School = Startup. How Camelback Ventures helped 3 School Founders (and their best advice)


This piece is a part of Camelback's Ruthless for Good series, sharing different ways that individuals embody the spirit of our manifesto and what they fight for. Applications to the Camelback Fellowship are open until 1/25/2018! We seek innovative school models -- if the stories of our school founders inspire you, please consider applying.

In a three-part series this week, we are sharing interviews with three of Camelback’s incredible school foundersToday in Part 3, Fellows reflect on how Camelback Ventures shaped both them as a person and their school, and the best advice they give to folks starting out.

Click here for Part One and how they knew they were ready to start a school; and here for Part Two as they share their best and worst choices of their org's early days.

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Click here for bios and school summaries of the Fellows featured in this post. 

Amanda, Camelback Ventures (CBV): Our applications for the Fellowship are open now, and you all probably remember that that experience is a very personal journey for a lot of people. How did working with Camelback most impact you as an individual?  

Jacob Allen (JA): I remember the first moment I walked into the New Orleans Camelback community house. That was a transformational point in my life. I’ll back up and tell you why.

I have met a lot of people of color who grew up in wealthy households with prestige to it. Those individuals that I have met have moved through the world openly and confidently. But if you had struggle in your life, if you didn’t grow up in a family like that, like myself, it’s very hard to look at the “executive founder” behind your name without feeling the imposter syndrome. Camelback really pushed that aside for me. Because of my experience with Camelback, I finally realized, “I am THE right person. It doesn’t matter how I ‘feel’ about it or not. The reality is that I am the founder.” I see so many people afraid to hire their first team member or pitch in front of a big crowd or even just start their own thing -- when you come from a background like mine, you don’t think you’re the right person. You think that there’s someone else out there, someone better than you, that’s actually going to do it.

But at the first Camelback Summit, I looked at Aaron and thought, “Oh, s**t. I guess I am the right person because this crazy guy is telling me I am, and he just gave me a check for $40,000.” Our success will always be indebted to Camelback. Every time I see a young person of color and/or woman that has an idea to shape education in this country, I will always tell them to consider Camelback.

Hattie Mitchell, (HM): For me, there are two things. One, Camelback had an emphasis on leadership development that really taught me personally how to be a better manager for my team. Two, I think it was the community with the other Fellows in my cohort. We’re lifelong friends, and that is priceless. When you look at a life of an entrepreneur, of a school leader, of a business owner -- it’s often very lonely. There’s very few people you can talk to, things you can’t always talk about with your staff. But the Fellowship gave me other people that I could engage with, and that was so comforting. They’re also all successful in their own right, and that network, and the network that Camelback connects us to, is very powerful. Those connections give me confidence because I feel I have a network of people that have my back, and that we’ll be okay in the long run, no matter what.

Hattie at the 2017 Camelback Showcase. We did a Facebook live stream, and her team cheered her on the whole time from LA. Photo by Chloe Jackman

Charla Harris (CH): I LOVE Camelback. All I had was an idea. And Camelback was the first to see the viability and the real potential of what I wanted to do. I had nothing. And yet they believed in me, and that was so confirming. That was the first time I really articulated the idea of being a school founder. I remember speaking to Aaron, and he instantly got what I was trying to do. I so appreciated that someone heard me, heard my idea, and saw how I was uniquely ready to take this head on and give me a chance.

CBV: This is all so amazing and I’m so happy to hear that! Each of you graduated from different Camelback Fellowship years, and you’re all at different stages with your school. Tell me about an experience that confirmed to you that your school is making an impact with the communities you aim to serve.

HM: One family in particular comes to mind: a single mom with 3 kids who came in to enroll them. She came in at 9am and was working with our case workers until 4pm; the intake appointment includes a needs assessment. And during that meeting, the mom reveals that she actually had nowhere to go that evening -- she was homeless. Nobody wanted to let her go back downtown -- there’s a 24 hour shelter that never turns you away, but it’s scary and dangerous. And I realized what an amazing team I have because our after-school teacher who was still on campus had this mother and her children stay with her for a couple of days until we got her at a good shelter in Koreatown. This mom rides the bus now at 5:30am every day, with an hour of traffic each way, to take her children here to our school. The shelter tells her she should go somewhere closer, but she won’t. Her kids love the school, and they’re learning, and she loves us and trusts us because we supported her and helped her kids thrive. That’s been one recent example of how we’re making a difference, and not just in the practical level, but also just in academic successes of our students.

JA: There’s a lot of stories of ours of the kids’ successes, but one great moment for me is actually about our team. If you had asked me in 2013, during the after school pilot, I wouldn’t have told you that one of our teachers in the program would, four years later, move cities and relocate so they could become a director with us. I think that had a lot to do with his own affinity to the work we’re doing, but being a founder is also about finding champions of your work that aren’t funders, that aren’t press. That’s something I’m really proud of internally. Yes we’re making impact with kids but also seeing your own team members grow and seeing their passion for work grow.

