Ei State of the Union, 2021

Reflections from a tumultuous year, and what's next in 2021 for Experience Institute

Victor Saad

Founder

Every year for the past six years, I’ve shared honest reflections about Experience Institute’s successes, challenges, and next steps. It feels funny calling it the “State of the Union” this particular year. But what you’re about to read is just our way of inviting you into what’s happening behind the scenes as we try to improve higher education and workforce development.

So, grab your favorite beverage and let’s dive in.

First, why are we here?

Ei exists because classroom learning is limited, while experiential learning is transformational. To take it a step further, we believe more experiential learning leads to students and employees having greater empathy, confidence, and abilities. But teaching and learning through experience is more difficult to grasp than traditional forms of learning.

So we spend our days designing hands-on, cohort-based programs focused on life’s most important skills. We’re aiming for a future where experiences such as gap years, sabbaticals, workplace innovation projects, and lifelong learning “leaps” are accessible and celebrated parts of higher education and the workforce.

What did that look like in 2020?

Good question. We began the year with grand ambitions to rally our community around a simple process for experiential learning (Leaps). We finalized our newest physical product, What’s Worth Doing, sent out thousands of postcards with “taketheleap” stickers, and hosted 10 dinners in 10 cities on February 29th — all of which was building momentum amongst the Ei community. Meanwhile, our workplace partners were making exciting plans for new programs we could deliver together.

It’s hard to believe all of that was only 11 months ago.


Chicago Leap Night Dinner, February 29th, 2020. Dinners took place in 9 other cities around the country.

Then Covid hit…

Like the rest of the world, by mid-March nearly all of our work came to halt. With in-person classes and experiences off the table, our Leap campaign was paused. Our community moved our focus on how to continue our work virtually and care for each other amidst a global shutdown.

We shifted our workplace programs quickly

Several of our courses touch on the skills of navigating ambiguity and adapting quickly — now it was time for our team to live those mindsets. Thankfully, we’d started testing virtual programs earlier in 2020. Within seven days of the lockdown, we launched a new series of programs for teams and companies to learn how to work from home, manage remote teams, build mental and emotional resilience, and create new products/services during the pandemic.

We pushed ourselves to think of creative ways to deliver these programs (we are Experience Institute after all), so there were countless discussions about how we could help people experience genuine connection and collaboration, even while working remotely.


A few tools we mix together throughout our virtual learning experiences.

 

Meanwhile, our college programs…

We had to immediately shift our Stanford Design Summer program to virtual — but the curriculum and community were perfect resources for the students.

And our spring cohort of Experience Lab at UC Berkeley was literally about to board planes on March 15th to live and work from various parts of the world. We had to make the difficult decision to cancel in-person Field Experiences. With the help of our partners at Sage Corps, we ensured that all students had a remote internship option and prioritized meaningful virtual connections with their cohort for the remainder of their spring program. Students were sad, but thankfully, our time together before the pandemic created a tight bond among our team and fellow — one that still exists nearly one year late


One of our last in-person gatherings with Experience Lab students, one week before lockdown. 

By July, the ship was steady

It took a few months, but our virtual programs were receiving rave reviews. Our workplace offerings grew quickly through word-of-mouth alone. We had shipped over 1,000 decks of What’s Worth Doing and led online community workshops. We were piloting a new video series. And we signed a new partnership with University of Pennsylvania to lead a fully virtual program of our Experience Lab program for recent college grads.

Committing to anti-racism work

Summer brought another shift. As the country erupted in protest at the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahumaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and so many more — and as activists called on each of us to join the work of racial justice — our team committed to move from just being “not racist” to becoming anti-racist (read our statement here). It’s an easy thing to say, but a tougher commitment to live into.

To help guide the work, we’ve hired three amazing friends with experience in anti-oppression education and organizational change to serve as an advisory board who meet with us quarterly. Through readings, training, and discussion, we’ve begun exploring how racism functions in the particular spaces we work in (higher ed, corporate learning, design and entrepreneurship), and how we can work to change those systems and practices. The work has been both challenging and rewarding.

Team Building

One of the highlights of 2020 was starting a monthly gathering for all of Ei’s instructors and administrators. Our Zoom lunch sessions were filled with heartfelt shares, new connections, and deep belly laughs. In a year with challenges on every level, these people committed to good work and meaningful connections. It’s a special group, to say the least.


Our last monthly all-staff lunch of the year. The Ei crew is full of incredible people.

Heading into 2021

As we head into 2021, we’ll focus on the following:

  • Update workplace programs: We’re working on a new website, menu of programs, and content across our workplace learning programs. We’ll continue to explore how to best deliver programs that are truly helpful to employees ranging from startups to Fortune 100s.
  • Launch three more cohorts of our Experience Lab at Penn program.
  • Continue the Stanford Design Summer project: We’ll be back at Stanford (virtually) leading our third year of the Design Summer program — helping students reimagine what their college summers can look like.
  • Invest in the team: We’ll continue bringing the Ei crew together to connect, banter, and build together.
  • Spend more time with you! We’re working on ways to bring our wider community together for discussions and more fluid sharing, connecting, etc. More on that later this quarter.

If we do these things, it’ll be a good year.

Personal Note

The world has been turned sideways over the past 11 months. I’ve come to learn that there is no silver bullet for making things better. Each of us must start by taking care of our minds, healing our hearts, investing in our health, addressing subconscious beliefs, and building daily practices that bring us to peace. That work sets the foundation for building great companies, institutions, and societies. It starts with you and me.

My commitment to you, as a CEO and a friend, is to do that work on myself first. And then to infuse pieces of those important topics into how we teach at Experience Institute. If you read our writings, attend our programs, or buy our products, know that we don’t just want you to do great things in life and work, we want to help you be well — no matter what’s happening around you.

Thank you!

For reading, for sharing, for participating, for supporting, for building, for caring…I may not know each of you personally, but I’m glad you’re here. And I can’t wait to see what this year holds for you.

Here’s to another year of learning, growth, and taking risks…together.
Victor

PS: As with most things at Ei, I didn’t create this year’s State of the Union on my own. Thanks to Aaron, Katie, Megan, Drake, Nic, Zak, and Katie (#2).

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posted by

Victor Saad

Founder

I’m an author, educator, and community builder living in Chicago. I started Experience Institute, an organization helping college students and career professionals learn and grow through short-term, real-world experiences.

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