How to think like and become an entrepreneur

I just finished Tina Seelig’s book “What I wish I knew when I was 20” and wanted to share excerpts that particularly resonated with me..

“Carlos Vignolo, a masterful professor at the University of Chile, told me that he provocatively suggests that students take classes from the worst teachers in their school because this will prepare them for life, where they won’t have talented educators leading the way.”

I didn’t have very good teachers in my K-12 schooling years and learned to find solutions to problems on my own, to ferret our extra resources and to teach myself. This training has been invaluable – especially now as we build Iridescent. I instinctively turn to books to find solutions to problems and immediately apply whatever I learn to improving operations.

“Even as a kid he (Michael Dearing) wrote letters to famous people and was pleased to see that most of the time they wrote back. He still continues the habit, sending unsolicited e-mails to people he admires. In almost every instance they respond, and in many cases the correspondence results in long-term relationships and interesting opportunities. He never asks the folks he writes for anything. His initial contact is all about thanking them for something they’ve done, acknowledging something they’ve accomplished, asking a simple question, or offering to help them in some way. He doesn’t wait for an invitation to contact these people, but takes it upon himself to make the first move.”

As I didn’t have a formal background in education, I had to find mentors and experts who could guide me in the right direction. I would email notable professors and researchers in the field asking for help and almost 50-60% of the time I would get a reply with the requisite help or advice.

“A quote attributed to the Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao-Tzu sums this up: The master of the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he is always doing both.”

“Some situations literally force you to reevaluate your life. For instance, once you decide to start a family, the entire game changes. You’re suddenly faced with the need to figure out how to balance parenting with your profession. As everyone knows, caring for your children takes an enormous amount of time and focused energy. It’s both physically and emotionally demanding and incredibly time consuming. Keeping you on your toes, a child’s needs change dramatically as they get older. Each year brings a brand-new set of responsibilities and a fresh set of challenges. As a result, parenting provides an ever-changing opportunity to be creative and helps build skills that are extremely valuable in any setting. It exercises your ability to multitask and to make decisions under pressure, and it certainly helps you master the art of negotiation. Women especially face the daunting puzzle of figuring out how to fit together career and family obligations. From my experience, this challenge really is a great opportunity.”

These statements particularly resonate with me now since I am a brand new parent trying to juggle a fast growing organization with a fast growing baby girl! Both very exciting and rewarding experiences and I really appreciate the insight that both experiences fuel and support each other.

“Showing appreciation for the things others do for you has a profound effect on how you’re perceived. Keep in mind that everything someone does for you has an opportunity cost. That means if someone takes time out of his or her day to attend to you, there’s something they haven’t done for themselves or someone else. It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking your request is small. But when someone is busy there are no small requests. They have to stop what they’re doing, focus on your request, and take the time to respond. With that in mind, there is never a time when you shouldn’t thank someone for doing something for you. In fact, assume a thank-you note is in order, and look at situations when you dont send one as the exception. “

Iridescent has come so far only because of the amazing people that support it, volunteer their precious time and efforts. I need to thank each and everyone for all they have done to build Iridescent one brick at a time.

“There is a big difference between trying to do something and actually doing it. We often say we’re trying to do something -losing weight, getting more exercise, finding a job. But the truth is, we’re either doing it or not doing it. Trying to do it is a cop-out.”

“Bernie (Roth) also tells students that excuses are irrelevant or, to use the technical term – bullshit. We use excuses to cover up the fact that we didn’t put in the required effort to deliver. This lesson is relevant in all parts of your life. There’s no excuse for being late, for not handing in an assignment, for failing an exam, for not spending time with your family, for not calling your girlfriend, and so forth. You can manufacture an excuse that’s socially acceptable, such as having too much work or being sick, but if you really wanted to deliver you’d figure out a way to make it happen.”

Results from Iridescent’s Parent Needs Surveys

Robyn Hightower helped develop, conduct and analyze two parent surveys (in Fall 2008 and 2009) that would help inform our decisions on how to develop programs that directly addressed our target audience’s needs in the most organic and efficient manner. Here are some key findings.

