2.5 Years at TKS — Program Review (Student + Employee Perspective)
I have been part of The Knowledge Society (TKS) since September 2018. Sept 2018 — June 2020 as a Student, and Sept 2019 — April 2021 as an employee.
This program has been truly revolutionary in building my network, skills and career ambitions. A few sentences won’t do TKS justice, so I’ll go right into the details of my time as a student and as an early employee (Program Success Manager) at TKS.
Why did I join TKS?
I joined TKS in 10th grade as a top STEM student with a desire to do more than what the classroom confines me to. I value creation, freedom and imagination; conventional education focuses too much on following instructions.
TKS was my avenue to explore how technology and science can shape our future.
After a year in the program, my life changed drastically. I worked on exciting projects in foreign parts of the world, developing expertise in niche fields like carbon nanotubes for pelvic inflammatory disease and being surrounded by ambitious students doing equally exciting things.
When I had the option to essentially skip grade 11 (I was ahead on courses) to work at TKS part-time, I jumped on the opportunity. I believe everyone has more potential than they’re operating at now; I wanted to help unlock that.
Ok, but what is TKS?
Technically, TKS’s one-liner is “a 10-month program for high school students teaching the skills, mindsets and networks needed to leverage emerging technologies and sciences to build the future.”
There are many, many, many parts to this program, but if I were to synthesize it down, I would say this: TKS is the ultimate precursor.
The program introduces students to concepts, ideas and philosophies that will inspire the rest of their lives — their best friends, startups, education, spouses, and SO FORTH. I will detail the precursor effect in the rest of this post.
All the logistical details are on TKS’s website (b.t.w. they neglect to tell you that in-person TKS programs have free cookies every weekend… insider secret 🍪).
👉 Now, onto the good stuff!
Learning to build instruction manuals
In grade 6, I was a library helper. It was exciting for two reasons. 1) I got to spend recess inside, isolated from 6th-grade society. 2) I got first dibs on the recipe books at the semiannual book fair.
I’d run home, ready to crack open my betty-crocker-wannabe-book, only to completely ignore the recipes inside. My mother, rightfully, went nuts.
I truthfully could not care less about delicately massaging 234 mL of egg whites and a one-sixteenth teaspoon of cream of tartar into the “wet ingredient” bowl (everything mixes together, anyway 😤).
And still, I loved recipe books.
But it wasn’t for the instructions. I loved them as platforms of inspiration to create something new. Everyone can follow a book. Not everyone can make cookies from their intuition.
I can follow a recipe, just like I follow my history poster rubric or titration calculation scaffold; I’m just more interested in discovering new recipes.
TKS is structured to read recipe books the “Izzy” way: inspire discovery, not redo what exists.
Because recipe books come from paper, which comes from trees, I’ll extrapolate how TKS inspires creation via a plant analogy.
In September 2018, I made a conscious decision. Instead of watching Netflix, I would log in to this “TKS” online portal thingy to see what’s up with this program I just joined.
I see two boxes on my screen — “alternative energy” and “artificial intelligence.” I hover over the alternative energy module, and I see youtube videos and articles that are about to blow my mind.
Each module is scientific but futuristic. It wasn’t about studying Bohr’s atomic model or Ohm’s law; it was about why those laws are important and how to apply them.
I do this a few more times over the week, grinding through hours of videos and resources. I learn about renewable energy, artificial intelligence and cryptocurrencies, and I just want to keep going.
What should I do next? I see two more boxes on a screen. Which do I click?
This next click will bring me to 5 countries. This next click will get me to meet Satya Nadella, Sophie Trudeau and Madelaine Petsch. This next click will foster my bond with the Van Eelen family, a relationship I will value for a lifetime.
I hover my mouse over a word I’ve never seen, “cellular agriculture,” and click my trackpad as if I just ordered an avocado pillow off Amazon (i.e. in my normal clicking temperament). But this is no avocado pillow. This is a click on a website that will become the precursor for the rest of my life.
Most people’s interests stop at a YouTube video. You might say “cool!” but what’s next?
As a 15-year-old first-generation public school student from a random neighbourhood in a Torontonian suburb, I seriously had no post-YouTube video career trajectory.
But my ex-McKinsey and ex-Silicon-Valley-Startup-CEO directors at TKS gave me the post-cool YouTube video guidance I needed.