CH: I was catching up with a dear friend I hadn’t seen in 7 years who works in the corporate e-commerce, and explained the school to her. She instantly got it. But then she took it to the next level, and we got into this intense discussion about how important it would be to prepare students for the future of work. We got into ideating how this school would better prepare kids for the future -- allowing kids to prototype, do design sprints, get hands-on learning. If we want kids to compete in the real world, they have to know this knowledge. She works in the Bay, and offered right then and there for us to plan for field trips for our kids. To know that a professional like her was already taking my model seriously and that she felt it was well-suited to prepare our children for a strong future -- it all just made me feel so validated that I was on the right track.  

CBV: Bringing those two questions do you feel the Camelback Fellowship most impacted your organization?

HM: I am truly truly for the bottom of my heart grateful for all of you at Camelback, the Fellowship, the Summits, the people -- I believe it’s the reason we got charter approval and the reason we’re off to a successful start. Without you guys, I don’t know if this mom would’ve had housing with her kids, much less that her children would be in a safe and welcoming school environment. You guys are a part of that.

On a practical level, we’re off to a really strong start because of Camelback. Financially, most new characters usually run in the red for the first 5 months; we’ve always been in the black and we will end the year with no deficit. We have an amazing staff, and Camelback trained me well on how to hire and train a staff that would be sensitive and culturally aligned with our mission. To know that I had learned how to hire a team and keep them motivated so that they'd do things like offer their home up to a stranger in need...that's incredible. The $40,000 was also incredibly helpful. Schools run on a reimbursement model here in L.A., so for over a year, Camelback’s $40k was the only cash in hand besides what I put in from my personal savings. That helped us so much just hit the ground running.

JA: Camelback taught us a lot about being experimental and being willing to fail. Right now, we’re internally piloting a policy change program where we work with superintendents and government to try and change state level accountability systems. We are trying to make sure that if you teach black and brown kids that the teacher or school HAS to teach culturally relevant teaching. We’re learning a lot right now about failure and success, all for growth. Camelback encouraged me to think about how we can consistently foster innovation within organization.

CH: Today, a year and a half later from my Fellowship, I still feel that level of support and believing in me. That’s been tremendously valuable. Camelback also provided me with so many opportunities. When I started I often felt like I wasn’t ready and was always trying to catch up, but Camelback got me ready, and confident in that readiness. Camelback taught me how to do a good pitch. The Fellowship taught me how to have a theory of change. If you’re like me and coming from teaching, you don’t know what all of these entrepreneurial things are -- and I’m so grateful now to have learned so much. It was hard, but I felt so accomplished after finishing that.

Charla at the 2016 Camelback Showcase. Charla's coach Morgan says that Charla's growth in pitching is one of the best she's seen.

CBV: What advice would you give to a School Founder starting out, maybe someone who’s applying to Camelback this year or next year?

CH: Number one for me, and this is something I learned from Camelback, is prioritizing what your community needs. I’ve seen people be passionate about something, but they act like it’s the only passion that exists for that thing or that passion is enough. If you’re trying to offer it or sell something, you gotta be sure there’s a place for it. Make sure there’s a real need for it in your community. If a founder comes in and think they know what’s best, without engaging their constituents frequently, then it’s just more noise. Do your research. Keep learning. 

HM: Oh, there’s so much. If I had to pick one though, it would be: take time for yourself. Make sure that you and your life are balanced, and be careful not to be consumed. It’s very easy for this work to take over your life, because there’s so much to do. Whether you’re opening a school or business, balance is so important to being a better founder and a better leader.

JA: Number one: get out there and visit other schools. We’ve visited over 75 schools. We used a lot of that Camelback $40k actually just traveling to interview school leaders and see places that were crushing it. One thing that Marie suggested we do is that when we got on airplane to go to NYC or New Orleans for two days, we visit a school to look at one aspect of their work only. Some schools are great at fundraising, others have cool models for discipline. If you go to a school site visit and you just try to absorb everything about them, it’s overwhelming. Be tactical, be laser focused.

Additionally, remember that yeah you’re building a school, but that it’s also still an organization. Every time we visited a school where the founder is the principal and also the development officer and also the curriculum lead, there was this nasty black cloud of energy. I don’t care if it’s TFA, Pepsi-Cola, Camelback -- successful orgs do not have the CEO as also the marketing officer, as also the operations lead. It just doesn’t work. So, even when you’re beginning, build departments even before you have people. So, when you do eventually build capacity, you’ll be able to delegate work in a natural and clean way. The delegation will always live with you as the founder and CEO, but if you start off being diligent about separating workstreams, you will be so much better at building capacity.

