Q & A with Possip CEO Shani Dowell
Possip gives you the pulse of your people to make your organization stronger. We use routine, multi-lingual SMS pulse check surveys to give you the power of feedback and information from those at the front lines.
Possip roots start with schools, districts, and families.
In schools, as in many other organizations and institutions, there are long-standing barriers in the way of families, students, and staff sharing their voices.
Decision-makers and leaders are overwhelmed with how to hear from diverse and dispersed voices – in a digestible way.
Possip helps people, schools, and organizations live up to their greatest potential by enlisting the voices of their diverse and dispersed communities.
Shani Dowell is the founder and CEO of Possip. A product of Houston public schools and a public-school teacher and parent, Shani loves supporting the work of schools. She started her career as a consultant at Bain & Co. and helped launch the Boston office of the Posse Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to increase student retention and engagement on college campuses. She has also worked for Houston Independent School District, KIPP Foundation—a national network of charter schools, Teach For America, Bridgespan Group, and Relay Graduate School of Education. Shani earned her BA at Howard University in Washington, DC, and her MBA at Stanford University. In starting Possip, Shani seeks to support schools by elevating the ideas of parents, teachers, and students
How do you define social impact or purpose-driven campaigns?
It’s actually a question that we wrestle with a lot, because what is the lever of change that we want to see? Organizationally, we talk about it for ourselves as “stronger schools”. We think stronger schools come from actually more stability within schools, which can come from having more consistent enrollment, operations, a predictable way of operating. And we think that having the voice of all people, those who are potentially often disenfranchised and removing barriers for them sharing their voice is part of how you get the stronger schools and a stronger culture. So that's our theory of change is that elevating the voices of all the people who are affected by the organizations and institutions should be able to have a voice and help shape how those institutions work.
Overall, more academically and intellectually, I think this question around social impact is an important one, but a tricky one because it's so important for especially younger people to do work that has an impact on the world. What I tend to see as every organization talks about themselves as a social impact organization is that it is a fine line between whether they're destroying the world or improving the world. But you wouldn't necessarily know it based on the tagline.
Are you suggesting that the troubles and issues in schools around diversity and inclusion are a communications problem? That it's just about stronger and more representative voices from all parties?
It's not just a communications problem. But when you have a more representative voice, then you can better meet the needs and understand the context within which you're operating and then make better solutions. I think significantly improved communications will be a critical lever to having better schools. And I think part of what we see in more affluent schools and communities is that the people who send their kids to those schools, their voice is respected and considered. They actually do shape those schools. And in a lot of other places with more disenfranchised populations, their voices are not considered. And the schools are less strong because of it.
What's the dance you do around how you measure return on investment?
It is tricky. There are a couple of things that we consider. One is the number of people in our platform who have the opportunity to share their voice through our platform. So how many parents, teachers, students, staff members are in our platform and have the opportunity to share? Then what percentage of them are sharing their voice? And then how does that compare to the response rates we typically see in more standardized annual surveys that school districts tend to do. Also: how diverse is the representation? So are they hearing from at least 10% of their families across every school and are they hearing from a representative proportion of their non-English speaking parents as well? This is not necessarily ROI, but the flat data of points that we use to look at our impact.
We have a lot we aspire to grow into measuring. Of course, as a startup, we also look at our growth - how many new schools and districts are we adding on and how many new users. And ultimately we want to measure:
- How is enrollment being effective
- is enrollment getting more stable?
- Teacher retention
These all result in more stable, better run and stronger schools.
How are you building an organization where the culture is about Social Impact?
When we are hiring we ask candidates to reflect on their own identity and how that shapes how they think about the work we're doing, what connects them to this mission, helping schools and districts share from families and their stakeholders. This is an important part of the hiring process. And it's in our rubric - we're looking for a connection to the mission. Even for our tech team, it becomes a debate sometimes. How much should that be the key decision-making point for certain roles? Of course, certain roles, it's a lot more important than others. But this is standard for how we think about impact, the connection to the mission.
The beautiful thing about our work, and we just try to bring it through, is every week we're asking for feedback from parents and schools. But being able to see that, the impact that it's having is just very clear and real because it comes through in the report. When you see parents, through these pandemic times, sharing things like how hard virtual learning is for the parent because they're blind or that they can't leave their house because they're sick. You just see all of the needs. And so that really keeps the team anchored.
Our values are respect and empathy, agility, bridge building, innovation and transparency and trust and wisdom. The team will talk about it. For example, within respect and empathy, we talk about multi-directional empathy because we see our job as having empathy with the parents or teachers or students, whoever's sharing the feedback, but also we're delivering this feedback to an organization and we want to have empathy for the humans on the other side of that interaction. We think about ourselves as bridge builders. But all those things get back to the impact. I think we see the impact as impacts on society. But also the most immediate impact you have is with the humans you work with every day. How we treat each other is something that matters a lot too.
Is this a unique moment in time to be doing this work?
I think it's actually a harder time to do any job. What is of greater impact than COVID, more than Black Lives Matter is really social media. I think it just calls on a lot more of people who are trying to do social impact work because the costs are higher.
With the cost being higher, is the margin for error smaller?
I think so.
Both in terms of return on investment and how the world or the community is going to be tomorrow and the next day, or in a week, or a month, a year?
Yes. We are seeing this in education where I think a lot of educators, they feel like they can't really win. It's already perceived as an impossible job. It's very hard what they're doing, especially during the pandemic and how much it just gets harder because it gets so much thrown at them constantly.
What motivates you and keeps you engaged and enthusiastic about doing this work that's hard to measure?
It's truly the impact. And so for me, I joke with my team, if ever I'm having a hard day, I just go into our reports that we're creating for our schools and districts. And we see the ability for a parent or a teacher to share a comment, and for that comment to have action taken against it. So we get to see things changing. For example, one of our partners asked their staff, "What can we take off of your plate to make your work better?" And to see that question going out, seeing them respond, and then seeing a couple of weeks later, teachers say, "Hey, thank you so much for asking. And thanks for these changes, it's made a difference." We get to just see the cycle of how that voice can actually change and shape organizations and institutions.
That's super exciting and inspiring. And then especially being a startup, you take small steps. But then all of a sudden you look back and see where those small steps have led to. We were just reflecting in February of 2019, there were two of us, two full-time team members. And so to see now where we are and just all of those are from like small, one step at a time. But then those little steps really eventually add up to a really big impact.
We see the opportunity to take the same idea to other organizations because we think there are so many institutions and organizations where those people at the front line, their voices aren't fully heard. We do think it's a gift to the decision-makers for them to hear from their people because they're able to get through some context and perspective that they wouldn't have otherwise had. So those are all the things that really keep me going. And even when I taught, it was similar. A lot of times if you looked at the overall year, it looked really overwhelming. But then you each day, one after the another. And all of a sudden, each day added up to a bigger impact and purpose.