Episode 31 – Michael Hudecek and Doris Korda
IN THIS EPISODE, DORIS TALKS WITH MICHAEL HUDECEK OF ST. CLAIR SUPERIOR DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION. HE SHARES HIS “OVERWHELMING SUCCESS” IN PILOTING THE KORDA METHOD IN ONE OF CLEVELAND’S MOST IMPOVERISHED NEIGHBORHOODS.
Doris: Okay. Hey, Michael, how are you doing?
Michael: I’m doing great. It’s good to see you again, Doris.
Doris: It’s great to see you. It’s been such a short time and such a long time since I last saw you.
Michael: It was an intense six weeks we just experienced.
Doris: Yeah, how did it go? How did it go?
Michael: It was overwhelmingly successful.
Doris: That’s awesome.
Michael: You know, that comes with a large caveat of, tons of trials and tribulations and it wasn’t perfect. But for year one, we left just overwhelmed at how wildly successful this experiential learning program is.
Doris: Talk about the success. Who were the kids? How was it successful?
Michael: The students all came from two schools in our service district. A little background about myself, my name is Michael Hudecek and I work for St Clair Superior Development Corporation. And this is, to my knowledge, the first CDC run foray into urban entrepreneurship for youth, so we’re sort of treading new water, none of us are experienced educators and the students came from Nexus Academy, which is an e-learning high school. The kids spend half their time in the classroom and half of their studies happen at home. And then one of the students goes to St. Martin de Porres, which is actually who hosted us for the summer.
Doris: So they’re kids from public schools.
Michael: Nexus is a charter school and St. Martin de Porres is a private Christian-run school, actually, a really interesting model.
Doris: Yeah, it’s a really interesting model. It’s awesome. And the neighbor, could you talk for a moment about the neighborhood.
Michael: Yes, so the St. Clair neighborhood runs from about East 30th to Martin Luther King and from the lake to Payne. So it’s the near east side, roughly the same geographical location on the east side of town as Gordon Square is on the west, so proximity to downtown is really quite amazing. It’s probably the most genuinely diverse neighborhood in the city. There’s a large Asian population. It’s predominantly African-American, but there is an old Slovenian neighborhood so there’s a lot of leftover ethnic neighborhood. They hold Kurentovanje in that service district every year, which is a huge Slovenian Easter time celebration.
Doris: And just very briefly, because I was very excited about this, you said you’re not educators and it’s an economic development corporation and you decided to do this class because your goal is…?
Michael: We really wanted to provide access to entrepreneurship to kids in our neighborhood. The Cleveland Flea was started by our CDC and has grown wildly and not without our help, or without our help largely in recent years, and residents weren’t getting opportunities to access them. So we first started trying to do some stuff with adults and then realized that for actual change to take place, we needed to reach kids sooner. Not that adults can’t learn entrepreneurship, but besides learning entrepreneurship, which hopefully will create new businesses in the future, it’s really just amazing life skills, soft skills as a lot of people like to call them, financial responsibility, you name it, and the thing that piqued our interest about your program, specifically, is it’s sort of project-based learning, teamwork, and not the usual lemonade day, park on a corner, sell ten bucks worth of lemonade and pat yourself on the back.
Doris: Yeah, and yeah.
Michael: We’re just trying to do something new and different and attack it in a different way than normal.
Doris: So you did your first pilot.
Michael: Yeah, we just finished our first six-week course, we had five students and it was really amazing. We worked with two businesses in our service district. The first one is Upcycle Parts Shop, which is another program that we run at St. Clair Superior Development Corporation. They’re what’s known as a creative reuse center, so they divert waste materials from residential, industrial, and commercial sources, and then resell it as art supplies as well as doing community art programming. And then our second business was APE MADE, which is a local screen printer, she does mostly clothing and apparel screen printing. And then for our final project, we were gonna have a third business but we decided to let the students try out their hand at starting their own and when we get to that, they had a really amazing concept which blew us away at the end of the day.
Doris: Oh, yeah? What was it?
Michael: So they wanted to launch a gym because they recognized there was a gym desert. If you look at a Google Map of where gyms are in the neighborhood, you see tons of gyms downtown and tons of gyms in the heights. But the crescent moon that sort of shapes those areas, mostly impoverished regions don’t really have access to gyms. The major component was childcare, which they highlighted from getting out and talking to people, and then a lot of those people work all day, they don’t have time to go home and feed the kids, find a babysitter, go back to the gym and come back. So it was really cool to see them identify a need and try and solve it.
