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🎙Podcast: Leveraging Tech for Social Change with Heejae Lim and Daquan Oliver

“Ultimately, we want to see every school, every family, every district, every educator, and every student see building strong, equitable family school relationships as core to their role and critical to ensuring student success.” – Heejae Lim

Heejae Lim is the founder and CEO of Talking Points, an educational technology nonprofit unlocking the potential of families to fuel their children’s education through a multilingual tech platform.

Daquan Oliver is the founder and CEO of WeThrive, an organization creating a culture where all young people feel trusted to contribute ideas, form student-run companies, and achieve economic prosperity.

Tune in to hear Heejae and Daquan reflect on the state of education in the U.S. after the pandemic, the importance of cultivating reliable earned revenue streams, and their dreams for moving towards a more personalized education system.

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Episode Transcript

HEEJAE:
Great. So Daquan, please introduce yourself for the audience with your name and the titles that matter most to you.

DAQUAN:
Heejae, what’s going on. Appreciate you. My name is Daquan Oliver, founder and CEO of WeThrive. And, you know, titles that matter probably even more relevant to me than that, really are community member, individual from the community solving problems like my own. And as you know, I definitely probably wear that minimalist and New Yorker title as well.

HEEJAE:
So true. You know yourself.

DAQUAN:
Yeah, easy. You know, who would have been if I hadn’t? How about you, what does that look like to you? Introduction of yourself, names, and titles that matter to you?

HEEJAE:
Yeah, titles. That sounds fancy. Huh? So I am Heejae Lim and I am the founder and CEO of an organization called Talking Points. Other titles that matter most to me, I think a little about my identity. I was born in Korea. I hold a Korean passport, but grew up in England for most of my life. And now based in San Francisco Bay Area in the U.S. so not titles, but a little more about myself.

**

DAQUAN:
What is the name and mission of your organization? Let’s start there.

HEEJAE:
Yeah, my organization’s name is Talking Points and we’re a non-for-profit organization. And our mission is to unlock the potential of families in being more engaged in their children’s education through technology so that students can thrive, learn, and succeed. We focus on removing systemic language, access, and technology barriers so teachers and families can meaningfully engage and form strong relationships. What about yours? What is the name and mission of your organization?

DAQUAN:
WeThrive. We equip underestimated youth to own their future. Our youth are, you know, really thinking first, you know, what are the problems in my community that I care to solve? Deriving solutions for those problems into a viable business plan. And then we provide them the seed fund to actually launch those business enterprises where our youth, as young as 11 to as old as 22, 23 are generating real revenue as real traction for their microenterprises.

As a result, really what we’re after is this question of how might we close racial wealth gaps throughout the country? And also required to answer that question is how are we more aggressively fixing our economic development system so that it allows for equity and pathways of socioeconomic mobility.

Right now, we live in a society that tells our youth, “Hey, you know, we’re going to catch up to you when you’re 18, you know, best of luck, you know, hope to see you there when you’re 18 and we’ll do something meaningful then.” And ultimately that’s a great recipe to make sure that gaps persist. And so through our programs and the policies we’ve been advocating for in our school districts and workforce development boards, we’re really after this question of what does it look like to target 11 to 17 year-olds as direct participants in the economy so that we can close those gaps of mobility?

**

HEEJAE:
Who are the people that you serve? Why do they come to your organization? How do you all help?

DAQUAN:
You know, our primary users and stakeholders are youth, right? So though, you know, WeThrive comes across very programmatic, this all happens through an ed-tech app, right? We either go directly to the school where they’re adopting the web or mobile app and using it from there or directly to the student where they’re downloading it and getting access to the curriculum, the programs, and even our coaches.

