Daniel Scibienski often feels a bit out of place at tech conferences. “Once I went to a startup weekend where they have nametags, and they said, ‘developer, designer, business operations,’ et cetera, and mine said ‘non-technical.’ I was really offended by that. Everyone else was defined by who they were, and I was defined by who I’m not.”
Scibienski may not be a programmer, but his job does give him the skills to be one of the leading figures in the Princeton startup scene: he’s an English as a second language teacher in the Princeton public schools. Together with fellow educator Mike Ritzius and marketer Drew Peloso, he is a co-founder of Princeton Innovates, a group dedicated to nurturing the town’s startup culture.
To Scibienski, the type of thinking required to be a good teacher and a good entrepreneur is very similar. “It has to do with flexibility and creativity and trying to problem solve,” he says. A teacher listens to his students, pays attention to them, and alters the classroom based on what the students need much like a businessperson responds to the needs of the marketplace.
Princeton Innovates will host an event, a Pro Action Cafe, on Saturday, November 14, aimed at promoting technology education and entrepreneurship in Princeton. The free event will run from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Princeton University’s new Entrepreneurial Hub at 34 Chambers Street (U.S. 1, October 28). For more information, visit www.princetoninnovates.org.
The Pro Action Cafe format, established in Belgium, has participants break up into small groups consisting of a host who presents an idea, and collaborators who offer insight into the idea to help refine and improve it. The format was invented by Belgians Rainer von Leoprechting and Ria Baeck as a fusion of existing “World Cafe” and “Open Space” formats. It’s called a “pro-action” cafe because it’s meant to encourage action, rather than just brainstorming.
The theory is that a group of people will have the collective brainpower to solve just about any problem, and the cafe is an attempt to harness their collective intelligence. The meeting begins with “callers” volunteering to present ideas. The remaining participants are divided up and take turns in groups of four or five providing insight for the callers, rotating to different tables as the ideas are refined over three successive rounds.
The unifying idea of the November 14 event is the question “How do we create a community of innovation in Princeton,” Scibienski says.
Scibienski grew up near Piscataway, where his father worked in logistics for a chemical company and his mother was a housewife. He earned a bachelor’s in Spanish at Rutgers and a master’s in teaching English to speakers of other languages at New York University in 2002. He has always integrated technology and innovation into his teaching style. “I have a tendency to become curious about different things and learn about them,” Scibienski says.
A few years ago, Scibienski became intrigued by “EdCamp,” an alternative educational conference that ditches the schedule and the speakers, allowing a free-form exchange of ideas. He was also dipping his toes into entrepreneurial waters. He is the founder of ELL Consulting, a company that helps schools implement ESL programs. In yet another role, he was a founding member of June Labs, a Silicon Valley-based startup that organizes partnerships between technology companies and classrooms.
Scibienski is a fan of conferences like the Pro Action Cafe because he has seen great ideas come from them. For example, at one EdCamp, a colleague had an idea for helping shift workers at retail establishments. Noting that one of the main barriers to continuing education for low-wage workers is time and travel, the teacher had the idea of bringing the classroom to the student. Classes could be held in break rooms at large stores so employees could take classes right after their shifts. Scibienski says the teacher is also exploring the possibility of a mobile classroom.
He says one local EdCamp, held annually in Springfield, New Jersey, attracts up to 300 teachers willing to drive from as far as New York to go to the all-day event.
Despite the success of EdCamp, Scibienski believes in a more structured approach, which is why he is using the Pro Action Cafe format, which has a more clearly defined set of roles for participants. The need for structure is one idea he has gotten from teaching that carries over well into the business world.
“We have a tendency to think that adults don’t need structure like having a talking stick,” he says. “But we have these structures so that one kid won’t talk over everyone. Adults also need structure. The person hosting the table is the focus and gives the gift of an idea. The others give the gift of insight. There is a strong listening component.”
Scibienski hopes that the first event will help set in motion more projects related to technology and education in Princeton. “It’s a small spark that could be part of the larger fire,” he says.