Silicon Valley Meets Mindfulness in Education

Silicon Valley Meets Mindfulness in Education

An interview with Randy Fernando, Mindful Schools - April 17, 2016

Randy brings a unique background to the nonprofit space: he has an undergraduate degree in Computer Science and a master’s in Computer Graphics, and started his career working in product and program management at NVIDIA Corporation in Silicon Valley.

In this interview, we discuss how he’s applied that background to help Mindful Schools bring mindfulness practices to educators. We also talk about making the jump to the nonprofit world in the hope of encouraging other people in Silicon Valley to explore a similar path. Responses were edited post-interview to add extra information.

An interview with Randy Fernando, Executive Director of Mindful Schools, and Matthew Monahan from Namaste Foundation.

An interview with Randy Fernando, Executive Director of Mindful Schools, and Matthew Monahan from Namaste Foundation.

What is Mindful Schools?

We are a nonprofit organization that provides courses, community, and content to help educators bring mindfulness practices into their personal lives and then use it in their classrooms with kids. We’re taking a grassroots, bottom-up approach, allowing educators worldwide to take our courses instead of trying to change the system via top-down mandates, which often don’t last and require substantially more effort to put in place. And we believe that in order to teach mindfulness effectively to youth, it’s important for educators to have personal experience with it.

We know that teachers and students in schools today are dealing with numerous stresses, especially in under-resourced schools serving at-risk youth. Mindfulness is a tool that offers a way to address these challenges. It helps educators bring back the joy of teaching, reduce stress, and build authentic relationships with their students. And students develop the skills of attention, self-regulation, and empathy. Most of all, we want a child’s education to go beyond the classroom, teaching them how to get along well with others and navigate the inevitable ups and downs of life. As many studies have clearly shown, those abilities will affect their happiness and success in life along with the usual skills in reading, writing, math, and science.

We have a simple two-step process to get started -- our Mindfulness Fundamentals 6-week online class helps educators learn what mindfulness is, and to build up their own practice. This is important because a big part of teaching a skill like mindfulness is modelling mindful conduct. And our Mindful Educator Essentials course explains how to adapt mindfulness techniques for the classroom. For people who want to take a leadership role in the Mindfulness in Education movement, we also offer a 300-hour Year-Long Certification program, which includes silent retreat time.

After taking our courses, we help graduates to share their experiences, ask for advice, learn new best practices, and to grow together as they gain more experience with mindfulness and teaching it to youth. 

Those are interesting reflections coming from a computer science major with a strong technical background. How did you get involved in this type of work?

Oddly enough, I learned computer programming (from my father), and basic heartfulness (kindness) meditation (from my mother) at around the same time, when I was about eight years old. I loved programming, but I also really enjoyed quiet contemplation -- like riding the swing at our local park with my eyes closed, savoring that experience. And my mother would meditate with my sister and me from time to time.

Growing up, I programmed a lot more than I meditated. I loved creating pictures on the computer, and that led me to major in Computer Science and to pursue a Master’s in Computer Graphics. I ended up at NVIDIA Corporation in Silicon Valley, helping graphics developers to get the most out of the latest and greatest graphics hardware. I got some amazing opportunities there and got to develop project and product management skills. As I became more comfortable professionally, I started getting back to more meditation while also starting to look at volunteering and service opportunities.

Raised in Sri Lanka and the Philippines, I saw a lot of poverty around me even though I had a very comfortable life. That experience naturally planted seeds in my mind… I feel like people like me who have been so fortunate have a responsibility to help make the world a little more fair, and I’d say that the notion of “fairness” is my strongest internal driver.

Not knowing what exactly to do, I tried out a number of volunteer activities to educate myself a little. I tried several random things like crisis counseling, teaching 7th graders about careers, helping at a food bank, Christmas gift-wrapping for kids, and others. I also got to be a founding member of the NVIDIA Foundation, which taught me a lot about grant-making and evaluating the work of nonprofits. I learned a lot from all these experiences, but none resonated deeply with me.

Then in summer 2007, I heard about some work being done in Oakland where kids were being taught mindfulness skills in school. Naturally, this intrigued me, and I was blown away when I saw at-risk kids meditating along with their teachers because I knew it was a low-cost intervention that could really help kids of all backgrounds to get more from school.

Inspired, I volunteered for about two years in different capacities, helping to build a basic business plan, web site, and strategy. Eventually it became exhausting working a full-time Silicon Valley job and then doing all this volunteering in my free time. And that’s when it dawned on me that if I gave all my time to Mindful Schools, I could help a lot to extract its full potential.

