Since 2004, the African Leadership Academy (ALA) has been dedicated to developing the next generation of African leaders.
This year, ALA launched a new program called Paragon, which aims to identify and connect brilliant youth from around the world, regardless of nationality or background. To find their Paragon Fellows, ALA searched for teens between the ages of 15 and 17 who displayed extraordinary collaboration skills, critical-thinking abilities, and moral character.
The selected Fellows will gather for a three-week, all-expenses-paid retreat in Istanbul, Turkey. There, they will receive world-class leadership training, participate in experiential group challenges, and form a tight network of future leaders dedicated to creating a better future for the world.
To recruit their first cohort of Fellows, ALA hosted their application process on Hello World, then in its pilot phase. Paragon was actually the first program to complete an entire application cycle on Hello World, making it was an eye-opening experience for both parties.
I recently sat down with the CEO of ALA, Chris Bradford, to chat about the experience of launching Paragon and using Hello World in their application process.
We discussed the importance of leaning on partner organizations to spread the word and establish credibility for a program that has yet to exist. Plus, he explained why certain evaluation methods surface cookie-cutter candidates and others reveal the most exceptional potential, even when they are rough around the edges.
His reflections about Paragon’s application process is a master class for anyone considering launching a fledgling opportunity, whether on Hello World or not.
When Paragon was announced, ALA didn’t have any name recognition outside of the African continent, and Hello World didn’t exist yet. This posed two challenges: How would they bring students to the application? And once they got there, would they see the application process through to the end?
As for the first challenge, Bradford said, “We could have spent endlessly on Google Ads to get eyeballs on Paragon, but with no name recognition or credibility outside of Africa, there was no guarantee anyone would care about or trust it. And a program like this is only as successful as the quality of applicants that you bring in.”
Paragon may be in its inaugural year, but ALA has access to a strong network of government and education organizations across the planet. When they launched the application, ALA reached out to organizations like The Citizens Foundation in Pakistan and national educational offices around the world to drum up excitement among promising young leaders.
But there was no guarantee they would actually maintain interest in the application once they hit send.
In traditional application experiences, kids go to a web portal, respond to a bunch of questions, and send their materials into the ether. Three months later, after they’ve forgotten they applied, they find out that they’ve been admitted.
“We just have to hope they’re still available and interested,” said Bradford. “It’s a real problem, especially among up-and-coming programs like Paragon.”
So, they hosted the application on Hello World, which offers a much different application experience.
On Hello World, instead of submitting an application in private, students create public profiles and upload short video responses to challenges like “Show us your passion.” Students can also see who else has applied, watch their application videos, and even provide feedback.
“There was a sense of community and collective enthusiasm from the jump,” said Bradford, “which served as a valuable stamp of approval for a program that hadn’t even happened yet.”
For ALA, it was important to find students with exceptional character and genuine motivation. They were careful to only ask questions that uncovered who each applicant was and how they thought, not how persuasive and polished they were.
Formulaic interview questions reward kids who know the formula. Some of the most unique and passionate students can’t shine through rote interview questions because they lack the coaching and experience necessary to provide succinct, persuasive answers.
Asking about individual achievements, for example, puts students who have the privilege of preparation at a notable advantage.
“So many impressive students don’t know why they’re impressive,” said Bradford. “They’ll tell us about a math test they scored well on because that’s what they get feedback on at school. Meanwhile, they’re out volunteering their time every Saturday to help peoples’ lives in their hometown.”
ALA wasn’t seeking interview sharks; they were looking for kids who had an earnest passion and the drive to become leading global citizens. So, they focused on asking questions students didn’t prepare for, like, “This is a residential program. How would you describe your hometown to your roommate?”
“When you ask students something like that,” said Bradford, “you hear this richness about how they think about their hometown, their culture, and their communities. And since nobody really prepares for that type of question, you don't get a rehearsed answer or students talking about math tests. It reveals much more about them and how they think."
The 41-selected Fellows come from 26 countries across five continents. The in-person program will take place in mid-2021, but the group has already begun bonding online.
“They’re awesome,” said Bradford. “The Fellows were immediately eager to get to know each other and dive into big ideas. Many of them recognized one another from the platform, too. Our video call spanned all the way from Iowa, where the sun was just rising, to Japan, where it was almost midnight.”
It was an amazing process to watch these kids move from strangers to peer reviewers to a cohort of Paragon Fellows. We recently published a profile of one of the selected students: Floppy, a Paraguayan teenager passionate about using public spaces to revitalize communities.
We’ve also seen that applicants remain active on Hello World, even after not being selected for programs like Paragon. ALA drove applicants to our platform, but those teens have stayed to improve their videos, apply for other opportunities, and engage with the community. It’s the most meaningful stamp of approval we could receive.
As we continue to grow, organizations can tap into this pre-built community of diverse, motivated teens. This will make Hello World a particularly strong platform for debut opportunities that might not have established name recognition on an international scale.
What would you do if you had access to a pool of the world’s most eager and often overlooked talent? Would you offer a residential program like Paragon? University scholarships? Masterclasses for young entrepreneurs or performers? Mentorships for young community leaders?
We are a resource for individuals, foundations, and other organizations that would like to back teens with potential but don’t have the precedent or infrastructure to do so.
If that sounds like you, I encourage you to reach out. I’d be thrilled to give you a demo of the platform and dream big about how to discover and develop overlooked teens you'd like to back. Please, say hello!