Interview with Meredith Olson

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and recovery, 50CAN will be working to connect with some of our country’s leading thinkers, educators and policymakers as they share their best thinking on needed adaptations for our education system, districts, schools and classrooms that will best serve students.

Meredith Olson is the founder and president of the VELA Education Fund, an organization that seeks to find the most innovative educational programs and experiences that happen outside the school building. She speaks here with 50CAN President Derrell Bradford to discuss how the work they’re funding will lead to a more open and connected world in education.


Hi. I’m Derrell Bradford. I’m the president of 50CAN. And I’m delighted to have Meredith Olson on the show today. I don’t know if we call it the show but on the program. Meredith is the president of the VELA Education Fund. Hey, Meridith. How are you?

I’m doing great. Thank you so much for having me, Derrell.

No, no, it is our pleasure. So I know you. I know the soccer team you like as well. But why don’t you tell everybody a little bit about yourself and how you fell into education and tell us about the VELA Education Fund.

Sure thing. So my name is Meridith Olson. I live in Wichita, Kansas. I have four kids. And how did I fall into education? Great question. I think every one of us takes a winding path in our lives and our careers. I’ve certainly tried to do that, not intentionally. But it’s been a fun journey. Anyway, so I’ve worked in areas, beginning with working in engineering as a construction project manager and then decided that I wanted a little change and spent some time in finance and in business operations, which ultimately led to public affairs and community affairs. And it was through the work that I was doing on the ground in communities that inspired in me a passion for education. So I’ve been fully committed to working in the education space now for about six years. But I think just having the benefit of working in other areas, working in other domains it’s made me someone who is sort of insatiably curious about why we do certain things. I find myself always being a newbie in jobs and in job opportunities. So I’m always asking why or why not and then trying to apply what I learned from working on a construction project or managing a business operation to a new field and so thinking about that with education. One of the things that I found odd– when I started working in education, I was asking a lot of questions and trying to understand why is there so much activity happening in the education space outside of traditional education systems but yet so little focus on that activity from inside the traditional education establishment or for that matter, from the education reform community. And so I just found that a little bit odd. And scratching the surface and learning a little bit more, working together with my team at the time – I’ve been working very closely with the Stand Together community – and started to explore the entrepreneurial activity that was happening in education outside and kind of off the grid of traditional system. And that’s honestly what led ultimately to the formation of the VELA Education Fund.

So we have a framework that we use to talk about the world of education that we want. We call it Believe in Better. And there’s sort of two pillars that I feel like your work falls into. One is “the education that’s right for you” and the other one is “a world of open and connected learning.” Can you tell us more about how the fund works itself like, what’s its strategy, and how did you decide on a venture fund vehicle as the best way to approach this challenge?

Yeah, great question. So the fund itself was formed to essentially do two things. It was to identify the innovations that are happening in communities everywhere, find out where they are, what is going on, shine a light on the most creative and compelling ideas that are getting drawn up, and then let the world know about it. So that’s one. Just identify and shine a light on the amazing things that are happening. And then secondly, when we do find and discover these amazing ideas, how do we accelerate their adoption? So let the world know it and then accelerate the adoption of these ideas for even more kids, more kids, more families, more communities, and more entrepreneurs. So those were the twin reasons that VELA was funded. And then where does VELA fit itself within the education space? Well, another thing that we discovered as we started to dig in was we learned that there’s very little either philanthropic or government support, for that matter, for early-stage new ideas in the education space. And so if you look at– let’s say you’re an educator or you’re a community leader and you have a new idea for how to serve kids or how to serve schools or how to serve communities in education, if your idea hasn’t been fully baked and you don’t have a successful proof of concept and you’re not way down the road to maturity, it is very difficult to get any kind of funding support.

So typically, what we find is some of the most creative and audacious ideas, I mean, it’s not that they don’t exist. It’s just that they never see the light of day because they don’t have access to funding. So at VELA, we thought, “Well, what if we were that early, very early, almost angel investor and charitable ideas in education where VELA is the first dollar of funding? So it’s early-stage high-risk capital support for entrepreneurs that have these ideas. And in many cases, VELA is actually the first dollar of support. And you’re probably going to ask if you haven’t done so already, but in this effort, we’ve been able to secure the support of our partners at the Walton Family Foundation and the Stand Together community. So they’ve been early and eager supporters and have seed-funded this VELA Education Fund. But we are now in the process of broadening to have a broader base of philanthropic support.

