What I’ve Learned As SEAL President

I always loved going to school, even during the mercilessly awkward middle school years. I enrolled in the UTeach program as a college freshman, but I soon realized that my passion for education did not necessarily have to lead to a teaching career. After working at Aceable, an ed-tech startup, I wanted to start my own hybrid of education and entrepreneurship.

In April 2015, four co-founders and I competed at the Envision Austin Social Innovation Competition and won funding for our idea, Students Expanding Austin Literacy (SEAL). Today, SEAL’s 60 weekly volunteers serve as reading buddies for at risk elementary students. We also had 20 students enrolled in the supplementary SEAL course at UT.

Here are 4 major lessons that I have learned (so far) as the president of our little “startup.”

1. Learn to love tough love

After our first co-founder meeting, I waltzed into my dorm and told my roommate all about our vague vision for SEAL. He immediately rattled off a list of flaws in our idea. The reality slap hurt, but effectively revealed our weak points. We continued to pick people’s brains, including our favorite professor and even my boss at Aceable. Today, my roommate is SEAL’s Head Volunteer Coordinator, our professor taught the SEAL course last semester, and my boss helped us polish our pitch and even made a donation. Discussing our idea with others attracted constructive criticism and “investments” of skills and mentorship.

2. Hit the ground running in a suit

When we won the competition, I thought it would be smooth sailing from then on. However, we spent our entire summer designing the SEAL logo and business card, building a website, and learning firsthand about educational bureaucracies. During the week of our launch, I neglected my schoolwork, spent over 40 hours consolidating partnerships and recruiting members, and doubled the gray hair count on my head. Our momentum and professionalism were crucial to building a brand and breaking through the clutter of starry eyed student organizations.

3. Think big, start small, and keep your head up

We hoped to create a 3 credit hour SEAL course for our most passionate members to learn more about literacy and service. After a meeting with UT administrators, we only got approval for a 1 hour course. As we licked our wounds, we admitted that we may have been too ambitious. However, we also realized that a condensed course would still fulfill our core mission: to help our volunteers help their buddies. We maintained a lean startup mentality with our 1 hour “minimum viable product” course with plenty of room to collect data and improve.  

4. Remember where you came from

We concluded our 2015 Envision Austin pitch with “Your investment today will boost literacy rates and inspire service. Help us SEAL the deal!” Today, “SEAL the deal” is our battle cry whenever an officer recruits a new member, builds a partnership, or diffuses a crisis. We closed out our first year by having lunch at the Einstein Bros on Guadalupe Street, where SEAL was conceived, to reflect on our achievements. Our history and rituals remind us of our humble beginnings, motivate us to follow through, and have grown into a strong culture.

Even though SEAL is in no way a business, the experience of building it from scratch has challenged my creativity and leadership skills like nothing before. It evened out my transition from education to business by letting me work with children by day and joyously slave away on business case studies by night. I look forward to SEAL’s second year and the lessons that are sure to come.

Originally published on www.linkedin.com/in/rogerhlam.


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