The Questions that Drive Hello World

Hello, World!

It’s been about a month since Hello World launched. I’m writing to take stock of the questions that have been driving our team and animating our (virtual) office. And, in the spirit of our mission, I want to do so openly and transparently.

Launch showed us that our platform has promise. The teens using Hello World hail from over 140 countries spread across six continents. They include community leaders, environmental activists, mental health advocates, performers, tinkerers, aspiring non-profit leaders, future CEOs, and so, so much more.

We’ve successfully recommended our first group of applicants to the African Leadership Academy’s Paragon program, the Ivy House Award, Global Citizen Year Academy, IMAGI-NATION {University}, and Civics Unplugged. Right now, we’re accepting applications for the Rise program, The School for Ethics and Global Leadership, Global Social Leaders, High Resolves, and a variety of other exclusive development opportunities like an AMA with Sal Khan.

The enthusiasm from launch refueled the team for the long road ahead. The way I see it, Hello World is a start, not an ultimate solution. In its current state, the platform is a a seed with the potential to meaningfully transform the way the world discovers and develops talent.

I’m sharing these in-progress ideas as a call to action of sorts. We’re eager to connect with future partners, advisors, team members, and networks—anyone who can support our mission of discovering and developing unique talent from all over the world.

These are some of the questions at the heart of Hello World.

What would happen if we created open, transparent application processes?

Right now, much of the typical application process happens behind closed doors and in a black box. Teens—particularly those who don’t have the privilege of learning the ins and outs of application processes—are left confused and frustrated as a result.

In a typical application process, a teen completes an application alone (that is, unless they get help from family or coaches) and submits it to one institution at a time. A small team of admissions officers reads and discusses the application in a private room, makes a decision, and mails it in a sealed envelope back to the applicant.

I recently re-read a 2019 New York Times article, The Implicit Punishment of Daring to Go to College When Poor. It was written by Enoch Jemmott, a senior at Queens College at the time of publishing. In the article, he explains how he and his classmates—most of whom came from working-class, first-generation families—felt while applying to college:

“We all knew of the SAT [. . .] but had no concrete idea of how to prepare for it. We knew that you had to apply to college and for financial aid but didn’t know the necessary or “smart” steps. When you’re 17, and pretty much doing it all on your own, the sight of all the hurdles you have to jump can be demoralizing, even paralyzing.”

No one should feel this way.

We created Hello World with the idea of no black boxes, with the goal of reducing the number of kids who share Jemmott’s experience. We replaced processes that are typically private, siloed, and shrouded in secrecy with ones that are public and transparent.

Here’s what it looks like: When you make an account on Hello World, you can see everyone else who’s applying to opportunities. You can see all the different types of responses as they come in. You can see that there’s more than one right answer and more than one type of person applying.

One of the initial concerns with this approach was whether a toxic environment would emerge. Naturally, we worry that kids will be mean to one another and act dishonestly, especially if they can see other applications. We've been designing guardrails to keep our community kind and safe at scale. It's a significant amount of work and runs counter to how most tech companies are structured but we believe it's mission critical.

The interactions between students have been supportive, thoughtful, and informative—which brings me to the second question.

How can we turn the application process into a development opportunity in and of itself?

A huge source of sustained inequality in college admissions stems from the fact that some kids get extensive feedback and coaching throughout the application process, while others get little to none.

When college application season rolls around, the lucky students get guidance from doting parents, college consultants, essay coaches, and test prep. They practice and prepare, learn the dos and don’ts, and strategize about the best ways to stand out among the crowd.

Everyone else is left to figure all of that out on their own. They navigate the process in a silo and are left questioning every step in the process. Is this a good essay topic? How do I dress for the interview? What can I do to get noticed? And, unfortunately, if they’re rejected from the opportunity, they get little to no insight about how to answer those questions the next time around.

Breaking down black boxes is part of the solution here, too. On Hello World, applicants make video responses to challenge prompts in order to apply to opportunities (like university, scholarships, fellowships, etc.).

One of the key differences between this and the traditional application process is that anyone can watch a hundred video responses before making their own. They’re also prompted to provide feedback on other applicants’ videos: How innovative is this person’s idea? How passionate does this person seem? Was this person able to make you laugh?

Giving feedback is proving meaningful for our participants, particularly those who get limited guidance at school and at home. It gives them an opportunity to see what makes an application (un)successful and helps them reflect on how to approach and improve their own.

Peer feedback is a promising first step, and we want to implement even more opportunities for guidance and support. Our vision is to create a sort of free, scalable career and college counseling service that’s built into the application process itself.

It’s a lofty vision, but one worth pursuing. Closing the preparation gap between teens with access to coaching and those without would constitute a long-overdue step toward a more level playing field.

How can we find the next Einstein in new places?

At the end of the day, we’re reimagining the application process to discover and develop talent in overlooked places and people.

Diversity quotas and bias trainings are a step in the right direction, but progress is slow and often superficial. We need to find deeper, more structural ways to invite more people to the table. Intervention can (and should) occur at many points in a young person’s life, but the Hello World team has our sights set on the application process.

There’s overwhelming evidence that traditional evaluation methods—like standardized tests, grades, letters of recommendation, and essays—favor those with wealth, access, and networks. Rather than incrementally amending those tools, we want to create a platform that eliminates the influence of wealth and race wherever possible.

We want to expand the search for the next generation of innovators, leaders, and Einsteins beyond wealthy private high school students and top scorers on the SAT.

(For more on this topic, read my first post on the Hello World blog, Tests Are Broken and We Shouldn’t Fix Them.)

Our process shines a direct light on participants rather than relying on test scores and grades. It seeks to understand who they are, how they think, and what they’re like in day-to-day life.

I like to think of Hello World as a virtual networking event—one that opens its doors to anyone, anywhere. Teens can introduce themselves and tell us about their passions and ideas, and we can connect them to opportunities with a warm introduction. Since we get the chance to know who they are, we’re able to assess fit and potential better than we could with test scores and grades alone.

There are a couple of distinct technical challenges that go into creating this kind of environment on a global scale. First, we had to create an app that would work on semi-smart phones and in areas with poor connectivity. I’m both grateful for and impressed by our engineering team for making that possible.

Second—and this is a challenge we have yet to overcome—is the issue of language. Hello World is currently an English-only app, something that I’d like to change before long.

So far, our approach shows promise. Our pool of talent is remarkably diverse in nationality, background, passion, interest, and skill. Recently, we were able to recommend a South Sudanese student living in a Kenyan refugee camp for the Ivy House Award, where she’ll receive world-class personal and professional mentorship.

Tackling this deep-rooted challenge on such a large scale is both daunting and challenging. But I believe it’s the most important aspect of our work.

What’s on the horizon?

We have big plans for the future of Hello World, and we need help making them a reality.

In 2021, we aim to connect 20,000 remarkable teens to partnership academic opportunities. By 2025, we plan to connect one million. We like to dream wide and big about what teens will find when they log into Hello World this time next year:

  • jobs
  • summer internships
  • academic programs
  • coaching and mentorship
  • exclusive AMAs
  • micro-investments for innovative ideas
  • and more

As I said, I’m sharing these ideas as a call to action. We need to connect with more amazing programs in search of the best talent to join us on the Hello World platform.

Specifically, we’re looking for partners that want to offer development opportunities (like those listed above) on the platform; advisors with expertise in global data privacy laws beyond GDPR, DEI, or data science who can guide us in our mission to discover and develop overlooked talent everywhere; funders who are interested in innovation and impact; and other team members interested in making this platform work for as many young people as possible.

If this sounds like you or someone you know, I’m looking forward to speaking. Please, say hello!