RALEIGH — Young people today aren’t adequately prepared for real work, creating a talent gap in the workforce. At least, that’s what former teachers and husband-and-team Anne Jones and Dan Gonzalez believe.

That’s why they founded District C, a startup which offers training to high school students in solving “real-life” problems. Their approach is straightforward: prepare students for doing real work by giving them more opportunities to do real work.

“The kind of talent we need is changing, yes, but we can address it by building a new kind of talent pipeline,” Jones told WRAL TechWire.

After graduating from Dartmouth, Jones spent five years working as a middle school science teacher. After earning a Doctor of Education degree in Education Policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education,  she later served as a consultant for Harvard’s Data Wise project where she helped schools around the country implement data-based improvement practices. From there, Anne became Chief Program Officer at Project Lead The Way, a national nonprofit and leading provider of STEM curriculum.

District C’s Anne Jones and Dan Gonzalez

Gonzalez studied engineering at Dartmouth College before becoming a high school physics teacher. After teaching for two years, he joined Manhattan Prep, a company focused on test preparation, where he became president in 2011 shortly after it was acquired by Kaplan. Later, he joined Kaplan Test Prep’s leadership team where he oversaw an operations division that worked to deliver education services at scale.

The pair are set to speak today at Innovate Raleigh, its eighth annual summit bringing together more than 300 entrepreneurs, small business owners and economic development leaders to discuss emerging trends that will inevitably affect the city.

WRAL TechWire’s Chantal Allam recently had the chance to catch up with them, and learn more about District C. Here’s what they had to say:

  • You say we’ve got a talent gap, and young people aren’t prepared for real work. Really? Is it that bleak?

First, let’s talk about the gap. What kind of talent is needed today? The skills you need today are the kinds of things computers are not as good at, work that is uniquely human. This is the messy stuff of complex problem solving and learning to leverage the strengths of a diverse team to solve those problems. IBM recently came out with a report revealing that the STEM pipeline, which has been the focus for the last several years, is getting deeper and the task of finding technical talent is getting easier. What is harder to find is talent that knows how to adapt and learn, break down problems, innovate practical solutions, and leverage the strengths of a diverse team.
We often use basketball as a metaphor. The game of basketball has changed over the last several years from a 2-point game to a 3-point game. The preparation of youth players has changed as well such that players in all positions are learning to shoot the 3-point shot and guard the 3-point offense. This new style of play demands a new kind of basketball talent. The world of work has changed too, but unfortunately the preparation has not. Our traditional system continues to prepare “2-point players” for a “3-point economy.” We need to build a talent pipeline of 3-point players. What is a 3-point player? Someone who can leverage the strengths of a diverse team to solve complex problems.

  • What is your approach?

We teach students how to work in diverse teams to solve complex problems. We do this by putting them in teams, or C Squads as we call them: four students from four different schools. We coach them through the mess and complexity of solving real problems for real businesses. We also coach educators through the same experience so that they can take our model back to their schools. These Coaching Fellows complete over 100 hours of training as they get ready to launch the District C learning model back at their schools. Some of our trained coaches are already offering for-credit District C semester courses and full-year courses. Others are implementing District C-style learning as part of existing courses.

You will be among the speakers at Innovate Raleigh this year. What is one of the driving messages you hope to impart?

We need to prepare 3-point players for a 3-point economy and we have built the talent pipeline to do just that, right here in the Triangle. It’s more than a program — it’s a movement that we call #FirstInTalent. Now we need to figure out how to get students across the state of North Carolina access to the preparation they need to thrive as innovators and problem solvers both in their companies and in their communities.

  • So far, what has the response been like?

Tremendous. What we set out to do is not easy, but when you meet can-do people who raise their hands to join the effort, you can accomplish a lot. Since our founding in 2017 we have reached over 400 students and 40 educators.This has been a team effort from the start with businesses, schools and school districts, co-working spaces, and advocates all doing their part. We all have a stake in preparing 3-point talent. The future success of our companies, organizations, and communities depends on it.

  • How are you funding your startup? Are you getting enough backing?

As a nonprofit, we have both an earned income stream and a fundraising stream. For example, schools pay to send their educators through our training to become certified District C coaches. Organizations, corporations, and individuals can also become #FirstInTalent Members as a way to make a financial investment in this collective effort to build a diverse and prepared talent pipeline that includes students from every part of the region.

  • District C is hosting a pitch event in November. Four teams of high school students from 12 different schools will pitch solutions to real problems posed by Republic Wireless and TEKsystems. What do you hope will come out of it?

Real value for our business partners and real value for our students. For our businesses, they are bringing problems to the table that are causing real pain points. They are looking to our C Squads to provide real and practical solutions.  For our students, the C Squad experience is an important first step in learning and practicing the mindsets and tools of collective problem solving. Our hope is that they continue to build these mindsets and use these tools in their life and work wherever their journey takes them.