Meera Menon: A Co-Founder's Reflection
In a continuation of our reflections series, one of our cofounders, Meera Menon, discusses how Unscripted Project was founded, and how the pandemic impacted the launch of the program with our blog manager and co-facilitator, Katie Jenaway. Meera also shares how her role as a nonprofit cofounder has shifted and the new skills she’s acquired in the past year. In addition, Katie and Meera talk about what they’ve learned from both studying and teaching improv.
Katie: Tell me a little bit more about the process of how The Unscripted Project was founded and how winning Penn’s prize impacted your growth.
Meera: Philip and I really got involved in social impact programs when we met during our freshman year at Penn. Our sophomore year, one of our friends won the President’s Engagement Prize, which showed us that people our age are going off and starting impactful programs, and that we don’t have to wait to make a difference. We saw this as a launchpad for the work we wanted to do.
In October of 2019, we started talking to everyone we knew in the arts space, including our theater professors who connected us to artists and nonprofits in the city. Based on what we learned, we created our proposal and our business plan and a slide deck - I think the process of applying for the prize helped us structure our thinking more. It helped us figure out what materials we needed and the research questions we had to answer in order to win a prize like that. We had done a couple of pilots before, and we knew we wanted this program to exist whether or not we won the prize, so that was pretty clear to us, but without the prize, I think it would have been a much smaller program that gradually grew and I don’t know if we would have been able to work on it full time.
Katie: How did the pandemic affect the launch of the program last spring?
Meera: There were already a lot of questions on our minds: How exactly do we go about translating our proposal into a tangible organization? Can we, and if so, how do we turn this into a virtual program? How do we get into the schools? Are we going to be able to get into the schools at all, when things are so uncertain?
We found that the needs of our stakeholders, our students and classroom teachers, changed a little bit - creating a sense of community in these virtual classrooms was more important than ever. I will say that in the virtual learning space, we found that there was a lot more flexibility, which helped us enter schools perhaps more easily than it would have been otherwise. I also think that in some ways not having a fully fleshed out existing program worked out for us, as it was almost easier to create a program that was tailored to the world of virtual learning.
Katie: When did you start modifying the curriculum for virtual classrooms?
Meera: So, actually, over the summer, we thought there was a chance we could go hybrid, so we started creating templates around that possibility. In August, we met Rick Andrews, who later became one of our board members, and he helped us revamp our program so it was focused on virtual learning.
Katie: How has your role changed in the last year?
Meera: Last summer, a big part of the role involved connecting with people in the space, such as improvisers, theater owners, local nonprofit leaders, academics, and teachers. I also learned how to code the website. I had some minimal experience with web design, but I just learned a lot by being thrown into it (and it was something I has always wanted to learn anyways!)
In the fall, it became all about school partnerships, so reaching out to a ton of principals and teachers figuring out what was valuable to them and what was compelling to their students and forming those initial partnerships. This really laid the foundation for the program. We worked to figure out - What do we need from the schools? What are the expectations from the school? How are we setting up the onboarding process? How does the curriculum translate into the actual classes? What are our feedback mechanisms? How are we tracking impact?
We were also reading a ton of research and learning how people track outcomes in similar programs, or in educational programs generally, and how we can adapt best practices there.
Towards the end of the fall, we launched our first fundraising campaign and so we were learning about what tools we can use in order to run a successful virtual fundraiser. What are best practices for codifying our impact in dollars? Really making that impact clear (and figuring out how corporate matches work) aided us in raising a lot more money than we anticipated.
In January, we put together our impact report. The challenge here was - how can we actually tell the story of what we did in the fall, in an acceptable, interesting way? In February, the focus was refining the schools’ onboarding process and our curriculum and making sure the program ran well, and now, over the spring, a lot of focus has shifted once more to grants, grant writing and fundraising, talking to folks at foundations, or people who might have the means to invest in our program and that leads us to where we are now. The focus has shifted once again to hiring, as we’re currently looking to bring on our first full-time employee, a Program Director, to the team!
Now that I’m thinking about it, there were a lot of different phases.
Katie: What new skills did you learn over the past year?
Meera: The website is an example of a really tangible thing I learned to build. But perhaps more importantly, I think I have learned how to become a better storyteller and communicate more effectively, and I think that’s a result of the day to day work running the program at Unscripted, but also the improv classes I’ve been taking on the side with Philip. Returning to studying improv has really helped me think on my feet, become a better communicator, and feel more confident in speaking. I’m also learning how to ask for things and how to pitch myself more effectively. I’ve found that at this point when you’re running a new organization, you just have to ask for what you need, because you just never know what people will say. I’m also (slowly) learning how to manage teams effectively and how to manage the interests of all our different stakeholders as well.
Katie: And all of those skills will help you in future jobs.
Meera: Yes, the learning curve has been steep, but incredible.
Katie: How do you feel your improv education has prepared you for starting a nonprofit?
Meera: I’ve become more comfortable in my own voice. I think there’s specific ways that folks in leadership roles think they have to look or sound, but Philip and I have both found that we have our own unique experiences that we bring to this role and it serves us well to highlight those and make them a part of the organization rather than mold ourselves to something we are not.
Katie: That’s something I’ve learned from teaching and being a co facilitator is being more comfortable using my own voice, especially when you’re doing things that are different and innovative. You’re doing it because there’s a gap there.
Meera: I’m really happy to hear that. I think Unscripted has done that for me too.
Tune in for PART 2 tomorrow!