Category: Meet the Entrepreneur

Meet the Entrepreneur

Meet the Entrepreneur: Danna Thomas of Happy Teacher Revolution

Meet the Entrepreneur: Danna Thomas of Happy Teacher Revolution

July 15, 2019

Danna Thomas has gone, in her words, from “Miss Thomas, kindergarten teacher” to “Danna, founder of a revolution” in just a few years.

The former Baltimore City Public Schools educator now runs Happy Teacher Revolution, an international movement that hosts mental health and wellness support groups for teachers. More than 1,500 teachers have taken part in the program to date.

Danna Thomas

“The adage is, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’” she says. “I’m worried no one is taking care of the village.”

Thomas was a member of the Social Innovation Lab’s 2018-19 cohort and was awarded $15,000 at the group’s culminating event in April. The money will allow her to begin scaling her venture, expand her team and expand her social media platform.

“I want to build out our online support component to foster offline connections,” she says.

To that end, Thomas also is raising money to purchase and retrofit a bus into a mobile home so she can drive across the country to meet teachers in person.

“The ‘aha’ moment happens when people are sitting in the room together and sharing their vulnerabilities,” she says.

Thomas is grateful for the support she’s received from the SIL, including access to resources and a community of fellow entrepreneurs.

“Even if you don’t get in, the process of applying was so helpful. There’s value even if you don’t make it.” 

In five words, what does your company or organization do?

Create opportunities for teacher well-being.

Why did you decide to start this? Where did the idea come from?

Happy Teacher Revolution was born because of my own personal journey with mental illness. As a teenager, I grappled with anxiety, depression and crippling panic attacks. My teachers in high school and college were my heroes and “first responders” who truly saved my life. They recognized the warning signs and encouraged me to seek treatment and get help. Over the past seven years as a Baltimore City Public Schools teacher, and as a spokesperson for the Music for Mental Health Campaign and the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) Maryland, fellow teachers were open with me about their personal struggles, and I began to notice a pattern. I realized educators craved the opportunity to feel less alone, to share in one another’s vulnerabilities and imperfections.

When communities come together, we find strength in one another and the inspiration to continue to make positive change. I believe that in order to solve the teacher burnout and turnover crisis, we must come together as a community and revolutionize how we professionally support educators.

What would you consider success for your project, and how will the world be different if your project is successful?

If we are able to reimagine professional development and support for educators, we will be able to keep great teachers in the classroom. Success for Happy Teacher Revolution means an authentically joyful teacher who feels just as fulfilled on day one as they are on day 10,000. Success for our organization will be the day we can confidently demonstrate that Happy Teacher Revolution results in a reduction in teacher burnout, decreased teacher turnover and an increase in job satisfaction.

What have you accomplished so far?

We have trained nearly 100 revolutionaries across the United States and the world. Our revolutionaries then facilitate free Happy Teacher Revolution meetings to support 1,500 educators in their own communities around the globe. Our largest Happy Teacher Revolution site in the United States is in Oregon and our largest site internationally is located in Dakar, Senegal. We have revolutionaries leading meetings in 20 different states across the U.S., and we are expanding our international sites to include both Canada and China.

What advice do you have for would-be social entrepreneurs or other students thinking about starting a venture?

Stop second-guessing yourself and go for it. Have fun. Love your mistakes as opportunities to grow. Celebrate every small win each step of the way. Recognize your strengths but also your weaknesses. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, but also remember to fearlessly stand your ground.

It’s so thrilling to build something from scratch around a cause you truly believe in. There really isn’t a better feeling in the whole world, but because you have so much passion for your mission and work, it can feel like an emotional rollercoaster.

My mother has always told me, “Find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Starting Happy Teacher Revolution has been the most fulfilling, exciting and downright terrifying thing I’ve ever done. Spending my days planting seeds of a revolution has been an exercise in patience and resilience. As I continue to blossom in this work, the most incredible part has been to support my fellow educators in blossoming, too.

What innovator do you look up to? Why?

