Innovation to Action: Opportunities for New Ideas and New Mindsets in Child Care

By Michael Dougherty & Chelsea Sprayregen

Shannon Christian, Director of the Office of Child Care at HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, was so inspired at Early Futures in November 2018 that she invited Promise Venture Studio to share our work at the annual 2019 State & Territory Administrators Meeting (STAM) in DC.

The Office of Child Care (OCC) supports low-income working families by providing access to and improving the quality of early care and afterschool programs through the $8.2B Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF). OCC also works with state, territory and tribal governments to provide support for children and their families struggling to find child care that fits their needs and that will prepare children to succeed in school. Parents of 1.3 million children choose to use their CCDF subsidies in over 250,000 centers and homes across the U.S.

In the plenary session, we offered a tour of innovation in early childhood to help state and territory block grant administrators step back from their demanding compliance and regulatory roles (especially given recent major rule changes) to see what’s new and timely for early childhood. We included three case studies of social entrepreneurs collaborating with states to pilot in subsidized markets (Sparkler, MyVillage, and Pie for Providers).

We described why this is a unique moment of opportunity in early childhood: groundbreaking science, new technology to power innovations, a policy and funding groundswell, and a cultural revival of purpose and impact led by social entrepreneurs. As Michael concluded, “today is the golden age of start-ups, and children stand to benefit.”

Our session focused on an interactive “STAM Tank” (an early childhood adaptation of shark tank). Three state administrators joined us as judges, reacting live on stage to video pitches from six innovative ventures (Institute for Early Education Leadership and Innovation, Cell-Ed, AVANCE, BabyNoggin, Cognitive ToyBox, and C.C. Busy)

The audience of over 450 attendees and live streamers used the conference app to tally their votes with live display and audience comments. Overall 57% of polling respondents saw potential for a direct partnerships with OCC or a partner organization.

The venture pitches led to lively debates on topics like the efficacy of cell phone-based professional development and the ideal role of technology in assessment. Promise will share feedback with the entrepreneurs to help them refine their subsidy market approaches.

The event was a fantastic opportunity to bring together the systems-level perspective of OCC staff with the entrepreneurial approaches and new ideas represented by the featured ventures. This blending of worlds led to some crucial lessons learned for all players, including:

For government and systems

  • Many new ventures are looking for pilots and partnership. Their price is almost always negotiable, and other sources of funding may exist.
  • The entrepreneurial toolkit — especially rapid-cycle ideation — can help systems leaders think about possibilities rather than barriers.
  • There is value in narrowing from a systems perspective to a first step that one can take to build and test a new approach.

For early childhood social entrepreneurs

  • When sharing your ideas with government, be prepared to answer questions about fraud and regulatory compliance. How might your innovation lead to an unintended consequence of fraud (example: would automated reporting reduce oversight of line-by-line details)? What are you doing to address that?
  • Similarly, address upfront how your solution affects children’s screen time. If your technology is primarily for use by parents and caregivers, make sure that is clear.

We also led a small group workshop, in which administrators developed ideas to address their key challenges. Their ideas were remarkably similar to those of our Venture Network entrepreneurs, showing the exciting prospects for partnerships. In both sessions, we left the participants with concrete ideas for how to move forward with those partnerships.



Spurring innovation and impact in early childhood development

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Promise Venture Studio

Promise Venture Studio


A nonprofit venture studio attracting, supporting and connecting social entrepreneurs focused on early childhood development