Yeah, I think a lot of people don’t understand that starting a school is the most expensive way to test an idea. And there are lots of other sort of smaller– you could start with a classroom. You could start with a small– you could start with five kids. You could start with one kid as a way to have some sort of rational proof of concept before you go all-in on everything that you need to actually start a full school.

Derrell, I mean, just to your point on that, it’s some of the smallest ideas that can be the most transformative in a local community. And let me give you an example. So we had a grantee in our recent funding round who received a micro-grant. And this woman had been a first-grade teacher, so she was an early childhood teacher in a public district. And she decided she wanted to do something a little bit different. She lives on a farm in a rural community, and she wanted to teach reading to young children. She applied for a grant for $2,500, and she has now launched Parmhouse phonics and has about 30 kids who are learning on the farm. There’s horses. There’s chickens and they’re learning in a new and different way. Now, many of these kids are continuing in their public school education, but they’re seeing this as a great way to supplement their education through hands-on experiences where they learn to read and also learn about animals. So that’s the kind of thing we’re seeing. And it’s not just one isolated example. Our work today at VELA has supported 840 micro-grants, and many of them are just like this. Now, some of them are a little bit bigger. We have micro-grant recipients all the way from $2,500 up to $25,000 that they are testing out a concept. They’re learning. They’re iterating. They’re seeing what works. If it doesn’t work, they adopt change, and they’re growing and expanding the people that they’re serving.

And we are proud to host a VELA grantee and a National Parents Union delegate, Isis Span from South Carolina, in our National Voices Fellowship. She’s a public school teacher doing a similar thing, and her work is wonderful. Okay, so you launched in the middle of a pandemic, the Meet the Moment grant program. Just talk about that, what were your expectations? Did you do that on purpose? How much did the pandemic inform your original round of grantees, any insights from that?

Yeah, so these are all great questions. And I got to say, the best-laid plans are always going to be disrupted. So VELA was officially established and ready to go live at the beginning of 2020 before the pandemic hit. In fact, we were planning to go live with a public launch the first week of April, but then you know what, life changed, the world changed. And we thought, “Well, you know what, we’ll delay our public launch by a month or two until this pandemic is over.” Well, that didn’t end up happening.

Not a month or two, no, no.

It’s still going on and we’re still here. But honestly, we thought, “Okay, we want to nimbly respond to the world as it exists today and as it continues to change.” And so our original plans, we had planned to invest in a small number of highly focused entrepreneurial grants up to about 250,000. That was the original plan. And we had intended to develop a very, very carefully cultivated pipeline, where we were going into the market, searching and then pooling the ideas that we found. Well, then the pandemic strikes, right? And so we went from a period where you had maybe 4 to 5 percent of the school-age population receiving their education in an unconventional way outside of traditional public, private or charter schools. Well, in the space of less than a month, we went from, call it, 4 to 5 percent of the population to nearly 100%, of the school-age population. So you can imagine that huge spike in demand that happened in a very short period of time. And at that point, we thought, “You know what, it doesn’t make sense, given the opportunity that exists, given the demand that exists. It doesn’t make sense for us to undertake this very sort of careful, thoughtful, slow due diligence period.”

Top-down, yeah.

Right, top-down approach. Instead, what if we leaned into believing in people and the amazing ideas that were happening on the ground, open up sort of the pipeline, and then just allow people to apply? So we did that, and that was the genesis of the Meet the Moment program. We figured you know what, VELA was still new, didn’t have a huge reach. So we worked through a handful of subgrant partner organizations. We opened up the pipeline and ultimately funded just more than 450 micro-grants beginning last August.

That’s the construction going on upstairs. All right, cool.

There is. I don’t know what they’re doing up there.

No, it’s all good, it’s all good, it’s all good. So this bottom-up approach, right. I know we were discussing before how open the– how sort of non-tailored the application process was. Tell us about your grantees and round one. What surprised you? What did the portfolio folks look like?

