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Lessons I Learned By Starting A Non-Profit As A Teenager

By: Ebun Akomolafe


I still remember the day Armaan messaged me to schedule the skype call where he would pitch SpeechDojo. We were just heading into our final year of high school. As full IB students heavily involved in student governance and the speech & debate community at our highly competitive school, we already had a lot on our respective plates.


But these shared experiences were also the reason why I trusted him enough to say yes when he asked me to work with him. We had worked together to teach the grade 10 speech & debate course at our high school with other student leaders. Since much of my life revolved around speech, I saw the same gaps he did. Not everyone had access to the public speaking training we did. Even if they did, not everyone wanted to compete. And if they wanted to, not everyone had the required resources of money, time, and parents with enough free time to volunteer as judges. But they all still needed effective communication skills to succeed at school, at work, and at home. The disparity was and is unfair.


We both had the experience and the passion to do something about it. So we decided we would. I want to share 3 of the most valuable lessons that decision taught me.

 

Number One: Definitions are crucial.


The great thing about working with Armaan is that there was never any doubt what our mission was. The exact words in that initial message he had sent me 5 years ago were: “I [need] someone to help with a role at SpeechDojo (an organization dedicated to helping at-risk youth get access to public speaking training).” Today, our mission is still largely the same: We aim to equip students with the public speaking skills they need to succeed. And we prioritize underprivileged students.


But in those early days, our clear purpose brought me little comfort in the face of our chaotic practices. I wasn’t sure what my role was, and I was unclear exactly how much was expected of me. Still a full time student, I had no idea how much time was normal to spend working for the organization each week. I felt that anything could be asked of me at any given moment and I would be obliged to deliver. It felt as though I had written a blank cheque, and I lived under constant threat of it being cashed in beyond what I could afford.


This was not helped by the fact that there were no boundaries around our communications. I lived in constant fear of my messenger notifications, questioning whether I wanted to continue or not.


What I didn’t realize is that most of my anxiety was born from the lack of structure. With a friend’s encouragement, I built up the courage to tell Armaan what we were doing wasn’t working for me. I don’t even recall the details of that conversation and I doubt he does either, but I certainly remember the immense relief I felt when I expressed these feelings.


I also don’t exactly recall in what sequence things changed, but little by little, they did. Meetings went from sporadic and as-needed (which was quite often) to regularly scheduled. Our disorganized messenger conversations moved over to Slack, an event that changed my life.


What brought the greatest clarity, however, was moving from that initial period of planning to actually doing. We started drafting an early version of the online course and assigned ourselves the scriptwriting for half of the lessons each. We took the same approach when we started a partnership with a Nigerian non-profit to run a speech and debate club at a remote school. As the organization grew, my role became centered around developing the school-adjacent program now called Classroom. Knowing exactly what I brought to the table brought me peace and allowed me to refocus the energy I’d spent agonizing about my place on the team on actually making an impact.

 

Number Two: It is what you say it is.


The biggest hurdle I had to overcome in building SpeechDojo was my own sense of inadequacy. After all, who were we, as mere teenagers, to demand the time of the principals, teachers, and educators we were looking to partner with? Coming from a deeply traditional upbringing, it was difficult to shake the belief that authority could only flow downward. I only had experience leading in roles with clear traditions, like our school’s Student Union. The prospect of operating outside of an established institution wasn’t just overwhelming - it was terrifying.


Unfortunately, our first few efforts only confirmed my fears. When our partnership in Nigeria came to an end, Armaan and I spent months researching and planning our pitch to a local school where we wanted to run a club program where we would hold weekly lessons for students. Weeks of emails and follow-ups yielded no response. I was certain this was how it would always go. What right did a few teenagers have to teach anyone anything?


As it turns out, as much as the teachers and principals we worked with would allow us.


We scrapped our model school and asked ourselves who we knew. We arrived at a local elementary school our high school had often collaborated with. Using that existing connection, we secured a meeting with the school’s principal to pitch the program. At the time, we were pitching a modest proposal that the school be a platform for promoting weekly virtual after-school sessions to parents (this was still early pandemic era). Instead, the principal suggested that we teach during class time - this way, all students would consistently benefit.


