Three Teach For America Alumni Lead in Cleveland Start-up Scene
From career educators and physicians to civil rights attorneys and entrepreneurs, Teach For America is a bold and diverse network comprising leaders from all walks and sectors. "Voices of Change: A Leadership Series" highlights some of the corps members and alumni who are tackling the systemic problems of inequity and partnering with others to make meaningful progress for kids and communities.
The technology and start-up scene is thriving and reviving the Rust Belt city of Cleveland, Ohio. Meet three entrepreneurial movers and shakers who used their classroom experience and passion for impact to help lift up the community they love.
A graduate of New York University Stern School of Business, Patel worked as a consultant across New York and Los Angeles for top-tier companies such as Mattel. However, Patel always had a profound passion for educational justice and joined the corps in 2008, looking to switch gears.
“I came from an entrepreneurial family and struggled with how to make my dream of running my own business and interest in education intersect. My corps experience helped put everything in perspective.”
After her two-year commitment, Patel moved back to her hometown of Cleveland and started ZENworks Yoga.
The now–Cleveland-based 501(c)(3) provides access to yoga and wellness programming for children and families in under-resourced schools and community organizations. Since launching in 2010, the organization has grown to over 15 instructors working with over 3,500 students in more than 125 programs in Northeast Ohio.
ZENworks Yoga also presents a corporate wellness program through which a company can sponsor a school and, in return, receive yoga instruction for its employees. “I used the skills I gained as a teacher to design our 10-week curriculum and instructor training,” says Patel.
In 2016, Patel launched amaZEN U, an on-demand yoga and mindfulness platform for pre-K through 12th grade children, delivered through guided videos and lessons at school and at home.
“We wanted to create a meaningful way to help both teachers and students. I’m excited about our growth plan and what’s in store,” says Patel.
Founder of KinderKits
KinderKits was started by Ben Colas (Greater Cleveland ’13), a kindergarten teacher in inner-city Cleveland, after he watched his students struggle to meet the requirements for Ohio’s Kindergarten Readiness Assessment.
“A lot of my students hadn’t ever held a pencil, couldn’t count to 10, and couldn’t write their names,” shared Colas. He worried how his kids would catch up when over 90 percent of students from low-income schools start the kindergarten year academically behind.
Colas knew the issue didn’t stem from parents’ lack of concern or effort. “It was a lack of information,” says Ben. “Parents would register their child for kindergarten and know nothing about what their child should know or how to teach those skills.”
KinderKits aims to change this by providing parents with clear expectations of what their children need to know and how to teach those skills with everyday items.
The educational toolkit Ben developed is a drawstring bag that doubles as a backpack, complete with items like Froot Loops, Play-Doh, rice, and shaving cream. With these tools, kids can practice counting; sorting; writing; and recognizing letters, numbers, and shapes, among other skills.
Colas pitched KinderKits during the Sidewalk to Stage pitch competition at Startup Scaleup, taking home a $5,000 prize in the Social Impact Venture category. Colas also walked away with $20,000 after pitching KinderKits at the SEA Change 2017 Social Enterprise Accelerator Pitch event this past February.
Today, Colas is looking to take KinderKits beyond Cleveland and develop more tools to help with kindergarten readiness, all with parent-teacher collaboration in mind.
Colas once envisioned a career in corporate finance but today is proud to blend entrepreneurial interests with making an impact for others. “The skills and experience gained as a corps member have been invaluable in helping channel my passion for entrepreneurship as a means to address a community need,” says Colas.
Founder and Partner of Ironborne Brew Works
The mission of Ironborne Brew Works is to build community and fuel grassroots efforts in Cleveland through every pint of beer.
The idea: A percentage of every pint purchased in-house goes back to a charity of your choice. “Drink beer, do good. That’s the approach, and that’s what we’re about,” says founder Jeremy Langham (Greater Cleveland ’13).
When Langham is not tackling the barriers to opportunity through barstool philanthropy, he works as director of special projects at Passages supporting fathers re-entering their children’s lives. He also serves as an aide on the Cleveland City Council.
I’ve always had a strong interest in politics and nonprofit work, and how we can leverage neighborhood impact from all fronts,” says Langham.
Helping individuals transition from incarceration to employment, his lens of impact shifted. “I wanted to assist in addressing equity in education to help stem the vicious cycle,” says Langham. Soon after, he joined Teach For America, where he taught in his hometown of Cleveland and went on to be regional director of alumni leadership for Teach For America in Northeast Ohio.
Ironborne came about after Langham entered a local leadership neighborhood-development program.
“I was looking for my impact lever. I wanted to pair my working in the community and nonprofit sector with a new idea,” recalls Langham. A home brewer for eight years, he found the right fit in the marriage of beer and philanthropy.
In 2017, his pitch for Ironborne Brew Works (“Drink Beer. Do Good”) won The Accelerate 2017: Citizens Make Change competition as well as the SEA Change Pitch Event. With such strong backing, Langham plans to open the brewery’s first physical location, with his sights set on Cleveland’s Midtown neighborhood.
There’s a lot of momentum, energy, and synergy around social enterprise in the area. “We are looking to have a hard opening in late winter-early spring 2018,” says Langham.
“In the end, I want Ironborne to be a space where people can put their technology down and speak to one another—discover new organizations they’d like to volunteer for and support—share stories and share laughs, all in the communal spirit of giving back.”