Over the past two decades (since she was in college) Jennifer has sculpted groundbreaking campaigns around youth empowerment, employment and entrepreneurship, bringing educational, government and corporate stakeholders together to impact millions. Author of the New York Times Bestseller Secrets of the Young & Successful, Kushell is an advisor to leading global youth organizations, a delegate of several State Department led entrepreneurship missions, and a Youth Advisor at the UN. Building Exploring Your Potential is part of a lifelong quest to ensure no driven young person lacks access to opportunity to achieve their potential.
Dreaming Big and Exploring your Potential
Students are intimately coached through Exploring Your Potential™ by Jennifer, who offers context, explains the relevance of key topics, and inspires action every step of the way.
Full Transcript Available Here
Daniel: 05:37 Over the past two decades, Jennifer has sculpted groundbreaking campaigns around youth empowerment, employment and entrepreneurship bringing educational government and corporate stakeholders together to impact millions. Author of the New York Times bestseller Secrets of the Young and Successful, Jennifer’s an advisor to leading global youth organizations, a delegate of several state department led entrepreneurship missions and a youth advisor at the UN. Building Exploring Your Potential is part of a lifelong quest to ensure no driven young person lacks access to opportunity to achieve their potential. And welcome to the show, Jennifer Kushell.
Jennifer: 06:18 Hi, how are you?
Daniel: 06:19 I am pumped to have this conversation with you. It’s not often we get to start a podcast conversation about when you run for student politics back in sixth grade and you almost lose to the head cheerleader. Can you take us to that moment?
Jennifer: 06:40 Hi, you’re so awesome. I was one of those kids in school that really struggled to fit in and,struggled a lot with learning disabilities and also just popularity and figuring out who I was in the world. And in sixth, seventh grade I was running for, I wanted to do speech and debate and my friends would laugh at me and they wanted me to be a believer instead. And,I had this teacher that was kind of a nerdy teacher who convinced me that I had the potential to do great things in speaking and leadership. And she was the first person ever to say that to me. And I did that. And my friends went off and they did their cheerleading and I did my speech and debate. And I ran for president of my grade the next year. And, the head cheerleader tried to beat me out. And then, wound up a few years later becoming student body president of my high school and becoming a lifelong leader and a professional speaker, now having gone to 50 countries around the world speaking. So I’m really grateful for that teacher who stopped me very early and really convinced me not to take the “popular path,” but the one that was right for me.
Daniel: 07:47 What do you think it was about that comment, the teacher’s sharing that with you or, what’s in your DNA to then heed the advice because the social pressure and, just wanting to fit in right at that age is profound. But you decided, you know what, I’m still going to follow this string.
Jennifer: 08:06 Yeah. You know, I’ve had a lifelong quest to be seen in the world and to have people see me as a human being. And I think that’s so universal. I don’t think we talk about that enough. We have all these ideas of what success looks like and what successful paths look like and what achievement looks like. But I don’t think we spend enough time talking to the individuals about who they are and what matters to them and what drives them. And I think if we can start to tap into that a lot earlier, we can create such beautiful ambition and self efficacy and momentum that can propel people into their futures in the most beautiful of ways. And, because I didn’t have that growing up, even though I had so many of the conventional things that you’re supposed to have to be successful, and I’m so grateful for that, but I didn’t feel like people saw me.
Jennifer: 08:59 And so I’ve spent my life trying to do that for other people and trying to create environments that really hone in on that.
Daniel: 09:06 What does that look like then in your work or with the teams that you lead?
Jennifer: 09:11 Well, I mean in our work, sometimes people will say, Oh, well, what kind of jobs do you have? Well, I say, tell me about you. Let me, sculpt something around who you are and what value you can add to us. I’m always, very reticent to try to put very strong lines and guardrails around things. I like to leave people and opportunities and projects open and flexible so they can evolve in different ways and I think even in the program that we’ve developed, we did that too. We took the guard rails down and took the guidelines down and said, okay, stop telling kids what their options are and start showing them some frameworks and give them some filters and help them build some strategy and let them loose to become the people that they want to be.
