In this episode, I interview Marvin Vilma, an educator and entrepreneur in Boston, MA. Marvin was raised in Queens, NY. His parents, both Haitian immigrants, taught him the value of education at a young age, and consequently, Marvin developed a curiosity for teaching and learning.
He became a teacher and entrepreneur to design meaningful and human-centered learning experiences, most recently Teaching & Learning Lab, a professional learning venture for teachers. Marvin began his teaching career at Noble and Greenough School and continued teaching at Launch, a high school entrepreneurship program hosted by MIT. He currently teaches entrepreneurship with various K-12 academic enrichment programs as well.
Marvin is a graduate of Colgate University and UPenn GSE. He is currently an MBA candidate at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. You can contact Marvin at firstname.lastname@example.org
Erin Starkey (00:07):
Welcome to Reimagining Schools, a podcast by The Edupreneur Academy. In today’s episode, we’re going to talk with Marvin Vilma of Boston, Massachusetts, who has an inspiring story for us about overcoming obstacles to become an edupreneur.
Erin Starkey (00:24):
Hi, Marvin. Thanks for joining us today. How are you doing?
Marvin Vilma (00:27):
I’m doing well, Erin. How are you?
Erin Starkey (00:29):
I’m good. I’m good. Well, we got to meet at the ASU GSV conference in San Diego, which was beautiful. So, it was nice to meet you there and I had a great time. Did you have a good time at the summit?
Marvin Vilma (00:41):
I did have a good time. It felt good meeting other education innovators and folks in the ecosystem. I’m definitely glad that I had the chance to go this first time around and I’m looking forward to hopefully joining again in April next year.
Erin Starkey (00:56):
Me too. Yeah, it was a great way to make some networking connections and I’m glad we got to meet. So, I would love to… I appreciate you being on the podcast and I would love for you to just tell us a little bit more about your background, and how you got into education and entrepreneurship, and how you got started in all of this.
Marvin Vilma (01:13):
Sure thing. So, my background, or my story, really starts back in New York City where I was raised. My parents raised me in a community called Jamaica, Queens, New York, which is predominantly Afro-Caribbean and LatinX, and lots of low income folks lived in that neighborhood. And my parents who immigrated from Haiti, when they came to the United States, when they came to New York, were really adamant that education was a way to improve one’s life, to pursue financial stability and security.
Marvin Vilma (01:51):
And so, I just remember back in New York being a part of all these different enrichment programs and academic programs. Literally anything that was free that related to education, my parents probably sent me to that program or opportunity. And so, they instilled in me this passion for education and curiosity from a young age. And I think that’s really what inspired me to pursue the career that I’m pursuing now in the education space.
Marvin Vilma (02:21):
I started off my career as a teacher and have done a few roles since leaving the classroom. But, I’ve always been excited to see young people grow and thrive in whatever setting that is, whether it was in my classroom or in a summer program that I was running. And it’s part of the reason why I’m so excited to be joining your podcast today. To share a little bit more of my story and hopefully inspire others to become education innovators, entrepreneurs, as well.
Erin Starkey (02:50):
Yeah, that’s amazing. And yeah, kudos to your parents for really setting you off on the right path and instilling that importance of education in your life. So, that’s really a great tribute to them that you’re sort of living that kind of life. So, that’s amazing. But, I would love to hear a little bit more about what happened after you graduated from high school, and kind of your college path, and then what you’ve been into recently in terms of your business ideas, and where you’re going.
Marvin Vilma (03:17):
Yeah, yeah. So, I actually might backtrack to high school just a minute. There are some key moments in high school that I think have really sort of led me to where I am now. So, in eighth grade… actually in seventh grade, I had the opportunity to participate in a program with the Oliver Scholars program. Their model was essentially placing Black and LatinX youth in independent schools so that they can pursue post-secondary education at some of the top colleges and universities.
Marvin Vilma (03:50):
And so, I was lucky enough to get into that scholarship program. I was admitted to the Trinity School in New York City. And that, for me, was such a groundbreaking moment transferring from my low income school in Queens, New York, and going to this very well-resourced independent school in Manhattan. And it made me see all the stark inequities in the education space. I was going to school with incredibly wealthy peers who had access to tutors, and summer programs, and all these things. And none of my peers back home had those opportunities.
Marvin Vilma (04:33):
And so, I said to myself, “How can we fix this system that is clearly broken?” Where we have resilient students who want to pursue their education in earnest, but just don’t have the same resources as other students. And how do we sort of elevate and augment their voices so that they can pursue their dreams? Because many of my peers from Queens, New York, they also had dreams. They also had aspirations, but didn’t get to see them through. So, that was a really groundbreaking moment for me that sort of, I think, catapulted my entire education career.
