It was a little over two years ago on a cold December evening. I had left work, hopped on the metro and headed to DC to a tech networking event. After being to a couple of these types of gatherings, I was fascinated by the diversity of professionals who attended. From young college students to executives, the room was always filled with individuals who wanted to connect, grow, expand their network and find opportunities. I met Duane that evening. We immediately found common ground as we introduced ourselves to each other. He had been teaching at General Assembly in DC and my wife Heather was then taking some web development classes. Later in the conversation, I found out that Duane Rollins was also an entrepreneur. He had cofounded a nonprofit organization called STEMLY and in 2016, helped cofound the Washington Leadership Academy. STEMLY is ‘a nonprofit advocacy organization championing access to high quality science, technology, engineering and math education. Their focus is on ensuring underrepresented groups are equipped with the necessary skills to tackle the toughest societal problems in the new innovation economy’. The Washington Leadership Academy ‘combines best practices in teaching and learning, with the latest in educational technology to create an unparallelled high school experience. The academy prepares students for college, career and lives of public leadership. Today, just a few years after launching, Duane Rollins and his partners affect the lives of one hundred and more students every day.
In 2014, Duane and I connected on LinkedIn and we kept in touch. Inviting him to be featured on this blog series was a no brainier. If you knew Duane, you would agree that he’s one to lend a hand and make himself available; and that’s exactly what he did when I reached out. Here is an excerpt of our conversation.
Duane, thank you for taking the time to chat with me. Please tell our readers more about your educational background?
Education wise, I have an undergrad from Virginia Tech in mechanical engineering and I have my master’s degree from Georgia Tech in industrial design.
The majority of people fear engineering, math and physics, etc. What made you go into that field?
I wanted to design cars and that’s what I got in my mind in high school. I went to the library and opened up the occupational handbook.They were all these occupations and what people major in to do them; I looked up ‘car designer’ and the two majors that it had were mechanical engineering and industrial design. After HS, I applied to three schools. Two of them were for mechanical engineering and the third one for industrial design. My decision to choose engineering for undergrad was two fold. One, engineering felt like something I knew a little bit more about. I didn’t know exactly what industrial design was and the job prospects at the time. But engineering sounded solid and you sounded smart when you told people you were majoring in engineering. It sounded like the thing to do. The other half of my reasoning was that I knew it was possible to pursue a graduate degree in industrial design if I did engineering for my bachelors but not vice versa…
Tell me a bit of your work experience.
I worked so many different types of jobs. […]. As an undergrad, I would take a lot of jobs doing research projects or teaching at summer camps. Then I interned at GE working on the quality control process for parts that went into their wind turbines. I quickly realized that it wasn’t for me. It was [noble work but] not something I wanted to do. During graduate school I started to teach more. I taught or developed curriculum at every grade level, from preschool to adults. After graduation I worked for a data visualization company for bit. From there, worked for another digital media company where I would design enterprise level websites for large non-profits like the cystic fibrosis foundation, the peace corps, the USO and the Department of State. Now I work at the GSA, a division called the Technology Transformation Service trying to transform the way the government builds and buys technology. When time permits, I teach at General Assembly, and Georgetown, while taking on projects through my non-profit or as a freelancer. I’m always out and about trying to do something that’s interesting and figure out where I can be helpful.
In 2014, you co-founded your company, your non-profit. How did you come to that point in your career?
The ‘Why’ was easy. My nonprofit is STEMLY; we’re an advocate for high quality STEM education. My co-founders and I realized that we were one of the few people of color at the proverbial “table” in our professional lives. We talked about our journeys and realized that in tech, particularly in STEM, there is not really a pathway to get from A to B. We felt we could be useful by becoming a guiding force to help others get from A to B by sharing our stories. The reason why we became an actual non-profit was [in this is my personal reason; it might be different for the other co-founders] I wanted to do something official because I knew it would inspire others around me to go out and start their own things. I wanted to know about entrepreneurship and the best way to learn it is to do it. Doing that, it would encourage a friend or someone that I know and they might decide ‘maybe I should do something or start a venture, maybe I should actually go out and see what it takes to do it’. I knew I could take the bumps and bruises and come out OK. I had confidence that we would be relatively successful. But really, it was more about doing it to see what it’s like and try it and hopefully you’re going to encourage other people to not just talk about their ideas but do it and make it a reality.
STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
Your company is a non-profit. How long did it take you to raise money and get the funds to actually launch, get a physical location for your classes, etc?
For us, it was never about needing money to do anything. I think that’s the biggest myth around entrepreneurship or starting a nonprofit; that somehow you need money before you can begin. If you want to be helpful and solve a problem, go and be helpful and solve a problem. You don’t need money to do it and you don’t need permission. So from day one, it didn’t matter if we were profitable or not, it was just about helping others. And we didn’t need office space to do that.
So the most important thing here is to take the first step…
Just take the first step. You have to be passionate enough about the problem you’re trying to solve and just attack that problem. Everything else will work itself out. To be honest, I could tell you exactly what to do and it would still be hard. It’s like working out. If you want to be in shape, it’s actually very simple. You’ve gotta eat healthy and exercise regularly. Doing those things regularly is what makes it hard though. You have to learn to be disciplined.
What was your mindset when you had to deal with obstacles and setbacks?
You can’t be wrapped up in what you want other people to think of you. A lot of people start businesses or think about entrepreneurship in terms of their own ego and not necessarily who they are serving. So when you remove your ego from it, you don’t worry about making mistakes or putting yourself out there because you’re not caught up by ‘what do I look like’, ‘would people think I’m cool’, etc. A lot of people start ventures for the wrong reasons like wanting to be famous, but that’s a very CHEAP thrill. It doesn’t last and when you get it, you realize it’s actually not worth it. With me, I like to stay low key and just focus on the work.
Teaching at GA and being in the DC area, you probably see a lot of people who want to start their own business, startups, etc. What would be your advice to a millennial out there who just graduated or who’s been working for 3, 4, 5 years and is thinking about launching a business but has never taken the step?
I’ll say something here that’s not profound but really helpful. It’s MEET PEOPLE AND BE USEFUL. That sounds easy enough but let me explain. This means actually going to events where people are talking about the things you’re interested in or passionate about. Meet like-minded folks who care about those things and talk to them while you’re there, exchange information and FOLLOW UP. For the first conversation after that meeting, don’t just be like ‘I want to pick your brain’ but ask ‘what are you trying to do and how might I help you get there?’. And then BE USEFUL AND HELP THEM get there without expecting anything in return. Be a genuine, useful, pleasant person and make sure you follow up. Taking the opportunity to go to someone and say ‘Hey, I ran into someone who was talking about this and I thought it would be something that you might be interested in’. Just like with both of us, we [myself and Duane] met a couple years ago and now we are reconnecting. You reached out to me and I remember you from our first meeting and I was like ‘that’s great that he wrote a book; if I can be helpful to him, why wouldn’t I take the time to do it’. Most people don’t follow up though and that’s the greatest failure.
Thank you Duane.
To learn more about the Washington Leadership Academy, visit WashingtonLeadershipAcademy.org. Support the work that STEMLY is doing in the lives of young students by visiting STEMLY.org – donate and support the work that they’re doing as they have a lot of things planned for 2017.
Contact Duane on LinkedIn