Now, when they come to WeThrive, you know, the key thing that’s happening is we’re first doing a lot of orientation actually. A lot of our youth come and they don’t believe us. They don’t even believe they’re going to create a real company because they’re just so inundated with so much theoretical things and empty promises of projects that education has given them that it takes a while to get them just to buy-in. So orientation is one of the most important things. And then from there we start escalating, where of course eventually they actually launch that company to enterprise. And at the same time, we’re also making sure that the actors of that system are teachers who, you know, we look at as change agents, are also equipped to facilitate that journey. Heejae, talk to me a little about what that looks like for you and the team at Talking Points. Who are the people that you serve? Why do they come to Talking Points? How do you help?

HEEJAE:
Yeah, we are primarily serving underresourced, multilingual, and diverse students and their families and school communities. So we help schools make family engagement equitable for multicultural, underresourced, and diverse students. So we do that at Talking Points by providing a free, easy-to-use platform for teachers and families that allow them to engage in instant two-way communication via text messages or through our free online and mobile applications. And we do automatic translation into 111 families’ home languages. We think about one in four students are from immigrant families in the U.S., half of which are below the poverty line. And many schools and districts serve families who speak upwards of 30, 80, or even more than a hundred different languages at home, which is crazy. I can’t even list one hundred languages off the top of my head!

So the ability to send out, you know, announcements and messages to engage in the language they can understand is critical. And we do that because, you know, research shows that family engagement predicts a student’s success twice as much as a family’s socioeconomic status, which is crazy, right? It doesn’t matter if the family’s rich or poor. If the family is engaged in their children’s education, their students do better. But a lot of the families face so many barriers, like language, access to technology, not having the time or the capacity, not being able to be used to the U.S. school system. A lot of the time, you know, we serve families who are new to the country, who are underresourced, and they come to us to be able to communicate with schools and also engage more effectively for their student learning.

DAQUAN:
No, I love that. It gets so deeply to the core of not only what’s required in education, but also uniquely tailored to this question of, as we each show up as a family, as a learner, as a parent within education, what is uniquely required to succeed? The 111 languages is new, too. So I love it. I didn’t realize you guys had scaled to that many languages already.

**

HEEJAE:
Can you name a specific trend and innovation in the field of education or education technology that worries you and another that excites you? Curious, you know, how you see these trends, especially with COVID and virtual learning and so on.

DAQUAN:
You know there, there are so many things that hit me on the worry and hit me on the excitement. I’ll go with this, but I’ll also acknowledge if you ask me this question even later today or tomorrow, it might be a different item.

Things that really make me most excited are the ways in which slowly but surely we really are getting more directly tailored to the individual learner. I’m a big believer that education is personal. Of course, education is personal, and also education was in its intent also intended for prosperous futures, right? I think that’s one of the things also that begins to worry me right. On one hand, we’re getting closer to the learner and I think that’s super important for us to actually create lifelong learners or individuals that are prepared to succeed.

On the flip side, I think also sometimes there feels like this dialogue of… You know, preparing students for prosperous and economic futures is this newer thing. And actually, no, that was intentionally one of the key aims of education. That’s the thing that worries me is these things that, without rooted in history, without rooted in context, and where their aims and targets can go, I think we stand a lot to just duplicate all the same issues that we’re trying to solve, honestly. I think we can reinvent the wheel unnecessarily without answering some key questions. Actually, should we just take a step back and question all of what education should be? Or the policies that have gotten us there? But just diving too deeply, too easily into just making a change, I think can really overlook the complexity and comprehension of the problem itself. So those are the things I’m thinking about.
Heejae, I know you’re seeing different things as well, just from your view. I’m curious. Did any of that resonate with what you’re excited about, worried about? What specific things are you, in your peripheral, excited and worried about right now?

HEEJAE:
Yeah. Gosh, so many thoughts here. I’ll start with what excites me the most —very similar to what you were saying, Daquan. I mean multiple things. I do think that education for each and every student should be for each and every student, not all students. And there is a difference in slight nuances of that. You know, you kind of assess where the students are at and see where do they need to learn more? Where are they strong or weak at? And really personalizing that. And I think there are various support systems for teachers to be able to manage the classroom in a more exciting, personalized way that’s engaging for the students.