Fall 2008

We sampled 361 parents from eight partner schools at Back-to-School Nights. These schools were mainly situated in South Los Angeles and represented a mix of charter and non-charter schools that serve primarily low-income Hispanic and African-American students.

Parents were asked about reasons they would enroll their child in Iridescent’s science programs, positive outcomes they expected from the program, and things they currently do to support their child’s education.
“Why would you sign your child up for this program?”
Main reasons why parents were interested in having their children attend Iridescent’s science workshops were:

  1. So that their children could learn new things
  2. That their child wanted to attend
  3. They wanted their children to make new friends

“What would you like to gain through this program?”
Main positive outcomes parents hoped to gain were:

  1. Increased knowledge about science. Nearly one quarter of parents (23%) said they would like to learn about science.
  2. Increased ability to “help my child(ren) with their homework” (22%).
  3. Getting information about and access to USC (19%)
  4. Learning about new community and school resources (18%)

“What do you do to help your child in his/her education?”
Only 22% of parents said that they made sure their child did their homework and one in five parents (19%) said that they helped their children with their homework.

Parent’s low involvement in their child’s homework habits could possibly be improved by getting them involved with Iridescent’s programs, as parents viewed Iridescent as a great resource to learn how to better support their child’s education. Thus one way to get parents involved would be to focus on the message that Iridescent could empower parents with science content knowledge and the ability to help their children with their homework.

Fall 2009
We sampled 943 parents from 14 partner schools in South Los Angeles that primarily serve low-income Hispanic and African-American students. The goal of the survey was to inform decisions on whether Iridescent should develop an online Parent Social Networking Ning Site, what features to incorporate on that site and what resources to develop that would help parents engage their children in science after the workshops. The survey also had some questions determining interest in co-investing and the Parent Leadership Program.
On the whole, parents were very positive toward all four of the programs that Iridescent tested. Almost three out of five parents were very interested in the Iridescent’s programs on the whole. Parents thought that Iridescent’s in-class science sessions were the most appealing, with 87% being positive toward those courses. These courses were defined as “4 week class led by USC engineers for your children during their science class at school.”
Almost nearly as popular were the science courses that focused on student projects. The student science project was described as a “2 month long project for your child on a topic of her/his choice. Your child will be mentored individually by an engineer and will have access to sophisticated tools and equipment like microscopes, robots and computers.” Although it was the third most highly rated series, the family science classes, described as “4 week evening class led by USC engineers, in which you conduct experiments and learn science along with your children”, still garnered 72% total positive interest and nearly half of all parents (46%) were ‘very interested’ in family science classes. Even the family science project, which was rated the lowest, had 67% total positive interest.
Parents seemed most comfortable with classes that stayed in the classroom and did not involve parents teaching science at home. This is consistent with what we have experienced in the past. Parents who haven’t participated in our Family Science Program or seen videos from the sessions are unable to overcome their biases against science and their own feelings of inadequacy regarding supporting their child’s science education. Videos are very effective in showing parents that others like them are participating in the sessions, supporting their child’s activities meaningfully and having fun! Here is a sample video we have been showing at Back to School Nights.

Parents’ Internet Usage
Almost 4 in 5 parents use the Internet at least once a week. This is encouraging as it suggests that online forms of communication may be an efficient way to contact and interact with parents directly. This finding supports trends seen in the research Iridescent conducted in Fall 2008 in which 87% of parents said they had computers at home and 82% said they had internet access.

Interest in features of an online forum for parents
As over 80% of parents log on to the Internet at least once a week, an online forum where parents can check in on their child’s education could prove to be a value resource for parents. Iridescent asked parents how interested they would be in an online forum for parents that would give them resources to support their child’s education, adding that the parents would be provided a class to teach them how to use the forum. Parents were asked to rate different features that could be included in the online forum, including, videos of engineers explaining concepts and showing how to conduct experiments; the ability to share pictures/videos from the science sessions with friends, family and other parents; learning how to send their child to university, such as USC; access to engineers; monthly science stories; and lesson plans on how to conduct science experiments with children at home.
Overall, positive interest in an online forum appears very strong. On average, three quarters of parents were positively interested in each website feature. Parents were most interested in gaining access to resources outside their local community, including access to information about institutions of higher education and access to engineers. This finding supports trends seen in the parent research Iridescent completed in fall 2008. The partnership that Iridescent has with USC is a beneficial one, as it helps attract the interest of parents who may not otherwise be interested in science programs.

