“The world is changing,” says Franklin Lee. “Social entrepreneurship is becoming more and more important, especially among younger generations.”
Lee speaks from personal experience. A Harvard graduate, he had a job as a paralegal in New York City. Like many young people, finances were tight. A rift with his family exacerbated his challenges. “I had to get creative about how to build my foundation,” he remembers.
With the help of friends and a lot of knowledge from YouTube, Lee came up with a solution: renovating a van to serve as permanent housing. Parked in Riverside Park on the Upper West Side, he lived in his vehicle and walked to work.
Looking for his next step, Lee applied to the Koch Associate Program, and was accepted into the 2019-2020 class. With help he found an open position at R Street Institute, where he worked four days a week. On Wednesdays he attended programming at the Charles Koch Institute, focused on how he could grow as a social entrepreneur. “I was undergoing a lot of changes, and I needed a program that was focused on my self development,” Lee reflects. “There was this idea of really focusing on your personal passion, finding your own dreams and aspirations.” For Lee, this meant a focus on housing, culminating in a memoir about his van life, From Harvard to Homeless, publishing in Spring 2021.
When asked about his dreams and plans after KAP, Lee is quick to give a litany of ideas, all focused on helping others through housing challenges. “There could be a lot of opportunity for other people if they gain the same knowledge that I have now,” he remarks. “I went through these struggles with a lot of privilege and a lot of support, and yet I still struggled. There are people out there who struggle more than I have — ultimately solutions should be shared to help everyone.”
Believing in people
At the Charles Koch Institute, we aim to partner with social entrepreneurs like Franklin Lee — to identify innovators who believe in people, and to work with them to accelerate their efforts. People with first-hand knowledge of the challenges in our country often have the best ideas of how to solve them. As we look back on 2020 and look forward to 2021, we’re reminded that our vision, our belief in people, our strategy has not changed. But the opportunities and the landscape for social change has evolved, in some cases allowing for more and more innovation and creative problem-solving. We’re excited to see how our partners lead in 2021 and show us all a better path forward.
In addition to supporting social entrepreneurs through the Koch Internship Program, Koch Associate Program, and the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship, we gave more than $50 million in grants to social entrepeneurs in 2020. This fueled applied research and innovative projects — to develop and demonstrate bottom-up solutions in practice to show a better way. We are proud of and inspired by the progress our partners have made in meeting this unique moment in our country. They demonstrate that we don’t have to be satisfied with “going back to normal” — instead we can emerge from this difficult year better and stronger.
For example, in 2020 we partnered with Google alumna Clementine Jacoby, who co-founded Recidiviz. This novel nonprofit equips local corrections officials with accurate data in order to drive smart decarceration and lower recidivism rates. At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Recidiviz created a tool that projected the rate of infection spread in prisons, and the resulting ICU bed usage. The 34 states that relied on the tool in 2020 were able to recommend more than 44,000 people for early release, saving lives and taxpayer dollars while keeping America’s neighborhoods safe. Recidiviz projects that over the next five years, policy changes in 6 states could save communities $3 billion, and give 62,656 life years back to justice-involved individuals.
Our partners in free speech and peace have developed and launched new tools and measures to prevent political violence and promote social healing. The Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University created tools and methodologies to track demonstrations and political violence in real time so that local communities can better understand and address issues before they escalate.
The Anti-Defamation League tapped its robust network of mayors, law enforcement leaders, and educators to better understand what information would prove useful to address and prevent violence. Adam Neufield at ADL reminded us in an interview that “eradicating or massively reducing extremism will take a long time. It’s hard to change people’s hateful beliefs, but you can change their willingness to act on those beliefs.” ADL is training law-enforcement, school officials, and others to read the signs of hateful behavior and respond accordingly.
In education, COVID-19 did not change our vision in the least. We believe that every learner is unique and deserves an education tailored to their individual brilliance. We seek to catalyze a movement of social entrepreneurs accelerating new, low-cost, student-centric methods of learning, and to empower families with the resources to pursue an education that works best for them. These northstars guide our efforts during times of distress and times of peace.
But the pandemic has certainly accelerated the possibilities and timeline for individualized education. The number of families searching for customized education is increasing, while social entrepreneurs are rapidly developing and advancing diverse options to meet that demand from families and students.
One social entrepreneur we’ve partnered with is Amir Nathoo, the founder of Outschool. In 2017, Nathoo developed a two-sided marketplace that connects teachers and students with affordable and individualized education. Prior to the pandemic, 80,000 kids had taken an Outschool class. Since March 2020, over 500,000 kids have participated. More than 10,000 teachers have flocked to Outschool because it allows them to teach well in challenging circumstances and properly compensates them for their skill; in some cases teachers are paid over 6 figures for their contribution.
Nathoo is not alone. In January Sal Khan deployed a new platform for Schoolhouse.world that connects students to free, small-group tutoring sessions. Tutors for Schoolhouse.world can come from all walks of life — enabling those with skill and knowledge in a given area, but an unconventional background, to contribute. Since June Khan’s team has already run over 1,100 tutoring sessions for students in more than 40 countries, and unveiled a class certification process in partnership with University of Chicago to recognize credentials of content mastery gained by students on the platform in lieu of traditional standardized admissions tests.
Philanthropies are participating, too. We’re partnering with the Walton Family Foundation to form the VELA Education Fund, aimed at powering new student-driven education experiences. Since March, VELA has made possible more than 260 microgrants to social entrepreneurs and organizations helping students learn during the pandemic: microschools, learning pods, homeschool co-ops, and other new models. In just a few months, over 225,000 families were able to access learning pods and microschools, unleashing the creativity of parents and educators and demonstrating that learning can happen everywhere.
As we begin this new year, our country faces extraordinary challenges. Going forward, we can’t rely on the same old ideas that created these challenges. We need a new path — fresh ideas led by people with intimate knowledge of the problems we face.
We need a new generation of social entrepreneurs. So the Charles Koch Institute will continue to empower people — to come alongside individuals with new ideas and support their efforts however we can. This is how our country emerges stronger from the challenges we face. We don’t have to go “back to normal.” By following the lead of innovators like Clementine Jacoby, Sal Khan, Amir Nathoo, and many others, our society can anticipate, and work toward, a better future; one where more and more people have the opportunity to better their lives by identifying their unique gifts and helping others.
Asked what surprised him about his experience in KAP, Franklin Lee is quick to answer: “The investment in people. That is something really lacking in this world. It’s not about pursuing a specific career. It is a lifestyle; a philosophy.”
Jacoby shares similar sentiments. “CKI has been supportive in every way, including trusting us to determine our strategy and do our work. That’s something I’ve really appreciated about their approach — they trust the folks on the ground to make the right calls about how to have an impact.”
Challenging times can bring out the best in people. Our partners’ work in 2020 shows this is more than a cliché. We’re grateful to work with social entrepreneurs who are truly extraordinary. We look forward to what they will accomplish in 2021, and will aggressively seek out more partnerships with people committed to unleashing the potential of all Americans.
The Charles Koch Institute inspires and invests in social entrepreneurs developing solutions to America’s most pressing problems. Read more about our vision.
If you have a solution you believe can help address America’s challenges, partner with us.