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Turn A Problem Into Your Passion

Shonak PatelShonak Patel is being honored as a Champion of Change for his time and effort in AmeriCorps.

“Do what you like, like what you do.” These are the simple, yet powerful, words I heard from Life Is Good co-founder John Jacobs in the summer of 2011 while participating in the MassChallenge startup accelerator. After listening to Jacobs speak I couldn’t help but reflect on the experiences that got me to what I perceived to be a place of privilege, where I was pursuing a passion, tackling a real problem, and effectively blurring the lines between work and play with my first start-up, Swellr.

I grew up in Andover, MA in a family full of entrepreneurs and educators. Innovation, curiosity, and a desire to eliminate problems through creative thinking is in my blood. My whole life, I have been presented with every opportunity to try, to fail, to learn, to change, and to be inspired. The impossible has always seemed possible and that is solely a result of all the great teachers and learning experiences I have been exposed to along the way. As a teenager, I came to realize not everyone is fortunate enough to grow up in an environment that nurtures their confidence and encourages them to take on new challenges. As an incoming freshman, I made it my purpose to leverage entrepreneurship to help address societal needs and in doing so unlock the potential in others.

After working in the investment world for 4 years, I left my job in 2009 to serve with the LouisianaDeltaServiceCorps in New Orleans, LA. During my term of service, with NONDC, I had the privilege of working in one of the city’s most underserved — yet culturally rich neighborhoods — CentralCity. It was an experience defined by listening, observing, and identifying complicated challenges facing the community members I served. I supported a long-time resident in an arduous fight with the City to undo an erroneous property tax judgment. I listened to children playing basketball on 4th street tragically explain that a fear of being shot was the reason they weren’t using the beautiful new courts across the street at A.L. Davis Playground. I surveyed residents, planted trees, sat in on community meetings, and cleared blighted lots. I was quickly exposed to a diverse and complicated set of issues, brought on by the vicious cycle of poverty, which had trapped residents of this neighborhood, young and old, over and over again. AmeriCorps changed my life in helping me fundamentally shift the way I approach solving problems, from a prescriptive approach to a disruptive approach. AmeriCorps taught me that big, real, problems require big, systemic, change. This, as I have come to learn through experience, is the essence of innovation and entrepreneurship.

How could we disrupt the cycle of poverty? I began to challenge myself, and those around me, to imagine a world where everyone had access to a diverse set of educational resources and ongoing learning opportunities. What if everyone was equipped with the same support network and experiences I had been granted to continually discover, learn, and create new things? My AmeriCorps experience gave me the renewed clarity I needed to pursue this new vision, a vision for a world where the concepts of technology-enabled education, life-long learning, and creation are front and center. As a co-founder of Swellr, I diligently worked with my co-founders to find a new way to fund more educational resources into local classrooms. While this venture could not sustain itself in the longer term, I was inspired by the humbling power of failure to teach and considered myself once again lucky to have had another incredible opportunity to grow as a leader. Currently, as a co-founder of GatherEducation, I am once again working with a great team focused on making on-line learning experiences more engaging, more collaborative, and more accessible to teachers and learners everywhere.

This is how I got here. My learning experiences as a child, in service, and as an entrepreneur have taught me to inspire curiosity, a certain “need to know”, in others. I have learned to not fear failure, but to rather fear the status quo. Failure at its core means you are trying something new after all. I’ve been blessed to do what I love, and ultimately love what I do. Now, my focus is on helping others find their way to the same. I encourage everyone to find a big problem that impacts you or others around you, then turn it into a passion, and then push hard to turn it into progress. This is service. I promise you’ll never look back.

Shonak Patel is the co-founder of Gather Education.