My experience at the 2015 StartingBloc Institute

By LIFT on September 28, 2015

Categories: First Person Perspective, Real Stories


It was 9:30 on a Thursday morning in New York City as I entered a buzzing, crowded room filled with over 100 new faces. The energy in the room was palpable, and as I walked in, I picked up on snippets of the conversations taking place. Introductions were being made, and people were beginning to share their stories with one another—stories of starting non-profit organizations, stories of serving in the Peace Corps, and stories of leading classrooms through Teach for America, to name a few.

Entering this room of incredible people, I was embarking on my experience as a Fellow with the StartingBloc Institute. The StartingBloc Institute is a five-day experience aimed at individuals who want to create social change. It is described as an intensive institute that gives attendees the chance to “participate in a series of workshops and activities designed to inspire and instruct…learn directly from high impact entrepreneurs and change leaders…work with proven frameworks for delivering change…and build relationships with new life-long allies.”

After hearing about the StartingBloc Institute from a colleague, I knew it could be an incredibly valuable experience for me. So, I eagerly applied, was accepted as a Fellow, and conducted a crowdfunding campaign to cover the costs of the Institute.

As I began my StartingBloc experience that Thursday morning, I was a little nervous and unsure of what to expect. But the Institute proved to be everything I hoped for, and then some. For one, I acquired an incredible amount of new knowledge and skills in my short time there. I learned how to:

  • Pitch an idea for social change idea in 60 seconds or less and make an actual ask. I practiced this in front of a crowd of 100 people—it was nerve-wracking, but such great practice!
  • Use “rapid prototyping” to accelerate the innovation process. Rapid prototyping involves naming a problem, presenting a solution, getting rapid-fire feedback on the proposed solution, then quickly improving it based on the feedback. At the Institute, existing organizations came to present a problem their organization is facing. StartingBloc Fellows then used the rapid prototyping process to come up with solutions and quickly improve upon those solutions.
  • Apply the concept of “polarity mapping” to decide whether an issue is a problem to be solved or a paradox to be balanced, and then react accordingly. Gayle Karen Young, the former Chief Talent Office at Wikimedia, led a fascinating talk about how a problem is something you can solve and move on from, but a paradox is something that needs to be continuously managed. Work-life balance is a great example.  You can’t solve it and it’s done. Instead, you balance the tension between the two by recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of both.

In addition to developing these skills, I was able to connect with nearly 100 like-minded people at the StartingBloc Institute. Fellows represented countries from Australia to India to Zimbabwe, and their passions ranged from education and environmental sustainability to healthcare and women’s issues. There was a great diversity in backgrounds and interests, but it was clear that all of us Fellows shared one thing in common—a passion for social change.

The best part about attending the Institute was knowing that the skills I developed and the connections I made could relate directly to my work at LIFT. Now that I have practiced my pitching skills, I am better-equipped to tell people I meet about the great work that LIFT does. I can help our Program Team apply the rapid prototyping process to their strategy work, and I can apply the principles of polarity mapping to help the organization problem-solve. And thanks to the connections I made with the other StartingBloc Fellows at the Institute, I now have nearly 100 new allies—people from all different sectors and backgrounds who I can turn to if I need a different perspective, a thought partner, or an accountability buddy for some aspect of my work.

I am deeply grateful for having had the opportunity to attend the StartingBloc Institute, and I am eager to apply all the benefits of the experience to my work here at LIFT.