Listen, Solve, Pitch

Upper Schoolers Take on Real-World Business Challenges

Story by Melody Guyton Butts // Video by Jesse Paddock

Durham Academy Upper Schoolers are getting a big taste of the business world thanks to an innovative collaboration with District C, a nonprofit that empowers high schoolers to solve real-world problems for businesses and organizations.

The semester-long course — which will be known as Problem Solving for Real Businesses beginning this fall — is led by Upper School librarian Shannon Harris and library assistant Katherine Spruill, who serve as coaches for the budding business consultants by occasionally offering feedback or advice.

“We expect the students to do a lot of self-starting,” Spruill explained. “We teach them at the beginning of the class tools they can use to effectively manage their time and effectively engage with our business partners, but once they have those, they are expected to go and use them on their own.”

As part of District C — a nonprofit that works with schools around North Carolina — students work in small teams to identify and solve actual problems facing local and global businesses and nonprofits. The course consists of three problem-solving cycles involving the following steps: meeting with business partners; learning about the challenges they are facing; collaborating to develop solutions to their problems; and pitching their ideas.

“I like to call it a hidden gem at DA because it’s an applied learning course,” junior Emily Gao said. “It’s where you can integrate all of the skills and lessons that you’ve learned from other classes at DA into a class where you can pitch [solutions for] problems essentially to companies that are really facing them in real time.”

Business partners have chosen to implement many of the students’ solutions.

Illustration by Sarah Jane Tart

“What surprised me most about the work was the variety of recommendations,” said Potoula Chresomales, senior vice president of product
management at Skillsoft, a global corporate e-learning company. “One squad approached it with a view for the user, walking in the shoes of the user and a design approach — how do I design a better user experience? The other squad approached it with economics. … We are going to implement a lot of the ideas that we heard from the students.”

DA alumni Josh Klein ’18, Tatum Teer-Barutio ’18 and Bhamini Vellanki ’18 were among the
students in District C’s first-ever cohort, back in spring 2017. At that point, students were participating in an extracurricular capacity, outside any class or club at DA. In the summer of 2019, Harris and Spruill attended District C’s Coaching Institute in order to officially implement the programming at DA in the form of a class.

In all, 21 DA students have enrolled in the class, helping to address challenges faced by the likes of Sports Endeavors, Masala My Life, Zweli’s, Exec Socks, CourtRoom5 and Activate Good.

Learn more about District C.