Amount spent on home entertainment products
In the past six months, almost one in four parents (23%) spent $50-$100 on movies, including DVDs. Parents spend slightly more than average on movies rather than video games or music. As parents spend a significant amount of their home entertainment budget on movies, than other forms of entertainment, offering parents educational, science DVDs would be a great way to encourage at-home engagement with science lessons. One example of a video that we could burn onto the DVD is below:

Interest in buying science-related products to excite kids about science
Surprisingly, storybooks (80%) garnered more interest than t-shirts (72%).

Amount of possible donations to Iridescent
Most parents were willing to spend a small sum of money to support the Family Science Courses. Nearly three out of four parents (73%) were willing to donate between $5 and $20. Fifty one percent of parents were most interested in donating $10 or less. Only 9% were interested in donating more than $20. Nearly one in five (18%) reported that they were not interested in donating anything.

Parents’ interest in volunteering for Family Science Courses
Iridescent evaluated parents’ commitment to the Family Science Courses by asking them to rate their interest in volunteering for the program. Iridescent described the time commitment and tasks the volunteers would need to complete*.
Half of the parents (51%) indicated that they would be interested in helping Iridescent organize Family Science Sessions at their child’s school. Nearly one quarter of parents (23%) stated neutral, and the last quarter said that they were disinterested in volunteering.
The finding that 51% of parents who completed the survey were interested in volunteering is encouraging. The survey has ascertained that parents are not only willing to invest money to support Iridescent in their child’s school, but they are also willing to provide support with their own time and resources. Their willingness to provide support will help ensure sustainability of the Family Science Courses at each site.
* “We are looking for motivated parents who would help us organize the Family Science Sessions at your school. We would provide a 1-2 session leadership class led by USC Business students. Time commitment = 30 hours for one month. Responsibilities would include organizing food, materials and funds.”

More details on the survey can be found here.

How to build a working model of a heart using tupperware?

We are playing with a new tool (called Knoodle) that enables you to synchronize powerpoint presentations with a video. I think this is a very powerful approach.
Here is an example from our cardiovascular mechanics course.

<div><a href=’’>Share and annotate your videos</a> with Ulearn!</div>

Community Within the Community

For the past three years Iridescent has provided hands-on science courses at ~ 30 schools in the downtown Los Angeles area. However, in order to provide the community families with a workspace for long-term projects, we are now looking for a physical space that can be used for teaching and preparation work.
In order to get a sense of the Los Angeles community and gain insight on ways that Iridescent could become a thriving and functional partner in the neighborhood, I took a look at various successful non-profit organizations in the area: The Center for Life Long Learning (CLLL), The Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA), The Salvation Army Youth Center, and Challengers Boys and Girls Club (CBGC). Although very different from each other, these organizations also had striking similarities. There’s a beautiful sense of hope that lies deep among their staff and members. Sure the community is filled with thousands of families trying to provide their children with the basics; but alongside these people and their aspirations are hundreds of non-profits trying to do the same thing, struggle to survive. So how do they do it? There were a few words that never failed to come up during an interview, “respect”, “growth”, and “commitment”. These words not only applied to the children involved in the community programs but also the volunteers, workers, and parents.

  • RESPECT: In order to earn the respect of the community families, each organization reaches out, they provide a comforting atmosphere and a haven for its members. The CLLL painted their gates and walls with spirited colors. HOLA has begun to clean up the Lafayette Park for community use. The Salvation Army painted a large mural on their wall. The CBGC created schools and day care programs within the area. Once the people of the community gained a sense of trust for the organization, they were able to become involved and follow the high standards that the organization placed for its members.
  • COMMUNITY GROWTH: Each organization makes it their responsibility to rear the children towards being successful and moral members of society. The volunteers and teachers pinpoint where a child’s talent lies then build off it. They help the children to excel in their best abilities while also offering other resources. The growth of the parents is also always a goal. In this time of economic instability many families have great intangible demands; whether mental, emotional, or supportive, the families need a safe place to connect and work with each other. The organizations often build strong bonds between parent and child. As the members grow, so does their desire to give back to the community, thus the organization can grow.
  • COMMITMENT: There must be a commitment to the cause. The organizations’ volunteers and workers must be selfless and the child members must be self-fulfilling. The commitment of the community provides a full proof plan for learning and change.

