By Rick Fiery
TEDxAmoskeagMillyard - November 14, 2015
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A number of years ago I was running a software startup company and we were in desperate need of talented developers. A young man who was in our Development group came up to me and said “Hey Rick, I know this guy, he was the brightest kid in my high school class, but for some reason he didn’t make it through college. Nobody knows why. He’s back home and he needs a job. Would you be interested in hiring him? He’s probably the best programmer I’ve ever met in my life. He does things that people have just never thought of.” And I looked at him and I said “Yeah, I don’t care if he went to college or not, all I care about it is whether he can code.” So this guy came in and he did amazing things. Stuff that, as advertised basically. But sure enough, six months later, the head of Engineering came in and said “Rick, we have a problem.” I said “What’s up?” He said “We’ve got to let him go” I said “What are you talking about? This guy is way outside the box right now, we need people like him. He said “Well, he’s not showing up to work until 11:00 in the morning and we start at 8:00. He refuses to fix his bugs because he says it’s boring. And, he refuses to document his code because he says apparently that’s boring too.” What would you do in this situation? I mean, here’s a guy that’s basically disobeying his manager and he’s showing up to work at 11:00. What would you have done? Here’s what I did. I looked at the head of Engineering and I said “I’m not thinking of letting him go, I’m thinking of letting you go.” His eyes got big, and he said “What are you talking about?” And I said, “You’re not thinking outside the box. You need to do something different here. Let’s do this, let’s hire a bug fixer, and if you want to get someone with a college degree that’s cool by me because they will learn more in six months of watching this guy code, than they ever learned in college. Let’s hire a documenter. They can work whatever hours they want to work, who cares?” And that’s what we did. How do you think they did? Amazing! They took off, they helped transform the company. In this case, this young man, he was brilliant, and he was necessary.
Two years ago, Tom Bergeron and I were in our office, and no - I have to clarify apparently, not that Tom Bergeron… he gets that all the time it’s really frustrating for him. We were brainstorming ideas and Tom was really excited about doing a business incubator. He thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we could do start-ups every day because we both love start-ups. And I agreed with him, I said “Yeah that would be cool that would be awesome, let’s do it. But let’s think about it a little more.” And our conversation shifted and we started talking about family members that we have that we call “learning differences”. Some people call them learning disabilities. We don’t like that term that much. We were concerned about them because we were concerned about what they would face both in the academic environment and a standard work environment as well as what they were going to face when they were older. So a little bit later that afternoon, I hate to say it, it’s almost overused, the “Aha” moment came to mind. I ran back in and I grabbed Tom and I said “Wait a minute, I got an idea. What if we did this, this would make us unique. What if we created a research lab and business incubator, took these people with learning differences, and put it together? What if we gave them a place where they could figure out what their true passions were and then turn those passions into a livelihood?” And we thought about that a little bit more and the flashbulbs started going off in our heads. You know the typical ones where you start thinking about your past. We started thinking about all the people that probably had learning differences in our companies, and how they worked, and how they transformed some of the companies that we were involved in. So, at the point, like good entrepreneurs, we dug into the statistics. Don’t worry; I won’t bore you too much. We wanted to see if this thing had legs.
We started on the learning differences side. We wanted to understand what it was like to go through school with learning differences. Here are some quotes that you might expect. “Some people said that teachers thought they were stupid.” One guy graduated 8th from the bottom of his class of 1,200. One guy said “If I’m not interested, I don’t grasp it”. Guess who these people where? This might surprise you. David Neeleman, the founder of Jet Blue. Adam Levine from Maroon 5 and The Voice and, I’m told, he’s like the sexiest man alive or something? Paul Orfelea of Kinko’s. And a guy I admire a lot, Sir Richard Branson from the Virgin Group, Virgin Airways, Virgin Records and a whole lot of other Virgin Groups. He’s both ADHD and Dyslexic.