So I left NVIDIA in July 2009, volunteered for a few more months, and then came onto the Mindful Schools payroll officially in January 2010. Looking back, it was a lot riskier financially than I remember it feeling -- I’m not a big risk-taker, but that only speaks to how strongly I felt about what Mindful Schools could become. I’m so glad things worked out, especially looking at all the fantastic projects we’re cooking up!

How do you define this word “mindfulness”?

Well, there are lots of different ways to define it. One easy way is to think of it as a skill -- it is the skill of developing objective, honest awareness of what is going on in your mind and body. This includes your senses, your thoughts, your emotions, and whether you want the current experience to be different from what it is -- that last one in particular causes so much extra unhappiness. When you are aware of these things, you can gradually create space between your experience and how you respond to it. This enables us to stay balanced when we’re frustrated, to become more sensitive to the needs of others, to change our habits, and to keep focus in the face of distraction, to name just a few benefits.

Your reach seems to be growing really fast with over 300,000 students now that have been impacted by educators your organization has trained. What do you think accounts for the consistent growth and momentum that Mindful Schools is getting?

I would say it’s the confluence of two things: market conditions and our approach. 

People are extremely interested in mindfulness these days, while online learning has become very accessible both in terms of technology and people’s willingness to try it. We’ve noticed a huge positive change on both of these fronts since we began online mindfulness training back in 2011.

In terms of our approach, I think the grassroots, bottom-up way we’re working with educators has made a huge difference, along with our focus on building engaging and deeply informative online courses. Educators know that top-down approaches generally don’t stick, and so our approach has resonated well with them. There is a palpable, incredibly positive energy in our community, and this approach keeps us focused on the right things: if educators are enjoying our courses, learning valuable things, seeing results in their classrooms, and feeling supported as a community, they’ll naturally encourage others to check us out.

In learning about your organization, one thing I've noticed is that you're careful not to ride the popularity wave of mindfulness in a way that reduces its substance or quality. What are some of the practical ways that you’ve implemented that philosophy?

I think it has to start with core team members who understand both the theory and practice of mindfulness. We have many expert 10,000-hour mindfulness practitioners on our team, and that experience guides the organization’s culture,  decision-making, and content. 

As you allude to, the world’s rapidly growing interest in mindfulness is generally a great thing. But of course with any widely popular phenomenon, there are downsides, especially with respect to quality. We believe that it’s important to learn from experienced practitioners, and we spend a lot of energy building our courses to share their knowledge with our course participants.

Another way we focus on quality is by making our courses more interactive. For example, each course has a Guiding Teacher, who is a subject matter expert participants can email with their questions. We also enable small-group interactions so people can develop a community of peers. Features like these make our courses much more engaging than traditional online courses. 

I also think our emphasis on educators learning about mindfulness prior to teaching it to youth is important. You wouldn’t teach addition, music, or tennis to a child if you didn’t know anything about it yourself, and we shouldn’t think of mindfulness any differently. The more we practice it and learn about it, the more authentically we can teach it. And students recognize that!

Mindful Schools is different from most nonprofits in that a majority of your funding comes from operations. You’ve created a lot of sustainable revenue models, not just donor-based. 

Can you tell us a little more about that strategy?

We’ve been fortunate to be able to gradually build up solid earned income streams over the years, and that’s complemented by donations to support key growth areas and scholarships. Based on this model, we’ve been able to serve well over 10,000 educators, impacting over 300,000 kids. We’ve progressed from a budget of $271,000 in FY2010 to over $3 million in FY2016, with a talented and passionate team that’s dedicated to our mission. We are in a stable position financially, and are now working on new projects that will bring mindfulness to many times more educators and students. 

Mixing earned income with capacity-building donations in this way gives us the flexibility to stick to our strategic plans -- one of the biggest challenges for nonprofits is staying focused and avoiding rapid shifts in strategy in order to find funding. It also means that donors can partner with us in a longer-term way, and have confidence that their investments are expanding the work, not just sustaining it.  I believe this leads to more authentic relationships with funders, which is really important to us.

I believe that the conditions in the world are very supportive for our particular work. It’s a time where we would love to find more funding partners who value our approach and see the potential for reaching many times more educators and students, because there are so many important investments we’d like to make right now that we can’t yet cover on our own. (If you’re reading and are interested in partnering as a funder with Mindful Schools, we would love to speak with you. You can also support us with a tax-deductible donation that will be matched dollar for dollar up to a total of $10,000 on Tuesday, May 3, thanks to a generous grant from the 1440 Foundation. We truly appreciate your support and belief in our work!)

