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“Control the controllable”, With Douglas Brown and Laura Tierney of The Social Institute

CTC: control the controllable: focus all of your energy on what you can control and don’t waste an extra second on what you can’t. Your time is too precious. Find creativity at intersections: Innovation often exists at the intersection of two concepts that don’t normally go together. Take for example Pixar, which plays at the […]

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CTC: control the controllable: focus all of your energy on what you can control and don’t waste an extra second on what you can’t. Your time is too precious.

Find creativity at intersections: Innovation often exists at the intersection of two concepts that don’t normally go together. Take for example Pixar, which plays at the intersection of art and technology. I enjoy following best practices and innovations in other industries and considering how we can apply them to our own work.


As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Tierney, Founder and CEO of The Social Institute. She empowers students and their role models to navigate social media and technology in positive, high character ways. Within two years, her team’s unique gamified social media curriculum, co-created with over 50,000 students at 60 schools nationwide, has been touted as the gold standard in the country. Their positive, student-led approach has been applauded by Melinda Gates on Twitter and featured by The Washington Post, NPR, and USA Today.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I received my first cell phone when I was thirteen, and since then, was lectured by adults on how devices will destroy our generation, tarnish our reputations, and damage our mental health. I clearly remember while in high school, and later on as a student-athlete at Duke University and Team USA, adults harping on the Don’ts: Don’t text this, don’t share that, don’t join that app, and don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see. They never told us what TO do.

I rewrote the script when I went on to use technology to land my dream job, connected with role models, stayed in touch with friends across the world, and more. I found that contrary to what I was hearing from adults, technology and social media could be used to fuel my health, happiness, and success.

Years later working as a social media strategist for leading brands and sports teams, I realized these organizations had people like me coaching them on how to use social media for good, but no one was doing the same for the people who needed it most: students. I saw a void that needed filling, so in 2016, I founded The Social Institute to help students navigate the 21st century by teaching them to navigate social media and technology in beneficial, positive ways — all through a groundbreaking, student-led, scalable approach to social media education.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

Working with students is highly energizing for me, and The Social Institute’s collaboration with students has led to some of the most interesting moments in my career. We’re a company that deeply values the student perspective. I can quickly remember all the chances that experienced executives took when they hired me for internships or jobs as I was first building my career. People believed in me even when I didn’t have the credentials that might typically signal that I was the right person for the job. I put that same faith in students. We have student ambassadors who collaborate with us in almost every aspect of our work, we speak at schools regularly, and we’ve built student perspectives into the lifeblood of our “student-led” curriculum.

The world is moving way too fast to stand still, and we know that keeping up with the times is all about keeping up with the students we serve. It’s incredible to see how the use of words and ideas change dramatically within just a few years, and perceptions of what is appropriate on social media or trending in today’s culture is just as fluid.

Students like to come up to me after talks at schools. We connect. I always welcome their feedback and ask them for advice. It doesn’t matter to me where they go to school or how well spoken they are. Every conversation is insightful, and every student’s perspective matters in our work. We incorporate as many as we can, and we’re still going.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early on we rented an office that was hilariously terrible. To save money, we found a space where the walls didn’t quite reach the ceiling. If you’re familiar with open floor plans, these plans tend to be quieter or have music playing to drown out the buzz of conversation. Private offices, of course, tend to be quiet. The challenge is when you have a space that is stuck in between these two options. Because the building’s offices were quiet without a hint of music, our office neighbors enjoyed listening to our conversations so much that they regularly added their thoughts from the other side of the wall. Worse, the internet started failing on a regular basis, so we quickly took it as a sign to find a new office.

I learned a valuable lesson about balancing cost efficiency with giving employees a professional and work-able environment.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I’m sure that like many founders, I’ve seen some tough moments, but my passion for this mission helps me look beyond them. My background as a student-athlete playing on the U.S. Field Hockey team taught me many life lessons, and one of them is that persistence is often the difference between success and failure. We’ve had some tough times. When COVID hit, I thought the business might collapse completely. It didn’t. We continued to experience strong sales throughout COVID as schools saw an increased need for social-emotional learning and as student time on devices increased quickly with remote learning.

Before that, we saw some of the typical startup challenges. Receiving capital from friends and family is a great gift, but it’s also hard to take your family’s money, whatever they can afford to give, and hope that everyone has the maturity and patience to let the business grow. I’m lucky to have amazing family and friends, but that doesn’t make it easy.