I started breaking down cellular agriculture research on my bambino blog. Other TKS students and my directors would give me feedback on my content and writing, building my rapid iteration cycle.
My little blog morphed into a portfolio of videos, bacterial engineering projects and more research paper reviews. By November, I even got nominated for the CES young innovator to watch award.
Direction → feedback → iteration = the build your recipe recipe
While the Canadian air was turning from cold to very cold, my potential was going from warm to hot. Simultaneously while working on my self-directed cellular agriculture projects and building a consulting recommendation for Walmart (details coming later), I volunteered at the Toronto Machine Learning Series (TMLS), my second ever conference, courtesy of TKS.
On the second morning of the conference, I chugged my free Tim Hortons coffee and set up the registration booth. As the eldest of an immigrant family, I am well versed in being the spokesperson. As a morning person, I could not be more excited to talk to strangers at 7 AM.
As I registered a speaker, the brilliant Lina Ismail, we had a vibrant chat about her work in fintech. I remember feeling so inspired by her energy afterwards, and we’ve kept in touch over the years. Speaking with a conference keynoter and connecting on LinkedIn afterwards is something I didn’t think I’d do till I was 30. I had a shot of the “wow, what is life?” feeling.
Later that day, in a tucked-away lounge, a group of sweaty teenagers (from TKS) sit on a couch eating free granola bars. Then, a group of talented data scientists enter the arena, one of whom was Geoffrey Hunter, the (then) head of data science at über flip.
Somehow the conversation turned into a “so, what do you do for fun” discussion, and us granola-munchers went around answering. My friend Shifra chatted about her brain-computer-interface projects, my friend Jasmine on quantum computers, Liam on AI and so forth. I talked about my novel love affair with cellular agriculture.
In the end, Geoffrey gave me his business card! It was the first time that happened. I felt so honoured and excited about our meeting. I had another “wow, what is life?” feeling smack me in the face.
As a day of fruitful networking came to an end, I went to the mall with my friend Shifra.
While we were walking across the chaotic Toronto scene, she told me about this book “the second year TKS students read.” It intrigued me. I loved the program so far. Why not check out this book?
That was the day I got Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. And fertilizer has a lag before it kicks in.
Among articles, videos, LinkedIn profiles and hackathons, November 2018 is when I sent my first newsletter to my network. Really, it was Geoffry, Lina, my TKS directors and my dad bcc’d in an email.
But I’ve stayed consistent with my newsletter. Now, 30 renditions and hundreds of subscribers later, I’m still going strong. (Do I hear you wanting to subscribe?)
After failing to make the grade 4 talent show for my dance routine to Ms.Levato’s Skyscrapper, I really thought my ‘on stage’ career was over.
Based on my grade 9 geography culminating, I also thought that powerpoint’s templates and animations automatically make an engaging presentation.
Both of my assumptions were proved wrong on literally day 1 of TKS. We had a ‘how to present’ workshop on all the top storytelling tactics. This included designing presentations, effectively telling stories, structuring concepts to keep it engaging, and so forth. We had loads of room to practice presenting and get feedback during our presentations.
A few months after starting to work in cellular agriculture, I put my newly emerged presentation skills to the test. I spoke at an RBC future makers event (to ~100 people).
I don’t have the intention to overly bloat myself; TKS, after this point, opened so many doors, and I’d like to share the magnitude of opportunity I earned:
- C2 Montreal, 7 under 17 Innovator (+ private conversation with Sophie Trudeau, wife to the PM of Canada)
- Microsoft Ready (Microsoft’s largest internal conference: ~20,000–30,000 people in viewing)
- Web Summit (world’s largest tech conference)
- Private Lunch Talk at BDC
- PWC V2R Awards (fireside chat with Peter Coffee, VP of strategic research at Salesforce)
- EMA interview with Madelaine Petsch
- BC Tech Summit
The list goes on. My opportunities to network with some of the brightest minds and visit new cities like Lisbon and Las Vegas have been priceless. (It should be made clear that I EARNED these opportunities, every student’s TKS journey will be different)
You might ask, why does TKS teach “speaking” instead of double-taking in “hard skills.”
Package influences product — communication, vision and design impact our subconscious brains and, by extension, our decision making.