Doris: That’s awesome. Talking about if you had to net out the growth you saw on the kids from the start to finish as a result of your pilot, how would you describe it?
Michael: Totally different people.
Michael: Most of them were shy to begin with, some of them were ace students and totally, you know, brilliant by traditional test-taking standards but hated public speaking. As you said frequently this summer, wanted you to have an answer for them, and by the end of it, the weakest, again by traditional standards, air quotes, you can’t see at home, was probably the strongest kid in the room. He was confident, despite the fact that he was the youngest, he was 14 and everyone else, he was going to be a sophomore, everyone else was gonna be a senior, he excelled at every turn and the girl, he was the only boy, the girls kept chiding him for being young and immature, and he was the one who, when you gave him a task, came back to you with concrete information.
Doris: That’s awesome.
Michael: The ace students were finding reasons why they didn’t need to keep going and he was like, “Oh, I found this cool thing.” And he wasn’t braggadocios about it. He just sort of presented it matter-of-factly and really blew me away.
Doris: That’s awesome. What do you think, so when, you know, we talk to educators after they’ve implemented and we talk about those skills, creative problem solving, critical thinking, all that stuff. But if I had to pick one, the one that every student universally says first and most generally, is confidence. Would you agree?
Michael: Hands down, yeah. Being able to sit in a room, actually, the funder from Burton D. Morgan, who funded us, made it to the final presentation. So he was in the room, our executive director was there, some of our staff, and they had, you know, six or seven people in suits show up for their final presentation. There was some tragic circumstances, they lost a lot of days preparing, some team members were out for large stretches of that, and in the last 36 hours, they pulled it together, put an amazing show on and blew everybody out of the water. So it was just one of those, you know, when you’re down and out, you pick yourself up and keep going. And I think it was the trials that they had in the first two rounds that really gave them the confidence to pull it out at the end.
Doris: Yeah, so that’s, I think that’s really important. There are a lot of programs, a lot of programs where what you did in the final part of your class and what we do in the final part of ours, is the entire class. Choose something you care about, create a business model. I have found the same thing that having them work on someone else’s specific problem first allows them to learn. Talk about that.
Michael: There’s just so much from an entrepreneurship standpoint and the reasoning and logic that the students don’t know when they get going, so again, as someone who hasn’t been doing this very long, as an outsider, it just seems like the leap from, “I know nothing,” to, “I’m gonna start this business, that means a lot to me,” is just putting too much on their shoulders in too small of amount of time. And having a concrete single identifiable problem instead of, “I’m gonna change this world because there’s a need that I see”, allows them to focus and learn some basic tenets that they can use later on. That again at the end, they don’t necessarily know they’ve been taught, they just had to learn because they needed to solve this problem. So it was just really great to see them tackle it and then by having multiple iterations, grow the problem a little bit, take on more responsibility and they’ll tell you this, they didn’t think in the middle of the second one that they were gonna be able to do it. The same way in the middle of the first one, they say, “Oh, well we tackled the first one, we can do this. We’re stressed out but I know we can do this.” And then again in the third one, “Well, I guess we made it through that second one, there’s no way we can’t finish this one.”
Doris: That’s awesome.
Michael: So based on your concept of sort of like growing the responsibility as they come along through the program and expanding what they’re required to respond to is really helpful I think for their growth.
Doris: So, Michael, you’ve never taught before this.
Michael: I spent six weeks in Costa Rica teaching ESL. But it was a drastically different environment, teaching ABC’s and one-two-three’s to six year olds.
Doris: So talk about what it was like before, during and now, to teach as a teacher.
Michael: I think the most amazing part for me was that I felt like I was on a parallel track with the students and we had a lot in common through the whole process. They kept saying how, “We haven’t done this.” And I said, “Neither have I, you know, we’re failing together, this is great.”
Doris: That’s awesome.
Michael: And I think the confidence as an educator improved greatly as well. At each step, I became more confident along the way and I think as someone who never did this and as a non-educator, you kept saying, “Oh, it doesn’t matter, you’ll be fine, you just got to do it.” And as I was leaving the workshop with four days to go, I was panicking and thinking, “Okay, well, we don’t have any more time so this is just gonna have to work out.” And to your credit, it really did. Just showing up and going through the motions and trying to stay one step ahead and connecting TED Talks and news articles and different workshops that we could do in class with the work they were doing on the business, just was great for everybody, including me. I mean, I still watch a TED talk at least once a day now as a result of it. It was just something that I enjoy as an adult. And I think to get away from the education standpoint, it’s something that we’re trying to use in our organization. We’re actually trying to get together an office wide project. A lot of our work tends to be siloed and so we’re trying to tackle a neighborhood project in 2017 that none of us like is responsible for, but that we identify as a need. So we’re sort of taking this experiential learning back home.
