Beth Milne is a past member of the 50CAN team. 

Six months ago today, I left a great job (and even greater colleagues) at a big, brand name nonprofit organization to pursue my own vision. Backed by 50CAN’s Education Advocacy Fellowship, I set out to dream up and build out an education advocacy campaign focused on smarter, more innovative and evidence-backed K-12 education policy here in Wisconsin. 

As I cross the official midpoint of my fellowship today, I’m taking stock: What have I learned — and how do I know? Have I identified everything I still need to get better at? Am I on track to reach my goals? 

I am fortunate to have a network of friends and colleagues around the country who work in startups, or startup-like projects within larger companies and organizations. Their advice and example as I chart this course has been invaluable.

Now it’s my turn. Here are six critical lessons I’ve learned so far: 

1. Surround yourself with people who believe in you

This work can be lonely. Seek out, assemble and communicate regularly with people who believe in you and are committed to your success. 

2. Listen, learn and iterate

I do not have a conventional product to ship, so I am continuously testing my ideas with education leaders across Wisconsin and altering my vision to better address the policy and advocacy gaps we surface in our conversations. 

3. Demonstrate gratitude

Say thank you and mean it.  Then, write and send a thank you card. Yes, through the mail with a stamp. It matters.

4. Show up around town

I attend fundraisers, conferences and other events related to education. They are important opportunities to learn more about the local landscape and to build new relationships with potential partners and supporters. 

5. Set goals and communicate progress

Set short- and long-term goals that demonstrate progress toward launch. Share them with close supporters and provide regular updates. Advisers can be a great source of accountability. 

6. Make and take a lot of think time 

This is a far more creative process than I expected. I’ve really benefitted from prioritizing time each week for reflection, reading and exercise.

In addition to these lessons, I am also building tremendous new knowledge on the state of K-12 education in Wisconsin, related policy challenges and potential solutions and advocacy best practices. I look forward to sharing reflections on these topics over the next six months. I hope you’ll stay in touch and join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook


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