The “packaging” of an idea can be the make-or-break for a new hire, an investor or a customer. It might be the difference between your dream job and your safety job. Hard skills, paired without soft skills, effectively lead to a robot (human?).
In his novel Blink, Malcolm Gladwell discusses this idea of packaging being part of the product in a section about Louis Cheskin and testing cheap brandy (Page 160–162).
Christian Brothers [brandy] were losing market share to Easy Jesus [brandy]. After Cheskin compared the brands for taste or brand quality, he found nothing significant. But when he gave testers Christian Brothers brandy, in an Easy Jesus package, with the Christian Brothers logo, they found the problem: the packaging. Easy Jesus was gaining market share because its packaging in the brandy aisle persuaded people.
Gladwell shows other examples where changing packaging influences taste of foods. E.g. increasing the amount of yellow on a 7up package will make it taste more lemony, or wrapping margarine in foil will make it taste more buttery.
Packaging can make a product better.
Ultimately, it’s hard to work in a technical field without communication. Engineers still have managers and academics write papers and apply for grants. So yes, hard skills are essential. But so are presentation and soft skills.
The last thing I’ll mention about this seed of curiosity is that it flourishes beyond academic and career metrics.
Just before my first time talking on a stage, TKS had an idea-sprint session. Essentially, 10 hours to come up with a pitch with emerging technology.
Cellular agriculture and I were attached to the hip, so that’s where my idea-sprint project-focused. I formed a team with two other students, and we began pouring our hearts into researching fetal bovine serum (back then, a crucial ingredient for cellular agriculture).
About an hour into our project, a second-year student came around wanting to join in on the fun.
That was the start of my friendship with Cassia. Since our re-inventing-cow-serum-days, we’ve consulted for a billionaire together, explored Niagara falls in the winter and eaten the best cake in Montreal. Friendship is ultimately my favourite takeaway from my time at TKS.
The Costco for passion and work ethic
Within TKS, I had various opportunities to sample skills, industries and problems I thought I was interested in. At Costco, you learn about what food you want to buy. At TKS, you learn about the life you want to live.
Let me share a few examples and stories. ➡️
Building decks (not for backyards, for CEOs)
Within TKS, all students have the opportunity to submit recommendations to the partner company.
Ironically, the first project I will talk about is a failed attempt to consult for Walmart.
My Walmart project was a learning curve. I started with team troubles, turned into research indirection, turned into a high-level presentation deck. So, for our second project, Wealthsimple (a fintech company), we fixed the team struggles, but our depth in research still sucked.
In these weeks worth of projects, I tasted teamwork, McKinsey-style consulting, the retail industry and the RESP (education savings) financial services industry.
These “failures” only made me work harder the second time around. In November 2019, when we had the opportunity to build a recommendation for Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, I JUMPED on the chance to crush it. I was ready to exchange my oxygen for sidewalks and labs.
The day after starting our challenge, I read an entire book on coliving. Within weeks I was on a coliving podcast sharing my research. I interviewed coliving CEOs on the phone for weeks.
In the end, we built a killer recommendation and had a meeting with Sidewalk’s executive team.
The last deck I’ll mention is my team’s project for Kidogo, a non-profit building early childhood education.
We spent weeks designing the appendix, mockups of our program, and consulting with experts. It was a complete 180 from my first Walmart project almost two years prior.
That’s the beauty of the Costco-for-life. You can dip your toes in passion areas while building skills.
In these experiences, I learned a lot about teamwork and leadership, specifically what NOT to do (like, don’t force people to do morning standups at 6 AM; it didn’t cross my 16-year-old self’s mind that that might be an issue).
The teamwork skills I built help me today with my project to end maternal mortality (EMM). And fun fact, EMM came out of my TKS capstone project after my second year in the program as a student.
Labelling female genitals outside of health class
Health class was my favourite part of the gym class. I loved discussing taboo topics about things attached to me.
I never took my curiosity much farther than the surface level portrayed in the classroom. Little Iz always thought that’s what university was for.
I assumed an external system would foster my curiosity. I didn’t take responsibility for it.
April 2021 was when I’d discover something really crucial: I cared about the uterus beyond getting a 100% on an anatomy test.
How did I discover this insight?
