Eric and Wendy Schmidt’s Youth Talent Competition, Part of $1B Effort, Kicks Off With Unusual App

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Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy have committed $1 billion to finding exceptional young people aged 15 to 17 and offering them financial support and mentorship throughout their lives. Today his global talent search officially kicked off, with the launch of a smartphone app that lets people begin their application for the competition by posting video essays and commenting on the videos posted by others.

The new app also includes educational materials, thanks to a partnership with a nonprofit chaired by Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy.

Instead of just sending in application materials and waiting, young people who apply will be meeting each other and building their skills, organizers hope. “It is a way to bring a large number of interested people to a platform so everybody can learn something and so we can support people in different ways over time,” said Eric Braverman, CEO of Schmidt Futures, a philanthropy founded by Eric and Wendy Schmidt, in an interview with EdSurge.

Schmidt first announced his $1 billion pledge to find new leaders—as well as the competition that anchors that effort, called Rise—last year. The Rise competition is run jointly by Schmidt Futures and the Rhodes Trust, the group behind the Rhodes Scholarship. (Disclosure: Schmidt Futures has provided support to projects at EdSurge.)

The goal of the talent competition is to find “people who are geniuses in some way—but also care about other people and want to make a commitment that sticks,” said Braverman. By setting up a new kind of process, the group hopes to identify people who wouldn’t necessarily emerge from looking at high test scores and other traditional academic metrics. “You can’t just bet on the people you know. You can’t just bet on the people you’ve already bet on. And you can’t just bet once,” he added.

By next year, the Rise program plans to pick its inaugural cohort of 100 “Global Winners.” Each one will receive a needs-based scholarship to college and a technology package that might include a laptop or smartphone depending on the student’s needs. But the program also promises to support the winners over their entire lifetimes, by giving them the chance to compete for as-needed funding to help start nonprofits or create other ventures aimed at social good.

“What we know is it’s just not enough to give someone a little bit of opportunity and walk away,” said Braverman. Still, the winners will only get additional funding after their requests are reviewed and vetted. “I want to be clear,” he added, “that it’s not a lifelong handout.”

The contest is intended to serve those in need of support, not “kids who come with coaching and networks in the wings,” said Chalon Bridges, CEO of Hello World, the nonprofit that built the app for the competition. Hello World was created last year by Sal Khan, who chairs its board of directors.

But there is no financial cut-off for who qualifies to apply, said Braverman of Schmidt Futures. “Not all hardships are financial,” he added. “There are many reasons why someone might need opportunity—we will take that on a case-by-case basis.”

The first questions that the contest asks applicants to address with a short video response is: “In what ways do you consider yourself privileged? In what ways do you consider yourself underprivileged?” The second question: “What’s one problem that you are going to use your life to solve? Why? Show us what steps you’ve taken to solve it already.”

The first educational module of the app involves a guest speaker: Brian Grazer, an award-winning movie producer who helped create blockbuster films including Splash, Parenthood and A Beautiful Mind. In a video lesson on the app, Grazer introduces what he calls “curiosity conversations”—no-agenda talks he’s had over the years with interesting people who were experts in things he wanted to know more about.

“The more interesting you are as a person, the more people want to be around you,” he says in the video. “Everybody wants to not only learn, but they want to feel safe. So when I’m trying to convince Denzel Washington, the most coveted actor in America, I’m competing against everybody. And sure, I have really interesting projects, but I think they felt like, ‘Wow, this guy is going to be really resourceful because I knew a lot about a lot of different things.’ And every smart actor, every smart person, knows it’s not just a straight-up trajectory line to success and there’s going to be setbacks. And I think they felt safe with me that I would be resourceful.”

A future module planned for the app will be a video lesson by Angela Duckworth, the University of Pennsylvania psychology professor whose research on encouraging “grit” in students has been hailed as groundbreaking, popularized in bestselling books and TED talks.

The first phase of the Rise competition closes in January. After that, those who continue must complete the “Rise Challenge,” the creation of a project such as a film or an idea for a business or social movement that demonstrates their interests, abilities and drive. About 500 finalists will be chosen to be interviewed before judges select the winners, which are scheduled to be announced next summer.

The application process is a way to help applicants build their own platforms, said Bridges, who previously served as the chief operating officer at DIY.org, a group that helps young people get skills and share their passions through online challenges. Bridges got the job at Hello World when Sal Khan called her up one day and told her about the idea. “If I could have written my dream scenario, this is it,” she says of the chance to, as she put it, “help kids have more ways to win.”

To get the word out about the competition, Schmidt Futures has partnered with dozens of groups, including United World Colleges, Teach For All, Global Citizen Year, African Leadership Group, National Youth Council Singapore and the Latin American Leadership Academy.



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