Jacob at the 2015 Camelback Showcase. Jacob and Marie received a seven-year charter autorization for PilotED.

CBV: Last question: is there anything you wish people knew about your community or this work?

JA: Education is policy. It’s very very very (10 more verys) political. So, you can do one of two things. You can spend 50% of your time trying to win over the mayor/city council/funders and then only 50% on internal priorities, OR you can spend 95% of your time on internal priorities and 5% on external political forces. One of the biggest reasons we moved to Indianapolis, and one of the reasons we’ll go onto other cities like D.C. and Denver, is that those are cities that are open and ready to support new founders building awesome schools where teachers want to stay for the rest of their careers and where kids go on to great jobs and colleges. We want to achieve big things. I want to spend my time working to improve kids’ lives. I don’t want to spend my time trying over and over again to prove to people that charter schools are important or that we can be a great leaders even though we’re under 30. There were always be doubters. So, we’re going to make great schools and let the evidence speak for itself -- then we can work on making bigger policy changes. So, recognize that as a school founder, there may be some choices that are better for you as a person -- but that may not be what’s right for your org. And for PilotED to grow and to really make change happen, we moved. Be open to the reality of having to make a lot of hard choices, but that you can achieve great things. One of our students was so shy when we started with him, and he recently gave a speech at our goodbye party in Chicago in front of hundreds of people. I have a dream that in twenty years, all of our graduates will be politicians, community leaders, writers -- I think our curriculum is building in a sense of purpose and passion with our kids early on. I can't wait to see who they become. 

CH: That fighting for equity in education takes many shapes. For example, our budget consultant put uniforms in our budget without even asking me. They had this assumption that of course I would require uniforms for my school because I was serving students from low-income neighborhoods. I don’t like that there’s an assumption that they have to be taught or treated differently. Kids on the “west side” of the city, where the money is, they’re not wearing uniforms. At some point as a society we decided that poor kids need them though. That’s not equitable. There’s all this talk of wanting schools to be equitable, but if we’re making all the poor kids look the same and erasing their personal fashion or expression choices, how is that equitable? We give rich kids 3D printers. What about poor kids? We give them uniforms because they’re black and brown or low-income? That’s anti-equitable, and therefore, anti-education in my mind. If equity is a priority for you, be ready to keep your eyes open.

HM: I wish people knew that the students and the families in the homeless and transitional communities have a desire to be better and to improve. It’s simply comes down to resources. It’s plain and simple. There’s just too much labelling and judging that goes on where people assume that because you’re in a certain situation, that you chose that, or that you don’t want better. I haven’t met a parent yet, regardless of the situation, that don’t want better for their kids or for themselves. The desire to improve their lives is there for every single person.

Also, just how rewarding it’s been to create this school. I had no idea. You have an inkling of what it’s like to be a blessing to someone else, what it’s like to make someone else smile. Just before the holidays, we had an event where Amazon donated hundreds of gifts to our kids. To walk onto campus and to just hear 130 kids laughing, kids who have been through so much hardship… I have no way to describe how that feels. And to know that this is happening because you MADE this opportunity, even the work is so, so’s just one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

CBV: Founders, thank you so much for sharing so much of your work and perspective. I've so enjoyed talking with you and learning more about the work. Thank you for all that you do. 

Are you a school founder or know someone who is? Camelback Ventures seeks school founders for our Fellowship who are ready to take their visionary model to the next level. Click below to learn more our Fellowship and find out how to start your application today. If you have any questions specifically about being a school founder, such as stage or curriculum leadership, feel free to reach out to us at

About the Camelback Fellows featured here:

  • Jacob Allen (JA) - co-founder of PilotED schools, 2015 Camelback Fellow. PilotEd’s curriculum is built around identity-based curriculum, encouraging students to engage openly on topics that are not often given attention in traditional school models. PilotED recently moved from Chicago to Indianapolis and received a 7-year charter, and will open its first campus next year.

  • Hattie Mitchell (HM) - Founder of Crete Academy, 2017 Camelback Fellow. Crete Academy is designed to provide opportunities for students living in poverty. Their academics put students on a path to college, and their wellness program provides medical, dental, and nutrition to students, as well as assistance with safe travel to and from school. Crete Academy opened in Fall 2017 in Los Angeles.

  • Charla Harris (CH) - co-founder of Learning by Design, 2016 Camelback Fellow. Learning by Design is an innovative school model rooted in whole-child education, bringing in all stakeholders, including the students themselves, to develop a personalized learning plan (utilizing technology and hands-on learning). Learning by Design will hear about its charter authorization this month (!) in Los Angeles.