Daniel: 09:58 I love the idea of letting them loose to be the people that they’re meant to be, but you have to get comfortable with the tension of that. So even allowing space to happen here in silence in our conversation it could be awkward for us or for the listener, but I think we’re both comfortable with that. As a leader I think it’s like it’s about giving up control a little bit and allowing the magic that’s there untapped to come out. So can you talk a little bit about leadership mindset in that sense in terms of saying, you know what, I’m crafting this for you and I’m going to let you evolve into who you were meant to be.
Jennifer: 10:43 I mean I think we all need opportunities to show what we can do in the world. And someone told me years ago sell the success and especially with young people, I think we have to give them small successes, give them small opportunities for success.
Jennifer: 10:58 Not once we’ve manufacturer but, but opportunities to test out ideas and try things. And I think all of us are more successful when we can do that because we build confidence along the way. And you learn and you evolve. I was with one of the head to head product developers for Google a few years ago and he was talking about constant iteration. And I think if we look at ourselves as a constant work in progress at whatever age we are, it allows us to feel like, you know, we’re not going to make every right decision and we’re not going to do everything perfectly and we’re not going to know what to do at every step of the way. But the more we can keep pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone and trying new things and testing things and disrupting the status quo when it needs to be disrupted, when it doesn’t necessarily, but you know, there’s always an opportunity to do things better and to be smarter.
Jennifer: 11:50 And if we can continuously embrace that over our lifetime, create environments that make that a value in our ecosystems, I think we’re just improving the world in so many different ways.
Daniel: 12:02 So I could connect some dots because I’ve had some conversations with you, but we’re talking about value, we’re talking about growing, doing things differently. And I remember a story you told me that you would go to these sleepovers, which is pretty normal, you know, for kids that have but then you would stay up with the parents to talk and learn about business. Tell us some more about that.
Jennifer: 12:30 Yeah, my parents were going through a divorce when I was growing up. Still, I always had surrogate families. I would seek out my friends’ families that look like proper family units if there is such a thing. And I would stay with them and I would talk to them.
Jennifer: 12:44 And I love talking to adults when I was a kid ever since I was five and when I made salt sandwiches from my parents’ friends, I was always trying to cook and create and talk to them about my ideas. And you know, one of my biggest mentors in the world came from that where I went hunting for the founder of Subway at a conference because I found out that he was 17 when he started and he became a lifelong mentor of mine for 26 years I think. So, I think when you’re young and curious, you need to build on that and that, you know, that just started for me very, very early. And again, it’s something I’ve tried to incorporate in teaching.
Daniel: 13:22 And then you have these opportunities, which I didn’t realize working with the founder of Subway who you just mentioned, mentored you for 26 years and what’s interesting about that is that door is closed unless you walk through it, right?
Daniel: 13:39 The answer’s always no, unless you ask. And is there something that you’ve learned over the years that has made you more confident in dreaming big and allowing yourself to become the person you were meant to be?
Jennifer: 13:56 That’s a great question. But I just want to touch on one thing you just said about asking people to mentor you. I have a fundamental belief that that’s not how it works. I don’t think we ask people to mentor us. I think we inspire them to mentor us. I never asked the founder of Subway or the editor of Entrepreneur magazine or the founder of Nifty or the founder of Princeton review to be my mentors, but I met them and I guess they saw my enthusiasm and my energy to change things and to build new models. And they got so excited by that, especially because I didn’t belong where I was.
Jennifer: 14:33 I was too young and I didn’t have any experience and I didn’t have the traditional background. And so I think they embraced me and they were curious about me and gave me opportunities that they wouldn’t give a peer maybe at that time. So I think mentoring is the most, is such an incredible, critically important thing. But I think if we try to put too much structure around that, we forget that it’s a human relationship and human relationships need space to open up and people will invest in you if they believe in you. You don’t have to ask them. But, so anyway,
Daniel: 15:07 Well, that’s a really powerful reframe because in some respects it takes the pressure off because if you are just you, you know, there’s a Derek Sivers quote that I love, what is ordinary to use, extraordinary to me, if you are just you to your fullest and rely on that relationship building, it just again opens up that door and who knows what will happen as a result. It takes the pressure off. That’s a really, really beautiful reframe, Jennifer. So thank you for sharing that.
