Dirrick Butler entered 4.0 Schools’ Essentials Fellowship with an idea: support boys of color as they make the major transition into high school. His concept, now ProjectOneTen, has evolved into a mentorship program in Chicago. “I came to New Orleans with simply an idea based on the experiences I had as a high-school history teacher. Within the course of a few days, 4.0 provided me the time and tools to think through every aspect of developing the idea,” says Butler. “I know that 4.0 is always there to support in whatever way they can.”
Butler is not alone. Over the course of the last ten years, over 1,200 entrepreneurs have turned to 4.0 Schools for help turning their ideas into reality. “We think of ourselves as the first institutional funder to invest in people who have ideas for new schools, new educational programs, and EdTech companies,” says Hassan Hassan, CEO of 4.0 Schools. “4.0 exists to test the demand and efficacy of their ideas and answer the basic questions: Do people want this idea? Does it work? How do I know that?”
Based out of New Orleans, 4.0 is one of the most versatile fellowship opportunities around for innovators in K-12 education. Whether the entrepreneur has a kernel of an idea or a fully baked blueprint, 4.0 supports social entrepreneurs at all stages of creation.
This entrepreneurial approach has borne fruit. Opportunities created by 4.0 alumni have benefited nine million students. Former fellows return to 4.0’s training sessions to offer coaching services to current cohorts, creating a tight network nationwide.
Approximately 150 fellows receive 4.0 training per year and receive the benefit of taking risks and testing their ideas in a controlled environment. Fellows are financially supported and paired with coaches so they’re able to focus completely on their big idea.
Part of 4.0’s value is its willingness to support ideas at the incubation stage. The organization’s “Essentials Fellowship” is set up for early-stage ideas. A disciplined curriculum and coaching process helps fellows channel their imagination and inventiveness into tangible action.
“I love 4.0 at this stage,” says Hassan. “It’s the beginning of the entrepreneurial journey, the widest part of the funnel. It’s the place where talent is abundant, where genuinely anyone can design a school that communities need.”
“At that time, people are most curious, coachable, and receptive. Our job is to get them to capture that moment of curiosity, optimism, and imagination. We want fellows to build a foundation for their venture that includes the emotions and feelings that got them started and excited in the first place.”
Fellows test their idea — for example, as an after-school program or a Saturday class with a small group of learners. With 4.0’s help, fellows learn how to tap their networks and communities to gauge demand.
Like any entrepreneurial endeavor, failure happens. Not every 4.0 fellow sees their idea come to fruition. Hassan posits that this is the price of innovation. “We see ourselves as the riskiest of risk capital,” says Hassan. “The purpose of philanthropy is to provide risk capital that encourages innovation and transformation.”
In tandem with the Essentials Fellowship is 4.0’s Tiny Fellowship, which is designed for established pilot programs. The Tiny Fellowship helps social entrepreneurs evaluate their impact. “We connect the entrepreneur with researchers who coach them and help them create specific efficacy metrics that inform whether or not the pilot is moving the needle,” says Hassan.
During COVID-19, the team at 4.0 created a new opportunity — the New Normal Fellowship — to directly invest in 4.0 alumni designing programs to meet the social-emotional needs of families in the COVID school year.
4.0 also partnered with VELA Education Fund to support outside-the-box learning models. Forty of VELA’s initial microgrant recipients were 4.0 alumni, the result of aggressive outreach by both organizations. VELA and 4.0 plan to continue this partnership in order to provide similar startup funding to social entrepreneurs who can reimagine school as we know it. “We were connected to VELA through CKI’s network, and it was an obvious and exciting partnership,” says Hassan.
“Through our partnerships with CKI and VELA, we will continue to move money earlier in the entrepreneurial process and provide that diligent investment so that our pipeline of amazing education entrepreneurs continues to grow both in size and in diversity,” says Hassan. “We’re excited to keep practicing what we preach to our entrepreneurs — to keep innovating our own practices to meet the needs of our fellows in the years to come.”