I was mind blown. It hadn’t even occurred to me that our program could operate alongside traditionally essential curriculum like math and science - and directly from the mouths of our high school instructors. Here was all the proof I needed that there was value in what I was offering, from the people with the greatest authority on the matter. Once I saw that, it became easier to ask for the classroom time to teach the next class that year. The following year, we taught 18 classes. The year after that, 35.


By then, we’d achieved both our legal incorporation and charitable status. But despite previously placing great value on these traditional signifiers of legitimacy, I found that it was the response of our client-base that was the most effective antidote to my self-doubt. Don’t get me wrong - I certainly felt more secure conducting cold calls with the underlying assurance that we were a registered organization. But it was the knowledge that past teachers had found my program valuable for their students that gave me the conviction to pitch it. Clearly, we were important enough to take up space, no matter how young we were.


I find it particularly useful here to define the word “organization;” Google tells me it’s “an organized body of people with a particular purpose, especially a business, society, association, etc.” Effectively, any group of people working towards a common goal. At the start, I had felt the word “organization” was too big - too official for us and what we were making.


It turns out we had been one even before the government validated our existence.


Eventually, I stopped questioning what gave us the right to do anything and started asking how we could demonstrate what we were capable of. I’d learned a fundamental lesson. The organization existed because we said it did. As long as we were doing the work and achieving results, we were exactly who we said we were.

 

Number Three: People are everything.


We were - and still are - entirely volunteer run. Most of our teammates are busy students with more than enough to do. They aren’t being paid for the time they spend at SpeechDojo. Yet, if you ask an average member of the team why they do what they do, they’ll tell you one of 2 things (or both): a) they truly believe in the work they’re doing because they remember not having the confidence to speak for themselves and find it gratifying to witness students flourish under their guidance, and b) they love the people they do the work with.


By using our own social networks, we slowly and intentionally invited people we knew had the work ethic and sense of ownership needed to build something from scratch; people who had their own sense of vision too. We cultivated an atmosphere of warmth with practices like check-outs, in which teammates review action items and share life updates. The result has been a sense of investment in each other’s lives that allows us to support each other where needed. It has also created a spirit of familiarity that makes it easy to share ideas honestly. I found that at SpeechDojo, I had people I could trust; people who would push me to grow.


For example, in the early days, when even the thought of calling a school gave me great anxiety, my colleagues pushed me to do it. In the time between our initial partnership in Nigeria ending and our entry into our first local school, the pandemic started. Under the leadership of Josh and Sara, we spent that summer building our free online courses. When fall swung around and there was no sign in sight of things returning to normal, Josh pushed for me to pivot and run a version of the school program online. I was skeptical. I couldn’t imagine teaching such a social skill without being in person.


As it turns out, that’s exactly what we needed to do. Teachers love the convenience and flexibility of the format. Students thrive in a safe and familiar environment. Instructors can easily fit lessons into their busy days, making it a more accessible volunteer opportunity. But I would not have had the courage to structure the program that way on my own.


This organization would be nothing without the people - the youth - who own and build it. And I would not be a quarter of the leader I am today without the experiences I have had with them. As much as we care about our mission, it is this unique combination of motivated, honest, and bold people that have made it possible to build something from nothing. I know it's trite, but I feel this in my heart: if you have the right people, you have everything you need.

 

I always wondered how things got started - how large companies came into existence or common practices came to be adopted. Now I know that there’s no real secret to it: you simply decide something should be - and then you start doing. You might soon be looking at an institution that will last long after you’re gone.


SpeechDojo was my leadership playroom: it gave me the opportunity to explore, to experiment and to discover how I wanted to lead. The boundless sense of potential created a feeling of ownership and commitment I couldn’t get anywhere else.


These are valuable experiences you won’t find by assuming the mantle of a pre-existing position in an established institution. It is why I strongly feel that everyone should have the experience of building something new at least once in life.


And it is why I am so glad I was brave enough to say yes to starting a non-profit at 17.


Ebun Akomolafe is a member of SpeechDojo's Board. She is one of SpeechDojo's Co-Founders and former VP Classroom.

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