What are some of the things you learned from your private sector time that you’ve applied to building the organization and executing operations?

There’s a reason why Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley. It’s so successful in financial terms, but at the same time there is often a hefty price paid in terms of culture and mental well-being. Still, the nonprofit world can certainly benefit from many Silicon Valley attributes like strategic discipline, operational best practices, and use of technology as a huge amplifier. We’ve tried to take those great practices and combine them with a mindful approach: focusing on more authentic communication, genuinely caring about each other as a team, hiring people with strong ethical and moral character, and having their personal quality be part of why you hire them in addition to their skills. And we track that combination even in our internal review process, which weighs achievement equally with teamwork.

For nonprofits who may be trying to level up on the technology side but maybe don’t have the same technology background, what are some thoughts and advice that you would offer? How can they bring those skills into their organization and really take advantage of these tools to reach larger audiences and scale?

I would say if you can find one person with technical background to come in, that can help to draw in others. Many people in Silicon Valley are eager to apply their technical skills to scale impact and more positively help the world. But they’ll tend to stick to what they know, because that’s the comfortable thing to do, naturally. So it’s important to articulate your mission and talent need clearly to help potential candidates see how their special skills could transform your work both in terms of quality and reach. 

When you find technology talent and other recruits, especially in the Bay area, you’re often making a pitch to move from private sector - with its stock options and high salaries and attractive perks - into the nonprofit sector. What are some of the ways that you pitch them on joining Mindful Schools?

It’s the mission. Everyone who’s made that jump did it for the mission and for the way their skills and energy could amplify the mission. Secondarily I think we offer a very special culture that combines mindfulness, technology, and operational quality, embodied by people you’d want to be friends with. You’ve got to like the people you work with, and to find it fun to collaborate with them to solve difficult problems. We also offer competitive non-profit salaries and a great set of benefits.

Having made that switch from private sector to nonprofit, and now being on this journey for several years, I’m curious what reflections you might have for others considering a similar shift?

My advice would be to do some exploration via volunteering. One skilled volunteer can really help a small nonprofit amplify their work substantially, and in return, the volunteer gets to learn whether that nonprofit’s work resonates at a personal level. 

I think to be deeply fulfilled in a job, you need to find a situation where your skills add unique value, and the organization’s mission is uniquely important to you. If you’re making a jump to the nonprofit space, you also need confidence in the core product, program, or technology -- and the team. That was the case for me: I knew from personal experience that mindfulness is a very effective tool, and I saw that Mindful Schools was delivering it effectively to change the lives of educators and kids. And I’m so grateful that the founding team saw what I could bring to the table, especially Megan -- we worked together very closely to start building a business plan and combining the programmatic and operational sides to create the right culture for Mindful Schools as best as we could.

Looking back objectively at the financials when I made the jump, it was a lot riskier than I remember it feeling. That speaks to the power of finding a cause that you deeply believe in, and amazing people to work with on that cause. I hope my story helps to inspire some of the incredibly talented people in Silicon Valley to look at new ways to bring their training, creativity, passion, and resources to the nonprofit world.

You have an excellent website and online community at MindfulSchools.org. The Mindful Schools Facebook page is vibrant with a lot of discussion from teachers and educators, and definitely something to check out. And you also have some media, a couple of films have been made about the organization. Maybe just briefly touch on those, for anyone who wants to learn more?

Sure! We’ve tried to make our web site very friendly and packed with resources of different types. We have inspiring videos, a sample lesson, presentations, research summaries, books, and two free documentary films. “Room to Breathe” shares an intimate look at what happens for students, their families, and educators when mindfulness is brought into a classroom where the kids are actually quite resistant. And “Healthy Habits of Mind” talks more about the value of mindfulness in the educational system, including the neuroscience behind it.

And as you mentioned, the Facebook page is a great resource for anyone interested in the Mindfulness in Education movement. We try to curate the best articles out there on mindfulness in education, on research, and also mixing in inspiration and the amazing work that our community is doing all across the world.

We look forward to welcoming new educators into our incredible community that’s full of passionate, kind, and helpful people. They are doing amazing things with mindfulness for kids in their schools each day, and we’re always figuring out new ways to support them even better.

Great. Well, it’s a beautiful story and an amazing organization. Thank you so much for the work you are doing.

Thanks so much, Matthew, for the opportunity!

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