Education? Innovation? Do - Learn - Do - Learn

Aron Solomon introduced me to Victor Saad and that was all it took.  Victor has hacked his MBA and learned more than he would have in school. Victor’s Leap Year Project “Masters Program” is the wave of the future.  Get on board - start by reading the book (use the code FRIENDS for free shipping), listening to Victor’s TEDxWindyCity talk and checking out his new “school”, The Experience Institute.


I. From patients to students 

I’ve always been hopeful. It probably began at an early age when I saw my family’s relationship deteriorate through a divorce and subsequent challenges. However, a group of teachers, mentors, and friends in my small town of Nixa, Missouri became an incredible support. Their influence was so great that I wanted my career path to follow their footsteps. I told my Middle Eastern parents that I wouldn't be pursuing the traditional routes of doctor, lawyer, or engineer and left home to pursue a degree and work in education.

I began working for a student program at a church in the west suburbs of Chicago and for the next five years, I served on a team focused on building a 40,000 sq. ft. student community center, complete with a theatre, cafe, and hangout space.  

In the meantime, my parents began spending time with the same hopeful individuals who had invested in me, because they were curious about why I had changed so much. As those friendships deepened, my mentors counseled and wooed my parents back together. After six years of divorce, my parents remarried.

It was the most impactful event in my life, and it cemented in me the power of relationships and the hope that brings people together by repairing what seems too broken.

II. Risk: From students to self-made education 

My work with students and the building project made me curious about further education in business, design, and social impact. Over time, the idea of an MBA surfaced. But the more I studied for the GMAT and researched programs, the more I wondered if the options and price tags fit. 

I was curious: could I create my own education? How would I do that?


I started my research by interviewing hundreds of friends, family, peers, college students, and professors, asking droves of questions about learning methods, practices, ideas, and personal dreams.


When I explained I was thinking of creating my own education, people were partly intrigued and perplexed. All of that changed, however, when I ended the interviews with one final question: "If you were me, what risk would you take on something in your life, your community, or your world?"

The question led to several incredible conversations around creative projects, personal goals, family events, and community endeavors. It caused me to wonder what would happen if more people embraced risk to pursue their passion.

I took my findings from the conversations and created a simple format of learning based on spending time in the spaces and with the people I admire in design, business development, and social change: 12 experiences and apprenticeships in 12 months.

I also carried that final question about risk-taking throughout the year. After countless interviews of interviews, I had a system and structure to learn on my own, and a community of people to learn with. I gave my self-made experiential education and the community project a title: The Leap Year Project.

III. Learn: From self-made education to Prototype

I started by a helping Chicago-based design agency, Doejo, explore how to be more involved with cause-based organizations. Then my journey led me all over the world: a journalism trip to Cairo, a stint on the Community Management team at Threadless with the founder Jake Nickell, a startup ad agency with advertising guru Alex Bogusky, an Experience Design Apprenticeship with an architecture firm in Seattle, a business trip to China with a socially conscious clothing company, and so forth.

All of this helped me to learn practical skills in marketing, business development, project and client management, and community building, among other things. I shared valuable experiences with a wide network of like-minded individuals, several of whom are now friends and mentors. And I learned more about myself than I imagined. My hopes turned to action and my convictions matured and grew into values. Afterwards, I staged my graduation at TEDxWindyCity and compiled our community’s leap stories into an end-of-project book.

Throughout The Leap Year Project, I began hearing feedback from employers, mentors, and friends that my self-made experiential education could become a helpful model for others. There is a general, overarching understanding that real-world experiences are incredibly valuable to one’s learning objectives and personal formation, but there are countless questions surrounding how to evaluate, assess, and guide the learning process within such an organic structure. The feedback became so prevalent that, rather than accepting one of several job offers, I’ve decided to explore how experiential education can become a more prevalent and highly regarded route for students ranging from high school to graduate level programs.

Experience Institute is that effort.

The mission is simple: establish experiences as a credible form of education. I believe that people who master this type of education can and will gain the tools necessary to transform our world with an inventive spirit.

The game plan is even simpler: begin with a pilot class of ten students this fall.

I’ve teamed up with industry leaders and partner companies to invite a small group of students interested in design, business development, social innovation, and technology to execute a one-year experiential education. We’ll begin by learning problem-solving processes that we can apply to our apprenticeships, and then prepare to execute three key components that I learned throughout my Leap Year:

Establishing a community and a series of experiences with partner companies.

Documenting experiences through photography, video, newsletters, and blogs.

Presenting lessons and projects through a final product, presentation, and/or portfolio.

As the first class combines a series of apprenticeships around their learning objectives, we’ll research what is missing, what is most valuable, and who benefits most from this type of learning process.