We started a “moonshot hackathon” team project in TKS: building a solution that is 5–10 years ahead of its time to a significant problem. My team choose to reproduce reproduction through artificial wombs. Our solution detailed the nitty-gritty of growing a baby outside of the female body.
This project was my first in-depth exposure to women’s health. I learned about the details behind concepts like “endometriosis,” “PCOS,” and “infertility.” As terrifying as some of these conditions were, I oddly felt connected to this branch of medicine. I felt like there was a new recipe to be built.
A year later, I spoke at the British Standards Insitute on women’s health technology standards, and I’m building a project to end maternal mortality. I’ll continue my journey studying biomedical engineering in September.
It’s the TKS precursor effect.
An exponential increase in math homework (try not to let your excitement get the best of you)
I’m not sure if it was my mum’s or dad’s, but I have an overachieving and math-loving gene in me. Some of the warmest memories I have with my parents are working through math problems at our kitchen table.
So I’m the kid that always asks for more homework (as you could guess, yes, I was extremely popular in school 😆).
Craving an extra challenge is buried in my mitochondria… I swear.
When I entered TKS, I got that challenge smacked in my face and across my torso.
We received an email before joining the program with links to resources to learn how to code. This email was my first interface with someone introducing programming. And reader, when I clicked said links, was not love at first sight.
Sitting in my cold basement learning to code python was one of the first times in my life I needed to be patient and resilient. I found it hard.
Coding was my first shot at intellectual adversity. Eventually, I got more of the hang of it; I started to understand algorithms and learned to code in python, HTML and CSS. I’m nowhere near an excellent software engineer, and I don’t even strive to be one. But I’ve learned to be resilient.
I had several similar occurrences of “difficulty” with projects I did in machine learning and 3D printing. So like I’ve been saying, there are many opportunities to test and learn.
My friend Amy, a TKS student, spun this lesson into a different angle worth mentioning. “You can learn anything you want; I never thought I’d be able to learn coding before TKS, and honestly, I’m not sure why.”
Being surrounded by folks pushing their intellectual limits increases what you see possible for yourself. Like one of those “if they can do it, why can’t I?” feelings.
Getting teens to love reading
For five hours, I’ll spend my plane ride binging my downloaded Netflix episodes, stuffing my face with low-quality M&Ms.
If anyone interrupts my viewing session, I will snap. If you interrupt my snapchat selfie, I will be agitated. My mind is racing with hedonistic desires.
I didn’t even pack a book because I have the square root of zero desire to sit and read when Instagram photos need to be taken.
This used to be my life. I was trapped by the ordinary and superficial.
I’d never been on a flight so empty. Was no one else wanting to go to Munich…? But there was nothing to complain about: I had extra pretzels and seats to lay down on. I leaned against the window, using the sunset’s fading light as my reading light: I was re-reading Sapiens. It was a calm and dull scene; I felt entirely at peace.
At 3 AM my time I land in Germany. I have my book cradled in my arm and my next plane ticket in my hand. I wait in line to get greeted by the stern, bald German officers grilling me about why I’m in their country. When it’s my turn, my half-awake energy walks up to one of them.
At that exact moment, my phone rings. It’s not a conventional ‘ding.’ My ringtone was ducks quacking. So for a minute straight, as my messages came back to my phone, quacks echoed in this German airport.
I explain to the officer that I have a flight to Copenhagen in a matter of hours so that I will be “out of here in no time.” I almost made him adjust his facial muscles (a few more jokes, and I might’ve got him to smile).
On my way into German-airport freedom, I buy a (very spectacular) pretzel, write in my gratitude journal and sit down for a 20-minute meditation.
Within no time, I was on another flight eating a giant cookie and enjoying my book.
And here, we have two different plane visualizations for the same person (me). We see an upgrade in food preferences, and there’s a tremendous amount of personal growth. In my 2019 image, I’m peaceful, meditative, curious, reading and calm-in-the-face-of-turmoil. In my 2018 image, I’m distracting myself and satisfying my “monkey mind.”
The shift from 2018 to 2019 happened during TKS. But it’s a significant correlation; TKS caused my behaviour shift.
There is a personal growth and mindset component to the TKS program called velocity. Velocity is the missing class in school where you learn about yourself.
Self-awareness is like a beneficial version of cocaine. When you start, you simply cannot return to your old lifestyle.