I think with that, there is also, you know, the adoption of technology that was seen and unprecedented strength during COVID-related virtual learning. A lot of naysayers to technology also had to cross the chasm in adopting technology in the classrooms, home environments. And with that, the infrastructure has also increased dramatically and improved, and tons of wifi access at home and at schools and so on. And so I’m really excited about the adoption at the pace at which technology was adopted. And I think the future is bright.

What does still worry me, however, is though what was clearly a widening opportunity and achievement gap that COVID and virtual learning had. About 20% of English language learners had absences, the chronic absences during COVID. You know, Black and Brown students, their learning gaps increased from 12 months to up to two years. That means an eighth-grader is actually performing at a level of a sixth-grader. And that gap is continuing to widen with no signs of it narrowing. So I’m really worried about that. And students are not turning up even after school’s opening, the parents are worried about COVID. So I worry about that. I also really worry about teacher retention. Teachers are already burnt out. The school districts partners that we’re working with are going through a burnout, kind of exhaustion period where so many teachers have COVID or are burnt out by COVID. They’re dropping out of the workforce. They’re not being paid well. They’re worried about the achievement gap.

So I do really worry about the future of the education workforce. So widening achievement gaps, but where are the people who are able to fill in those gaps and, you know, provide for these students?

DAQUAN:
You know, it’s funny you mentioned that because we’ve seen it across so many districts over those past two years now where many of our districts are struggling, as you mentioned, just to get attendance. Right. And so when you think about the effects of just the wrap-around interventions and programs that are intended to be there, right? Like we speak a ton with a lot of the statewide afterschool networks. Towards the beginning of the pandemic, for example, a lot of them are wondering how do we even show up in this moment? That causes all kinds of questions when we think about funding and resourcing for those continuing after the pandemic.

And so I just think like back to your point around catastrophic, right? It’s like one happening just immediately for the young person. And then two, it’s also happening with a bit of longevity even after. Because then for all of those programs, resources, interventions that, one, are not as easily able to reach the student at a time when schools honestly just have so much more important things to worry about. But then two, how do we make sure that they can pick back up exactly where they left off as we do get back to some resemblance of being able to connect meaningfully? I just can’t agree more.

**

DAQUAN:
When you think about memorable events in your own journey, right? What memorable events really led to your decision to start Talking Points?

HEEJAE:
Yeah. I can name a couple. First of all, it’s really informed by my experience growing up. So I was born in Korea and then moved to England when I was eight and went to a public elementary school. About 60% of the students there were Korean immigrant students. And, you know, my mom was studying for a graduate degree at the time and in the suburbs of London in England.

And I saw my mom becoming this parent translator in the community, translating and communicating between the school, the teachers, and other parents in the school. And, you know, tangible memory I have is every time she came to pick me up and my sister up from school. The parking lot was really tiny and it would actually cause a traffic jam as she was driving out because these parents would stop her. And be like, “Hey, what’s going on? What’s for homework? Can you ask this teacher that for my child?” And these are other Korean parents. And I saw the impact that had on me. Then compared to Saturdays, as good Korean kids we had to go to Korean school. So I’m one of those kids who went to school five and a half days a week, not five. And the kind of interactions these parents had at Korean school with Korean teachers was very different.

Then I came to the U.S. to come to graduate school. And as part of the education school’s class in innovation and education, I went to a parent focus group in one of the high schools in East Palo Alto. And if you know, East Palo Alto—I didn’t back then—as a student demographic, I think it’s 90% black and brown, 90% Hispanic and non-English-speaking. I walk into the classroom. There are about 20 parents there. And guess what? A hundred percent of them only speak Spanish. So I fumbled through the focus group in my broken Spanish. And I just remember thinking, oh my gosh, like, how did I not think about having a translator?

And you know, those parents were there to input on how the school was designed and they cared, right. They cared to give that time. And I just thought, oh my gosh, these parents’ love for their kids is universal, but the way that they can engage the school community is so varied and they face so many barriers in these underresourced, diverse, and multicultural communities, which really reminded me of my school in London. So those were probably the two events that led to starting Talking Points, even thinking about the idea behind Talking Points. What about you? So many memorable events probably for you and We Thrive, but I’d love to hear them all.