Doris: That’s awesome. Are you gonna use any of the stuff that we do in the class?
Michael: Yeah, it is predicated on that model entirely.
Doris: That’s awesome.
Michael: So it’s gonna be really cool, and I think that it’s a great reminder as adults and professionals that we shouldn’t pretend that we know everything and stop growing as people. So this has really been great for me. And at the final presentation, the day before was our annual meeting and I had to give a speech and I hate public speaking and it was great to be able to tell these kids. “I was up last night, making my own slide deck, I’m 33 years old, I still don’t like doing it, I wish I was you right now, because 15 years from now you’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s easy, I don’t, you know, it doesn’t stress me out.’” So it was just really cool to be on these parallel tracks with the students. So anybody, at any level of their life, should experience this once, whether as an educator or somebody on the other side.
Doris: Yeah, and to your point about TED talks and there are so many things that are part of this model that, if you bring them in to your work, are fantastic, collaborate, you know, better collaborators bringing the rest of the world into what you do.
Michael: Absolutely. And just thinking creatively about every problem, there are so many different ways to look at the world and it’s easy to get stuck in the one that you’re in because that’s what you do and it’s how you do it. And the more opportunities to shock yourself with these different mindsets, it’s amazing, if you’re paying attention, how much applicable reasoning and logic can be brought in…
Doris: Yeah, we talked…
Michael: Unrelated fields.
Doris: Unrelated fields. We talked right before your first day of class and you were mapping out your plans for the, remember, for the first days, and you just said something now about staying one step ahead, which is before I didn’t think you understood that totally, you were nervous about making sure you had something to do every day, but clearly, now you have a different perspective on that.
Michael: Definitely. I think it’s hard too, your tendency is to wanna plan and decide what’s gonna happen.
Doris: Per minute.
Michael: And for like the students who want an answer, there’s no answer. They’re gonna get stuck on one thing tomorrow, and then two days later, it’s gonna be something you didn’t even see coming necessarily, and so you just have to be thinking, “What might they be having trouble with and how can we try and figure it out?” And to be honest, a lot of times I didn’t figure it out right away and it took me a week, and then all of a sudden, it was like, “Okay, this is what I’m doing wrong. This is how we’re gonna implement it.” And I’m sure sometimes I didn’t really nail it. But I…
Doris: Oh, yeah, sure. That’s all right.
Michael: To your point, like I just had to do it and I’ve done it and I’m already thinking about next summer, how are we gonna do things differently?
Doris: How great is that?
Michael: It’s been really phenomenal and everyone at St. Clair is really grateful for it. The opportunity to go through the workshop and the fact that you’re championing this model for anyone and the fact that it’s open access and you’re trying to just get this way of thinking out in the world, I think that’s important for the youth of America.
Doris: That’s great. That’s great. And you knew, one of the things, you mentioned at the beginning, everybody talks about these soft skills and I’ve decided not to use that term anymore. The reason is that in my travels I’d found that people are, there’s something about “soft” skills that devalues it and actually I really think the skills we’re talking about are the hardest ones to develop, they’re harder to develop than learning, memorizing my whatever and they’re… Talk about the skills that you’ve seen these students develop. And what you think they’re leaving this one summer program better equipped with as they head out?
Michael: The ability to work in teams, I think is probably the biggest improvement for all the students when we were doing the first challenge. And even to some degree, when they were solving their own problem, they tended to wanna break up the work and say, “I’m doing this part and you’re doing this part,” and getting them to say, “We’re doing this and I’m helping work on this. But if I need help, I can talk to you,” I think was really important. And again, drawing parallels to our office place, a lot of times, as adults, we forget that when we’re in a group, whatever organization it is, you have talented people all around you and being able to ask for help is something that’s not really encouraged later in life. You’re supposed to have all the answers. So it’s really great for kids to recognize early and often that asking for help is good and helpful, and various ideas are good and helpful.
