Minutes before her big presentation at AOL’s startup incubator, QLabs, Shubhi Agrawal is nervous. It’s an understandable feeling—Agrawal is 19 years old, and she’s about to introduce a product she and her colleagues have spent the past 12 weeks developing to a room full of successful entrepreneurs.
The presentation is the last leg of Project Breaker, an intensive workshop for budding social entrepreneurs aged 18-24, led by TED senior fellow Juliette LaMontagne. Breaker participants—or “Breakers,” as they refer to themselves—spend a summer in New York City developing a product that’s meant to solve a specific societal problem. “We frame a challenge, and then bring the team together around that challenge,” says LaMontagne.
This year, the Breakers created applications that encourage civic engagement, guided by a star-studded cast of mentors including Charlie Melcher of Melcher Media, Majora Carter of Sustainable South Bronx and Startup Box: South Bronx, Tom Uglow of Google Creative Lab, and representatives from Ideo, Frog Design, and Doblin/Monitor.
LaMontagne started Project Breaker after 17 years of work in secondary and post-secondary education, including time in New York City public schools. She was inspired by her colleagues at TED to create the program after realizing how well concepts of entrepreneurship meshed with her ideas about education. “Product design and service design provided these market constraints that I thought were so intriguing,” LaMontagne says. “They took the idea of real-world problem-solving that we’re always trying to emphasize in the classroom and made it really real-world. If this idea doesn’t float in the marketplace, it dies.”
During her time as a teacher, LaMontagne became disillusioned with the traditional model of higher learning. She came to see entrepreneurship- and product design-oriented education as a feasible alternative after becoming a TED fellow. “I saw that it provided opportunities for kids who had been sold this idea of the college track being their key to success,” she says. “Struggling, inner-city kids, who can’t afford to go to college, who take out loans to go to these mediocre schools, or don’t go at all. There’s very little vocational training, which I’m a big proponent of. There’s very little apprenticeship, which I’m a big proponent of.”
On behalf of her Breaker colleagues, Shubhi Agrawal is presenting Need-A-Deed, an app that encourages engagement by crowd-funding compensation for the completion of specific tasks that benefit a particular community. She’s startlingly eloquent, displaying a grace and purpose of speech that belie her young age, and with no trace of her previous nervousness to be found.
Say you see a sidewalk in your neighborhood that needs shoveling, Agrawal proposes. With Need-A-Deed, you’d take a picture of the blocked walkway, upload it to the app, and pledge a dollar amount that you’d be willing to pay to whomever clears it. Eventually, more community members use the app to pledge money, until someone clears the sidewalk and claims the cash. It’s a bit like TaskRabbit or Kickstarter, but with a socially-minded twist.
Need-A-Deed is impressive—with a few tweaks, it could be nearly market-ready. LaMontagne, however, insists that a sellable product isn’t the ultimate goal, even if it is what drives the Breakers through the program. So if products aren’t the endgame, what is? “Process,” says LaMontagne. “It’s the learning process.”
The Breakers agree.
“It’s going to be really interesting as I move forward past this summer to combine all these little techniques and tricks that I’ve learned along the way,” says designer Carlos Sanchez, 19, who worked on Need-A-Deed with Argawal. “Prior to this, I had one method and mode of how to design, and now I have all these outlets open to me. I’m pretty stoked to try them out.”
“Being in Breaker lifted the veil from the process of being an entrepreneur,” concurs Shriya Nevatia, 19, who worked on Power Up, a wristband that encourages volunteerism using wearable infrared technology in conjunction with a mobile app. “It made it so that I understood that there’s a lot that I have to learn, but it also feels a bit more within reach now.”
LaMontagne, for her part, is learning from Project Breaker as well. “I’m not a designer,” she says. “I’m not an entrepreneur. I guess you could say I’m entrepreneurial, because I started this program, but I don’t have the nitty-gritty, finer detail of experience. I’m very much learning from all the partners that I bring in. So it’s all kind of an ‘Aha,’ in a way.”