DAQUAN:
You know, one it’s of course sparked by, you know, childhood events. Step one was, you know, activating some form of like entrepreneurial, “never take no for an answer” kind of energy and that really was spurred when my mom just said I couldn’t have a toy, right. Like seven years old, said that I couldn’t have a toy. And it was like, “What do you mean?” I didn’t really understand that.

What I did understand is that you can get money and money buys toys. So, I grabbed a stack of penny savers in these projects where we used to live. And sold them to anyone in the community that would pay for them. Long story short, I purchased my toy. And I felt powerful and liberated. And I think in a lot of ways that feeling and that understanding has led me to pursue the same thing for my community.

Years later, I couldn’t really see it as a kid, but I was like, oh, you know who the real heroes of that story are? The community that said, this kid is going to send me these free newspapers I can just go get myself but fine. I’ll give them a dollar here, $5 here, change here. They enabled that transformative mindset for me, you know? Ultimately when I got to college at Babson. You know, I was on a campus that was like not diverse in many ways, right? Coming from an urban community, being only 4% of African-American individuals on campus. And then also being one of the few people who came from an underresourced community on top of that, right. Single parent mother, all the things.

Long story short, got involved in a community locally. And actually, it was those kids who really spurred the creation of We Thrive. You know, those were my first ever mentees. What started out just as a program that I cared about passionately because I related to it during college eventually evolved into We Thrive because I just really saw its power to transform in the same way it had for me. I think those are the things that really led me to start. We Thrive. And as you said there, there’s never one moment. There’s like always a ton but those are definitely most memorable.

**
DAQUAN:
Also memorable are the challenges, right? So, let me flip that back to you and ask you what were some of those early challenges and successes that you experienced in starting Talking Points?

HEEJAE:
Gosh, so many. I would think about my early challenges. Let’s see. I started Talking Points on my own and, you know, so did you Daquan. I think at the start it was really lonely. Gosh, it was just dark, you know, it was dark and intense and lonely and you didn’t have any thought partners. And eventually building a team has really helped us get to where I’m at. I have a fantastic partner in my COO and head of product, Claudine, who just is an incredible thought partner and a leader who has grown the organization with me for a long time. Our head of engineering, head of partnerships, both of which have been with the organization for more than five years almost. So that’s been like a really amazing team spirited journey.

I would say some of the early successes. Gosh, I think getting our first earned revenue check from a first ever district partner in Oakland Unified School District here in East Bay in the Bay Area was just an incredible feeling. We nearly framed it. We didn’t frame it, but I should have framed it. And that was really grown from the bottom up. The teachers wanted talking points, the schools then wanted talking points, and then the district wanted talking points. So it felt extremely validating in terms of the impact and the mission and what we were doing to build partnerships between families and schools.

And then of course you do not forget your first, you know, seven figure philanthropic gift. I think it was from Google.org, which felt amazing when we won the Google Artificial Intelligence Impact Challenge a couple of years ago. So some of the early successes and challenges and how you go through them and how you deal with them in a way that’s aligned with the organizational values, I feel lik really shape the trajectory of where you go and how you handle stuff that’s thrown at you every day.

DAQUAN:
One thousand percent.

HEEJAE:
Yeah. What about you? What are some of the early challenges and successes? There are so many that it’s quite hard to summarize and pick a couple.

DAQUAN:
Types of successes that really stand out to me are the kind of things that resemble that of the moments that were super unexpected and felt like a different form of reflection of how much I worked. Types of things for whatever reason hit harder are things like when we won We Works Demo Day. Before creative awards, there was like two rounds of pitches. I pitched at my We Work in L.A. We won that one. And then we went to the major L.A. all wide.