Giving goes both ways. No organization can function without the shared resources of another. The organizations provide activity, health care, and education for those that need it, and in return the community wants to give back. The WANT to give back is how the communities function within the community. Mortimer Jones executive director of the Salvation Army Youth Center said, “In order to succeed, this can’t be a job it has to be a passion.”


Center for Life Long Learning

Heart of Los Angeles

Salvations Army

Challengers Boys and Girls Club


· Small

· 6 years in its location

· Transient Families

· 7-18 year old members

· 5 directors

· Over 1,000 kids

· 20 years in its location

· Application process

· 6-19 year old members

· Serves over 4,000 youth and their parents

· 7 years in its location

· No age limit on members

· 3,500 children

· 40 years in its location

· 6-17 year old members

· Application process


· College students

· Local professionals

· Retired teachers

· Elderly Services

· College students

· Local professionals

· SAT prep tutors

· College students

· Corporate and Local professionals

· Center for student Missions.

· Archdiocese Youth Employment.

· College students

· Local professionals

· Parents

· Teachers

· Junior Members


· Grant writing

· Individual donations

· Grant writing

· Individual donation

· Golf/Bowling competitions

· Summer camp drive

· Hosting major events

· Grant writing

· Individual Donation

· Grant writing

· Individual donations

· Golf Tournament

· Pancake Breakfast

· Citibank Gala

Effective programs

· After-school Tutoring and homework help

· Computer Lab

· Free Snack Bar

· After-school Tutoring and homework help

· One-on-one focus

· Soccer and sports activities

· 12 week courses of the child’s choice.

· Art, Cooking, LGBT, Sex Ed, college prep…

· Offers Mental Health Care for families

· After-school Tutoring and homework help

· Family services

· Licensed day care

· Dance, fitness, kitchen, library, arts, game rooms, food, skate park

· Computer Lab

· After-school Tutoring and homework help

· Transportation

· Character and Leadership development

· Health and life skills

· Radio Broadcasting, film editing, arts, music, dance, fitness, sports, cooking

· Field trips


· Teachers without boarders

· City scholars foundation

· LA food bank

· Dole Foods

· Salvation Army

· Bresee

· Boys and Girls Club

· LA Lakers

· Archdiocese

· Youth Admissions

· LA Clippers


· LA food bank

· Center for student missions

· Disney

· United Way

· McDonalds Teaching Healthy Habits

· Hola

· Q Fraternity


· Background checks Gate

· Police cooperation

· Surveillance camera

· Background checks

· Gate

· Police Cooperation

· Constant Chaperon

· Alarm

· Background checks

· Gate

· Police Cooperation

· Constant Chaperon

· Alarm

· Windows in every room

· Surveillance cameras

· Everyone is searched

· Background checks

· Gate

· Police Cooperation

· Front Desk check

· Alarm

· Strict non gang related dress code for civility of children within the grounds


· Gain the trust of the community

· Have a good PR plan

· Competitive staff

· Know your demography

· Asset Based: Build of the individual child’s talents

· Equality and respect

· High moral values

· Confidence

· Gain the trust and respect of the community

· Passion for the cause

· Build confidence within the child

· Involve the parents

· Build of the talents of the child

· Parental volunteers

· Shuttle transportation


· Tagging

· Homeless wanderers

· Awareness

· Family Attendance

· Parents with limited education

· Inconsistency with student volunteers during the summer

· Parental want for child to work or be domesticated instead of continue school.

· Cultural misunderstandings.

· Values clashing.