Speed-with-direction has weekly requirements:
- Read the provided resources (e.g. articles, podcasts)
- Have a professional Meeting
- Practice the mindset of the week (e.g. mindfulness)
- Reach your fitness goals (e.g. do HIIT thrice a week)
- Study the person of the week (e.g. Socrates)
- Complete any provided extra challenges (e.g. introspect for 6 minutes at the end of each day)
It creates a ‘structure’ for personal growth, mindset development and expanding your network.
Through velocity, I became more intentional about not engaging in compulsive behaviour, eating, and reflecting thoughtfully. My personal growth inspired me to write articles beyond cellular agriculture, more on books, reflections and lifestyle.
My first non-STEM article was a reflection on Sapiens, my infamous book that got me passionate about reading. Today, I hardly go more than 40 minutes without thinking of or talking about a book.
I wrote about the Harari book trilogy, using flowers as a metaphor for life, and an Article about Naval Ravikant (fun fact: he tweeted at me after reading it 🤓).
Get some all-natural “cocaine” (self-awareness), so you can start living an intentional life.
Hugs for Life!
As a student + employee, I’ve gotten unique and prolonged exposure to TKS’s adult and student network.
From earning tickets to network at conferences to having an obligatory meeting weekly with a professional, TKS has helped me amplify my external network. (Remember my newsletter? I now have hundreds of people subscribed).
I’ve built lifelong friendships — friends I’ve actually climbed mountains with and escaped dangerous AirBnBs (long story).
I’ve worked at TKS as an employee too, so the network connections with the directors and other staff have been so wholesome. I feel like the luckiest kid in the world to have many kind, ambitious and supportive people around me. Specifically, I’d like to thank:
- Navid and Nadeem for being my directors who have been there for me in all aspects of life. Inarguably, you’ve been the most influential people in my life. I can’t thank you enough for teaching me all your ways and supporting me as a person (p.s. I think TKS should expand into culinary education)
- Michael, I truly admire your guidance and energy. You’ve taught me about design, second brains, and I feel like I can count on you. So excited to see you make more 🦄’s + blow up on Twitter.
- Noel, you are my rock! My role model, ENFP, I am so grateful for your kindness, badassness and curiosity. I hope to see you and the kids somewhere in the world soon.
- Kelle, there are so many special things about you, but you have been a pivotal person in my journey. Thank you for your feedback, for teaching me about education psychology and for giving great food recs for SF ;)
- Jen!! My Copenhagen x Fika buddy! Your energy towards life and enthusiasm to support others acts as a guide for the type of person I want to become. Simply put… you are the best.
- Fareen, you deserve the world + lots of snow! Thank you for being the centre of the action at TKS and for accomodating my many questions about bank portals, taxes and legal documents. I always appreciate your hellos.
- Dan, you are one of the coolest people on this rock orbiting a big fire. Rad, down-to-earth, and always up for some growth. I can’t get enough of Ava pictures, and I am so grateful to know you — you’re always sending me a helpful email intro, and I couldn’t appreciate it enough!
- Roberta, thank you for telling me about your women’s health journey; it still inspires me to think about it! You never fail to energize or uplift me. PS. very very very very excited for you 💍 AHHHHH!!!
Detailing the benefits I’ve gained from this community would literally grant me a Ph.D. I’ll use pictures since they’ll communicate thousands of words before I can write it all down 📸.
But how’d you get a ‘real’ job at 16?
Through the program, I learned that network and people are more important than prestige. And the network I built — specifically with the co-founders of TKS (my directors at the time) — has enabled my career to kick-start.
After knowing me for about a year, Navid Nathoo (co-founder of TKS) understood my drive and work ethic. In the summer of 2019, he hired me to work as the program success manager at TKS starting in September.
I couldn’t have asked for a more interesting experience: seeing a startup build an impactful product and scale it. I’ve had the opportunity to work n three ‘categories’ of projects: program success (TKS’s product), curriculum development and marketing.
I don’t have a degree from Wharton or a doctorate in education strategies, but I can work hard to figure things out. Also, especially at a startup, agility and learning-as-you-go is crucial.
I’ll share some things I worked on. My perspective should also paint a picture of the effort put into improving TKS for its students in the backend.
