who didn’t do it, remember I take off 10 points for every day that it’s late. That’s not negotiable.”
That was me two years ago in the South Bronx, teaching high school science to roughly 120 students. Now, I am running a stroke education and wellness service startup called Galva in partnership with my HFA fellowship colleagues and a major rehabilitation hospital in Washington, D.C.
Without a doubt, much has changed for me professionally since my teaching days in New York City. For instance, instead of being reminded by the school bell that class should start, I receive pings from Google calendar on my iPhone about upcoming stakeholder meetings. Instead of writing lesson plans that outline class objectives and a comprehensive 45-minute agenda, I update our expense trackers and create project timelines riddled with action items to be completed during our 2-month pilot. Interestingly however, there’s not a working day that goes by in my role as an HFAer that I don’t put on my teacher hat and use the skills I honed in the classroom.
With that said, here are the five “teacher skills” that have proven to be effective and useful in my work as an early-stage entrepreneur:
1. Reading the room: Teachers possess high emotional intelligence. They have to deliver material within a limited time frame while constantly “reading the room” to ensure that no mischief (discreet or indiscreet) is taking place and that students are on task, clear on directions, and fully engaged. In my current role, we organize and run meetings pretty much on the daily. When I speak in these meetings or even in team discussions, I analyze people’s facial expressions as well as their body language. If I sense confusion regarding what I had just said, I make sure to address this by pausing and opening up the floor for questions. Additionally, if people in the room haven’t spoken, I make sure to turn the mic over and include them in our conversation to get their two cents.
2. Being resourceful: Teaching in an under-resourced school means that you have to think creatively when your school doesn’t have and can’t afford the materials that you need. For instance, I had a class of 30 students but realized that I only had 10 functional laptops that week. I had to be assertive by asking a colleague from a different department for extra laptops. I also allowed students with smartphones to download an app that would provide them similar educational content as the laptops. As an early-stage entrepreneur, I have to occasionally jury-rig solutions for our MVPs because we have limited time and only a certain amount of resources. One example was when my colleague Katia and I realized we can’t have our flashcards professionally printed on cardstock and spiral bound on time and within budget. Our solution? Print flashcards on our own using the office printer and buy a $30 laminating machine as well as index card binders from Staples to make our MVP flashcards look presentable.
3. Pivoting strategically: One day, my co-teacher and I planned a class activity about public health that relied on our SmartBoard. However, for some reason, the VGA cord wasn’t working. We realized that we just have to adjust our instruction in the moment and improvise with intentionality. As a result, we had a passionate discussion (a better exercise than the activity I had planned) as a class about the health impact of racial profiling by police on men of color. Most recently, in HFA world, Katia and I decided to move away from the inpatient rehabilitation setting and instead focus the remainder of our time on the TIA population (those who had “mini-strokes), based on user feedback and logistical roadblocks. Being comfortable with pivoting has made us productive and allowed us to gain strategic insights from different vantage points.
4. Seeing the glass as half-full: This is a skill that I truly encourage everyone, not just early-stage entrepreneurs, to have—and one that I employ regularly in my work as an HFA fellow. When I was teaching, it wasn’t uncommon to break up fights between students in the middle of class or be talked back to by a student who just wasn’t having a good day. When not internalized properly, these interactions can have a demoralizing toll on one’s psyche. At some point, I pushed myself to see value in not just my successes but also in my daily struggles as a teacher. After all, in the words of Churchill: “Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
5. Valuing those around you: I made a concerted effort to establish genuine relationships with my students by getting to know their stories, their ambitions, what they like and dislike about life, etc. Eventually, trust and respect between me and my students naturally developed; I became a more effective teacher and my students were more invested. As an entrepreneur, I always remind myself that every single person around me brings something special and valuable to the table. Regardless of whether or not I agree with them, I choose to see value in everyone’s experiences, ideas, and opinions. I’m fortunate enough to be a part of an interdisciplinary team that does this very well. My colleagues and I do a great job of trusting and encouraging each other. The end result is a team dynamic that minimizes conflict and maximizes empathy.
In a time when interdisciplinary teams are catalyzing innovation in every industry, the bottom line is this: If you are an aspiring entrepreneur, rest assured that you have the power to apply your skills, no matter your background, in ways you never expected.