· Parents with limited education

· Transient culture

· On the Gang Separation line

· Not enough volunteers

· Transportation

· Parents with limited education

· Awareness for the youth centers services: Breaking the stereotype that the Salvation Army is one big thrift store.

· Discipline

· Parent disputes over fees and attendance

· Optional tutoring: The children aren’t forced to attend homework help and often pick an activity over learning.

Where does the time go?

Weekly report # 4 and I am increasingly puzzled as to where all the time is going.

I started keeping the Toggl reports a month ago and logged a respectable 80 hours/week the first two weeks. And then it slid to 60 or so. At least my learning hours are increasing. I still work all the time (there are so many cool things to do and try!), but where is the time going?

Here are some conjectures:

  1. Transitions: I remember reading somewhere that a lot of time gets wasted transitioning from one activity to another. The past two weeks I have had more meetings and maybe that is where the leak is.
  2. Tennis: I also started playing tennis twice a week. This week I will try to throw in a few runs as well. I am in this for the long haul, so might as well stay healthy!
  3. Cooking: I am finally tired of frozen dinners (3 months of FFF or focused frozen-food eating). So we made a salad this week and one rice and beans.

On a related note, I would LOVE to know how intense CEOs like Howard Schultz, Wendy Kopp and the like manage their time. I know they run (or did when they wrote their memoirs) and have families and they must eat. So how do they manage?

How does a nonprofit like Iridescent grow?

I am super ambitious. My goal for Iridescent is that it becomes a nationwide program with strong sites in New York, Silicon Valley and Los Angeles. I also believe that it difficult to suddenly wake up one day and think big. If you want to grow and scale, every little daily decision has to be made with that goal in mind. For example, currently we have two core team members who train and observe the volunteering engineers. The core team members observe each session and give feedback to the engineers. Thus this past fall, we could only conduct about 8-10 courses as you can only be in one place at one time. This model would be fine if expansion wasn’t one of our long-term goals. As it is, I am exploring different organization structures that will allow us to grow and maintain program quality. One option is to train a layer of “observers” (potentially Teach for America alumni) who would work part-time with Iridescent, observe 2-3 sessions a week and help the engineers improve their communication skills.

So expansion is always on my mind.

I came across this interesting article on how nonprofits raise enough money to grow really big and here are some of the key points as applied to Iridescent.

Key Findings

The study was conducted by the Bridgespan group and the article was published in the Stanford Social Review in 2007. The study explores how 144 of 200,000 US nonprofits started in the 1970s got big (reaching $50 million in annual revenue).

  • They had a single dominant, highly specialized source of funding – such as government (Population Services International), individual donations (Habitat for Humanity), corporate gifts (Greater Boston Food Bank), niche groups like hunters (National Wild Turkey Federation). On average, that dominant funding source accounted for just over 90 percent of the organization’s total funding.
  • They found a funding source that was a natural match to their mission and beneficiaries.

The first point is a bit disheartening to a young nonprofit like Iridescent as we don’t really know which funding source will be a natural match and can support sustained growth. But the study goes onto say that only a few nonprofits knew from the start where they would find their most promising funding sources. But as these organizations pursued their growth, they realized which sources of funding seemed most promising and were willing to concentrate their efforts on that source, recruiting people and creating organizations that could best pursue that funding source.

Iridescent is at this very stage at the moment. We are trying to find organic, mission-aligned ways in which to generate funding. At first we were thinking we would do well to bring some experts onto the team who would be able to give us the magic formula. But the study also says that the core team is the best informed and qualified to come up with solutions. The key really is to develop ways that are mission-aligned, so all efforts push in the same direction.

Funding sources change from diverse to focused with growth

When nonprofits are small (like Iridescent), they often raise money from a wide variety of sources. That’s because there are many potential donors who are able to give small amounts of money, and because a particularly inspiring executive director can stand out from the crowd and convince these small donors to give. But when very large sums of money are involved, the picture changes. Sizable funding sources are fewer, and their goals are more developed. As a result, the funders’ interests matter more than does the executive director’s charisma.

