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Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Sarah Hernholm of Whatever It Takes Is Helping to Change Our World

There is a piece of advice that I feel fortunate to live by today. I tell everyone who comes through our door at WIT to engage in three daily rituals: “Do something for you. Do something for your business. Do something for someone else. If you do those three things every day, then you’re going to be okay.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Hernholm.

Sarah Hernholm is a former elementary school teacher turned entrepreneur. In 2009, she left the classroom to create WIT — Whatever It Takes. At WIT, Sarah works with t(w)eens around the world who are interested in using their voice and ideas to launch businesses, non-profits, and/or social movements. WIT also focuses on helping t(w)eens develop emotional intelligence, soft skills, and an entrepreneurial mindset. Sarah has given 3 TEDx talks, multiple keynotes, and one commencement address. She also writes for FORBES and TODAY Show Parent, hosts the DO WIT podcast, speaks on stages, and zoom rooms around the world, and is currently writing her book 11 Tips for Doing WIT.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

This journey started for me as an elementary school teacher working in the public school system. I realized that there were a lot of real-world skills that our young people weren’t learning, and I decided to fill that gap by teaching them some of the many practical life skills that young people need for success. Unfortunately, as much as I loved teaching and as much progress as I felt I was making with my students, I was laid off in 2009 and couldn’t continue this work in a classroom setting.

Being laid off left me at a crossroads: Of course, it’s incredibly tough on your mental health, but it gave me the chance to ask myself an important question: “If you could wake up tomorrow and do anything, what would it be?”

My answer was “help kids be of service to others.” I wasn’t sure what to do with that answer, but that became my focus, and I started to think through how to bring that vision to life. There were multiple pivots and different directions considered for what eventually became WIT. My vision is still evolving today. But being laid off as a teacher and the decision point that created is where I started down the path of inspiring young people everywhere to do whatever it takes to succeed.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

When I started WIT, there was no real mechanism for our students to gain high school or college credit for what they were doing in the program. Very few people were considering anything like that, or considering the value of entrepreneurship education. Along the way I connected with Dr. Edward Abeyta, is the Associate Dean for Community Engagement and Director, Pre-Collegiate and Career Preparations Programs at UC San Diego (UCSD) Extension.

Ed was passionate about helping young people, and about finding ways for UCSD to support our work. He had vision and was willing to take risks, and together we dreamed up a partnership where young people could gain college credit at WIT through UCSD. The partnership changed the lives of so many kids, because the ability to earn college credit in ninth or tenth grade is incredibly valuable. It’s a big “stand out” on a college application. That was revolutionary for the organization, and to this day Ed and I are colleagues and continue to work together.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

A lot of the mistakes that I made in the beginning weren’t funny at the time, but I’m able to laugh at them now. One example is when I was looking to make business cards earlier in my career, but didn’t understand how to design them. I ordered 5,000 of them. When they came, the font was so small that no one could read them. Mistakes like those were embarrassing at the time, but in the end, it taught me to triple check whatever I’m working on.

A more serious mistake I made during the course of my career was the pricing of my after-school elementary program. Initially, I had low-balled the price of our program. I was inundated with enrollments, and was treated as a babysitter rather than a valued resource. We weren’t making any money. It was a hard lesson to learn, but those experiences have been beneficial to how I teach young people today.

Recently, I had a teen come up to me and tell me that they were going to price their scrunchies for two dollars. I had a reality check with them. I said, ‘Really, you’re going to price them for two dollars? And you’re going to pay for shipping, which is three dollars?’ When something like that happens, I can help them avoid the mistakes that I’ve made as an entrepreneur. Making those mistakes a teachable lesson is an important part of the work we do, because it shows that I’m not immune to mistakes, and I can teach them that they’re not either.

Entrepreneurship education is incredibly important if parents want to raise young people who have a sense of fortitude, grit, self-value, self-awareness, and a recognition that it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them. The system that’s currently in place at schools doesn’t teach students this. Unfortunately, there is no safe place to fail at school. It’s through failure, however, that you develop resilience, grit, and fortitude.

WIT provides a safe space to fail. We don’t care if at the end of your WIT program your business isn’t going to go on to sell hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise. Instead, we want to know, ‘What did you learn on your journey?’ Usually, they say they learned how to pick up the phone and talk to strangers, how to speak in public, and how to put their ideas down on paper. They tell us that even though they got rejected more than they got accepted, they know those rejections weren’t personal. Those lessons really matter.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

We are making a significant impact in three ways.

First, WIT is helping to build the next generation of social impact leaders and social entrepreneurs. We have graduated teens that launched businesses and movements that are addressing are education inequity, food insecurity and literacy support in under-resourced communities. One participant launched a safety app for women. These social ventures are driving impact, and continue to make a difference today. Even if those businesses aren’t still running, thirteen years later I love seeing those who are continuing to “do Whatever it Takes’ in their business, startup, or organization.

Second, WIT has had a significant impact on the lives of thousands of students. Yes, they’re starting businesses, but if you sat down with any of our graduates, they’ll say, “I just learned how to advocate for myself. I learned my voice matters”. At a moment where we have a mental health crisis among teens and tweens, WIT students are learning self-advocacy, self-worth, and self-value.

Third, we have a community impact. We have been hosting events called WIT Hackathons in different cities where kids can come together and find solutions to some of the problems facing their communities like homelessness and youth trafficking. Everything that we do revolves around empowering the younger generation to improve their communities.

