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Attendees discuss the future of learning at the inaugural Rethink Ed convening in Kansas City, Missouri, 2018.

Listen, learn, and work together

Philanthropy’s role should be to help bring to scale some of the ideas already in motion within communities, connect communities together, share lessons, and provide the investments necessary to accelerate change.

In the communities and groups we work with across the nation, we hear more concern than optimism about the future.

The concerns are largely centered around the unpredictable economy, and if the already unequal access to that economy will get even worse.

The positive in this is that neither us, nor our communities and partners, are simply sitting around wringing our hands. Rather, we’re learning together what we need to do to break down barriers to success.

A few weeks ago, the Foundation held the Rethink Ed convening, where educators worked side-by-side with entrepreneurs and civic leaders to think about the next generation of schooling needed to meet our ever-changing economy.

Following that, Vice President of Entrepreneurship Victor Hwang and Vice President of Education Aaron North presented at EntreFest in Iowa, where the development of our future economy and workforce was the hot topic.

Meanwhile, across the country in Boston, Director in Education Sherman Whites presented at the New Profit Gathering of Leaders, and I hosted a round table with Christopher Gergen to talk about the future of our communities.

Some lessons learned

Although we had the opportunity to present some thoughts at each of these conferences, our Foundation associates were more focused on listening and learning.

A recent Deloitte report presented at the Gathering of Leaders outlined the disruptors facing our economy and painted an eye-opening picture of the emerging world: one in which most of the population will soon be able to access the internet; data is being generated at unprecedented rates; investments in AI are exploding; the workforces of Western powers are being threatened by automation; the demographics of Americans are undergoing a sea change; life expectancy and careers are being extended; and, “contingent” work is exploding, in which independent contractors and gig workers comprise an increasing portion of the workforce.

Reflecting on this report at the gathering, Silicon Valley communications guru Tim O’Reilly (who looks at these issues in his recent book, WTF? What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us) quoted Hemingway to sum up the pace of the disruption coming our way: “Gradually, then suddenly.”

My takeaway: The future of work and learning are completely intertwined. We need to fully appreciate that change is happening quickly, lifelong learning is necessary, and that diversity, equity, and inclusion aren’t just buzzwords to check a box, rather, an economic imperative if we are to create a sustainable future economy.

So, what do we do next?

One thing we know from listening and hearing from our peers is that there’s talent in every community, and these individuals aren’t just waiting around for philanthropy to show up and help.

Philanthropy’s role should be to help bring to scale some of the ideas already in motion within communities, connect communities together, share lessons, and provide the investments necessary to accelerate change. At the Kauffman Foundation, we recognize we are in a unique position to support this work.

Our legacy to be uncommon

Mr. Kauffman believed in the power of education and helping individuals take an idea and turn it into an economic reality, so that everyone could have a chance at success in life.

Mr. Kauffman believed in the power of education and helping individuals take an idea and create an economic reality so that everyone could have a chance at success in life. This led to our dual mission in education and entrepreneurship coupled with our commitment to our hometown. Our work has provided us with decades of knowledge, some of which came from missteps and approaches we can improve on as we work across diverse communities. A few of the lessons we’re trying to put to use:

  • We need to improve on the associations people have with the word entrepreneurship. The images of Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg compete with the true meaning of the word, represented by the startups that happen in most of our communities. That’s why we feature the voices of so many types of entrepreneurs. By doing so, we are shining a light on a very diverse cross-section of makers, dreamers, and doers in our communities to start and engage in solving problems, meeting needs and creating value.
  • We need to highlight more of the work being done by many forward-thinking organizations. Organizations such as LeanLab Education and schools such as Iowa BIG, or the programs supported by New Profit, or the many examples in our own region are leading the change. These types of organizations blend key lessons in education and entrepreneurship to help current and future generations focus on problems solving, creativity, and innovation – all keys to a stronger and more inclusive future economy.
  • We also need to highlight the work happening in communities to build support systems for entrepreneurs and educators. When Mr. Kauffman set up his Foundation, he had a holistic view: an individual is born, accumulates a series of tools throughout life, takes or makes a job as an adult and then gives back to society when successful. Collectively, schools and organizations, as well as elected officials and professionals from all walks of life are seeing the same big picture and are investing the time to make sure others in their communities have the support they need to solve problems and contribute to society.

There’s no shortage of organizations thinking and working toward the goals of creating a more vibrant and inclusive economy. That’s the good news.

However, it’s going to take a lot of learning, working, and investing together to make serious changes in the approach and outcomes of our educational and economic systems to create a more positive future for all. If we do those things, if we work together to think, do, and be uncommon, then all of our communities will benefit.

Because New Profit’s 20th Year Celebration was held at the John F. Kennedy Presidential library, we were literally standing under the words, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win…” This was exceptionally fitting. As they were reflecting on the past 20 years, we were motivated to think about the next 20 and take on our moonshot challenge.

It’s time for all of us in philanthropy, civic leadership, elected officials and individuals to accept this new challenge.

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