That was interesting to us. Then we dug deeper, and there are a lot more successful people out there. I don’t know if you realize this, but the name brand entrepreneurs that you know, the famous celebrities and sports stars, a lot of them had learning differences. They found a way despite their learning differences, to become successful. A lot of them say that was the key to their success. This was, again, getting more interesting. But then we dug into the cold realities of what people face. I think we can all agree today, that the importance of a college degree today is at an all-time high. Right now, if you don’t have a college degree the unemployment rate is 20%. Two years ago, when we first thought of starting the company, it was 30% during the recession. So, it’s tough if you don’t get a college degree. And then for people with ADHD, just to give you a flavor for that we found some stats on that. People with ADHD traits are creative, they are entrepreneurial, they have a zest for life, they’re empathetic, and they are very engaging people. Those are the people I kind of want to hang out with, I don’t know about you. But if you’re ADHD, and you get into college, you only have a 15% chance of graduating. We actually found a study that said 5%. For people with learning differences, it actually is the same kind of profile; it’s hard for them to get through. So if you can’t get a degree, and you can’t get a job, where are you? Well we found them. These are the bright kids back home. I bet you know somebody in this situation. These are the ones that didn’t make it through college. Some of them had perfect SAT scores. Some were the class President, some were the Captain of their football teams, and some were even Valedictorian’s of their high school. When they got to college, it overwhelmed them and they didn’t make it through. So they feel like failures when they are back home. They are at a dead end. They are stuck, probably in the basement. It’s surprising how many are just playing video games or something like that. And then over time the pressure builds, the “just get a job” starts with the family, “welcome to the real world, you didn’t make it through”, “go flip burgers, go work at the grocery store stacking shelves, just get out of the house and go do something.” Guess what job they gravitate to? Night watchman. You know why? Because the noise stops, it’s quiet, they are alone, and it’s dark. Does that sound fair? I don’t think so.
The other victims here are the parents and their family. The parents didn’t plan for this. They had worked from elementary school, to high school to get their kid to college. They dealt with IEP’s in some cases, which are assistance for people who have disabilities in the school system if you don’t know about that. They launch their kid off to college and were thrilled, then 6 months later they were back home. They start questioning everything they have done as a parent. They start to say, could I have been harder on them; could I have been easier on them? Neighbors start to question their ability as a parent. It’s a tough situation for everybody. I say, it’s not anybody’s fault. Society has defined a path that people need to take, which includes college and taking the normal job. And some of these folks just can’t take that path. They need an alternative path and there aren’t any good ones.
At this point we knew we were onto something and we put up a website to gauge interest in our idea. As we started getting applications, we were blown away by the number; we got them from all over the world. The message a common theme among all these people that were reaching out to us was, they wanted to change the world. But nobody was listening. It was almost eerie, the number of applications, it was like they were copying each other. It was a surreal experience. For us, it was at this time Tom and I knew, we weren’t just starting a company, we were actually going to try to change the world.
Necessary Brilliance was being wasted.
We opened our doors a year ago, and we created that research lab and business incubator where these young adults, and adults, can come and figure out what their truly passionate about and educate them just enough on what it takes to create a business, or make money, or maybe even go back to college in the right place with the right major. We find a way to make that happen. For us, unlike most business incubators where a 1 in 10 success rate is considered good, you get the one homerun and you can brag about it – our target is 10 out of 10. Now we may not get there, it’s tough. But that’s our target, and here’s why our target can be that. For us a win can be as simple as opening a corner store. Somebody is now out of the basement, out of the house, making money, doing what they love and not answering to anybody else because they didn’t get that degree. So for us, we see that as a win, we don’t have to create the next Google, but we think we might.
Let me tell you some stories about the place. A young woman named Rebecca from Melbourne Australia was stuck being a bank teller, and she was dreaming of being a fashion designer. She was trying to Google her way out of her situation, like a lot of them do, and she came across our website. We got on a Skype with her immediately when she reached out to us and she started to tell her story. She was trying to get her business degree and she hit the dreaded “core course requirement” that everyone has to pass a certain course. For her it was Human Resources and 100% of the grade was based on the final exam and it was an essay exam and she can’t write fast. So through tears she told us that she had failed the class twice and then she said “and Rick, it wasn’t even close, I failed it miserably.” She couldn’t get the degree and was looking for an alternative. We got her across on an internship. She left Australia, she quit her job, sold her house, rented her car, said goodbye to a long term boyfriend, said goodbye to her family and came half way around the world to Boston to be with us. Guess what the first question that she asked was? She leaned over as she got off the jet way and said meekly “Rick, do you think I’m going to be successful?” And I looked at her and actually I laughed, she probably didn’t know how to take that because it was the first time we met. And I said “Rebecca, when you stepped from that jet way in Australia onto that Airbus 380 and the door shut behind you, that question was answered. It’s only now a question of how you are going to be successful.”
