Scott Rechler: Harnessing the Power of Young People to Create Change
Welcome back! Spiffy here, your interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth with an eye on entrepreneurs working to make this world more equitable. Today I’m super excited to speak with Scott Rechler, the co-director and CEO of LearnServe International, who is working towards UN SDG16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions. Are you ready to be inspired?
Spiffy: Welcome, Scott! Let’s jump right in. In your words, what challenge is LearnServe International addressing?
Scott: Thanks for having me, Spiffy. It’s great to be here! At LearnServe, we believe in the power of young people to create change. Unfortunately, not all adults agree. At best, they’ll call you a “leader of tomorrow.” At worst, they’ll treat you as part of the problem. LearnServe trusts youth, putting them in the driver’s seat to solve social and environmental problems. We bring together students from diverse backgrounds. We ask them “What pisses you off?” and then “What do you want to do about it?” and then we help them to turn their big ideas into real change.
Spiffy: That’s a very worthy cause. What motivated you to do it?
Scott: I love seeing the light bulbs go off—when a student realizes their purpose and what they are capable of. One of these students is Yasmine Arrington. By the time she was a junior in high school, her father had been in prison for much of her life. Yasmine wondered how she would get to and pay for college—and she realized others were in a similar situation. So she started ScholarCHIPS, a scholarship program for children of incarcerated parents. Her organization has awarded more than $300,000 to 72 scholars in over 11 years. I've had the privilege of working with and being inspired by Yasmine and hundreds more young people like her.
Spiffy: Wow, talk about inspiring! Could you elaborate more on how LearnServe is working towards a more equitable world?
Scott: The world needs more changemakers, Spiffy! We need more people who are curious about the lives of others and who seek first to understand. We need more people who realize that real service is working with others, not doing it for them. We need more people who question the status quo. We need more people who think creatively about solutions to the problems in front of them. We need more people who commit themselves to action. Imagine a world in which every student graduates high school with the vision of a leader, the tenacity of an entrepreneur, and the passion of a changemaker. That’s the world I want to live in!
Spiffy: You paint quite the picture, Scott! Is there a recent LearnServe milestone or initiative that you’d like to talk about—and the impact it makes?
Scott: Since 2003, LearnServe has led students and teachers overseas to work with social entrepreneurs and youth leaders—a chance for students from the U.S. to step outside their comfort zone and understand social change through a different lens. Then the pandemic happened. Unable to travel, we introduced the Global Summer Fellowship, a virtual space for students from Zambia and the United States to learn about each others’ countries and cultures! This past summer 65 students from the U.S., Zambia, South Africa, and Paraguay came together online to support each other in designing community projects.
Spiffy: That’s so cool! My next question is one that I’m always curious about. How do entrepreneurs face, and learn from, failure? Is there any example you want to share?
Scott: “Marry the problem, not the solution” is the wisdom we’ve picked up from other entrepreneurs and share with our students. Seven years ago we introduced a new program to license our curriculum to schools. Five years in we took a step back and realized that despite our customization and hands-on support it just wasn’t working. Schools didn’t have the space in their schedules, teachers didn’t always feel excited or prepared, and—most importantly—students weren’t feeling inspired or growing the way we'd hoped. We ended that program and are designing new opportunities to meet the needs of our partner schools and students.
Spiffy: Now, I believe you can learn from anyone and I love lessons from kids, peers, or even pets. What is something you’ve unexpectedly learned recently?
Scott: When we visited my grandmother—who recently turned 100!—and my grandfather, they would always ask, “What do you do for fun?” The two of them dedicated their careers to desegregation, women’s rights, housing, and education—work they took seriously. But when I asked my grandmother her advice for living a happy life, she emphasized having fun and having a sense of humor. It’s hard, but I try to take that to heart, remembering the joy both within and beyond the work.
Spiffy: Your grandmother is a wise woman—and wow 100, go grandma! Is there anything else you would love to tell our audience before I let you go?
Scott: “Todo es posible, nada es seguro,” a mentor shared with me as I was working in Bolivia one summer. “Anything is possible, and nothing is certain.” It certainly was true on that trip, as I watched macaws nesting on a cliffside at risk of becoming a flood zone due to a proposed dam project. It also applies to social entrepreneurship. You can plan everything perfectly—rarely will it unfold as you planned. But if you are open to new conversations and sparks of inspiration, you may find yourself walking down paths you never thought possible.
Spiffy: Perfect note to end on—thanks a million for taking out the time to talk to me today, Scott, it’s been an honor!
Scott Rechler is the co-director of LearnServe International. He graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s in social anthropology where he wrote his senior thesis on social entrepreneurship in Chile. Before LearnServe, Scott worked with Ashoka’s global community of social entrepreneurs. He received his M.B.A. from George Washington University and serves on the Board of ScholarCHIPS, a scholarship program for children of incarcerated parents. Scott lives in Washington, DC, and has two sons. (Nominated by National Digital Roundtable. First published on the Ladderworks website on December 9, 2021)
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Anushree Nande. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s interviews of founders building a more equitable world here.