Breakthrough solutions: Fellows Friday with Juliette LaMontagne

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Juliette LaMontagne

Juliette LaMontagne’s Breaker offers millennials a unique, hands-on alternative learning opportunity — working on projects with serious social impact. Breaker teams take on such challenges as illiteracy and feeding the city, while gaining valuable real-world social entrepreneurship skills.

Take us through the Breaker process — how does it work?

Each three-month Breaker project convenes a multidisciplinary group of young people between the ages of 18 and 24 to design product or service solutions to a global challenge. Projects are led by two visionaries — experts in the field who provide inspiration and context to the challenge. The first project we did, the Future of the Book Challenge, addressed the rise of functional illiteracy in the US, and asked the team to consider how emerging technologies might be harnessed to get adolescents reading. Our current Urban Agribusiness Challenge addresses the need to help urban agriculture grow from small-scale ventures to having a wider social impact.

Over three months, the Breaker team works with a series of collaborators — leading innovators in the field inform the research; industry experts guide the team throughout the process. The team approaches problem-solving using design processes they learn from IDEO, fuseproject, Frog and more; they’re exposed to start-up perspectives by working inside innovation ecosystems like AOL Ventures and QLabs. The project concludes by having the team pitch its products to an audience of all the existing collaborators, as well as members New York’s venture community. We set the bar high, but we also bring in the best of the best to support the process, offering the team access to the people and companies driving innovation in the space.

Majora Carter addresses Breaker team

Majora Carter presents a talk to the Breaker team and project collaborators to kick off the UrbanAg Challenge at the TED amphitheater in NYC. Click to see larger size. Photo: Juliette LaMontagne

Tell us more about the Urban Agribusiness Challenge.

The idea for this project grew out of a conversation I had last year at TED with Majora Carter, Founder of Sustainable South Bronx, about the challenge of and opportunities in New York City urban agriculture. I later invited her to participate in a Breaker challenge as a project visionary. We chose Danielle Gould of Food+Tech Connect as a second visionary to complement Majora because she has an IT-fueled approach to innovation. Once the Breaker team was chosen, we invited a wide range of urban agriculture innovators across New York City to participate. In fact, TED Fellow Viraj Puri’s Gotham Greens — a hydroponic greenhouse — is one of more than 20 research sites included in the first phase of the project. The team will survey sites across sectors — from grower to shipper, seller to consumer. They’ll be identifying needs in various stages of production and consumption, and develop products that might better satisfy these needs and help scale up urban agriculture.

What do you look for in applicants?

We look for tenacity as well as a proven ability to collaborate. Individuals are chosen to represent different skill sets. We’re looking to assemble a team with diverse domains of intelligence who will come at the problem from various perspectives. We like to have a visual artist help synthesize ideas during the messy collaborative process. We want someone with a programming background, and somebody else with experience in business. We like outliers who have a passion for creative collaboration even if they have no prior experience in design or entrepreneurship — even if they have little content knowledge specific to our challenge.

Breaker team presents project

Future of the Book participants and their research findings at a workshop at IDEO. Click to see larger size. Photo: Juliette LaMontagne

What’s been the most remarkable or successful outcome you’ve seen from a Breaker session?

The mandate to design a commercially viable product is a huge driver — but launching it is not a necessary condition of success. Still, I think the fact that the products that came out of the Future of Book Challenge — Mobo (a service for receiving, sharing and engaging with stories via text messaging) and Unbound (a video reference tool) — continue to be developed speaks to our success. The participants who continue to push forward with them are stepping into unfamiliar roles that unveil unseen potential — both for them and for the world. At the end of the three months, some team members decide they’re done and are moving on to something else. But either way, all the participants come out of Breaker with an entrepreneurial mindset and a toolkit for designing solutions to the problems they will encounter — both large and small — for the rest of their lives.

What problem did you set out to solve with Breaker? Were you mostly concerned about education’s failure to nurture creativity, or did you see young people disengaged with social challenges?

I’ve been working to influence public school reform in NYC for fifteen years — as a teacher, a professional developer, a professor, and a leadership coach. I know firsthand how a culture of high-stakes testing quells curiosity and creativity, burns teachers and kids out and disrupts family life. The current iteration of Breaker is post-secondary, but the applications to secondary are there. As we grow, we’ll develop partner programs at the high school level that work in tandem with the Breaker teams — connecting them around similar lessons in designing for social entrepreneurship.

There are so many talented young people — some of whom have not been successful in traditional schooling — who know that have something valuable to contribute, but can’t find opportunities to apply their skills to meaningful work. Even students who have successfully navigated the college track complain of a disconnection between content learned and the skills needed for today’s economy. What we’re hearing from participants is that Breaker is seen as an alternative-learning pathway for those who’ve chosen not to go to college after high school, or as an experiential supplement to college coursework, or as a transitional opportunity for early career professionals. We see all three types applying to our program.

Breaker will gradually expand to cities across the US and abroad with the aim of establishing concurrent programming in sister secondary schools.

A product development groups from Future of the Book Challenge.

“Unbound” work session: one of two product development groups that came out of the Future of the Book Challenge. Click to see larger size. Photo: Juliette LaMontagne

Tell us about your own kids and how they affect and shape your work

My kids go to a public elementary school in New York City. My 4th grader works out of a Kaplan Test Companion workbook every night for homework, and has little opportunity to apply these discrete skills in substantive ways – through no fault of her teacher or the principal, they’re only complying with a whole host of system-wide mandates and pressures. Alternative models exist in the city, but they come with a price tag a middle-class family like ours can’t afford. Suffice it to say that I’ve got a five-year plan to get the Breaker model into the NYC public high schools!

How has being a TED Fellow changed or affected your work?

It wasn’t until I began attending TED in 2009, as a Fellow, that I began to rethink my long history with project-based learning in terms of design thinking and social enterprise. I found that user-centered design required the same rigorous research, interviewing and empathy work that was the central to the projects I taught; I appreciated the permission to fail inherent in an iterative methodology; and I was attracted to the idea of designing solutions within the constraints of the marketplace. In other words, I began to see problems and their solutions not only as academic exercises, but as opportunities for product and service development. And I saw the educative and entrepreneurial potential for students.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What one piece of advice would you give them, based on your own experience and successes?

Maintain a learning stance. It takes the pressure off getting it perfect, and compels you to find the lessons in your failures.