I wasn’t even competing for anything. I just felt like, you know, if I’m going to show up and we’re going to pitch WeThrive. People listening should be like, “Wow, that’s a vision we should invest in.” And that was it. That’s all I cared about. I remember one of my close friends dropped me off at the location earlier that day. And he was like, “Oh, do you think you’re going to win anything?” And I was like, honestly, “If I can just get like a Starbucks gift card or like free We Work space for the year, I’ll be hype.” That was my answer. Right. And so fast forward, did this pitch. I honestly did feel like I killed it. Standing ovation for the pitch that we did. They give out awards later and they start doing awards starting at 25K. So I’m looking around and I’m like, wait, what did I miss a memo? And I didn’t. They just didn’t tell us. And so long story short, I ended up winning that and I got 180K for a Saturday’s worth of work.

Those are the kinds of successes that I feel like hit me harder because they were, again, just a deeper reflection of, as you pointed out Heejae, like the things that prepare you for the whole journey, right? Like one of the things I live my life by is, how you do anything is how you do everything. And I felt like that was a reflection to keep doing that because it was so easy to justify and say, I’m just going to do this and barely show up. But I think not doing that really poise us for obvious that success there at a time when 180 was everything. That was what— I was only like a year or two into this. So anyways, that’s what stands out the challenges and the successes.

**

HEEJAE:
So I guess, you know, as a follow up to that Daquan, how have you been able to navigate fundraising and philanthropy?

DAQUAN:
Yeah. When I think about navigating fundraising and philanthropy, right. For me, I approach it by doing the least possible so that I can focus on sustainable sourcing. So, similar to you Heejae, we’ve instead prioritized earned revenue and places where we know, okay, if we got this one contract this year and we continue to succeed and deliver on those outcomes, what could begin next year?

And so I think that’s been like our most important focus is building partnerships with, you know, our funders, right? Particularly our corporate funders or individuals. We do have a few amazing foundations that really believe in how we show up for economic development, youth development, and things around that. Unfortunately philanthropy is very easily to be removed the next year purely because they just changed their funding game.

If a funder has a bucket this year for youth development, economic development, and that’s where we’re getting our funding and then next year they don’t have that at all. And they’re purely focused on climate development. That is not going to be something securely I can base a model of success on and definitely a recipe for me to fail my community.

And so instead, what we’ve done is just find ways to sell directly to schools, school districts. And partnering with corporations that even when it comes to more funding bucket, it’s still able to be secured in a sustainable way because it might be tied to something like volunteering or something like that is again a year over year budget and a thing that could be replicated.
What is it like for you on your end? I know you all have gotten like a ton of things along the way, but as you called out, one of your major successes were the earned revenue piece. What’s that look like for you?

HEEJAE:
Yeah. I think about philanthropy and fundraising, the biggest kind of driver of success is you want to lead with the impact. You want to lead with the impact of the organization and the vision of what the world will look like if you fulfill your mission. We saw a tremendous amount of support once COVID hit. The number of families we served grew by tenfold in the last 18 months. And that meant that there were resources and funds that we had to invest in to be able to support that growth. And we’ve really seen our philanthropic partners step up in giving us unrestricted, milestone-based funding and really trusting us, Talking Points, as the grantee in making spending decisions that I’m really grateful for.

And those cut across our corporate partners, foundations and individuals who really believe in the vision of Talking Points. I would say earned revenue definitely helps in the spirit of financial sustainability to your point, Daquan. I think the fact that we have earned revenue from school districts which we hope to grow in the next three years to get us to a place that covers all our operating budget will be incredible because it means that any philanthropy and fundraising that we raise will be spent on R and D and growth and other investments. That’s more catalytic. So we are excited for the future and more to come there.

DAQUAN:
No, I definitely hear you on that. And it’s funny, you know, listening to you, another thing that I’m just reminded of is just the necessity for us to continue to unlock those new things. And I think particularly as two underrepresented entrepreneurs, right? Like those things are sometimes more difficult than our peers maybe as well. When I think about navigating fundraising and philanthropy, I think about specifically as a Black man, what does it require me in this room? Because my experience means that it’s been different than other peers, and I’m getting asked different questions, so on and so forth. And so I feel like that’s also something that I’ve grown to master along the way for better or for worse in a way that allows me to never code switch, but to make sure I’m just aware of those dynamics. If I’m going to be able to show up for my community and get to success.

