Interview: Andrew Rasiej on technology as a new ecology, not just a medium
This week Dowser is revisiting our best tech stories while our writers report back from the Social Good Summit. Check back often for our conference coverage – we’ll examine the power of technology and innovative thinking to create change.
Andrew Rasiej is what many would call a “serial entrepreneur.” A jack of all trades, Rasiej founded a number of ventures before stumbling upon his current calling: founder of MOUSE (Making Opportunities for Upgrading Schools and Education), an organization that runs three tech-based programs to educate and inspire under-served students to pursue careers in the Web-driven information economy. The MOUSE Squad trains students to run their own IT help desks inside their schools, and MOUSE Corp provides professional internship and career workshop opportunities. The third arm, MOUSE TechSource, focuses on research and evaluation of MOUSE programs. To date, MOUSE runs in 269 schools across seven states, working with 3,000 students who then provide technical support to over 240,000 students. Rasiej sat down with Dowser to talk about going head-to-head with Giuliani, getting stuck on a ski lift with a senator, and other adventures on the road to MOUSE.
Dowser: You’ve got an eclectic work history – architect, real estate broker, music venue owner, and MOUSE founder. How did you get to MOUSE?
Rasiej: It sort of just happened. I was running Irving Plaza [a music venue in New York City] and at the time Rudy Giuliani was the mayor. He was publicly calling nightclubs bad for the city, and he had a task force to shut them down. I was getting visited by all kinds of agencies in the middle of shows, and was getting really frustrated with the city.
I realized that I had to do something. So I joined a business group that had adopted a school just a block away from Irving Plaza. About the same time that I was doing that, I helped start an online music festival. I was webcasting live concerts and I was interested in the Internet as a democratization of the music industry.
Tell me more about the school.
At this school, there were 3,000 kids, all on free school lunch, and there was not one computer in the school. I e-mailed some friends, asking if they would come help me build a computer lab on a Saturday with several used computers. To my surprise, 200 people showed up. And I thought, wow, here’s this energy to get these young people in school to get onto the network. Of course, we didn’t know what we were doing. And that’s how I started MOUSE.
What did you learn in your first few years, and how did it influence the focus of MOUSE’s work?
I realized that the biggest problem wasn’t really wiring the schools, or getting kids online; the biggest problem was getting the computers to work and getting people to fix them. There was only one systems administrator for the entire Manhattan district.
How did you raise the money for that?
We raised money first from friends and family. Then I got a small grant from the New York Times Foundation, then CitiGroup gave us some money and it slowly started building. Soon after that, we created a program called MOUSE Squad that trains the kids to maintain the computers in their schools themselves. And then the program took off. Funding came faster because people were more willing to give money that was directly benefiting the kids.
That sounds like a catalyst for a shift in strategy.
I started talking to education professionals – teachers, superintendents, chancellors, and then politicians, arguing for more money for technology. I like to say that they didn’t realize that technology is not a piece of the pie, it’s actually the pan.
What was it like taking on politicians?
I started with Tom Daschle, then Dick Gephardt, then the Clintons, and I was invited to Washington to make speeches. But then I realized that politicians only listen to two types of people – the ones that they get a lot of money from and the ones that they give a lot of money to. Anybody who has an idea or some other valuable asset in between, they don’t really pay attention to. So I really didn’t get very far with the politicians; they basically nodded politely, said, this is great, now would you write us a $10,000 check please.
What’s one of the most important interactions you had on the Hill?
The most important moment came about in the winter of 2000 when I was invited to attend a technology conference with a dozen senators and Tom Daschle, who was the majority leader at the time. There were all these big cable companies and telephone companies at the conference, and their reps said all the things that I had heard before and watching the politicians nod.
We went skiing, I got on a ski lift with Tom and the ski lift got stuck. So we had half an hour to talk, and I convinced him that it wasn’t enough to nod, that politicians had to start using the technologies themselves, and that it should empower them to do their jobs better and improve education, because ultimately education is the pillar of democracy.
Seems like a good strategy, getting stuck on a ski lift with important people.
He invited me to Washington to make a speech, and a little later on in my life, I also ran for public office, trying to see if I could change the equation. It was a frustrating experience and I learned a lot from it, but the political system is still way, way behind.
You’re still very busy working for social change. What insights have you gained over the years?
As much as things change, they also stay the same. The reason for 90% of human behavior is to maintain your position in life. And if all the best jobs got taken in the industrial age by the baby boomers 20 or 30 years ago, they’re not getting out of the way; they’re pretty happy where they are. So there are systems in place that take a long time to change.
On the other hand, technology represents a huge opportunity to reboot our society, and my work is driven by a strong desire on my part for equity and justice.
Where does that drive come from?
My parents were victims of the partition of Poland by the Germans and Russians. My grandfathers were killed by Stalin in a massacre of 20,000 Polish officers in one day. I grew up with stories of terrible things that had happened, so it ingrained in me this sense of justice. Through family stories, I realized that there is a lineage of community organizing in my family’s blood. It’s not something that I decided I was going to do; I was just inclined to do it. In my work, I saw technology as a tool that could break the chain of social and economic inequity by exposing the truth.
You’re an early adopter of technology. Would you describe yourself as a computer geek?
Not at all. I don’t know how to write code. But my skill is having the ability to translate the implications of technology to an audience that isn’t necessarily versed in it. Conversely, I’m able to explain to the people who do understand technology why certain groups don’t change so fast. I’m a mediator, not a technologist, but certainly a big believer in technology.
In your career as a social entrepreneur, what have been your hardest-learned lessons?
There were far more mistakes than there were successes. I think that the success of any project, whether it’s for profit or not for profit, has a lot to do with timing. With many of my ideas, I can see what’s going to happen further down the road, but the conditions for them to happen are not there yet. I learned to be more patient, because you can push all you want, but there are factors that you can’t control.
I’ve also learned that some of the institutions that we fight against aren’t worth converting. I don’t waste my time trying to convince people who should get it but don’t want to.
You’ve got an analogy about horses and steam machines that speaks to this.
Imagine we were farmers or ranchers and all our friends were farmers or ranchers, and we visit a steam engine convention and we’re exposed to perhaps the first locomotive. We go back and tell our friends, ‘Hey, check this out.’ And they say, ‘Hey, maybe we could use this to carry our horses to the field!’
It’s like politicians thinking, ‘Oh, this is the Internet, maybe we could license e-mail addresses and make money.’ They don’t see that it’s converting the entire ecology of what they do. People frame the world through their own experiences, to understand how things work or to think about any given problem. But they don’t necessarily recognize when an innovation is more than evolutionary, but revolutionary.
Using this analogy to explain to people why this is so significant has proven to be one of the most pleasant parts of my own professional experience.
This interview was edited and condensed.