Q&A: The Lean Lab team talks fellowship program, future plans

Katie Boody (left) and Carrie Markel are the co-founders of the Lean Lab, a Kansas City-based nonprofit . | Courtesy of The Lean Lab/Facebook
Katie Boody (left) and Carrie Markel co-founded the Lean Lab based on their experiences as teachers. | Courtesy of The Lean Lab/Facebook

Founded in Kansas City in 2014, the Lean Lab is an innovation center that brings together educators, entrepreneurs and members of the tech community. The Lean Lab was founded by Katie Boody and Carrie Markel, both former Kansas City public school teachers who wanted a space to promote new ideas in schools that would improve problems found by teachers or families. The Lean Lab hosts workshops and programs to provide resources, support and mentoring for those looking to improve education.

Missouri Business Alert spoke with Boody and Aditya Voleti, the Lean Lab’s chief operating officer, about the organization’s history, mission and upcoming events. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Aditya Voleti, chief operating office of Kansas City's Lean Lab | Courtesy of the Lean Lab
Aditya Voleti, chief operating officer of the Lean Lab, was once a fellow in the program. | Courtesy of the Lean Lab

Missouri Business Alert: How did the Lean Lab get started?

Katie Boody: We started about two and a half years ago. At the time, I was working at a charter school in Kansas City and then moved into administration, and we were just frustrated by a sense of the lack of hope in the education community. Urban schools had just lost accreditation. There was this pervading sense of hopelessness that schools weren’t going to get better and teaching was just really, really hard and lonely, and there was a lot of unproductive conversation.

At the same time, it was really painful to work in the system and to see very acutely that the way we were approaching education was just not adequate enough, if we were actually going to close educational inequities with our kids. The systems were too archaic and outdated, and it just wasn’t happening. So we decided to start looking for inspiration outside of the typical education community, and really got a lot of inspiration from the tech community and entrepreneurial communities here in Kansas City at the time.

The Sprint Accelerator was just kicking off its first class and we thought, not only was the community around the startup scene open and willing to share ideas, but the accelerator model was really interesting. We thought, “What if we could take the 10 best ideas, give them resources, mentorship, and support so that they can tackle some of these big problems in really creative ways?” And we thought that would be so wonderful to have in education communities … instead of all being tech or return on investment, it’s about return on student outcomes and creating an impact in our education system.

What are some of the ideas to come out of the Lean Lab?

KB: What we realized at the time was that the startup scene in general was really nascent and the education innovation scene was really nonexistent, so we spent a lot of time doing community building, with pitch events, happy hours and people just getting familiar with what ed innovation looked like. The first two fellowship cycles were pretty small and predominantly led by educators who were really at an idea stage. That was just the nature of where our community was at that time, and Aditya was one of our first fellows.

Aditya Voleti: Yeah, I came out of the classroom as an ELL (English-Language Learning) teacher at East High School. One of the problems that I saw when I was in the classroom was that a lot of the students were not being placed accurately in schools, and there was no way to really judge their academic credentials. So I worked through the Lean Lab and with language services at KCPS to try to implement an assessment system to help place immigrant and refugee students accurately in classrooms to maximize their instructional time.

KB: We’ve done two new school models as well as direct services with ed tech. This is the first year that all of our teams were educational technology.

The five teams we supported this year are all developing platforms that schools can use. For instance, one is targeting a vocabulary platform for English language-learning and refugee students that helps automate that process. Another one is connecting first-generation high school students with first-generation college students remotely so they can have more personalized conversations versus just the typical college tour.

Who are some of the people that come to the Lean Lab with ideas?

KB: We know that about 80 percent of our fellows are typically early-mid career teachers, typically hitting a 3rd or 4th or 5th year.

AV: The other group is parents, we see a lot of parents with children in the schools.

KB: Those are two big ones, and now more and more, tech entrepreneurs as well are really looking to create change through more of a social-good lens.

Is there a certain age or grade level you target?

KB: We support solutions K-12. The ELL one really works for middle and high schools. We had a couple others this summer that are targeting lower elementary students and families. It just depends on the solutions.

How did the (Lean Lab) Incubator Fellowship program come together? What does that involve?

KB: It’s a four-and-a-half week residential program. We had five teams this year, four of which came from all over the U.S., and one from Kansas City and St. Louis. For the first half of the first week, it’s really about learning the context and history of education reform in Kansas City; meeting our mentor network; and learning that we have a pretty robust, but also charged, history in education in the area, with things like Brown v. Board and desegregation. We’re really making sure that they ground themselves in our core values, like a focus on community. The first full week, they focus on their product, work out the kinks and get to the first “does the product actually work?”

Second full week, they do contacts, product, business model and test key assumptions of the business model. Now that they have some basic viability of the product, who’s going to pay for it? Is there a viable market segment? Is the market truly unique enough to compete? Then they focus on key partnerships.

Our goal is that they leave the four weeks with a school-system partner or grant partner to work with. They ended with a pitch day to our network of mentors and investors and people involved in education. The program actually won’t end until the end of September, and the goal is that from here through September, they’re really working on their product and really measuring the impact it has in schools with parents or with families, or whoever their target user is.

Was this the first time for the fellowship?

KB: This was our third time. The first two times were all folks from Kansas City.

AV: This is also the first time that we are bringing the fellows back to update.

What does the Lean Lab have coming up in the fall?

KB: We have an innovation workshop scheduled at the end of September, a three-day workshop we run in partnership with 4.0 Schools (a national education innovation organization). It’s a really great way for people with just the beginning kernel of an idea or maybe not even an idea, but just a problem they want to solve in education, whatever it might be … and spend a couple days learning about education processes and building a community of other like-minded folks to get to a next step. We’ll also have our Launch Day for the fellows at the end of September as well.

AV: We also host a happy hour every third Thursday for just general community-building. It’s a lot of educators who get together; we often feature a special guest and what we really try to create an informal space where educators can meet with leaders in schools. We’ve had school-board members and state-level education commissioners.

KB: We’ve had a lot of positive feedback about those because typically when you see those folks it’s such a formal forum, with 30 seconds at the mic.

AV: We also use it to feature educators who are doing really cool stuff and their classrooms are taking a lot of initiative. We’ve featured local educators who have done a lot of work in resiliency or trauma-informed care.

Where does the Lean Lab get the money for all of its programs and projects?

KB: We’re foundation-funded, primarily by the Kauffman Foundation. We also have some critical partnerships with the city of Kansas City, KC Social Innovation Center, 4.0 Schools and Village Capital. We are nonprofit, and we don’t take equity. We’re more about cause and impact than raising a giant fund.


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