Beyond Business: Finding opportunity at the intersection of education and innovation

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February 24, 2016 by texasbbacareerservices

austindannhausTFABy: Austin Dannhaus, Director of Strategy – Free Range Studios, McCombs ‘09

From where I grew up in Angleton, Texas, it’s about a three-and-a-half-hour drive to the 40 Acres. I took back roads until I hit Highway 71, providing me with a lot of slow-going, meandering time in the car to think. Like you, I made that drive home more times than I can remember. Trips were more frequent at first, but as I settled into life in college, they became fewer and farther between (much to my mother’s disappointment).

I don’t want to overstate this, but that time in the car was important for figuring out who I was becoming. With every trip back to Austin, I held on to a little less of home. I thought more about what I was learning and who I was becoming. Personal growth became more important than personal comfort.

That’s what a good education will do for you. It will put you in a place where you are moving from where you are to what lies ahead. It will shape your thinking and character in ways that lay the foundation for future success. I’m thankful for the way UT and McCombs guided me through that process.

I surely didn’t know it in my first few years at UT, but looking back, it’s always made sense that I would find my way into education. And I’m thankful for the role that Teach For America played in that journey.

From Finance to Fractions

I wasn’t sure what I was aiming at when I started at McCombs. Business, broadly defined, can lead down a million different paths—and each seemed just as enticing as the next. Despite interviewing for jobs in consulting and banking (both successfully and unsuccessfully), those paths never sat quite right with me. Ideas around social innovation were becoming more mainstream at the time, and that resonated with a desire to bring business acumen to the more pernicious societal challenges I was interested in addressing.

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Apply to the Teach For America Full-time Corps Member position via OCR. Deadline: March 4.

I’m not sure how TFA found me, but I was recruited to apply just as my senior year was getting underway. I had never considered education as a direction prior to that first conversation, and trading what I hoped would be a lucrative financial future for the relative insecurity of teacher pay didn’t square with my student loan balance. But the stories of impact coming out of TFA were inspiring. I had never heard of the “achievement gap”—the difference in educational opportunity between low-income and high-income students resulting from unequal access to a quality education. In the face of this challenge, recent college graduates were choosing a different path from the one they might have imagined and were heading to classrooms to join the fight to ensure that all students, regardless of race or class, have a chance to succeed. I was in.

Now, to be fair, there is a stereotype about Teach For America corps members: that we do it because it looks good on a resume. That it’s a great steppingstone to a career outside of education. That we just focus on education for a couple of years and move on. I’ll admit, those all factored in to my thinking about joining the organization. But the real power of TFA is how it takes a person’s drive to do good—however unformed or even misplaced—and cultivates a deep passion for fighting for students. It has been my experience, and the experience of many of my peers, that this passion often results in staying in the classroom or other areas of education beyond our initial two-year commitment. And for folks like me, it means continuing to fight for students in ways I never could have expected.

Right Place, Right Time

I arrived in D.C. a few weeks after graduation for induction and eventually my teacher training institute. After a long, grueling summer, I was placed at Flintstone Elementary in the DC Metro Region. I taught all subjects in a 3rd grade classroom there for two years, and to say that the experience changed my life would be a gross understatement. When people ask me what my experience was like, I quote Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” No matter how hard it got, though, there was not one day that I walked into my school dreading the day that lay ahead. I was always tired, often stressed, and sometimes doubtful that I was making a difference. But I always wanted to show up. It’s a great testament to the tenacity of my students and the support of Teach For America that I was able to significantly and measurably improve outcomes for my students each year I was in the classroom.

What’s interesting, though, is how that experience shaped my passions and sense of purpose. I thought that coming out of the classroom I was going to get back on the path towards a career in business that I had wandered off of, or I was going to take the LSAT as planned and head to law school. I didn’t really want either of those things anymore, though.

Fortunately, there was a groundswell happening in education. Education technology companies were popping up, creating tools to better serve students. Schools were being reimagined, and innovative educators were pushing the limits of what school could look like. Massive shifts in higher education were calling the traditional model into question, and folks were offering new ideas about the college-to-career pipeline. Thankfully, I noticed what was happening and saw the opportunities to combine my interest in social innovation with the challenges facing education. McCombs had prepared to be to step into the ambiguity of this emerging education landscape and care our a niche as the intersection of my interests and skills.

And so I stayed in education. I considered continuing to teach and looked at other education non-profits and companies for opportunities. Since then, I’ve gone on to found a literacy non-profit, serve a national campaign to promote social mobility for disconnected youth, and work at the intersection of education policy and innovation in a consulting capacity. In my current role, I’m bringing the power of human-centered design to address the challenges of education through creativity and innovation.

The great thing about education is that it will require ideas and solutions from across sectors to address its biggest challenges. Even if you are not working directly in education, the impact of law, public policy, medicine, business, communications and other fields cannot be overstated. We need people who have been in classrooms shaping both future classrooms and the communities they exist in.

Whether you’ve already considered an organization like TFA or if you’ve never thought about it before, as a McCombs graduate, I’d encourage you to think more broadly about how your interest in business can have an impact beyond dollars and cents for shareholders. How might you be able to organize resources—in a classroom, at a non-profit, or through a for-profit venture—to solve problems that will literally shape the future?

A Story of Impact

I was just at the TFA 25th Anniversary Summit in Washington, DC. On the final evening, we heard the story of a TFA corps member teaching in the Rio Grande Valley who himself had been taught by a corps member. He recounted the challenges of getting out of South Texas and successfully making it to graduation at Ohio State University. As he shared his story, I could only imagine what his long drives and flights between home and Ohio were like, how he thought about the role of education in his life and what he would go on to do after college.

I’m glad he chose to invest in education and become a teacher. I hope you will too..

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