Dreaming Big at The Yard

How an EdTech startup is creating a space of their own in NYC — on a nonprofit budget.

DreamWakers is a nonprofit that uses free and existing video chat technologies, such as Google Hangouts, to connect diverse and dynamic professionals to public school classrooms across the country. Virtually connecting leaders of industry to schools where over half of the student body is eligible for free and reduced lunch, DreamWakers shines a light on the real-world context of class lessons by directly exposing students to professional role models with whom they can relate.

DreamWakers was founded by Monica Gray and Annie Medaglia in 2014 through the iLab at the University of Virginia, their alma mater, in Charlottesville, Virginia. The two recognized a void in their post-grad life when they realized how difficult it was to volunteer while working full-time. Their solution was to take advantage of the uber-connected age that we live in and create a way for employers to connect with students — all without leaving the office, and all in the time of a typical lunch break. It’s modern volunteering: efficient, effective and accessible.

DreamWakers recently moved into their own office in The Yard, a popular co-working space in New York City. Co-Founder & CEO Monica Gray designed the office with the assistance of Rachel Robinson, an NYC-based architect and founder of Duro Deco. Robinson generously donated her interior design expertise and helped DreamWakers to execute the vision for the space. “I loved working with Rachel; in one day she transformed this small white room into a highly functional, sleek yet warm space,” Gray said. “She has a knack for creating design that marries modernity with timeless pieces.”

Monica Gray (left) with members of the DreamWakers team.

Q: What does this space mean to you and your organization?

Monica: To me, it’s just so meaningful to have a real office. As a startup, there’s a lot of working out of coffee shops and apartments, so to have a space that is our own is a symbol of how far we’ve come in just 2 years. I love having a space where my team can collaborate. Working and living in such a digital age, it’s really special to have tangible representations of our growth.

Each pin represents a state in which a class has hosted a “flashchat”.

Q: Speaking of tangible representations, that’s a cool map. What are the pins for?

M: Oh, thanks! We have a big goal to virtually connect students to diverse professionals in all 50 states by the end of the year. We’ve been in 30 so far, so only 20 to go! Each time we host a chat in a new state we plan to put a pin in and say we “nailed it.” It’s fun and helps keep us motivated.

Q: Beautiful table — where did you get it?

M: As a nonprofit, we are on a tight budget, but we wanted to find a long wooden table that we could work at side-by-side and something that would add warmth to the room. We found this great Etsy vendor called Golden Rule NYC that flips Ikea furniture into customized, unique pieces.

Photos in the DreamWakers office commemorating major milestones for the organization.

Q: How’d you guys end up at the White House?

M: Last fall, a fifth grade Teach For America Social Studies teacher in Newark, NJ signed up to host a DreamWakers flashchat. He expressed to us that his students, “…love to learn and they love opportunities, but at the same time I feel like they are missing some inspiration that I am not able to currently give.” School budgets were tight, he explained, and bringing guest speakers into the classroom — mentors the children would relate to and engage with — was a challenge.

Newark students receiving a tour of the U.S. Capitol building. Students were invited to tour the nation’s capitol following a virtual chat with David Simas, White House Political Director.

We immediately set to work. We virtually connected Mr. O’s students with African American leaders at the U.S. Department and with White House Political Director David Simas. A son of Portuguese-immigrant factory workers, Simas described his experience speaking to those students as “one of the best things” he’s done during his time at the White House. He even extended an invitation for the entire class to visit 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And visit The White House they did. This spring, Mr. O’s students, fellow teachers, and our NYC-based DreamWakers team loaded onto a bus in Newark at 6 a.m and headed through rain and traffic to our nation’s capital. It was a trip unlike any other and stands out as an example of the positive ripple effect of our work.

Ultimately we hope that the virtual classroom to career connections we facilitate at DreamWakers will continue to serve as a springboard for further learning, exploration and innovation. And we feel incredibly fortunate to be able to pursue these dreams here at The Yard.

To learn more about DreamWakers check out their features in The New York Times, The Washington Post and People, and visit www.dreamwakers.org.

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