There are distinct breakpoints during a nonprofit’s growth at which the funding shifts dramatically from one revenue category to the next. After each of these breakpoints, both the average level of diversification and the mix of funding change. Take the examples of youth services and environmental advocacy. When nonprofits in these domains are small, they typically have a diverse set of funding sources, with a large percentage of the money coming from foundations. As these organizations grow between $3-$10 million they diversify their funding sources even more. But as they grow between $10-$50 million these organizations increasingly rely on a single funding source.

This concentration by funding source does not replace the need for diversification and risk management. Organizations achieved diversification and mitigated their funding risk by securing multiple payers of the same type to support their work. Youth Villages, for example, receives more than 90 percent of its funding from state government contracts, but it has minimized its risk by tapping a number of government departments in a number of states.

Sources of unrestricted funds are small but very crucial for long-term growth

Of the 101 organizations that have a dominant funding source, more than 20 percent have a secondary source that accounted for 10 percent or more of their revenue. The Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership, for example, receives less than 1 percent of its funding from unrestricted foundation and corporate donations that allows it to try out ideas in an area not currently funded by government programs.

What to do next

Nonprofit leaders need to identify and target those funding sources that are most likely to be a natural match with their organizations. Far from being random, large funders’ interests often fall into distinct categories. Corporations almost always offer in-kind support focused on hunger or health issues. And individuals tend to give to issues that cross socioeconomic boundaries – like environmental advocacy – and to organizations that have clear, compelling, and simple messages. State and local governments are most likely to support human services, employment development, and education organizations.

Characteristics of funding sources

Program service fees (NOT EARNED INCOME) are the second most important source of funding for high-growth nonprofits, providing most of the money for 33 percent of the organizations in the study. Service fees are also the second most important source of funding in the nonprofit sector as a whole. Community health clinics, student loan providers, and employment agencies for the disabled are likely to depend on program service fees as their dominant source of funding. The 12 student and housing loan organizations in thestudy likewise rely on fees and interest income.

Contrary to the current buzz over social enterprises, free-market commercial ventures are not the major generators of program service fees for nonprofits in this study.

Corporate giving represents a relatively small share of total charitable giving in the nonprofit sector, but it is a prominent source of funding among these high-growth nonprofits. Corporations are the primary funders of 19 percent of the nonprofits we surveyed. The vast majority of corporate support is in-kind donations, not cash.

Individuals are the primary funders of only 6 percent of the high-growth nonprofits in our study. Interestingly, small gifts power all of the surveyed high-growth nonprofits in this category, even though major gifts account for a large majority of individual giving in the U.S. Although some organizations develop major donors as a significant secondary source of funds, small donations seem to fuel the broadest expansions. This may be because major gifts require greater personal involvement or because the kinds of techniques that generate smaller donations (direct mail and special events, for example) are easier to scale up.

A clear message also helps build a strong brand that resonates with individual donors, as in the case of Habitat for Humanity.

Foundations The least frequent source of funding for highgrowth nonprofits is foundations, which are the primary funders for only two of the organizations in the study, or 2 percent of the high-growth nonprofits. In general, foundations seem to be more focused on their traditional role of starting new programs rather than supporting them at scale.

This last piece of information is intriguing and could change Iridescent’s fundraising strategies for 2009 as we have been spending a lot of our efforts on writing proposals to small foundations. I need to look more into this and see if the finding has enough substantiating data.

What has your fundraising experience taught you?

Iridescent’s 2008 – IN PICTURES

I have been thinking about a way to show the range of supporting activities that enable our core program (the hands-on science courses). So I made the above sketch.

I was inspired by Tufte, but I have a long way to go. I realized that especially after I came across the graphics from this amazing lab in Milan called Density Design.

The plan for the new year is to graphically report on our monthly activities, trials and accomplishments.

The illustrated monthly report would also be a way to increase accountability and transparency for donors and sponsors.

And lastly, I was toying with the idea of using the illustrated report to get some feedback from the public. Maybe potential donors could use the graph to make a more informed decision of where they would like their funds to be used (research, increasing public mindshare, recruiting, training or the courses). Then we could directly report on the use of their funds the next month.

I wonder how powerful or chaotic this strategy would be.