How Surrounding Yourself with Diverse Thinkers and Doers Can Change Your Life

Kanya Balakrishna as featured in the book 3 Billion Under 30 — This is her story. Read it. Share it.

“Kanya Balakrishna is the cofounder and president of The Future Project, a national initiative to revolutionize education by transforming schools into places where every young person can discover their passion and purpose and build the skills to change their lives and world for the better. Launched in 2011, The Future Project recruits, trains, and dispatches transformational leaders into high schools across the country. These leaders partner with teachers and community members to inspire and equip students to build passion-driven Future Projects in order to transform schools from the inside out. The Future Project has launched in more than 50 schools across seven major American cities, served more than 30,000 students, and raised $22 million in seed funding from prominent businesses, leaders, and philanthropists. Kanya previously taught and coached students in Memphis, Tennessee and New Haven, Connecticut. Kanya graduated from Yale, where she studied anthropology and served as managing editor of the Yale Daily News. She launched The Future Project after working as the chief speechwriter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg and has been recognized by the DRK Foundation, MAKERS, Glamour, and Generation Progress for her work.

I often tell our students that The Future Project was the first Future Project — a passion-inspired initiative that brings a big vision to life.

When we decided to start the organization, we had a vision — a “North Star.” We imagined a world in which people lived with passion and purpose, where they felt inspired every day. We also knew we wanted to focus on young people because every young person deserves to live an extraordinary life. But at the beginning, we had no idea how we were going to do it.

It seems crazy, but the first thing we did — even before we had our ideas fleshed out — was build a team. We called our friends, advisors, and those who had influenced us in various ways; we brought in students and educators who had inspired us. And before we knew it, we had a team of over one hundred volunteers brought together from across many different disciplines.

I remember clearly the day this started, in the fall of 2010. We held a summit in New York City on a Sunday, planning to bring twenty people together to work on our strategy, To our surprise, we had about 100 people show up, many of whom we didn’t know. And while it was a magical moment in some ways, it was also a complete disaster in others. The Summit turned into a spirited debate among 100 people with 100 strong (and different) perspectives about our strategy — and although we came to value that collective genius as core to our approach, back then, we were totally out of our league.

It became a defining moment for us because it forced us to make a decision. Did we want to bring people together from all walks of life to build this new organization, or did we want to start with a smaller group that was easier to manage and handle?

Ultimately, our decision was easy. Our vision was enormous — and the ideas we were developing were too. And we needed to bring together the best talent possible if we had any hope of achieving it. And today we are so proud that our team reflects that commitment. It is diverse not just in terms of identity — race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and so much more — but also in terms of experiences, backgrounds, and skills. Our team includes educators, artists, technologists, journalists, designers, academics, entrepreneurs, lawyers, performers, and so much more.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we make decisions by committee; every voice and opinion cannot literally be heard in every situation. But we make every attempt to learn from each other constantly, which leads to a higher likelihood of solving problems and doing so in ways that are most likely to work in real life. And today, just five years after we launched, we’ve built a team of almost one hundred people, serving nearly 50,000 students in seven states.

The best part is that, although our different experiences have shaped us in profound and exciting ways, and we all look at the world differently because of them, we are united by a shared vision. A shared goal. A shared set of values. We all want to make change through imagination, love, curiosity, and passion, the things that mattered to us most as a collective.

We are clear that to continue inspiring change in schools across the country and globe, we must attract the best minds that work to generate the most interesting and effective solutions to problems we don’t even know about yet but will face in the next five, ten, and even fifty years.

Of course, the power of collective genius is not unique to The Future Project. Focusing on your team and building an inclusive, creative culture full of diverse, even clashing, perspectives can be transformative for any company or community.

The first thing to remember is that none of this happens by accident. You have to make building the best team possible an explicit goal for your organization. People have to be assigned to making that goal achievable, and everyone on your team should be tasked each day with thinking about how to make your team and workplace better.

The first five or six people that join your team are so important. They are the ones who are going to help establish the culture and bring in the next round of people, who will then continue the cycle. In your first few years, word-of-mouth will likely be one of your biggest recruiting tools, so the first few hires are key.

You should also not be afraid to think differently about how you interview and screen talent. We’ve learned that you only really see the full genius of a person when you see them in action. When we hire Dream Directors, for example (the individuals who work most closely with our young people), they go through a highly experiential process that involves our students (who are the most important contributors in making a decision). We also use the experiential process to invite potential Dream Directors into our world, so they can immerse themselves in our culture and we can get a sense of how they will function on our team. We do versions of this for all roles — whether the position is in accounting or program design or event production.

Of course, hiring potential talent is just the start. Once you bring in new team members, give them as many opportunities as possible to learn. Surround them with people whom they will love. Encourage them to have fun. Performance matters, of course, and you cannot settle for poor quality. But the more opportunities you give your team to learn and grow and try things, the more invested they’ll become. The more they’ll want to stay. The more they’ll want to perform. The more they will want to help make your organization a place that attracts and cultivates genius — and builds the best team on earth.”

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