Again, the confidence presenting in front of people, the confidence in having an idea and not coming up to me and saying, “I have this idea. Is this even the realm of okay?” And by the end, they’re throwing crazy ideas out there and if I say no, they come back five minutes later with a new one. It’s not, “Oh man, you shut me down, this is the end of the day, I’m done.” It was, “Oh, okay, well, let me see what, why that didn’t work and come back to you later.” And so the confidence to fail confidently, I think, is the biggest one outside of, you know, again asking questions and teamwork.
Doris: I love that. It’s so funny because you come out of having done it and these are all different schools, they’re all different courses, different programs, different sets of students and everybody comes out of this saying the same things, right, about what these students have gotten out of it, and I call it substantive confidence because I think of it as, it’s not of the empty, “Oh honey, you’re great. Let’s make sure everybody gets a ribbon whether they won or not.” It’s the confidence that comes from knowing, “I can navigate complexity, whether it’s relationships, problems, situations, I know I can navigate.” Failing badly and picking yourself up, “I have confidence that I will be able to navigate whatever is in front of me.” And that is so important for students going out into this particular day and age.
Michael: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more.
Doris: So what’s next for you?
Michael: So we are regrouping for next summer. This is part of like a three-part program. So we’re actually in the midst of planning a pitch competition for the fall. We have some funds to hopefully start a small company in the neighborhood, so we’re excited about that, and we’re working on getting that together now. We’re actually using Flipgrid as our entry point so it’s been great to integrate that technology. My wife is pregnant and we’re due in like a month.
Doris: Congratulations. That’s exciting.
Michael: Thank you. So we figured Flipgrid was an easy way for them to get their first 90-second pitch in there and then we’ll do a more intense follow-up once I’m back from paternity leave.
Doris: That’s great. And next summer, what are your plans for next summer?
Michael: Next summer, we’re coming back better than ever, hopefully, now that we’ve got one under our belt. I definitely wanna have more students. I think having the opportunity to have different teams, not only to mix personalities and provide different experiences working in teams, but also to have that little competitive edge of one-upping your fellow students.
Doris: Yeah, I have to congratulate you because people might think having a small cohort to start with is a really lucky, great, easy thing. It actually makes it more difficult because there’s a natural energy that comes from having multiple teams. If one team’s kind of stuck, they’ll look over their shoulder, the other teams going at it, and I think it’ll be so interesting to see how your experience is different as your class size grows.
Michael: Yeah, we found even just as the teachers, we stepped out a lot. There was so little for us to do every little bit that it felt suffocating to be in the same room with the students because they kept looking over their shoulder, feeling like we were judging them. So Aiden, who was interning with us this summer, a student from Hawken, and I would just leave for hours at a time and just say, “When do you want us to come back? Well, you know, you have until you need some help, if you have any questions, we’re across the hall.”
Doris: So that’s funny, the first, the reason in the Toolkit we give you the first full three weeks mapped out is that because they come in passive, wanting you to tell them everything, we find that these structures and teaching them the methodologies and all that stuff in the first stretch of the class is really important, but over time, they have the tools, they have the skills and they’re applying them, so there is more, later in the class, more time for the instructors to be out of the room.
Michael: Yeah, you’re just sort of shepherding them back to whatever direction you need them to go, but they’re doing all the work. I can’t say enough about the amount of time they put in both at home and in class, on their own accord. I mean, we were very flexible and told them, “You know, if you wanna go home, we can go home.” And more often than not, they said, “Oh, let’s stay.” Or, “Let’s go do some more interviewing.”
Doris: So if there are people listening who are thinking about trying something like this but intimidated and a lot of people do get intimated because it’s so weird, what would you say to them?
Michael: I would say, just do it. Start tomorrow. Don’t wait six weeks, don’t wait 12 months. The amount of time, so we started talking about this in February and we didn’t start implementing it until mid-June, and I spent so much energy on stuff that was a waste of time having gone through it once. Just like trying to plan and prepare and thinking about what’s gonna be perfect and there is no perfect.
Doris: No, there isn’t.
Michael: Just get one under your belt and you kept saying that this summer, and you know, having not gone through, you say, “Well, yeah, but there’s gotta be like something you can give me.” Wanting that answer that doesn’t exist. You know, it’s like this desire to have a path.
Doris: Yeah, so we’ll give you the toolkit, you’ll have a starting point, and just go to town.
Michael: Go to town.
Michael: Let them have at it.
Doris: Michael, congratulations. I’m so excited for your students, past and future.
