Anne Jones & Dan Gonzalez co-founded District C to empower schools to prepare the next generation of talent for the new modes of learning needed to solve complex problems. District C strives to develop confident, competent leaders prepared and inspired to make meaningful contributions in their personal life, work, and community.
In partnership with key stakeholders in the community, District C offers a program for high school juniors and seniors called C-Squad. A “C Squad” is a select group of four talented and diverse high school students who work together to solve real problems. Using design thinking, the C Squad dedicates out-of-school time for one month to design and implement a “better future state” solution to a pressing community problem or opportunity. Throughout the process, Squad members are supported by area experts and professional coaches from District C.
What inspired you to start District C?
Anne: It started long ago and has been slowly building over time. I have this clear memory of sitting in an introductory education class in college. Faith Dunne was the professor and I had never felt so engaged in a class – I realized that I was hanging on her every word. Something just clicked. I realized that I wanted to make a difference in the lives of students and that a meaningful, valuable, education for all students was something I wanted to do… somehow. I was so excited I remember buying coffee mugs to send to five of my former teachers along with a handwritten note announcing my decision to be a teacher to them and telling them of my deep appreciation for their presence in my life. I believe District C, not that I knew this at the time, started on that day.
Dan: For me, it was initially less about the concept of District C and more about taking a leap, changing direction, going in our own direction, trying to build something of value from the start, from scratch, without knowing if it would work. That challenge was really interesting to me. My path to District C started while leading Manhattan Prep and realizing I was acquiring the skills and capabilities that would allow me to break me out of my more conservative risk profile. That job taught me how to create something of real value through a shared sense of accomplishment and commitment, a collective commitment. I was really interested in the process and challenge of creating a truly exceptional organization, from the ground up, with other people.
What was your path?
Anne: I decided one morning to leave my job and start a new chapter in my life. The process started by absorbing lots of new information/ideas and mixing it with the old to see if something interesting came out. I read, talked to a lot of new people, new companies, to learn about new initiatives and to think back over what I had learned over the last 42 years of my life. It felt a bit like wandering through the wilderness, taking in everything that is around you, all that is new and unfamiliar, trying to make sense of it and starting to see a possible path through it. That was how District C started, somewhere in the wilderness. I knew somewhere on the other side was a new idea about how to teach students to work together to solve real problems.
Dan: We were both at a point in our lives where our interests were a match. Anne wanted to find a new way to give students real world experiences and I wanted to build something of value – and that was it. While we came at this from different directions, me more from the business/org development side and Anne more from the idea side, I deeply valued what Anne was thinking about and she knew the power of building a team and a company around that idea.
It was particularly exciting when people started to come to us or say, “oh, I have heard of District C!” For example, we got a call from one of the largest school districts in the country and they reached out to us. They said, they wanted to do this, but they knew their scale could swamp us. It was the first partnership that came to us. Some of our other highlights include:
- Jess Ekstrom, CEO at Headbands of Hope, said she wanted to be on our board. She had been a business partner and provided a problem for two squads of students. She felt so strongly about this work that she wanted to be a part of this
long term– this was a sign that we were creating value beyond our students.
- 100% of schools, 100% of business partners returned for year 2.
- Fleet Feet Sports implemented a solution from District C squads (and it worked!) and they are going to interview some of our students for summer jobs.
- HQ Raleigh joined our First in Talent movement as a Title Sponsor.
- … and most importantly, the students. There are so many little examples… H asked a question, B made it on time for a week, A said that now she will have the confidence to contribute in her college classes. N’s dad
sayhe was so proud of his son’s poise in communicating his ideas. A’smom heard her daughter on Hangouts calls and said she had never heard/seen her so confident and assertive. D got the confidence to go to her stretch college; M said 50 people isthe biggest group she had ever spoken in front of – next goal 5,000 people; L acknowledging N’s comment on the importance of being vulnerable. G and J invented their own tools to do the work of collective problem solving; a text we got from a student – “something you said to me… it is about the process notthe product… changed how I do this work and my mindset about the work.” We wanted to create something of value – this is actualvalue.
