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When Ted Dintersmith worked in venture capital, he had a chance to work with some of the most innovative people in the country. He also had the perfect vantage point to notice two worrisome things.

The first: how fast innovation was eliminating structured jobs from the economy.

“You see it each year as the new data comes out: the median wage is down, people are kind of piecing together livings but not building any long-time savings,” he said.

The second: how often he found himself interviewing people who stood out on paper, but failed to meet expectations in person.

“That’s odd, how the very best academic performers in our country wouldn’t be further along career-wise,” he said.

With these issues in mind, Dintersmith began visiting and observing schools.

“Initially I said ‘Gee, it’s almost like they’re trying to erase any creativity or innovation out of the kids,'” he said. “When I started looking into the history of education, there was no ‘almost’ to that statement.”

Our current school system, he explained, was designed in 1893 to prepare students for a life in manufacturing, rather than agriculture. Kids were taught to do the same task repeatedly, efficiently, and accurately. As our nation’s focus moved from manufacturing to innovation in the 1980’s, our school model should have done the same; instead, the tests became more frequent and the measurements more rigorous.

“The results, I think, have been catastrophic because the more you test the more you crush the creativity out of people,” he said. “When I connected these dots, I felt like ‘boy, I better do something about this.'”

Dintersmith’s idea of “something” was to leave his 20-year career in venture capital, make a film, write a book, and travel across the country advocating for education reform. His first stop was TEDxFargo.

Most Likely to Succeed

Dintersmith is the Executive Producer of Most Likely to Succeed, a documentary about what can be achieved when schools nurture creativity through hands-on learning rather than squashing it with standardized tests.

By July 2015, the film had already been screened at Sundance. Dintersmith’s next goal was to bring the film to all fifty states, but he did not know where to start. Then, a mutual contact put him in touch with the man who knows everyone in North Dakota:  Greg Tehven. Thanks to a last-minute speaker cancellation and a bit of pressure from Tehven, Dintersmith took the TEDxFargo stage six days later.

“I give a big assist to TEDxFargo,” he said. “Just in getting to know people, I ended up accelerating my timing.”

Dintersmith’s fifty-state tour began in September with stops in Kentucky, Ohio, and Fargo. In the months since, he has visited every state, some as many as three or four times, screening the film and participating in Q&A sessions. At one event in Fort Myers, Florida, Dintersmith was approached by a man who had waited more than an hour to speak to him– a man who had never received a high school diploma.

“What he took away from the film is what really matters is not the piece of paper you’ve got but can you think creatively, can you solve problems, can you communicate, can you work with other people…And when you hear those stories, when it has that kind of impact on people, you realize it’s something beyond just your normal boring documentary.”

Between Dintersmith’s tour, community screenings, and film festivals, Most Likely to Succeed has been screened more than 2,000 times. It has achieved wide popularity, but despite urging from audiences, Dintersmith refuses to make it available for purchase or online streaming.

“What we’re finding is that when we can use it to pull communities together and they start brainstorming about what they can do, it’s catalyzing,” he said. “It really does effect change, whereas if people could just sit at home and watch it on their laptop I don’t think anything would come of it.”

The former venture capitalist has fully immersed himself into the intersection of education and innovation. He has published a book, Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era. His second book, based on what he’s seen in his travels, will be out in the next year. He also served as a producer on The Hunting Grounda documentary focused on sexual assault on college campuses, and is backing another titled She Started Itwhich highlights young female entrepreneurs and will premiere in October.

Back to North Dakota

This month, Dintersmith will embark on another initiative– and North Dakota will be at the center of it.

“I feel like if I can help six states make bold progress in the next 24 months, that could completely reset the way we think about education in America,” he said. “The states that I think are really going to stun people are not California, New York, and Massachusetts…  I think the states that are going to stun people are New Hampshire, Kentucky, Virginia, Hawaii, and North Dakota.”

On June 15th, Dintersmith will attend the NDCEL Summer Conference in Bismarck to screen Most Likely to Succeed and speak with educators from across the country.

“I believe North Dakota has an opportunity to leapfrog places all around the world in terms of what’s going on in schools” he said. “And if North Dakota can do that, not only does it help the kids in North Dakota schools, but it sends a really loud message to the rest of the country and even to the rest of the world about what happens with visionary leadership and really impressive community collaboration– when what’s going on in schools becomes more 21st century instead of 19th century.”

Feature photo courtesy of Dan Francis Photography. Watch Ted Dintersmith’s talk here:

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Katie Beedy