Magic Wanding for Student Happiness + Success
The essence of the TKS team is very maternal. If I were to pinpoint the common denominator value across everyone at the startup, it would be: “kids first.”
And yes, how very Silicon Valley to put your “customers first.” However, your standard SAAS company isn’t transforming people’s entire life trajectories. That’s the bar for impact at TKS.
The last time I was on the phone with Airbnb customer service, I explained there was violence on the second floor of our Airbnb, and we were scared for our lives. The lady said, “let me put you on hold for a second.” It was ultimately calling my TKS directors that we were able to get out of this AirBnB situation.
TKS values its students.
In my program success role, I worked with program directors to answer these questions:
- Do the kids LOVE the program?
- How life-changing is it?
- How much are they growing?
These are BIG questions to answer. You can’t just send a simple survey, get an answer, and move on. The more diverse your data and insights, the closer you’ll get to the truth.
What was my approach?
Approach №1: Interviews with All Stakeholders
I walked in the shoes of TKS’s customer (and at the time, I was also a second-year student). This gave me a layer of camouflage when talking to people because it didn’t feel like an intense interview*. I was just another TKS student.*
For the first few months, I was extracting insights from:
- 10–30 students per week (I would chat on the phone with many or message them a few questions over Slack or email)
- The 9 TKS directors who were running the program about twice a month
I would break down the TKS program’s components and ask students or directors about their opinions on particular aspects to get more specific insights.
E.g. questions for students:
🚫How do you like TKS so far?
✅ What has been your experience with braindating?
✅ Can you tell me about last weekend’s session?
✅ Have you started your focus project?
E.g. questions for directors:
🚫 How are your students feeling at the sessions?
✅ What was last weekend’s session experience like for the extroverted students? The introverted ones?
✅ What is the energy like at the end of the session?
✅ How many students would you estimate come well-prepared for the sessions?
Once I had more information, I looked for patterns and gaps. These breed opportunities.
From this, new ideas flourished. For example:
- A private session for introverts (goal: increase engagement and comfort of quieter kids)
- An alumni podcast episode that went viral across the program (goal: share more alumni stories to inspire students)
- Building playbooks (internal documents for students) on relationship building (goal: catalyze more friendships)
- Having directors message students more often to post their work in feedback (goal: increase engagement of our community platform, encourage students to learn from their work)
- Amplifying the ‘early to TKS crew’ through pre-session engagements (e.g. dance party, 8-minute workout, making secret handshakes). Building friendships, I learned, was an integral part of students loving their experience. (goal: increase friendships and get students energized before the weekly session)
Approach №2: Customer Journey Detective
People’s words can be like pizzas falling off a skyscraper — they can land flat.
Therefore, it’s essential to learn from the things they’re not telling you. I defined some of these areas:
- Reviewing the central messaging platform for each program (we use Slack)
- Reviewing the project output for each program (we use our own software, tks.life)
- Reviewing the educational materials we share with students
What I reviewed was very personal to TKS’s goals: building a community of students working on impactful projects.
Whenever I conducted a review, I needed to understand one crucial thing: what did great look like?
Here are some examples of things I worked on:
- I used the strengths of some programs to uplift the weaknesses of others (I was reviewing 5 programs in very different markets — Toronto, Ottawa, New York, Las Vegas and Boston). E.g., **if Vegas had a great example of ‘strong community,’ I would pass its Slack conversations to Boston. Then, I could take samples of Boston’s student’s technical depth and share the Boston articles to the Vegas community.
- Looking at numbers that our software (Slack + TKS platform) produces. E.g., I found that within the first 4 weeks of the program, participation in 1on1 student conversations (‘braindates’) decreased by 318–1060% (depending on the market) with an average decrease of 650%. Only ~25% of students were braindating at the end of the first month. After these insights, the team adjusted communication for braindates, set up extra sessions to build friendships, and refocused the braindating strategy.
- Reviewing what the students are building. In the early days, I would read all articles and watch all videos. In September 2020, we doubled the number of students in the program, so I had to become more procedural about analyzing student results. I helped build a few internal frameworks to review student projects at a higher level (to visualize results for a program, not an individual). E.g. in April 2021, my final project at TKS was reviewing all student submissions for a project with the United Nations.