Jennifer: 15:40 And also speaking of framing, let’s go to dream big. We know one of the ways I learned to dream big was being exposed to bigger opportunities in ecosystems. When I was a kid, I went to conferences with my parents. They were all in business. I mean most kids go on vacation to Florida or something or you know, they go to the beach with their families. I went to cocktail parties and I thought that was really odd, but it gave me an opportunity to talk to adults, to have them ask me questions and I was excited that they were asking me questions. And when I met Fred from Subway, one of the things he said to me is by going to an industry conference, which was the International Franchise Association he sat in the back of the room when he was just starting and he had a few dozen units maybe.
Jennifer: 16:26 And he watched the heads of Burger King and the heads of Taco Bell talk about there are hundreds and hundreds of units of these franchises concepts. And he sat there and he said, you know what, I can do that too. And when I heard him talk about that and then I saw him and he had 30,000 stores around the world and I had the opportunity to travel and I saw places like Pizza Hut in Japan and different places. It made me think, wow, you know, as big as I thought, I could think, there are people who think much bigger than me. And it made me realize, you know, I spent so much time trying to put leaders in front of young people and people with very divergent career paths in front of them because you never know what conversation or what person is going to spark a new idea for you. And when you can see that people actually do walk on the moon and they work on rockets and they disrupt school systems and they create school systems from nothing and they create industries from nothing, why can’t we,
Daniel: 17:27 Is there something similar that you see in these big dreamers that allows them to think about Pizza Hut in Japan or walking on the moon?
Jennifer: 17:36 I think it’s that moment of self efficacy. I think you have to start with a belief in what’s possible and then believe in yourself. And you have to give up trying to fit in and trying to impress other people. Sometimes your belief in what’s possible is so strong that you have no choice but to push forward and pursue it. I mean I talk about solving global youth employment and people look at me cross-eyed. What are you talking about globally? What are you talking about a billion young people. Well yeah, if we can make systemic change and that can grow, we can impact thousands and that can turn into hundreds of thousands so that can turn into millions and it can grow and grow. So I think it’s really beautiful for all of us to try to expand how we think and go bigger.
Jennifer: 18:29 And sometimes we’re called to do very big things and I feel like I’m called to create systemic change in the world around how we teach career and teach opportunity to young people.
Daniel: 18:40 So the dream is big enough if this idea of what we’re capable is, is big enough, that pushes you through the hard times when you’re wondering about if you fit in and those kindof things. What was I hearing you correctly with that?
Jennifer: 18:56 Yeah, thank you. The way you get through the hard times I think is by recentering to what matters to you. I used to ask the editor of Entrepreneur why she would stop everything and meet me when I was at 20 years old cause she’s a busy woman and she said, honey, you remind me of why I do what I do. And so I’d use that technique myself. I have a pseudo foster kid and I’ll spend time with him when I just feel like my life is upside down or I’ll go do some work with local inner city kids or I’ll get on WhatsApp with Nigeria and talk to young people that have been so moved by the work that we do.
Jennifer: 19:35 And it reconnects me to why it’s so important regardless of what might be going on in my everyday presence.
Daniel: 19:41 I don’t want to give up this dream big thinking just yet. So for the ruckus maker listening, if she wants to 10X her thinking and really start dreaming big, but maybe hasn’t done that just yet. Any ideas on how to start? Or, are there some questions that you ask yourself to get in the mind space to dream big like that? What works for you? What’s your process?
Jennifer: 20:07 I mean, I try to surround myself when I’m trying to tackle something. I try to get around the smartest minds I can, the people who have achieved the most. I wanted to change education. I got around, you know, the guy who created the Princeton Review. And the head of my board is a founder of Blackboard. So I mean, I’m constantly surrounding myself with people who think much, much bigger than I do and to have achieved much bigger.
