“WE’VE ALWAYS ADAPTED OUR CURRICULUM TO KEEP OUR FINGER ON THE PULSE OF INNOVATION”
Shaun Johnson dedicates his time to helping people discover how best to spend theirs.
He’s the co-founder of Startup Institute, an organization focused on teaching its participants the skills needed to thrive at a fledgling tech company.
Since its inception in 2012 in Boston, SI has expanded to Chicago, New York, London, and Berlin, guiding nearly 1000 professionals through its curriculum and into the startup world.
Shaun is humble about what he has built and lets his work do most of the talking.
In just a few years, he and his team have created an international program, shepherding students, alumni, mentors, and entrepreneurs around an eight-week experience designed to propel eager talent into challenging and fulfilling careers.
His efforts have enlivened a buzzing community of startups with bright minds looking to fuse their passions with their work.
And the community continues to expand.
After chatting with Shaun, one feels supported and encouraged. In this discussion, he shared a bit about SI’s development and ethos.
THE JALEPEÑO: How did the idea for Startup Institute come about?
SHAUN JOHNSON: My cofounding team and I met at Techstars Boston. At the time, we held roles from Managing Director to Program Manager to Associate, and grew a really in-depth, unique perspective about startups and teams.
One challenge had to do specifically with a pain point well known by high growth tech companies: You need to grow your team, but where do you find these people?
Most companies go one way or the other. Either they’re hiring too slow because they’re very selective, or hiring too fast because they want to hit certain goals. If you do this incorrectly, you will fail.
They need people with the skills and mindset to make an immediate impact to the high growth company they join. That’s where Startup Institute comes in.
THE J: And you focused in Boston to start.
SJ: That’s where we were. And that’s where a lot of folks looking for a career they love were too…from Boston University, Harvard, BC, Emerson, Tufts – a lot of those individuals were getting out into the workforce with career options that aren’t exactly meant for them.
We wanted to give them an opportunity to do what they were passionate about.
THE J: How have you chosen the cities you’ve expanded into?
SJ: It’s always about the place we can impact the most. There are places where there’s always a right mix, so you look at where you can find smart, ambitious people, a pool of growing companies across all stages, capital structures like access to angels and venture, etc. We’ve started to figure out what the ecosystem looks like, what things need to be in play.
THE J: Has the vision evolved at all?
SJ: Evolution is an interesting thing. We’re in all of these cities around the world now, but the vibe is still the same.
It’s still folks who are taking a leap of faith hoping that that they can find something that aligns their passion and profession.
So they can spend eight to ten to twelve hours or more each workday doing something that’s for more than just a paycheck.
In terms of what’s changed, we’ve always adapted our curriculum to keep our finger on the pulse of innovation. Because it’s a landscape that’s always growing, every time we run a program, there’s always a retrospective about what we need to change.
THE J: What held you up at the beginning?
SJ: Not knowing everything. But I guess that goes for everyone. And, overall, there will be some amount of uncertainty and risk.
THE J: What was your professional experience before SI?
SJ: I’ve done a lot of different things looking for what energized me, what tied me to being a thinker and a creator and a builder and wanting to build something that actually mattered.
I was in consulting, I worked in government, real estate, a bunch of different things, learning more each step of the way.
It built up a lot of empathy within me, that I share with our community each day.
THE J: What have you learned from your students?
SJ: So much. Look how experienced they are. Look how much smarter they are than me. Those that are younger than I am, they are so much further along than I was at that age. And they all represent so much diversity in each of their journeys.
It’s an opportunity to live vicariously through all these different narratives.
THE J: What has surprised you about building this company?
SJ: Alumni. Even the word ‘alumni’ has been a surprise for us. For alumni, we maintain a close relationship and rapport. We see what they’re going through after the program, and we can still serve them.
When they graduate, will they stick together?
The fact that they’re keeping up with each other and look to SI to hire the next person on the team they just joined, that was a big, amazingly pleasant surprise.
THE J: What’s your strongest motivation?
SJ: Curiosity. I also value the diversity that we’ve been able to have at SI.
I get the chance to teach emotional intelligence, soft skills, as well as really technical concepts.
Helping people unlearn things. To help them know that they can adapt.
To be in the middle of that every day is pretty interesting.