Marvin Vilma (05:11):
When I graduated high school, I went to Colgate University in central New York and I immediately started diving into education. I spent my summers teaching. I taught animal science. I taught English. I just wanted to get in front of students and understand how do we make teaching and learning come alive. So, I did two teaching programs through Breakthrough Collaborative and Exploration summer program and learned a lot about pedagogy, and how to build relationships with students, and how to think creatively about the classroom. And those were awesome because I was a college student at that time getting all this real-world experience of interacting with students and thinking about the science behind learning. And that’s pretty much why I decided to become a classroom teacher because I felt so comfortable with students, in front of students, facilitating their learning.
Marvin Vilma (06:05):
So after I graduated college, I was a teaching fellow at a boarding school, which was interesting.
Erin Starkey (06:13):
Marvin Vilma (06:14):
I was a dorm parent, and also has some teaching responsibilities, and I coached volleyball. So, I did it all in many ways and loved that experience. But also, said to myself, “There are so many other things to do in education. Let me explore and see what other opportunities are out there.”
Marvin Vilma (06:36):
I worked in college admissions after that and got to visit high schools all across the country. And that experience was pretty pivotal for me because when you visit different high schools, you get a sense of what’s working, what’s not working, how culture affects different institutions, and how they operate, and how culture affects the decisions that they make about learning. So, I got to travel to D.C., and Wisconsin, and Maryland, and see all these different high schools, and see what students were experiencing on a regular basis, and interact with their teachers.
Marvin Vilma (07:17):
Traveling around the country is also exhausting so I left the world of admissions to run a high school program in entrepreneurship at MIT. And that was super fun seeing how project based learning could be so fascinating for students, how they could really thrive in academic settings where they aren’t just being taught but their curiosity is being piqued and there aren’t right or wrong answers. Students had to just discover. And I felt like entrepreneurship education does that really well. It just gives students space to explore, and try things, and fail in a safe environment. But also, pick themselves back up and try it again with whatever learnings they took away from the first time, or second time, or third time that they did whatever it was. So, that’s a little bit of my trajectory. Hopefully that answered your question.
Erin Starkey (08:13):
Yeah no, it definitely did. Your program at MIT sounds really interesting so I want to hear a little bit more about that. But, I’m also with you on, I think, just that traveling across to see what different schools look like is so important because it really just expands your worldview, right? It’s easy for us… a tendency to believe that whatever we’re experiencing in our little bubble is the way it is everywhere and that’s just not the reality. It’s very kind of inequitable, as you’ve talked about, in different places and things. Some places have better opportunities or different opportunities than others. And so, I think that really helps us to see the bigger picture when we get an opportunity to see what schools look like. So, that’s great that you got that experience. But, tell me a little bit more about your MIT program for… And this is entrepreneurship for K through 12 students?
Marvin Vilma (08:59):
For high school students.
Erin Starkey (09:00):
For high school students, okay.
Marvin Vilma (09:01):
So, 9 through 12. We brought them to campus for several weeks. During that time, they got to explore different ideas that they wanted to become ventures. We would split them up into teams of four typically, sometimes three or five, and have them pursue those ventures in real life. Not just projects, but really going out into the community, doing market research, talking to real potential customers, and building a business off the ground.
Marvin Vilma (09:35):
And it was awesome because the program was international in scope. So, we had students from countries of Asia, countries of Africa, and elsewhere coming to MIT campus for a few weeks to meet other students from different cultural backgrounds and start a company together. There were so many innovative ideas just from the diversity of those cohorts and in that community. But, I think it also makes students realize that some of these world challenges, these problems that they were trying to solve, were not just existing in Boston, Massachusetts, or in Paris, France. They were able to see that climate change is something that they all care about, or tutoring was something that they all cared about regardless of their geographic distance or their geographic proximity. And so, there was a lot of just shared love for problem solving, shared passion for solving problems that were affecting people they cared about. And that was really beautiful to see, sort of that cultural diversity come together in a really meaningful way.
Erin Starkey (10:49):
I bet, yeah. What a great experience. And so, kind of all of that led you to think more entrepreneurially yourself, correct?
Marvin Vilma (10:57):
Erin Starkey (10:57):
So, what did you… how did you kind of get involved with entrepreneurship yourself and what path have you taken since then?
Marvin Vilma (11:02):
Yeah, yeah. My first sort of entry point to entrepreneurship was in college. I did a program at my university called Thought into Action, similar to most university incubator programs. And at the time, I thought I wanted to start an event planning company, which I did. I grew up in the hospitality industry. My mom is a chef. So, I was like, “Oh I’m doing this teaching thing during the summer, but let me try my hand at event planning and see where it goes.” So, that was my first company. I won’t dwell on it because it wasn’t successful. But, it did inspire me to think about new problems that I wanted to tackle, and new sort of entrepreneurial opportunities, which led me to Teaching and Learning Lab, which is my current venture. And it’s really centered around teacher professional development.