Jennifer: 20:33 And we don’t have to know those people personally. We can look at Ted talks, we can watch podcasts, we can listen to podcasts like this. You know, there are numerous ways for us to be connected to bigger thinkers. You know, we all can access, you know, Khan Academy and understanding that back story and how he got that going. So I think it’s super important that we surround ourselves with the biggest people we can. Even you mentioned 10 X, I’m literally listening to 10 X on audible right now in my car to push myself to think beyond. And so having the influences around us impact us every day. I wrote in my last book that we have to think about the inputs that we have coming into our life and into our mind just like we think about what we put in our body when we eat and when we diet and we think about our nutrition.
Jennifer: 21:21 If we fill our body with junk, we’re going to have junk come out. If we fill our brain with good things and good ideas, amazing things happen. I have my best ideas being in yoga and it’s because my body’s moving, my mind is free, my everything’s flowing beautifully and I get these beautiful ideas. But I’m also listening to these wonderful concepts about the fluidity of the world and about purpose and meaning and legacy. And I think that’s so beautiful to reconnect with. And then I can get online and watch, you know, CNN or watch BBC, and then here’s some other big global problem and think, how can I connect the dots? How can I touch that? You know, how can I do something in my world? So the United Nations is getting together as they do often and they’re talking about the biggest problems of the world. And they’ve put out sustainable development goals and said any of us in the world can go try to solve the biggest problems in the world. And so it just, it makes me think we all have an opportunity every day, but we have to be comfortable not only with failure but thinking really, really big and giving ourself the chance to shoot for that whenever we can.
Daniel: 22:31 Jennifer, I’m enjoying this conversation, but let’s pause here for a moment for a message from our sponsors. The Better Leaders, Better Schools podcast is brought to you by Organized Binder. Organized Binder is an evidence based RTI tier one universal level solution and focuses on improving executive functioning and non cognitive skills. You can learn more and improve your student success at Organized Binder.com. Alright, and we’re back with Jennifer Kushell and we were just finishing up talking about dreaming big. I would like to move the conversation now to talking entrepreneurship at a young age. So what does it look like to talk entrepreneurship with young people?
Jennifer: 23:19 I have been talking about entrepreneurship for a long time since I was 19. I started one of the first networks for young entrepreneurs on copy serve and we got 75 countries of young people talking about it. I think it’s evolved a lot over the past few years. And I think the concept of entrepreneurs,you know, we say entrepreneurship I think is a mindset first and foremost. It’s how we attack problems in the world, how we create opportunity in the world. I would say think like an economist and act like an entrepreneur and you can get through anything. Entrepreneurship means, you know, starting a business. It means running an enterprise. I think you can still be an entrepreneur, run a nonprofit, but it also means creating opportunity out of nothing and monetizing opportunity. And so whether you’re a freelancer or you’re a consultant or you’re a micro entrepreneur or an intrepreneur, you know, you could be on eBay doing something.
Jennifer: 24:15 You could be in the alternative economy working on Uber, or you can meet an intrepreneur in a school building new innovative programs and building new projects. And so you can also be in franchising. You know, we talked about Subway. You can own a franchise company or franchise concept and be a franchisee and be an entrepreneur. You can be in London. There’s so many different pathways to be an entrepreneur. Even being a part of a small team or a core team that’s launching a venture, you don’t have to be the one driving it. So I think we can all interface with entrepreneurship. We can also use entrepreneurship to push our ideas forward and our careers forward. But I think we need to reframe with a bigger conversation around it so we don’t feel like it’s one thing. There’s no one path for entrepreneurship.
Jennifer: 25:04 It’s a model that we use to build opportunity and economic substance.
Daniel: 25:10 For the ruckus maker listening I highly suggest that she reaches out to you and connects cause you’re doing such good work with the young people and your book Secrets of the Young and Successful is available and you’re exploring your potential program is changing lives. Can you tell us a bit about exploring your potential?
Jennifer: 25:34 Thank you for asking. We, after all these years, our last book was in the New York Times best seller called Secrets of the Young and Successful and that reframed how young people look at success in the world. A couple of years later I had the opportunity to do some work with Bloomberg and they asked us to build some content to teach young people in schools about career and why they should care about news and why they should care about the world around them. And we started building a program when it got so popular that the school started saying, listen, we’ve got a lot of students that we need to impact.
