University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service graduate Trish Flanagan (Class 7) is beginning her third year with the Future School of Fort Smith, a tuition-free public charter high school in Fort Smith, Ark.
“This year we’re really wrapped around focusing on academic performance,” Flanagan said. “We spent the first couple of years just getting the lights turned on and the internship program organized.”
Flanagan founded the Future School in 2016 and served as superintendent for the first two years. Its curriculum features personalized learning through student-designed internships, learning plans, and a dedicated advising team for each student. Enrollment has grown each year, rising to more than 250 students at the start of the 2018-19 academic year.
The intersection of education and entrepreneurship has played a consistent role in Flanagan’s career. Following several years abroad as a teacher in developing countries, she enrolled in the Clinton School’s concurrent MPS-MBA program in partnership with the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
She completed her UACS Capstone project in the UAF Office of Entrepreneurship, developing an education tool that facilitates a deeper understanding of social entrepreneurship. Flanagan’s graduate business plan competition team at UAF, Picasolar, won more than $300,000 in competitions for its plan built around a patent-pending process developed to improve the efficiency of solar cells. Upon graduation, she led UAF’s Social Entrepreneurship Pilot Initiative.
In 2013, she and fellow Clinton School alum Chad Williamson co-founded Noble Impact, a K-12 education initiative integrating public service with an entrepreneurial mindset.
“Just going through that program at the Clinton School and being a part of it has been helpful in so many ways,” Flanagan said. “One, it’s just the network of people. Before I graduated, it was the network of speakers, and now it has extended into the network of graduates, of alums, who I can call for anything and they’re all around the world doing these crazy, awesome, cool projects. To have that network globally is huge.”
What drew you to education?
Through social work. In college, I worked a lot in children’s shelters and halfway houses, and after I graduated from college I lived in San Francisco and did social work. I worked with homeless families, so I was looking at how to be more solutions-oriented rather than just putting out fires, and that was working with kids and school.
Is that what pushed you into entrepreneurship?
Same thing. I was always looking to see where there is system change that can take place rather than the individual.
What were your biggest takeaways from the Clinton School’s concurrent MPS-MBA program?
I think doing the concurrent program was a game-changer. You have completely different disciplines coming together. I think that having them in tandem is really important. After doing a lot of public service and social work and teaching, going through the business program my goal was to see what that thought process was like in terms of for-profit and growth and scale and all those business concepts.
I didn’t know what the entrepreneurship program was about but it ended up being the perfect fit because you apply that thought process of a startup, solving a problem via business. That was a big game-changer, just to have a few things, like tangible skills that I developed in the business program, developing a business plan and presenting or pitching to investors, just building every aspect of a business around a solution.
I think that’s a really strong piece to be able to have around any kind of social or public service work that you’d be doing as well.
This is your second time founding a school. How important was it to have gone through this process once before?
I think one of the few underlying components that I’ve seen, even in the solar company that we started, is dealing with uncertainty. You’re building something from scratch, so there really isn’t a road map. You can project certain things, but you’re just out on the open sea trying to figure it out as you go.
What that allows you, though, is the feeling that anything is possible. You look at every possible solution as a possibility instead of having assumptions about it. Because there is no road map and there is no precedent, it gives you the opportunity to look at things in ways you might not have thought of before.
One skill that I picked up at the Clinton School was from Dr. Singhal, who taught Liberating Structures. One of the practices he taught, the Troika Method, which we use all the time. I’ve used it with my students, with my team, to test our own assumptions. I love getting feedback from people on ideas in a different way.