Approach №3:A little ‘vanilla’ but surveys
We did a big s-word every quarter. Because I was in charge of the first few, these surveys were hefty! E.g. Q1 survey: 46 questions, 70% quantitative, 30% qualitative.
Because the program is so personalized, students grow to really care about the TKS community; this helps our survey completion rate. Even though this is a fat survey, we get about 85–95% of students in the program to fill it out.
How are the surveys designed?
- Rating questions (scale 1–7) asking about core components of the program (e.g. sense of belonging, session quality) + typical metrics (net promoter score, overall satisfaction)
- Short answer question for students to detail their experience on the core components of the program
- Multiple choice questions to understand what they prioritize (e.g. their favourite skill they learned, the most impactful mindset)
- Factors to correlate results with (e.g. sex, age, city, how many friends they’ve made)
- Students have the option to make their responses anonymous.
- And always ask people what they would do with a magic wand to improve their experience. 🪄
This helps us understand:
- Correlations (e.g. more friendships = generally a better experience)
- The most and least favourable components (what we should start, stop and continue doing)
- Context (qualitative answers) to their ratings of the program
With hundreds of responses, I help these numbers make love on a spreadsheet. I also read all the written answers and gave each ‘code(s)’ for the themes they follow. Then everything is shared at a company-wide meeting with a 42-slide presentation.
Approach №4: Doing creates learning
As much as I love some spreadsheet action, many valuable insights are learned through building, launching and reviewing.
Earlier, you may recall my passion discovery for female healthcare via the TKS project (ah, the precursor effect AGAIN). My passion translated into the TKS females-in-tech initiative “Boss Ladies.” I put together a SWAT team of students to build an inclusive space for young females in STEM.
We had a bias towards action for testing initiatives. Some worked while others were pizzas falling off skyscrapers:
- A bring a friend boss ladies session on confidence (highest turnout virtual session we ever had)
- Nearly 100% survey completion rate (we used the survey as the “entrance key” to migrate students to our private messaging channel)
- 👎 Failure: student-led playbooks developing. We had great ideas to start with, but ultimately none materialized (no one took responsibility).
The end result was net-positive: a tighter nit community of females supporting each other ❤️ (even if some playbooks and pizza nights failed).
Another example of acting and learning was when I built two mentorship program pilots.
In version 1, I interviewed 15 mentors and had them fill in a survey to build their profile. Then, I took 15 students, had them fill in a similar survey and submit a video. I then, for hours, felt like the tinder algorithm trying to find the perfect mentor-mentee pairings. I emailed each pair, explained why I paired them and made a personalized spreadsheet for the mentee to prepare for each meeting.
It was a 4 week, 1 meeting per week, pilot. After, I sent a survey to learn about their experience. Mentees and mentors rated the program 6.1/7 on average, and 87% said they were highly likely to recommend the program to another student. 93% of mentors said they would do the program again.
TL;DR: the format is good. But there was a backend problem. It was a lot of administrative work.
The amount of backend work led to the question: would this extra work improve the student experience dramatically? Are there more high-impact priorities to double down on? (Like I said, TKS is very kids first)
Version 2 of the mentorship program became office hours style (i.e. no Isabella Grandic tinder algorithm, more like a mentorship buffet). I created an MVP so students can test it out to see if it’s worth building into our TKS platform.
And sometimes, to improve the program experience, you just need to make cool sh*t happen. Luckily by age 16, I had 5 years of experience planning KILLER surprise parties, so I was a bit nerd for making interesting stuff happen (like celebrities wishing my friends happy birthday).
With all the opportunities I earned through TKS to network, I tried to leverage my networking skills to give back to the program. This looked like:
- Bringing in guest speakers (E.g. Scott Penberthy, Director of Applied AI at Google, who came in for a private 10 person pizza night at TKS… then spoke to hundreds of students virtually at one of our TKS Talks)
- Organizing conference opportunities (e.g. I unlocked 6 speaking spots at SXSW, 3 fully funded, and 25 tickets to World Summit AI in Montreal)
*cue a ‘hooked on a feeling’ dance party.’
Over the months, I’ve helped build technology, science, and innovation-themed interactive sessions for students. Building “sessions” includes materials, resources for program directors and guides for students. For example:
- Longevity Session: researched materials for two 3 hour sessions on innovations in longevity (i.e. what’s the bleeding edge on how we can live longer). I built a checklist for what should be included, filtered the best resources to share to students, and helped edit presentation materials.