Jennifer: 26:09 And one of the deans of a school that we work with, we work with a lot of universities, they said, I need scalable intimacy. I need to help and impact a lot of young people, but make sure that their experience with this is very accustomed to what they want and what they need. And I, I just loved that. So our team got together and we said, listen, the only way we can do this, the way that we really want to, to share the information that we want is to build an online learning course. And I wanted to teach it myself, not teach it myself, but I wanted to be a part of it because when I speak in schools around the world, it’s amazing to me that in the past couple of years, students will wait online for up to four hours to answer, ask me questions, and it made me think I’m saying something that they’re not hearing, and it’s not to negate anything that they’re learning in schools, but somehow we’re codifying things.
Jennifer: 27:02 We’re connecting things, creating a network effect, helping them assimilate what they’ve learned and what they’ve experienced. And so we built this program called Exploring Your Potential, which was supposed to be a career readiness program. And a lot of schools, K through 12 and college were using it at the end as they transition out. But what started happening is as we rolled this out, students started having incredible outcomes in confidence and clarity in direction. They started engaging in school more. They wanted to continue their education, they wanted to engage with other students. The soft skills started to open up and blossom. They made friends, they made more strategic decisions about the classes that they took, not the extracurricular activities that they were participating in. And they completely started to evolve and grow as human beings. And so a lot of the universities now are making it mandatory for their student bodies and even putting it into their students’ success programs, which are like their first year initiatives. And so even since I talked to you last week, we started working with a big network of charter schools and they’ve completely replaced their career planning content for this because they said this is a much more holistic approach that speaks directly to the future of work and helps empower that young individual in a way that we can’t do to scale with individuals trying to serve dozens of young people or hundreds or thousands of young people at a time.
Daniel: 28:33 Love it. And if the ruckus maker listening wants to check out your work both exploring your potential and your book will be linked up for her in the show notes. What message Jennifer would you put on all school marquees across the if you could do so for just a day?
Jennifer: 28:51 Anything is possible.
Daniel: 28:52 Anything is possible and you’re building a school from the ground up. You’re not limited by any resources, your only limitations your imagination. How would you build your dream school and what would be your top three priorities?
Jennifer: 29:06 Mine would be online. It would be accessible to any young person on the planet who wanted to participate. I would want to make sure that no one was limited in their access to it. They could be in a village, they could be on an Island, they could be in a remote region, they could participate. I would want to make sure that it’s peer to peer learning, that it’s totally inclusive. I’d want it to be global for sure. I am blown away by what happens when you put young people from different countries together and the ideas that they share and the growth that experience and I’d like to give them access to what opportunity looks like in every, every shape and form. I think there are different models for work. I think there’s different models for activism, for entrepreneurship and I’ve really made a big effort to make that very clear and exploring your potential so they don’t feel like they’re ever in a box or they’re ever being treated like sheep, which happens when you try to run programs to scale unfortunately, but those, that’s what I’d say, it would have to be online.
Jennifer: 30:13 It would have to be accessible to any young person anywhere in the world. It would have to be heavily global. I’d want people from every country and I’d want to expose them to what the world looks like and how opportunity is accessible to any of us. I think the world’s a candy store of opportunity if we just frame it that way.
Daniel: 30:29 Jennifer, thank you so much for being a part of the Better Leaders Better Schools podcast. Of all the things we talked about today what’s the one thing you want a ruckus maker to remember?
Jennifer: 30:40 I would say please help continue to inspire your kids to be ruckus makers. Give them permission to go outside the lines. We’ve all fought so hard to be ruckus makers ourselves and it’s, it has not been an easy path for any of us. Help make it easier for your kids and their lives will change in front of your eyes as I’m sure they already are doing.
Daniel: 31:09 Thanks for listening to the Better Leaders Better Schools podcast for ruckus maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, [email protected] or hit me up on Twitter at Alien Earbud. If the Better Leaders Better Schools podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more ruckus makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode. Extra credit for tagging me on Twitter at Alien Earbud and using the hashtag BLBS. Level up your leadership at better leaders better schools.com and talk to you next time. Until then, class dismissed
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