The way young people utilize products and platforms are also a means of building alignment, authenticity, and community. Why not partner with these brands that our teens are using to grow their businesses that not only make money but give back? When the world was shutting down, we were bringing youth together from all around the world. Suddenly, you have this kid in Ohio meeting a kid in Sweden, working with a kid in India, all coming together on Zoom. And during that time, we ran four hours of live programming every day. We built community at a time when people felt like they didn’t have any.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who has helped or impacted by your cause?

Let me tell you a story about Jamie, a teen who participated in a recent WIT Hackathon we hosted in San Diego. Jamie stuck out to me and inspired me because of how he struggled, and how he overcame that struggle.

Part of what we do in our hackathons is call on young people to face their fears and step out of their comfort zone. A lot is asked of them: all participants learn design thinking, pitch deck composition, and how to pitch in front of people. The public speaking component can be very challenging, and unfortunately, we rarely teach public speaking in school anymore.

Jamie, at 16, was being asked to speak in front of a room full of people for the first time. What he told us about his experience just floored me: Jamie shared that he had wanted to quit on that second morning, and to come up with an excuse for not coming to the event. He had wanted to tell his principal that was sick, or was going to say that he had to leave to help his family.

Instead of giving up, he stuck with it and spoke in front of people. He did it. While this isn’t a story that ends in his group winning, it doesn’t need to be — it was a victory for him, and a victory for me to have been a part of that. In his reflection after the hackathon, he said ‘I didn’t even know that I could do that. I didn’t know that I could stick with something and not quit. I didn’t know that my ideas were worth listening to.’

One of my greatest sources of pride is directly connected to the struggles and achievements of people like Jamie; helping youth grow their confidence by believing in themselves in a very tangible way is something that really sticks with me. Looking back and reading that short, simple reflection, I get emotional thinking about it.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Leaders claim that they care about young people, and that they’re committed to their growth and their education, but what matters is that those words are translated into action.

The first step is to give youth a seat at the table — literally. Credential and empower young people in your organization and your community, and give them a meaningful role to play. If you were to go to teen mental health organizations and ask them how many youth are on their advisory boards, I bet the answer is none. We are trying to create solutions to help young people, but we’re not including young people in the conversation. Where is that youth voice at the table? And where is that diverse youth voice? That’s one.

A second way we could see those words in action would be through making financial literacy and entrepreneurship classes required in high school. Too many young people are graduating high school and college financially illiterate. Entrepreneurship education creates a powerful skillset for young people both emotionally and in terms of life-skills.

Lastly, we should address the homework load. For years, youth have said that the amount of homework is crippling. An eight-hour school day, plus after school activities, then home to a three-hour homework load is detrimental to a teen’s emotional and mental health. However, schools continue to do it. They know, however, that the biggest gift they could give young people is to cut the homework load.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Great leaders listen to their teams. Then they prove that they listened by implementing their ideas and feedback.

Sometimes you’ll hear, ‘We sit with our employees and ask for their feedback, or we ask for their opinion or…’ That is a good start, but people want to know what you do with that information, and what happens after you hear what they say. What happens after you’ve asked your customer what’s working and not working for you?

At WIT, the most important conversations that I have are with our students. I simply ask them, “How can WIT serve you better?”

We apply their feedback and ensure that they know their feedback was valued. We also make sure to give credit to the t(w)een that gave us that feedback. To me, that’s the heart of good leadership.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

First, I had to learn that feedback isn’t personal. Initially, I would get very defensive when I would hear feedback. I’d make it all about me, my failures, and my shortcomings, even if the feedback was as simple as someone asking to make the program longer or shorter.

Second, I wish people had told me that you can do everything that you possibly can to make people happy, but they still might not like you. I wish someone had told me that people-pleasing is a waste of time, and it takes you off track. You can’t please everyone.

Third, I wish people were really honest about the financial struggles of their organizations. There were times that were hard for WIT, and I wish I had realized that other people had gone through those times too.

Fourth, I wish that I had known that quitting something isn’t always a failure. A failure would be to keep pushing and doing something that’s not working, or in the case of WIT, not serving our audience in the best way. So now I stay curious, and go back to figuring out what’s the best way to serve them.

Lastly, there is a piece of advice that I feel fortunate to live by today. I tell everyone who comes through our door at WIT to engage in three daily rituals: “Do something for you. Do something for your business. Do something for someone else. If you do those three things every day, then you’re going to be okay.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I believe in entrepreneurship education and how it connects to the growth of an individual and their emotional intelligence. While some people do understand this, they’re trying to teach entrepreneurship as though it were an episode of shark tank. It’s so much more than that.

I wish people understood that entrepreneurship education isn’t always about making an app or building a large, profitable company. It’s about teaching your students how to apply skills and knowledge to real world problems, and how to come up with solutions. It’s about offering your students support on that journey from idea to execution.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote is from my dad. He says, “There’s always enough time to do the right thing.”

This is a guidepost for me. As an entrepreneur, founder, and leader you only have so much bandwidth, and when a situation becomes overwhelming, there’s a temptation to cut a corner. It reminds me that even during times of overwhelming pressure, there is always time to do the best and right thing for all involved.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

I would love to have a conversation with Miguel Cardona, the United States Secretary of Education. Secretary Cardona has been an educator for over 20 years, and someone who is incredibly passionate about improving our education system. I feel like he would really understand what we’re trying to do at WIT, and that he shares a commitment to helping more young people become financially literate and entrepreneurial.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I’m on Instagram @miss_wit and Twitter @doing_wit. There’s a lot of information at https://www.doingwit.org/.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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Yitzi Weiner

Yitzi Weiner

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A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator