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Investments in Diversity Remove Roadblocks to Student Success

August 21, 2017
Aaron Walker
This former teacher believes women, minority entrepreneurs hold key to ending educational inequality

Far too often, our society is divided by artificial lines. Those lines can be arbitrary and illogical – but they can have a real and sometimes devastating impact. They can determine who benefits from opportunity and who doesn’t. They can influence which child gets a chance – to attend a good school, to nourish existing talents and discover new ones – and which one faces roadblocks to success and hurdles that limit potential.

I believe in erasing those lines.

Three years ago, I started Camelback Ventures, an entrepreneurship incubator to help education leaders from underrepresented communities – primarily women and people of color – turn great ideas for students and schools into reality.

Aaron Walker, Founder & CEO, Camelback Ventures

We recruit, train and provide startup capital to entrepreneurs developing educational tools and models that we think are game changers – ones that can improve outcomes for kids who might otherwise never have a shot at attending a high-quality school.

The story of why I do this work begins in the place where I am from.

I grew up in South Orange, New Jersey. My parents moved there when I was five. We lived on the last street of a nice suburb, just inside the borders that separated a good school district from a bad one.

Because of where my parents bought a house, I went to good public schools. I was immersed in a culture of education that valued students. College was considered within reach for everyone.

But if I’d lived on the street 50 feet over, my school experience would have been very different. The difference of just 50 feet – nothing more than a baseball toss away – can alter the trajectory of a life.

It certainly did mine. As an adult, I appreciate what it meant to live on my street – what being on the right side of that line has allowed me to do.

I became the first person in my family to attend a four-year college. I graduated from the University of Virginia, then Penn Law. I became a teacher, a lawyer and – now – a social entrepreneur.

I have devoted my life to education because of my experience as a student growing up – and as a ninth grade teacher in west Philadelphia. I worked at a school that didn’t have a library, where teachers had to scramble to find books for their students to read.

Aaron Walker is founder and CEO of Camelback Ventures.

Every day, we ask teachers across this country to perform heroic tasks, just to provide kids with what is really a basic education. It’s not sustainable. A lot of the challenges that teachers and students face are systemic. Genius is distributed equally across racial, gender and socio-economic lines. But right now, opportunity is not.

One of the things I have discovered in my career is that people of color and women with ambitious ideas don’t have equitable access to capital.

At Camelback, we’re changing that by offering six-month fellowships to emerging educational entrepreneurs. We provide resources, connections to other funders and leadership coaching. Of the 33 fellows we’ve supported to date, 92% identify as people of color and 63% are women.

Genius is distributed equally across racial, gender and socio-economic lines. But right now, opportunity is not.

The Walton Family Foundation believed in our work and was one of the first funders at the table when I started Camelback. The foundation has been critical to our success – and the success of our entrepreneurs.

We’ve been able to help innovators like Jonathan Johnson, a former teacher in New Orleans. A few years ago, one of Jonathan’s students was murdered by a former classmate in a drug deal gone bad. He realized economic stress was the underlying factor in this tragedy – and had the idea of creating a new school that put students on a path to financial freedom directly from high school through partnerships and internships with high-wage, high growth industries.

Camelback’s investment gave Jonathan six to nine months of time to work on school development and curriculum for Rooted School, which opened this fall.

Over the past three years, we have invested $800,000 in 33 fellows who – in turn - have raised more than $12 million to support their ventures.

Our model is working – because diversity is a strategy for change.

When you increase participation of women and people of color, the underlying and fundamental metrics of success improve.

If we can have a more diverse set of people in leadership roles within the education system, developing new and creative learning models for all students, then we will close the achievement gap, increase access to STEM curriculum and boost college attainment for all.

No matter where you live – no matter which side of the line you are raised – you should have the same chance to reach your potential.

Highlighting community-led efforts to help entrepreneurs of color start and grow thriving enterprises.
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