The drive to endure challenges like these comes from a fierce resolve to make this work and to help students. Startups typically don’t stay with their original idea, and I recognize that our investors and employees are betting on our mission and our team. We’ll find a way, no matter what challenges we face.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Laura Gentile, SVP at ESPN and Founder of espnW, has always been a mentor and role model of mine. Her optimism and energy to blaze new trails is so admirable. I firmly believe “we can’t be what we can’t see” and seeing Laura build both a gold standard brand and business showed me what’s possible.

I asked Laura one time what quality she valued most in the people she hired and she replied with, “passion”. Passion beats everything and is the fire behind any great company.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My time at Duke taught me a lot about leadership, and the learning didn’t stop after graduation. While building my company’s website, I came across this quote from Coach K: “Usually when you’re ruled, you never agree with all the rules, you just abide by them. But if you have standards and if everyone contributes to the way you’re going to do things, you end up owning how you do things.”

I live and abide by that quote in my own life, with my employees, and even when coaching students, families, and schools. When it comes to cell phone and social media use — I don’t believe kids should have to be the only ones to sign a contract full of rules. Instead, I think classrooms and families should agree to standards that everyone lives by. Examples of standards include:

  • We always prioritize the people in the room over the people on the phone
  • We never use phones while driving.
  • We put our devices down and engage in real life (IRL) whenever possible.
  • We charge our devices in a common area at night.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

The Social Institute is a gamified, online learning platform that empowers students to navigate their social world — social media and technology — to fuel their health, happiness, and future success. By reinforcing character strengths like empathy, integrity, and teamwork and by showcasing their role models (from student leaders to U.S. Olympians), we use a relevant, positive approach to inspire students to make positive, high character choices.

Students are spending an average 7.5 hours each day on their screens, according to Common Sense Media, and social media and technology have become some of the greatest influences on students’ health, happiness, and future success — whether or not they own a device.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Without a doubt, it’s our positive approach to social media education. We have a superhuman focus on positive ways to navigate what we believe is the world’s most visible representation of your character. We aim to empower and equip, not scare and restrict.

We also know that when it comes to social media and technology, adults are NOT the only experts — students are, too! So many companies and social media experts deliver a top-down approach, and frankly don’t have credibility with kids. We are proud to be student-led. Our materials are uniquely developed with students — and snicker-tested — to ensure that lessons are respected and embraced by students.

One day I was leaving a school after a talk with students, and a sixth grade girl approached me and said she wanted to thank me for helping them navigate social media. She was so thoughtful and wise, and I felt an instant connection with her. Our “quick conversation” morphed into a two hour brainstorm, and then a three-year collaboration in which she helped us develop lessons specifically for middle schoolers, to address the real issues they were facing.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

When schools closed due to the pandemic, we were able to shift on a dime to meet the needs of school communities across the country. In April, we launched #WinAtSocial LIVE, a comprehensive offering that was created in collaboration with student leaders across the country and along with our own Research Advisory Committee, which is made up of a group of psychologists, mental health specialists, and social-emotional learning experts.

#WinAtSocial LIVE provides schools nationwide with technology capability and weekly content updates to provide remote advisory sessions supporting students’ social-emotional health, well-being, and executive functioning skills.

Each week, LIVE continues to provide real-time, relevant discussion prompts that encourage students to open up about current events, build executive functioning skills for remote learning, and leverage design thinking to help their schools create the best year possible, despite how different this school year may look.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I read a recent survey that said a quarter of all women in tech think confidence and visibility are barriers to success in the tech industry. It’s true that it’s a male-dominated industry, but I think more women are breaking down barriers, while simultaneously mentoring other women. I call myself an “unshakeable optimist,” but I truly believe that as long as women continue this trend of breaking the glass ceiling and reaching down to pull others up, it won’t be a male-dominated industry for long.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

Of course, raising young humans while growing a company is challenging. Women tend to take on so much and we don’t always do a great job of asking for help, so I think having a partner at home who shares in the parenting and household duties equally is key.

And in general, there is no doubt that unconscious biases do exist in the tech industry, but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that. I work hard, stay ahead of the trends, and let my knowledge and expertise speak for itself.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

The tech industry is constantly progressing, and if you’re just standing still you’re not moving forward. It’s imperative to keep up with industry trends, learn new skills, and modify business goals and objectives with changing times.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

In our experience, creating high performing sales teams is about giving highly talented and motivated individuals the resources they need to win. A stronger performer might not be successful if he or she isn’t supported properly. As we remind ourselves, even the best players often need a great coach, and I’ve been fortunate to have amazing coaches both as a D1 athlete and as an executive. Sales professionals thrive when the conditions are right — when market, product, internal support are all aligned to optimize for success.

