A new generation of leaders has emerged to produce tangible impact across Philadelphia. This new energy is expanding economic, health, education and cultural opportunity, positioning Philadelphia as a must-visit destination and a place residents are proud to call home. Fairmount met with Alejandro Gac-Artigas, the 25-year-old founder of Springboard Collaborative (@SpringboardPHL) in the second installment of Get2Know. This segment reveals the personal side of young change agents impacting Greater Philadelphia and beyond.
Fairmount: It’s been three years since you’ve created Springboard Collaborative, how was your role changed and what new challenges and opportunities have you come across since you first began?
Alejandro: My role is ever changing. My fledging understanding of being a CEO is that you’re constantly firing yourself. For example, initially I was Springboard’s curriculum person; the time soon came to fire myself and hire someone better. Then I became our operations person; once I got good at it, I fired myself to find someone better.
Each year we commit to learning a new lesson as an organization. During our pilot we wanted to learn if parents are willing and able to teach their kids to read. The following year we asked “can we systemize programming so schools can implement on their own?” Last year, we asked “can we implement Springboard in a district context, and can we run programming for pre-kindergarten?” This year, we are exploring what it looks like for Springboard to operate in different geographies as well as during the school year.
Fairmount: Did you experience difficulties having people respect or believe in your mission in the beginning? Has that changed?
Alejandro: Yeah, there’s two things. There’s the premise and then there is me as a leader. Families have become more and more central to Springboard’s model for closing the reading gap. That premise is hard do argue with (who doesn’t like parent engagement?), but it’s also hard to believe (conventional wisdom is that parents are unable or unwilling to be part of the process). Our challenge on the mission side is defying what’s expected and proving what’s possible.
As for me being at the wheel, respect is earned, not implicit. I am 25-year-old, and I don’t have a particularly long track record of doing anything. I tackle that by hiring people who do. My Chief Programming Officer spent over 12 years in the classroom and knows her domain inside and out. My Chief Operating Officer was previously the COO of AND1, helping to grow the company from startup to $250M in sales. What I lack in professional experience, I make up for with vision. Springboard’s early stage lends us the benefit of being stupidly passionate and obliviously ambitious. This will make us successful where others have failed.
Fairmount: What Springboard Collaborative achievement has brought you the most satisfaction and why?
Alejandro: Achievement and satisfaction are different things for me. Satisfaction has been spending time with a father, David Williams. He is a single dad trying to help his sons—Daiquin and David Jr.—get a better education than he did. Their neighborhood school was closed last spring, and David is trying to move beyond a tough past that includes dropping out of high school and spending time in prison.
Despite enormous challenges, David’s resolve to create a better future for his children is unflappable. Through his participation in Springboard, David was able to help his sons make five and 12 months of reading progress in just five weeks. I was fortunate to meet David at a parent workshop, and I was so moved by his determination that I asked if I could walk home with the family to learn more. David’s story is a constant source of inspiration and direction for me. It reminds me that the limitless love of a parent is the single greatest, most powerful natural resource in a child’s education.
As a data-driven organization, we tend to think of our achievements quantitatively. Last summer we generated our best ever outcomes; kids replaced what could have been a three-month reading loss with a 3.3-month gain. 93% of parents attended every single training workshop, learning how to teach their kids reading at home.
Fairmount: You talk about your struggles transitioning to life in America when you immigrated at seven. What were some of those struggles and what made them difficult for you?
Alejandro: When my family immigrated here, one of the first lessons my parents taught my sister and I was that if we didn’t set expectations for ourselves, other people would do so for us. My parents taught us education was the only way to define our own dreams. They took the approach of renting the shack in a wealthy community so my sister and I could go to good public schools. The challenge was that we were among the only non-white, non-affluent kids in the school; bullying and discrimination followed.
I was struggling to find my own identity in middle school. I come from a family of writers and I was journaling to process everything I was going through. I shared this with a teacher and she gave me the idea of sharing my writing with other kids, with whom the challenges might resonate. With the support of my parents and teacher, I published the memoir at the age of 12. It became a launching pad to talk to teachers and parents about issues of discrimination around race and class. I first visited the school in the county next to mine. Then I went to the state next to mine, across the country and then all the way to Chile. In that process, I became as passionate about the education of others as I had been about my own.
Fairmount: Who do you admire and why do you look up to them?
Alejandro: I know this is an easy answer. But I’d say my father. And the reason is I admire him is that he is a relentless dreamer, a man of enormous vision. He has resolute values that have shaped who I am as a leader. There’s a little anecdote that showcases who my father is and his impact on me. When I turned 25 this year, he gave me a gift that he had been waiting all my life to give me. It’s the only remaining copy of a short story he wrote to announce my birth to friends and family.
The story is about a father making a wish for his son, Alejandro. The writing is steeped with imagery of Chile; since I was born in the Netherlands, he wanted to give me a sense of home. In the story, the dad is speaking with a wise Chilean countrywoman about what he should wish for his new baby boy. Ultimately, the father wishes that whenever his soon see a caged bird that he liberate it, and in doing so, set an example that would inspire others to do the same. After I finished my Teach for America commitment, I had the opportunity to launch Springboard Collaborative or take a consulting job at McKinsey and Company. The latter would provide my family with financial stability we’ve never had. While I was deciding, my Dad was quiet, which is unusual for him. It wasn’t until he gave me the gift on my 25th birthday that he explained why—he wanted to see if his wish would come true.
Fairmount: Clearly you have a strong desire to create impact and have done so already at a young age. What advice do you have for people and organizations looking to create impact?
Alejandro: I think that when we think about impact, sometimes we focus too much on coming up with solutions. In my experience, the key to impact lies not so much in the solution but in your understanding of the problem. My humble advice is to understand your problem better than anyone else. Care about the solution, but love your problem.As you deepen your understanding of the problem, let the solution follow. When I first started Springboard, I thought that summer reading loss was the problem. But over time I’ve grown to realize summer reading loss is a symptom of a deeper problem, which is that low-income students don’t have continuous access to learning at home and school. As I have deepened my understanding of the problem, families have become more central to the solution. If I had been wedded to the solution and not the problem, we wouldn’t have made as much impact. And we’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible.
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