Michael: Thank you. Yeah, we can’t wait to do it again and we really couldn’t have done it without the support of you and your team. So thank you all.
Doris: Oh, nice. Okay, so we’re gonna keep going because I just, we ended the podcast session and Tim turned off the mics and you just started saying some stuff that I really want everybody to hear. So I listened to you, knowing the kinds of kids you’re working with, and my heart is just full thinking about what you just did this summer. And if you could talk a little bit about the kids you worked with.
Michael: Yeah, I mean as I was just saying off mic earlier, poverty is just really hard. I think one of the biggest struggles we had was just the effects of uncertainty in your life at every turn, for people especially that young, deaf sisters leaving their kids with them for emergency daycare, transportation issues, lack of money, you name it. Every turn, when things seemed like they were on a course for smooth sailing to get to the end, something tragic would arise and somebody would have to be out for a day or two. And of course, it’s not a fault, no one’s mad at anybody. You have to reassure them that it’s okay and that no one’s mad. But it’s just a reminder of one, how important this opportunity is. Many of the kids…I don’t remember if we talked about this on the mic earlier…left saying how grateful they were that they had skills that they wouldn’t have had otherwise and how they’re gonna have it later in life.
Doris: So the kids already got that.
Michael: Yeah, just saying, “I don’t wanna, you know, I don’t wanna be done at high school, I wanna go to college, I wanna be a nurse, and having these skills under my belt now will be really grateful. Like I didn’t, admittedly, I didn’t wanna be here.” Some of the kids were supposed to be in another program and we tugged them back and they were crestfallen and then found that they really were enjoying it and were grateful for the opportunity. But our end goal, I think we were talking about too, is not to be the ones administering this program every year. It’s not that we don’t love doing it, my experience was amazing, but we hope to get teachers at the schools where the students we’re reaching or coming from, to recognize that, if I can do it with no background in education and practically no resources, somebody with an entire institution behind them can be having a much greater impact than Michael Hudecek can be with 5 or 10 or 15 students.
Doris: Yeah, and if we get this amidst what we’re trying to do, we don’t want these to be add-on weekend summer programs. We want all students to have, develop these kinds of skills in school classes.
Michael: Yeah, and that’s where we’re hoping to get at, too. So we are hopefully championing your cause on a very small scale.
Doris: Well, and you know, we’re here to help anybody who wants to do it.
Michael: And she means that. People listening at home, if you talk to Doris and you have a question, she will get back to you as soon as she possibly can, so don’t be shy if you have a question, and if she says, “Call me,” she means it.
Doris: Well, and we can give you a starter kit. I think that’s also, thank you for saying that, I think. I think that the big thing that teachers need to know if they wanna try this is we give you a starter kit with step…
Michael: Yeah, the toolkit’s immensely helpful to get off the ground.
Doris: Right. So you can just have something to try and it’s right there in front of you. You said something about, you talked about the kids who went to the wrong place. I thought that was really interesting the first day.
Michael: Yeah, we worked with Youth Opportunities Unlimited, which is a local sort of first job organization. They give young students between 14 and 19 summer employment. They make minimum wage. They show up, most of the jobs are manual labor or nominal tasks around for organizations that are usually nonprofits and don’t have the funds to pay for the extra help they need in the summer. And so, we partnered with them and the students were actually getting paid, but due to some administrative things, they ended up at the wrong site, which was a teen center and all their friends were there and they were so excited to be just learning about hip-hop and muraling and gardening and doing all this amazing fun stuff in the summer, and they showed up and I told them that they were basically in school again for six weeks. But it was nothing like school, which they did not believe, when I told them that.
Doris: So they were not happy that first day.
Michael: They were really unhappy and within 48 hours, they were the ones who were most excited and were saying, “Thank you so much for making us leave, we know we fought you on it but this is the best thing we could have done for six weeks. We can hang out with these kids for the next nine months at school, but we can’t ever get this back.”
Doris: And why do you think they thought it was good that they were gonna be returning to school?
Michael: They recognized immediately that the public speaking skills, the ability to work in teams, the confidence they were getting from it, and the ability to tackle a challenge that they felt completely unprepared for, was inside them the whole time, and that they didn’t need to judge themself against other people anymore because they had it all the time and they just needed somebody to say, “You can do this.” And force them to actually do it.
Doris: Yeah, that was the most beautiful thing, we’re gonna end on that note. Okay, thanks.