Yeah, great question. So we decided to flip the script a little bit, compared to traditional philanthropy. So rather than having VELA come in, working together with subgrants partners and defining a very detailed set of investment criteria which basically boxes in a design envelope, that’s what you typically see happening, where you say, “Here are our objectives. Here’s the RFP process,” and, “Applicants need to fit items 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10,” right? We said, “You know what? Rather than doing that, let’s keep it simple. So let’s ask grantees, ‘What are you trying to do? What are the values and priorities of the people you are serving? How do you plan to meet the needs of the families and the kids that you are serving?’ And then, ‘How are you going to know that you’re successful?'” So very skinny investment criteria, more about, “How are you thinking about serving the needs of the people you are serving?” And then, on the back end, we’ll see what kind of creativity emerges. We’ll see what the solutions are that emerge. And we’ll find ways of assessing, “Okay, so to what extent were you able to accomplish your goals in serving your customers, the families and the kids ultimately?” And so the creativity that came out of that, we never could have prescribed this. We never could have planned it. We’ve seen everything from a family that converted an old run-down train into a classroom for learning–

Oh, that sounds cool. That sounds cool, yeah.

It’s super cool, right? And kids like it. And it was a great project. And it’s outdoors. We’ve seen a lot of outdoor learning, a lot of play-based learning. We’ve seen so much parent and student coaching, train-the-trainer models where people are basically rolling up their shirt sleeves. They are finding resources, and then they’re saying, “Hey wait. This is what worked in my community. This is what worked for my family. I want you to know about it. I want the world to know about it because I just can’t help myself.” We’ve seen a lot of that. We’ve seen a lot of content resource development that has evolved over time. So just some examples, we’ve seen former TFA teachers who’ve said, “Hey, I can do something right now. I can develop content kits. I can develop project-based learning modules, and I want to get as much of this material out to folks as I can.” And then their customers, the families and the kids, are saying, “Yeah, I kind of like this but not like that. Oh, and by the way, can you put this in video form,” and, “I need it digitized,” and, “I need it on demand.” And you know what? They’re responding. And so I think it’s that kind of rapid iteration that we just didn’t expect. And then the ideation– we’ve seen people teaching each other through building lego models. We’ve seen folks who are teaching by writing digital comic strips and then using that and coupling it to classroom-type curriculum. So we’ve seen kids who are 19 and 20 years old who are reimagining civics education with a focus on human flourishing. I mean, again, just the amount of innovation that we’ve seen when we put the power back in the hands of the innovators, in the hands of families, kids, and everyday entrepreneurs, it’s just astounding.

So you just finished round 2. How did that go? Any key insights?

Well, you know what? We don’t have much in the way of insights yet because they were just awarded.

Oh, okay.

So round 2 grants were distributed during the month of July. And so our approach is to be very light-touch on the front end and then work really closely together through the granting lifecycle to learn what happens. So I hope the roof doesn’t fall–

It’s Zoom in the real world. It’s all good.

–yeah, where I’m sitting but yeah, no, we’re eager to see what amazing experiences our grantees are able to deliver through this fund 2. And we’re going to learn over time.

So I’m at home. I’m watching this video. I’m excited as you are about it. I have an idea. I want to apply. What should I do?

Okay. So if you want to apply, just keep watching the VELA website as well as our social channels. And we will have another– we’re in our fund 2 right now. We will have a second wave of micro-grants launching this fall. So be alert to that. But more importantly, be a connector. So if you want to be involved, identify the opportunities that are happening around you. A few quick google searches about hybrid or cooperative learning or self-directed learning in your hometown, man, it’s amazing what you’ll find if you just look a little bit. Just scratch the surface and you’re going to find these amazing learning environments all around you. So identify what’s happening, make connections, reach out and talk to these folks – they’re craving network and community – build that network out, and then let the world know about what you’re discovering. So we find that financial support is hugely important. But we also find that confidence-building is as important. And resource sharing is hugely important among these small groups. They’re learning from one another. They crave that and they want to find out how they can help each other out.

And we’ll make sure that we put the URL and the finished product here so people can click on– any final thoughts?

So I just want to say super proud of this. The Tokyo Olympics are underway, and one of our grantees has two Olympic skateboarders. They’re competing in Tokyo, and their hybrid homeschool model is taught out of a skateboard shop.

Is this Surf Skate Science?

Surf Skate Science. They teach surfing, skateboarding. They also teach science and math out of a skateboard shop. They’re in South Florida. And look, if you can see kids who are living their passion, where they’re able to do what they love every single day and then also pursue their academic journey at the same, I mean it doesn’t get better than that.

I was kind of up in the air on skateboarding as an Olympic sport, but you may have pushed me over the top. Thank you very much for taking some time with us today to talk about the VELA Education Fund.

Sure thing. Thank you Derrell so much for having me.

Not at all.

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