**

DAQUAN:
And when your work is done right, and your mission has been achieved, what does the world look like?

HEEJAE:
Ooh, you answer that question first to con before I need to think about this.

DAQUAN:
Yeah, I, you know, it’s a hard one, right? Not because we haven’t come up with an answer, but because we’ve come up with so many answers.

HEEJAE:
Exactly.

DAQUAN:
So in the most succinct way possible for me, you know, I think when we’re done, our mission has been cheated. The world has some, I’ve been saying this for a while, actually. For others, this may feel like a hyped up word, but for me it has a ton of visionary clarity, which is it looks more akin to a utopia, right? What we’re trying to resolve at the individual and also community level allows for a level of validation per citizen and per community that I think legitimately solves a lot of subsequent problems with also the ability for individuals to manifest that validation.

And so I think the result of that— which manifest means, you know, perhaps for example, you know, I was born with single parent household, underresourced household, all the things. I was able to manifest a different validation than what society was telling me. Like I said, I think when we have systems and programs that more easily facilitate that for everyone, we live in something that feels more akin to a utopia, giving individuals the autonomy and validation required to, to fulfill that as well as a community. Let me flip that back to you. Work is done. Mission’s achieved. What’s the world look like?

HEEJAE:
Ooh. So when my work is done with Talking Points, at the very core and most immediate view would be ultimately, we want to see every school, every family, every district, every educator, and every student see building strong, equitable family school relationships as core to their role and critical to ensuring student success and wellbeing down the line.

And that goes for each and every student, regardless of that backgrounds. And they can feel supported by all the adults around them in their to grow and succeed and learn and so on. We also want a world where families are seen as assets, you know, unlocking what we say, the untapped potential of families, just the huge assets in the learning system and helping them support deep, meaningful, and nurturing relationships for their students. And for that to be in, you know, every school district and every school system in the U.S. and beyond.

I would say, you know, more broadly though. This is just a slice of the world that we’re trying to change. I think more broadly when my own personal work is done and the mission has been achieved. You know, it’s a world where each and every student can maximize their own potential because ultimately that’s what education is about. And, that’s regardless of their backgrounds, regardless of the country they’re born in, or the language they speak or how rich or poor their family is. So for every student to maximize that potential and, you know, have that growth for the rest of their lives. And somehow I believe that will narrow the achievement and the opportunity gap that we desperately need. It’s going to be a long journey and I don’t think the walk will ever be done, but I am still optimistic about, you know, about the future. So yeah.

**

HEEJAE:
So Daquan, this has been such an amazing conversation. I can’t believe it’s been seven years since we first met in Long Island for the first time. I’d love for you to share, for those listening and so inspired by your work with We Thrive and beyond, how can they learn more?

DAQUAN:
Two simplistic ways, right? One, go ahead and check out our website: teamwethrive.org Also, if you’re a young person or know a young person that you feel could really take advantage of the resources we have, go ahead and navigate that young person to the app store where they can type in We Thrive EDU and immediately get involved today.

We have coaches on a standby and they could begin to entrepreneurial journey just from, you know, their couch or wherever else is comfortable. Heejae, I’m gonna flip the same question back to you. If I’m listening in, I want to learn more about Talking Points where.

HEEJAE:
Yeah, so you can go to our website. The website is https://talkingpts.org/. You also follow us on social media. We’re really active on Twitter. And similarly, you know, if you know a school leader, an educator, or district administrator who can benefit from Talking Points, feel free to email organizational email, which is hello@talkingpts.org.

So yeah, this has just been being such an amazing conversation, Daquan. And I learned so much from you and I thought I knew everything about WeThrive and Daquan as a human, but there’s more. Thank you for your time. Thank you for our time.

DAQUAN:
Yeah. Thank you

HEEJAE:
It’s been a welcome break that’s for sure.

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