BARRA: Thanks for chatting with us, Simon. To set the stage for our readers, Barra funded the Workshop U pilot program in December 2022. Workshop U aims to create a college environment focused on real world learning and skills for recent high school grads that centers traditionally excluded populations. Tell us the origin story of this idea. How did it come about?
SIMON: Twelve years ago, Workshop Learning set out to invent a new kind of high school focused on authentic learning, real-world skill building and a deep sense of community. The Workshop serves students facing high levels of adversity and provides an alternative to the “no excuses” approach that is the default for underserved students. The reasons we wanted to reinvent college too is that most higher learning isn’t relevant or personal, and it doesn’t build the skills young adults need most. Workshop U has a radical vision to provide students with diverse, transformational learning experiences that prepare them for a life of security, connection and purpose. We want to fix the value proposition of higher education so that students see the financial return on their investment but also understand that financial security isn’t the only thing worth striving for.
BARRA: Our Catalyst Fund supports early-stage, untested approaches that could result in durable and transformative change, particularly in under-resourced communities. You just launched Workshop U in September. How has the experiment been going so far?
SIMON: The first few weeks have been amazing! Twenty-three young adults (18-25 years old) have committed to the Workshop U pilot year. Their energy and insight are so inspiring. It’s been a privilege to be a part of space that honors their intellect and allows them to safely explore who they are and what they want out of life.
BARRA: If successful, what are your aspirational goals for Workshop U? What does it look like 1, 3 or 5 years down the road?
SIMON: The pilot project is laying the foundation to allow us to scale the model so that it can be sustained on tuition revenue. Our vision is to grow the program to serve 100 students in three years and be a fully accredited associate degree program through our partnering college serving 250 students in five years.
BARRA: Finally, looking to the future, what are you most excited about for your organization?
SIMON: There is such a huge need to make higher education human-centered and support marginalized students who are trying to navigate the world as a young adult. I’m so excited that we are in the intersection of figuring out how to create authentic learning experiences that result in credentials that give students access to the work they most want to do all while taking on no debt. It’s been such a joy to see the powerful work our students are already doing and I look forward to bringing the Workshop U model to scale!
Get to Know Simon
Guilty pleasure: Dark Chocolate and Netflix/Prime/Apple.
Happy place: Any time with my three children and wife.
Childhood ambition: When I was six, I asked my dad if I could change my name to Robin Hood. When I was 12, I definitely wanted to play in the NFL.
Adult ambition: To use the little bit of talent I have to do good in this world. I love working with others to create good stuff.
Music that lifts your spirits: Maverick City and MBL.
Favorite place in Philly to grab a bite: That’s hard. Who’s paying? I’m a farm-to-table person 🙂