Marvin Vilma (12:02):
When I was a classroom teacher, I realized that I wanted to do creative things in my classroom, project-based learning, experiential learning. But, I didn’t always have the resources, the tools, the networks to facilitate some of those experiences. And I never had a job outside of education so I actually didn’t really know how to create authentic, meaningful project-based learning experiences because that was just not part of my sort of life experiences. And so when developing this project, I said, “How do we make teachers, or help teachers, become more knowledgeable about what’s happening in different industries?” So that they can bring that industry experience back into their classroom, so that they can reimagine their curriculum, so that they can support students who are exploring different career pathways. And that’s what led me to Teaching and Learning Lab.
Erin Starkey (13:01):
That’s great, yeah. Well, what an amazing adventure to get to that place. What were some kind of early challenges, or maybe something you’re still facing, in sort of getting started with your own venture like that?
Marvin Vilma (13:14):
Yeah, that’s a good question. Many challenges. The life of an entrepreneur is not easy.
Erin Starkey (13:20):
Marvin Vilma (13:23):
So, it’s been really challenging, I think, wanting to be an entrepreneur, and being excited about a venture, and also recognizing that you have to pay the bills, and you have life to deal with at the same time. And I’ve been working on this venture part-time. And it takes a lot out of an entrepreneur to both sort of see your venture through and also maintain the comforts of life that are important to you, particularly if you have a family. And it’s hard. But, I care enough about what I’m working on and I’ve received so much positive feedback from teachers and other community members about what I’m working on that I really do want to see it through.
Marvin Vilma (14:18):
And so, I think that’s one big challenge. People think that you just drop out of school, or quit your job, and you do the entrepreneurship thing. It’s like, “Well no, it’s more complicated than that.” There’s life that you also need to acknowledge and sort of deal with.
Erin Starkey (14:33):
Marvin Vilma (14:33):
So that’s one thing.
Erin Starkey (14:35):
Yeah, it can definitely be a bit of a risk to take that… it’s one thing to do it part-time on the side and trying to manage that. But at some point, you have to decide if that’s going to be a full-time opportunity for you or if you continue to do that part-time. So, it definitely… the risk involved can be a bit of a challenge for sure.
Marvin Vilma (14:56):
Erin Starkey (14:57):
Do you feel like there’s been anywhere that you have really gotten some information that was helpful for you? I know we’ve talked a little bit off the podcast about your master’s degree that you did. So, maybe tell us a little bit about that and any other places that you’ve gotten information about becoming an edupreneur that might be helpful for somebody.
Marvin Vilma (15:17):
Yeah. My graduate program definitely helped. I did a master’s in education entrepreneurship and it provided a lot of structure to have coursework that helped guide me through the process. And, I think even more importantly, a community of other people who were starting ventures at the same time who were experiencing the same things that I was going through. It was an executive style program. So, all of us had full-time jobs, and we were sort of traveling to campus once a month, or sometimes more than that, to go to class, and things like that. But, we had community. We had people to commiserate with. And that was so important because we uplifted each other in awesome ways and reminded each other that the reward was so much greater than the risks that we were taking in terms of becoming edupreneurs.
Erin Starkey (16:12):
Marvin Vilma (16:16):
Apart from the graduate school program, I think a big support for me was just having access to teachers and talking to my users often. That was huge for me. Because the more teachers I talked to, the more I realized that there were people out there supporting me. And it’s funny because when I launched my pilot, I sent out an email to all of my teacher friends, or people that I had interacted with, and said, “Hey, I’m finally getting started. Would love your support.” And they blasted it out to everyone which was so awesome to see.
Marvin Vilma (16:58):
And I was prepared to support five teachers in my pilot program. We ended up getting over 25 applications, quite a bit over 25 applications. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, there’s so much interest. Can I grow this pilot cohort?” And I got funding to do so, which was awesome. And it’s because I was able to tap into something that teachers really wanted, that they were looking for, a need that they had. And those same teachers became influencers, advocates, champions for me and that’s really special.
Erin Starkey (17:35):
Yeah, that’s great. And it sounds like that support system, whether you’re in a master’s program or outside of one, is kind of the most important piece there. To find other people that are interested, and other people that can support you that are kind of doing the same thing. So, I think that’s great advice. What advice, other than kind of finding a mentor, would you give to edupreneurs that are interested in getting started with something?
Marvin Vilma (18:03):
One piece of advice… and I’m trying to sort of think through how to word it in my head.