- Short, introductory courses to emerging technologies: developed or edited 20+ modules
- Building materials for our second-year program, Activate. Activate is about making innovations happen in the world (e.g. how can we get onto mars? Cure cancer? End maternal mortality?). Sessions are built to be ‘case studies’ for activation and real-world skills (e.g. discussing philosophy, marketing, ideation sprints, diving into medical errors). I built presentation decks, designed activities and wrote the ‘session plans’ for several 2020/2021 sessions.
- External Playbooks. TKS program has 61 playbooks (not including the Activate playbooks) for students. I’ve helped edit and create many of them.
🔑 From working on this team, I have eyes into the differentiating factors of the curriculum:
- It’s built around innovations happening now. Last year’s AI session was dramatically different than this year’s.
- TKS consults and/or brings in experts from this field. The TKS team has diverse backgrounds (in blockchain, AI, biotech, medicine, business, neuroscience) and where we have gaps, we seek external opinion. The right eyes are reviewing the content.
- The sessions are inherently interdisciplinary. In school, chemistry and business are segregated. TKS makes sessions about technical depth, applications AND skills. (E.g. I designed a 2-part session on Medical errors where students built a business proposal around medical errors, and they got their submissions critiqued by experts). Typically, after each session, students learn a new skill AND new information about a STEM topic (there are exceptions, like the Harvard Business Case Study session is only focused on the case, no STEM… but that’s pretty darn cool on its own).
A good product doesn’t automatically mean good marketing. Like I referenced earlier, good packaging is needed for a good product.
As our program came to a successful close last year, there wasn’t much “program success-ing” to do. So I helped with marketing.
This started off setting up new tools for TKS: Google analytics, Google tag manager, Google search ads and hotjar. I also had to navigate our existing tools, WordPress and Hubspot.
One of the first things I learned about digital marketing is you have to get good at tracking your outcomes. Marketing is a series of experiments, trying to capture leads and send them through your funnel. If you have no analytics, you’re a scientist blindly mixing chemicals (probably killing your mice too).
After this learning, I became a UTM advocate. (UTMs are tracking codes that go into links (e.g. to a website) that help the marketer understand how people are landing on a page or a product and what their behaviour is). I even built a system to standardize our internal UTMs.
Most 16-year-olds would be over the moon after receiving a car… but honestly, I just wanted people to use UTMs consistently so my data was more sliceable 😅
I worked on a couple of projects like launching our Google search ads and building some pages on our website; one project I’d like to highlight is my copywriting-redo-extravaganza.
After opening the application process in January, the first time asking for feedback on the communication (i.e. emails) was in May. When I came in, I read the communication we were sending out, and it echoed the sentiment of my father’s emails (no offence to my dad… he just isn’t in our target age range).
I started with two focus groups with ~10 students each. Their reactions to the emails were an overwhelming consensus of “yucky” (their words and mine).
I spent an evening re-writing the emails. I took a break. Then I looked through my email to find emails whose style of writing I resonate with. This was me implementing one of my first lessons: you must know what great looks like. Now I was closing the delta between our emails and ‘great’ emails.
I made some edits to the emails, wrote a few more, and boom — an updated pipeline.
I shared it with some staff and 30students. 46 pages of criques later: we have a finalized pipeline.
Within this stack of emails, I drafted an email so iconic we refer to it as the ‘Izzy email’ internally (you’ll have to be a 13–17-year-old going through our application process to read it…).
And guess what? TKS was the precursor to the ‘Izzy email’. If it weren’t for the program, I wouldn’t have written dozens of articles and hundreds of emails, building up my writing skills.
To the 14-year-old Isabella completing her TKS application the day before the deadline, you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into. You will build friendships of a lifetime, learn about yourself and create a desire to change the world so big you’ll have the courage to overcome every obstacle you face.
Everything I’ve experienced from TKS will be the precursor for the rest of my life. I have learned you need to squeeze the most out of life, or it will squeeze you.
Before, I felt stuck in the mould of conventional success, superficial acquaintances and living with no excitement. You can choose to fall victim to your circumstances, or you can revitalize them. To me, the revitalization took its form in my TKS journey.
✨ Beyond grateful + proud to be an alumnus.