Three years ago, I started TILE in the basement of a theater in Portland, Oregon.
I grew up desperately wanting to learn from the local innovators, leaders, and entrepreneurs I looked up to. Near the end of my sophomore year of high school, with the help of some truly extraordinary teachers and mentors, I came to a realization that there was a simpler way to bridge the social capital gap that my peers and I were experiencing. All I had to do was bring together students and interesting people for a monthly hour-long conversation, filled with stories, insights, and guidance.
Over the course of my junior year, I hosted the first eight TILE talks, calling my nascent initiative the Stumptown Speaker Series. My friends volunteered, speakers donated their time, and event spaces graciously lent us their venues. Soon enough, I realized that I had something greater on my hands.
The events started having a regular audience, and the conversations began leading to opportunities for students who hadn’t had them before. I noticed a change in the speakers as well: for many, this was their first time meeting students who deeply admired their work, and who cared to learn about their paths and trajectories.
Midway through the first season of talks, I began writing a manual encapsulating what I had learned from organizing the events. The manual included case studies, templates, guidelines, and roles for a team of three students that could organize a conversation series anywhere in the world. Then, exactly two years ago, I started posting the manual on forums and emailing it to students and teachers across the planet. Crazily enough, the manual caught on, and I decided to create a non-profit — bluntly called Talks on Innovation, Leadership, and Entrepreneurship, or TILE — to manage the manual and the new conversation series that were popping up.
Within three months, TILE had grown to a network of thirty chapters in four continents, far exceeding my expectations. All of a sudden, we had locations everywhere from Kuwait to Barack Obama’s alma mater in Honolulu, with dozens of passionate students putting together events and hundreds more attending them. Six months later, TILE reached our 100th chapter, in Bhubaneswar, India.
Today, TILE has over 300 locations in 46 countries, and we’re now growing by a rate of five new chapters per week, making us one of the world’s fastest-growing non-profits. The TILE community has grown to over 1,000 chapter leaders, and we estimate that over 500,000 students will attend a TILE talk in the coming year. Most importantly, in the short time that we’ve been around, TILE has been able to foster conversations between truly remarkable people.
These next few months have a lot in store for TILE. We’re bringing on our first sponsor, Crimson Education, to help our students attend college while working towards our target of 500 chapters by year-end. We’re also switching up our leadership: effective immediately, Kaseen Smith, the leader behind our incredibly successful Charlotte chapter, will be taking over as CEO of TILE. I will still be involved as a board member and as President, but will be focusing more on Energy.org and Arist, two other ventures that I have founded. Kaseen will be running the show at TILE; his vision and passion for the organization are compelling, and I can’t wait to see where he takes us.
In life, things seem to build off one another, and both Energy.org and Arist would not have happened without the experience TILE gave me. Energy.org is creating a universal certification for small businesses that commit to net-zero by 2038 (along with a student-led environmental education and advocacy platform), while Arist is building the world’s first SMS university, with the goal of making digital education accessible to students with limited internet access. Both projects are working on unique, student-driven solutions to problems that I care deeply about.
The number of people that have helped TILE reach this point is astonishing. In particular, I’d like to thank the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, and my fantastic parents and friends, not to mention the thousands of students that have supported TILE in some fashion.
In an age where the digital world consumes more and more of our time, coming together for an hour a month and discussing the issues, stories, and ideas that matter most is increasingly rare. In-person conversations — particularly those that reach across the social gap and create meaningful opportunities and relationships — are more important now than they ever were.
Although it might be impossible to quantify the power of a conversation, one doesn’t have to look far to see the impact that we’ve had: this year alone, TILE alumni were accepted into dozens of the world’s most prestigious universities while accruing over $1 million in scholarships. Many others have started social ventures, small businesses, and podcasts, all on the basis of their experiences as TILE chapter leaders. Some, like Mohammed Al-Adlani, have even used TILE as a platform to escape severe conflicts.
As TILE approaches the next phase in our growth, there are a few ways you can get involved. If you’d like to share your event space or speak at a TILE event, register at the TILE platform here or reach out to Kaseen at [email protected]. Donations of any kind are also much appreciated and are accepted through email at [email protected] or online at www.tile.org/donate.
Here’s to great conversations.