Erin Starkey (18:09):
Marvin Vilma (18:12):
Don’t be afraid to talk to people, especially funders, about money early. And I’m sure different people have different thoughts on this. But, I work in fundraising full-time and so I think a lot about how people identify their philanthropic priorities, how people fund certain initiatives, how people invest their resources. And so, I had the good fortune of approaching funders early in my process, even before my pilot program, and talking very candidly about, “Here’s what I need to resource this thing and I would love your support. If it’s philanthropic, if it’s a small investment, great. If it’s not, that’s also okay. But, there are other ways to engage you if not financially. Perhaps we can continue the conversation about advocating for me in front of your company or something like that.”
Marvin Vilma (19:12):
Having those conversations early and often is so important so that you have access to those networks whenever you need them. It feels uncomfortable to talk to people about their wealth. It feels uncomfortable to talk to people about investing in you and your ideas. But, people are open to that conversation and it’s only awkward if you make it awkward. Asking people questions is not a bad thing, just be respectful. But, people are open to helping you. But, you have to ask for the help. So, that’s one piece of advice I would give.
Erin Starkey (19:49):
Yeah, that’s great advice. I think that is a big hurdle for a lot of people interested in being an edupreneur is the financial. They tend to not move forward because they’re afraid that they don’t have enough money or that they can’t find enough money in order to get started on it. I think that’s important that… I think it’s kind of a trend that I’ve heard from most entrepreneurs is that there’s always going to be hurdles and things to get over. And you just kind of have to take them one at a time and keep working your way through. And there are solutions for almost any hurdle that you could find out there and financial is definitely a big one that a lot of people get stuck on. So, thank you for sharing that. I think that’s important.
Erin Starkey (20:26):
So, tell us a little bit about your plans for the future. Where are you thinking that your business can grow and what else are you thinking that you might do in the future?
Marvin Vilma (20:35):
Yeah. Now that the pilot is over, I am definitely looking ahead. So, I’m in the process of incorporating as a non-profit. So, all of that paperwork and getting legal support to make sure that I can really move this forward. I’m actually hoping to experiment with a few other iterations of the program moving forward. So this coming spring, we’re actually doing a week long action learning lab where teachers get to serve as consultants for a company that’s aligned with their discipline. So, we’re approaching a few different companies right now that… so I’m not able to share too much yet.
Marvin Vilma (21:18):
But as an example, we’re going to bring together a group of English teachers who might serve as a consultant for the Boston Globe and they’ll get to sort of experience some of the things that are happening in the workplace by having them dig into this real life issue that the company is struggling with. And so, they get to see some of the skills that their students might exercise if they were ever to pursue a career in some of those spaces. And the teachers also get to leverage their expertise as critical thinkers, readers, writers, in a workplace setting that they’re not accustomed to. but could really leverage their expertise as English teachers.
Marvin Vilma (22:02):
So, I’m really excited for those week long action learning labs. I think they can be incredibly powerful. And to be honest, business schools do this all the time. So, we know that these types of experiential learning opportunities work, and are effective, and really pushing people outside of their comfort zone to learn more and experience more. So, I’m excited for teachers to participate and we’ll see what happens.
Erin Starkey (22:27):
Yeah, that sounds incredible. And I can see why you have people that… teachers that are interested in doing that for sure. How can our listeners get in contact with you? What kind of resources do you have? Do you have a website or what other ways can they reach out to you?
Marvin Vilma (22:42):
That’s a great question. Our website is in progress. But, I am accessible via email and via LinkedIn. Email address is Marvin, my first name. M-A-R-V, as in Victor, -I-N. At TL-lab.org. So, email@example.com, Teaching and Learning Lab. You can also find me on LinkedIn, Marvin Vilma. And I love connecting with any and everyone. So, please do connect. I’m excited to hear from you all.
Erin Starkey (23:12):
That’s great. And we’ll be sure and put your email and other information in the podcast notes as well. So, is there anything else that you’d like to share with edupreneurs about life in general, getting started? Just anything else that you want to share at the end?
Marvin Vilma (23:27):
Yeah. Now’s the time. Education is at this weird inflection point where things are changing and evolving pretty rapidly. If you’re an edupreneur, now is the time to make your mark. Obviously, pay attention to the landscape. See what’s going on. See how you can augment what’s existing or potentially create something new. But, it feels like if not now then when? It’s a great opportunity to be an entrepreneur so do it.
Erin Starkey (23:55):
I agree. It is a great time to be an innovator in education. So, thank you. I so appreciate you being here today to join us and I look forward to talking with you soon.
Marvin Vilma (24:04):
Thanks for inviting me. Take care, everyone.