Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019

The Power of Relationship-Building & the Relentless Pursuit of the Right Metrics: The Story of ProUnitas & PurpleSENSE — Albert WeiProUnitas, Houston, TX

This month’s webinar audience was treated to an inspiring yet humble and heart-felt presentation on how focus on the WHY should always drive social impact work. Through ProUnitas, and the student services identification and referral platform, PurpleSENSE, that Founder and CEO Adeeb Barqawi and his team built for the Houston Independent School District, presenter Albert Wei demonstrated how the constant reminder of their students– the ultimate beneficiaries of their work–were always the WHY behind every step and part of their organization.

Albert started with a story of how fresh out of college he started teaching at a designated “failing” school in Houston, in a county where 50% of children are from low-income households and thousands of children are confirmed victims of child abuse and suffer from mental health issues. During one of Albert’s well-meaning attempts to get one of his students to focus on homework, the student hurled a chair at him in a fit of frustration and anger. It was that interaction that encouraged Albert to investigate further into the student, whom he learned had been going through extremely difficult home and neighborhood situations, yet he wasn’t getting the much needed emotional and other support services. The issue wasn’t that the school didn’t have counseling or other services, or that there weren’t a host of nonprofits and funders eager and prepared to fill the gaps and help with eyecare, nutrition, housing, and the like (the schools are program rich); it was the lack of a coordinated system with a cohesive infrastructure and platform to help teachers connect students with those services, and allow administrators and districts to access data to better inform where and what kinds of services are needed (they were system poor). As a teacher, Albert and his colleagues knew they were not the experts to deliver the services or even determine when and how they could be delivered. They were constantly on the frontline facing the symptoms but were not equipped to deal with the real underlying problems.

So the founders of ProUnitas set out with the mantra that “every student should have access to the right resources at the right time in order to succeed in school and beyond.” ProUnitas focuses on Process (the PurpleSENSE platform allows districts to systematize process to identify, connect and monitor students who need help), People (help school districts improve their hiring, training, and empowerment of staff), and Resources (districts can see real-time what resources they have and where they are located). ProUnitas has always been emphatic that they are not the ones to set the metrics or determine what the “right” resources are for any given student or school. Their only metric is improved process and clarity. They created their PurpleSENSE platform and their business model in partnership with the school district to be as flexible as possible so the metrics and measurements for success would be determined by the schools they supported and the students they serve. They started with one school, have grown to almost 200 schools, lowered costs to districts in service delivery by over 60%, and still have hundreds of thousands of more students to reach. ProUnitas has also stayed true to its mission in Houston. They have been approached by school districts all over the country but made a conscious decision to stay focused in their community based on the existing tremendous need many students in their district face, and their investment with their partners.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Have a clear WHY for your organization’s vision — founded and run by a team of former educators, ProUnitas is driven by data, fueled by relationships, committed to quality [referenced Simon Sinek’s, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action]; their WHY is all those children in the Houston school district who have unmet needs that are inhibiting their educational growth and human flourishing; part of the ProUnitas success is that they never just pitch what they are doing with their technology; they focus on the WHY of what they do, which aligns with the school districts and their professional staff and supporters.
  2. Leverage existing systems — they never wanted to reinvent the wheel or tell experts how they should do their work; they seek to help the experts and service providers do what they do better.
  3. Have and use scalable technology — the data has to be relational to the people it represents and serves; it allows the frontline teachers, counselors, and experts to better recognize and identify students that need help, attention, and support, connect them with the right services, and monitor their progress in their needs fulfillment (and academic success).
  4. Humility and Human Connections: Listen, Co-Create, Ask for Help — work together, listen (including to your funders), partner, and empower others to make more of what they are already doing with the resources they have, and not ask them to do more.  Take time to build relationships, cultivate them, and put them first!

Albert Wei’s Full Bio