Together, we'll join with others in elevating real-world experiences to be seen as a valuable form of education while providing companies with fresh insights and ideas. I believe this will open the doors for students of all ages and types to find their place in this world in a way that is affordable, helpful, and transformative -- all while building meaningful relationships.

In the words of Eric Hoffer:

The central task of education is to implant a will and a facility for learning; it should produce not learned but learning people...

In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.

- Reflections on the Human Condition (1973)

Innovating Higher-Education

MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) are a very hot topic in higher education and corporate training.  Nabeel Gillani started to connect organizations using MOOCs with students around the world to solve real world problems.  UVa’s Darden School of Business and University of Washington are finding unexpected value and learning by using Coursolve.  We are in a new age of education, and just leave it to our students to make sure they are front and center! Nabeel is pursuing a Master’s in Learning and Technology at the University of Oxford’s Department of Education and is also co-founder of  He finished his undergraduate education in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science at Brown University in 2012.  You can read more of his thoughts on MOOCs in Stanford Social Innovation Review as well.

Every Friday, I try to remember how to multiply and divide 2-digit numbers as 9-to-11 year olds at St. Nicholas Primary School show off their math prowess.  Technically, I’m there to tutor them, but often they’re the ones teaching me.  Last Friday was no different:  with 15 minutes left, I walked over to David, a 10-year old math whiz.  Sensing his boredom, I asked him a classic question:  “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  He responded with “A scientist – probably an astronomer.”  And then, he took me to school.

“You know, outer space is like a big spikey ball that keeps on getting bigger,” he said.  I was stunned by his image of an expanding universe.  David proceeded to talk about the origin of black holes and the relationship between time and space.  He then discussed the big bang, conceptualized the possibility of multiple universes, and described “infinity.”  Up until that point, I knew David as the kid who kept talking as we took attendance at the start of each session, but in 15 minutes, he had dropped enough knowledge on me to make a first-year Physics undergrad take notes.

I am constantly reminded that students – many of them less than half my age – are capable of so much.  I spent the past four years at Brown University learning how to play basketball from an elementary schooler and watching 12 year-olds in Providence channel their creativity into building computer games.  Years later and halfway around the world, David gave me one of the most engaging Physics lessons of my life.  By enrolling as a student in formal institutions, what I’ve really done is become the student of other students.  I’ve been lucky to learn from people with unique interests and insights, backgrounds and experiences ready to apply their knowledge to shaping the world.

It is this observation – that students can use their talents to break down barriers and change the world – that has driven the development of Coursolve.  Coursolve is a platform that connects organizations with courses to empower students to solve real-world problems.  Over the past few months, I’ve been fortunate to work with some of my closest friends to explore how a wide range of students, learning both online and offline, can meaningfully contribute to solving hard problems. 

A key partner in this exploration has been Professor Michael Lenox of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.  As a part of his recent massively open online course (MOOC) on business strategy, Professor Lenox invited small enterprises, nonprofits and other organizations to join the course and solicit students to provide strategic analysis and insights as a part of their final projects.

We’ve been inspired by the results so far.  For entrepreneurs like Rajan, who solicited the help of students to significantly alter the course of his biotech startup’s business development, accessing insights from a diverse body of learners was game-changing.  But Rajan wasn’t alone.  Rebecca, co-founder of the Food Recovery Network, discussed the value students added by asking fundamental questions that challenged her existing business assumptions.  Ashutosh, the founder of a not-for-profit online language learning organization, mentioned how guidance he received from one student could help his initiative become financially sustainable. 

Over 100 organizations received, on average, about 4 final strategic analyses each.  Out of over 1,000 survey respondents that identified as part of an “organization”, 60% said they would want to work with students to address their challenges in the future. 87% felt that what they received from the course was worth their time and effort (most organizations – 55% – spent only 2-5 hours per week).  Moreover, over 80% of the respondents felt that people outside of their organizations could provide valuable advice on business challenges.  As for students, over 85% of the survey respondents left feeling confident in their abilities to help businesses address their strategic challenges, and 88% said that having real-world problem solving in future courses was important to them.

These results have given us immense hope for what the future holds.  Our latest partnership is with Professor Bill Howe’s Introduction to Data Science MOOC, where students will have an opportunity to help a wide range of organizations answer important questions by analyzing internal or public datasets.  The 8-week long course started on May 1st, and already, we’ve seen research firms, environmental advocacy groups, and small community organizations post projects.  Since we are especially excited about what students in these settings have to offer, Coursolve is also working directly with course participants to gain insights into how we can improve our social media strategy. 

As Coursolve develops over the next few months with new partnerships and a more robust platform, it will continue to help enable students with different cultural backgrounds, academic interests, and life experiences learn by directly engaging with some of the toughest problems of our time.  If we help open doors to smart people around the world, there’s no telling who will step through —and what they will accomplish.  Who knows, some of them might even teach us a thing or two about the universe.