Tech and Innovation Are the Topics of Montclair Kimberly Academy Alumni Podcasts

Montclair Kimberly Academy (MKA), a well-known private school in Montclair that covers pre-K to 12th grade, began a podcast series in 2021 called “Inquiry to Insight,” which focuses on its alumni. Last year’s episodes, labeled “Tech with a Focus on …,” examined the many different careers in technology being pursued by alumni. This year’s episodes, “MKA Alumni Innovators,” discuss how alumni are innovating. The podcasts can be found here.

We spoke to Steve Valentine, assistant head of MKA’s Upper School and director of academic leadership, who hosts the podcasts, about how the school decided to go into podcasting and what he has learned from his interviews.

How did the idea for a podcast come up?

The podcast came from MKA’s obsession with best practices in the teaching field and our interest in how the brain works, how people learn, things like that. It started when a colleague and I decided that we wanted to record student learning, to get close to some student projects that seniors had done. During the month of May, MKA has a program called “May Term.”

Seniors who have finished with their formal schooling go off and they do projects or internships or things of that nature. So, my colleague, Jill Maza, director of libraries, research and educational technology, and I led that program. And we realized a couple of years back that probably one of the best ways for us to learn about the program and receive feedback, but also really get close to the student projects, would be to sit down and record the students talking about them with us. So that was the experiment, we turned on the mic. We had conversations with students about their learning. And we realized that voice was just a brilliant medium for getting close to what we care about, which is: How are people learning? What are their challenges? How are they overcoming them?

After that, I was in a conversation with Gretchen Berra, director of alumni engagement, and we were talking about how to get closer to our alumni network. We have an incredible group of alumni. They do amazing things in the world. I thought that’s the proof of concept for the type of education that we put into the world. And it spontaneously happened in that meeting. We realized that we should be putting a mic in front of our alumni, to talk to them, in the same way that we were originally talking to students about what they had learned.

Was the school supportive of your idea?

Yes, very. MKA has a very strong mission, and a very clear mission. And one element of that mission is that we say that we produce a transformative education for young people. This podcast is my way of going out and testing that assumption.

What is unique about these podcasts?

I approach podcasting like a teacher, and not a teacher who’s giving a lecture, but a teacher who’s trying to surface knowledge and connect with learners. That means, in this series of podcasts, listeners get the chance to learn with someone who’s working in Africa and solving problems there. And then in the next episode, they arein a flat in London with somebody who is trying to reduce friction in commercial real estate. And my hope is that, after spending time in this podcast classroom, regardless of what you’re working on, you’re going to find something that you might try, or something that you might apply to whatever kind of problem is in front of you.

What have you personally learned from these podcasts?

I learned a lot about innovation from the innovation podcasts. A lot of people write books about innovation, or they’ll try to define it. And what you realize is that a lot of times our definitions of innovation are self-serving. Their definitions serve their view, or the thing that they are trying to package or sell, especially in the consulting world. In doing deep dives with four very different people, they upended any notion that I had of innovation.

When I was talking with Patricia Chin-Sweeney, managing director of I-DEV International [San Francisco] and a consultant with iDev-Africa [Chapel Hill N.C.], there was a part of the interview where she was really getting into this notion that innovation comes from struggle, it comes from something that might be missing, or something that’s not quite attainable to a given community. And that breeds innovation.

The very next interview, I’m interviewing Mark Smukler, founder and CEO of Flow, who is living in a flat in London. [Smukler was also the founder of Bixby, which he sold. It was an NVP Labs  company.] And his approach to innovation was completely different. We talked a lot about his process. He does a lot of thinking, a lot of reading and a lot of research. He takes a lot of walks, he looks at his industry and maybe finds a theory or a model that he then wants to apply to potentially a new sector or a new business. It’s just a totally different approach.

Kevin Wilkins, founder and managing director at trepwise, a growth consulting company in New Orleans, was talking for part of the interview about his obsessive customer focus. He discussed a time in his career when he was working on innovating spray cleaners. The diversity of ideas and approaches was amazing.

I also talked to Carina Wong, who is a documentary filmmaker, and her approach to innovation is essentially, “How can I make sure that I’m building trust with the people whose stories I’m trying to tell? How can I best tell those stories in a truthful way?” And so, you know, her whole approach to this work is entirely different from the other three.

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MKA Alumni Innovators features the following episodes:

Kevin Wilkins, class of ’83 

•       Hear about the importance of alleviating fear in your organization, so that innovation can take place and then be baked into the fabric of the organization. 

•       Learn how to frame ideas, and what you can do to help evolve these ideas in ways that will allow them to scale and attain maximum impact. 

•       Explore how success can actually be a detriment if it leads to company stasis.

Carina Wong, ’11 

•       Hear about the importance of understanding the essence of someone else’s truth and about innovating and experimenting with different technologies to tell their story. 

•       Learn how the musings of an NYU professor and famous writer inspired and guided Carina, and ultimately changed the course of her life. 

•       Explore the ways to use your perspective, your bias and your intentions to get to the most honest version of a story. 

 Mark Smukler, ’08 

•       Hear what it means to offer “frictionless” engagement.

•       Learn about people’s resistance to subscription and membership models, and how Flow disrupts an industry.

•       Explore the concept that real estate as a business model can be monetized through access and services that include physical space as an alternative to long-term commitment. 

Patricia Chin-Sweeney, ’99 

•       Hear about fair trade and corporate/social responsibility. 

•       Learn about impact investing and trends in impact investing. 

•       Explore what “conscious leadership” means. 

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