FINDING AND ATTRACTING THE RIGHT CUSTOMERS

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

— Thought leadership

Our company began by sharing innovative thinking with educators, parents, and students. Thought leadership has played a crucial role in our growth ever since. Because of our unique approach to social-emotional learning and social media use, we’ve been invited to speak at major conferences nationwide and received praise by respected leaders and publications. This has allowed schools to find our company when they are looking for a solution to the challenge of social media and social-emotional health.

— Genuine approach placing students and schools first

In our business, we don’t just put the customer first, we place students first. Schools work with us often because they see that our content is embraced by students. Similarly, we put enormous emphasis on our relationships with schools and have repeatedly gone above and beyond what is stated in any contract to ensure that our customers see value from our products and services. In return, we’ve benefited from positive word of mouth among educators.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

Fast replies

We’ve found that when the customer has a question, it’s not just a question that should be answered, it’s a moment in time when the customer is actively engaged with your product. There are times, of course, when a customer is not actively engaged. We believe that working with customers at the right time, when they’re engaged and ready for information, yields the best customer experience. So, we reply quickly!

Clear next steps and follow through

Whenever we communicate with a customer, we either resolve the conversation immediately or identify follow up steps. If additional steps are needed, we make sure that those steps are defined clearly and given a deadline so that expectations are clear. We may not always have an immediate answer, but we can always tell the customer that we will reply with more information, resolve whatever question they’ve brought to our team, and do all of this in a timely manner.

Strong internal operations to support customer relationships

Clear communication internally can’t be overstated. It’s critical. Having a CRM that allows for centralized storying of key information, which can be accessed easily and on-demand, helps to improve communications between all departments and is especially crucial in these days of remote working.

CHURN

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones.

Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn?

Companies say that “the customer is always right”, but we take that phrase to heart. We seek out input from customers, actively listen, and identify ways to create additional positive impact at our partner schools. We focus on developing relationships with every customer, and we do that through two major initiatives: onboarding and thought leadership. Our onboarding experience is designed to be simple and fun. We keep it light and remind ourselves and our customers that at the end of the day, our job is to improve the lives of students and school communities. We want to help. Additionally, we gather insights from students across the country and deliver unique and actionable insights to educators and families so that they can continue to support students even despite quickly changing, challenging situations. Through articles, webinars and data insights, we empower our communities with meaningful insights to drive positive change.

Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

At the end of the day, there are only so many things we can control. We can usually control the sales process and ensure that prospective customers understand how they will see value from our products and services. We can also offer strong service during onboarding and ensure that all questions are answered as customers start using our products. Our customers see that our unique ability to help them is both important and timely as more and more students are using devices and social media.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

  • CTC: control the controllable: focus all of your energy on what you can control and don’t waste an extra second on what you can’t. Your time is too precious.
  • Find creativity at intersections: Innovation often exists at the intersection of two concepts that don’t normally go together. Take for example Pixar, which plays at the intersection of art and technology. I enjoy following best practices and innovations in other industries and considering how we can apply them to our own work.
  • Empower through empathy: my co-founder and I are both moms. We are growing our company at the same time we are nurturing little ones of our own, so we are living what some employees are going through. We understand that kids get sick and life gets in the way — and we figure it out. There is a shared, mutual empathy in our office that empowers us all to stick together and really work together as a team.
  • Be coachable: Playing field hockey taught me so much about hard work and character — both on and off the field. I always tried to be coachable. Being coachable means you’re leaving room for the possibility that there’s something you haven’t learned yet that could make you even better. Even though I’m the founder and president of my company, I continue to learn every day, and I’m always seeking out and listening to mentors, while also getting feedback from my team.
  • Build a strong team: This is another lesson from sports — whether you’re chasing a state championship or building a start-up, it’s important to surround yourself with good people. Motivational speaker Jim Rohn famously said that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with, and this is true in business. Choose wisely, and aim for a high character team.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I tell students that social media is like a microphone to the world. Anyone can post something that can potentially reach people around the globe. This frightens parents, but what if we focus on the positive potential? Social media can be a force for good. It can be used to start movements, to raise awareness and money for important causes. It can connect us like never before. Instead of focusing on the negative, let’s start a movement to amplify the ways in which students are using social media to spread good over hate; to strengthen reputations instead of tearing people down; to represent something bigger than themselves; to make a positive impact on the world — one post, one tweet, one text at a time.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

It’s hard to pick just one person, but Bob Iger is top of my list. There are so many leadership lessons we can learn from him, but I think the most valuable is that he understands the importance of brand excellence and creating meaningful experiences for customers. Disney has such a solid foundation upon which they constantly improve, and they are always looking for ways to “plus” their products and services.

The Social Institute is similar — we strive for excellence in all that we do, and we’re constantly looking to enhance our curriculum to serve students, parents, and educators across the world.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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