After we built the place we had this kind of “field of dreams” experience. The phone started ringing. Every week people were reaching out to us. Senior business executives were reaching out to us, industrial designers, makers, 3D printer gurus, software developers, the list goes on and on. They all wanted to help. Many had struggled in their past and they wanted to give back. Some of them said that they became widely successful in their 30’s and they didn’t want to see these young people suffer like they did through their 20’s as they considered their 20’s their lost years. But when they come in to speak or do lunch sessions, we have to give them a warning about how it’s going to be when they present. It’s going to be different because it’s a different kind of place. They walk in and we tell them people are going to be texting, they will be on Facebook, Google, YouTube, they may be playing games and they are going to be spinning in chairs. It’s going to be very distracting, but they are multitasking and they are locked in and they are listening. Wait until you get to the end and see what they say. They will ask you questions that you haven’t been asked before. Sure enough, every time they come out they say “you’re right, I’m blown away.”
This leads to our key learning. At the Lab, what we’ve learned is acceptance drives creativity. These guys haven’t had a lot of acceptance in their lives. It’s been painful for them. When they come to the Lab, the outside noise stops, the walls lock it out. The “just get a job; do something, what’s wrong with you?” A lot of that stuff is going on once they get there. The one thing they hate the most is, “you had so much potential.” Don’t say that to them, they hate that. The walls stop the noise, acceptance occurs within the walls, and it takes a while but then the creativity explodes.
After a year, here’s what we have going on. People are opening game stores, writing novels, writing graphic novels, inventing things, making smoothies. Rebecca, when she goes back to Australia, plans to launch her own beach wear line which she has all designed. And finally the App Team, now these guys used to have names but they are like a unit now, they have lost their names; they are just called the App Team. “Where’s the App Team? Are they coming to lunch?” They are locked in. They figured out an App idea when they first came to the Lab. They then found a developer. Created a pitch deck. Then they went to Washington DC about 2 weeks ago and they closed on nearly $300,000 in seed financing for their new company. They are starting their company December 1st, and none of them finished college. I would put them up in a Pitch Deck competition against anybody. These guys are awesome.
This place is working. They have purpose in their lives; the dead end is no longer a dead end. The basements are emptying. So given all of this, I have a question. Why are we the only place in the world doing this? With 15 million people in the US with ADHD, and 10% of the population with dyslexia, why are we the only place in the world doing this? I don’t get it; it’s just unfathomable to me. These young adults should not be wasted. I know that’s a big question, but the bottom line is we need more places like ours. We are a small place in Massachusetts, it’s a worldwide problem. We know that because we get calls all the time saying “when are you coming to my country? We need you here.” We even got a call from Trinidad and Tobago and they said we need a place like that here the demand is huge.
We can’t do it ourselves. If you want to help, please reach out to us. We have lots of ideas, lots of ideas! So be forewarned. If you can’t engage with us directly, consider this: If you are a college or a university, how about following the University of Rochester’s example: No required courses. Student’s get to take what they love. Our guys want to take your hardest courses, that’s what they want to do. You’re forcing them to take the easy ones and then when they fail out because they aren’t interested; you’re filtering these guys out. Rebecca should have gotten her degree; she could have done that in that environment. She would have taken finance instead of human resources and finished. Imagine that, a fashion designer with a finance degree, that’s a pretty deadly combination. At work, hire bug fixers, allow chair spinning, become a mentor. If you’re looking for talent in the workplace or life in general, I challenge you, don’t tick the box that says “college degree required.” You just may meet that person that truly can change the world.
Stop wasting this necessary brilliance!