Dan: When we first started, it was the challenge of going from lots of structure to a blank canvas. I was accustomed to having set schedules, agendas, etc. When we started District C, I remember waking up and thinking, “My calendar is completely empty. What am I going to do today? How should I spend my time?” That was both exciting and terrifying.
Anne: I remember my last day at my previous job. I was deleting all of the meetings out of my calendar. I have this picture in my head of a typical week – solid back-to-back meetings Monday to Friday. I would schedule time to eat so that I wouldn’t have to eat on calls. As I deleted all of this, I remember all of this empty white space. I would click to the next week, empty, the next week empty. I remember closing my laptop on my last day and in one way feeling a weight lifted and at the same time the anxiety creeping in. I had to decide how to spend every minute of every day.
Anne: These days I feel like the main obstacle is inertia. District C is a new way of thinking, a new approach to the work. It is not a tweak to the current way we do things, it is a different thing. Convincing others that change is needed… this is hard, even when you believe in the value of the change.
What advice do you have for people that want to drive positive change?
This is advice we give ourselves because our first response to uncertainty is still fear and anxiety! We are continually working on our iterative mindset. It is not about coming up with a brilliant idea and then pushing through until you convince everyone it is right. It’s about having a direction and being willing to meander and follow the next lead and pivot and change your mind and make different decisions. People might assume that it takes supreme confidence in your idea and that is what will make you successful. Actually it is supreme humility and openness that is way more important. It is about being open to new ideas and listening.
Follow the Energy
Some people told us schools will never do this, teachers will never do this, businesses will never do this. They talked about obstacles as insurmountable, deal breakers. Some said I’ll be in touch and we never heard back… even after the third email. Other people reacted differently. They shared our excitement and passion, they saw obstacles as things to be overcome with creative solutions, they were responsive, and they saw an opportunity for students that they wanted to be a part of. Follow the energy when you are starting. It may be tempting to spend your time convincing the skeptics, but you have limited time and energy, especially in the early stages of the business. Spend it on partnerships that give you energy, not those that drain it away.
Celebrate Early: The Firsts
Anne: Our first school partner was NCSSM. This partnership was the result of three introductions: Dan’s former boss to a consultant in Durham; consultant in Durham to an online learning director in higher ed; online learning director to a leader at NCSSM. So maybe another piece of advice is stick with it.
Dan: Our first space was with Iron Yard at the American Underground… We were just wandering around AU and I looked at Anne and said, “follow my lead.” We walked into Iron Yard, told the Director what we were doing, and asked for free space. She said “I love it – totally use it whenever you want.” Now our space is HQ Raleigh and the same thing happened when we talked with their team.
Dan: Our first business partner was Fleet Feet Sports. I was shopping for running shoes and I thought Anne was crazy when she said I am going to try to strike up a business partnership with Fleet Feet… right now! I was done and waiting outside. Anne came out and said not only did you get socks and shoes, but we also got our first business partner! At that time, we had schools, students, space, everything we needed to start the pilot, except a business. Without Fleet Feet we could not have started. So maybe another piece of advice is, can’t hurt to try!
Anne: When we saw our first video, I am pretty sure we both
Celebrate Often: The Little Victories Along the Way
Anne: This is important because even the big victories feel weirdly small, dwarfed by the weight of the work ahead. We found out we got a grant while on vacation, sitting on the floor in our bedroom holding a cell phone on speaker between us. We clinked beers on the beach, but then, it was back to work. No parade, no marching band, no applause up in front of the company, no boss telling you congrats or here is your promotion. Just more to do.
Dan: I remember walking out of successful meetings with schools and business partners and fist-bumping because they said they wanted to partner with us. We initially had no idea if anyone was going to be interested, so those small victories felt huge. Those inconspicuous fist-bumps have become our little ritual, our way of celebrating the small wins that lead to greater progress.