Richard Branson. I love how much fun he has in the work he is doing and his sense of humor. I’m not sure if I would ever be brave enough to fly in a hot air balloon around the world, but I admire how he has leapt into one adventure after the next from a place of passion and authentic joy.

It’s after a long day of work, and you don’t feel like cooking. What is your go-to Baltimore restaurant?

Clavel. All the spicy margaritas and tacos, please.

The Social Innovation Lab will be accepting nominations for its 2019-20 cohort very soon! Please check the SIL website for the latest news and updates.

Join Happy Teacher Revolution through their Mighty Network App, on social media at InstagramFacebook, or LinkedIn, or online.

FastForward U

Meet the Entrepreneur: Jade’s Jesse Wu Seeks to Grow…

Meet the Entrepreneur: Jade’s Jesse Wu Seeks to Grow One Dish at a Time

May 20, 2019

Jesse Wu has turned his love of cooking into a burgeoning business venture. Wu, a sophomore biomedical engineering major, is the chef behind Jade, a kitchen pop-up specializing in Chinese American cuisine.

Wu has been hosting fixed-price dinners inside classmates’ apartments but steadily gaining attention outside the Homewood campus. His cooking made him the $1,000 “Crowd Choice Winner” last month during FastForward U’s Demo Day for student ventures. And he will cook for his largest audience yet May 28 through June 2 as Jade takes over The Pop-Up stall at R. House, a kitchen that hosts new chefs for a limited time at the food hall in Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood.

In five words or less, describe Jade.

Chinese college kid makes food.

Jesse Wu

When did you first get interested in cooking?

From a very young age, I loved the food that my parents and my brother made me. I really enjoyed cooking throughout high school, but it was mainly just for fun. When I got to college, I was finally able to explore that hobby in-depth because my parents were not around to make my food every day. I didn’t see it quite as “I have to cook for myself now,” but rather “every day I have the opportunity to try something new and learn.”

Why did you start cooking for your friends at Johns Hopkins?

It started as me just cooking meals daily for my roommate. It was a great way to learn how to cook fast. I hosted dinner parties with lots of friends to share a meal and catch up between all our busy schedules. Then I decided to take it to the next level with multicourse dinners for friends in my dorm at Homewood Apartments. I started experimenting with Chinese American food executed with traditionally Western methods and equipment.

Why was it important to you to get ServSafe certified?

It’s not super important for casually cooking for friends, but once you are cooking for crowds an order of magnitude larger, you want to make sure you don’t make anyone sick. Food is one of the highest liability industries; I am asking strangers to put items I prepared in their bodies, and that is a huge responsibility.

What is your favorite dish to prepare?

My favorite dish to cook is mapo tofu. It incorporates such a diverse selection of Chinese cooking concepts, and it serves as good practice. It’s also delicious and something I always got at Chinese restaurants when I was a kid.

Where do you see Jade by the time you graduate?

I hope to keep on doing these pop-ups, sharing my story and representing my culture in Baltimorean cuisine. As I get the ball rolling and spend more time working in restaurants, I’ll be able to make cooler stuff with a greater level of execution. First, though, I want to put my best foot forward. The more I do, the faster I learn and the more I’ll be able to do it right.

Hopefully, I’ll have enough of a stake in this city for friends, consumers and medical schools to want to keep me here, because I love Baltimore.

How has FastForward U helped Jade?

I have been funded with two separate Spark Grants, including the Demo Day prize. Many of the purchases from the first grant were to get the dorm dinners off the ground, but the second one will be key in making R. House (which is an enormous step in scaling up) a success. I have also received very useful advice from the team about FastForward U about the administrative aspects of running a business.

Clockwise, from left: Red bean soup, Hunan-style cabbage, white pepper wings with hoisin vinegar sauce and Mapo tofu over handmade noodles. (Courtesy of Jesse Wu)

What’s one piece of advice you would give a student who is thinking about forming a startup?

If you don’t love it, then don’t do it. I only do this because I love food and cooking. It would absolutely destroy me if I didn’t.

Do you have any special plans for the pop-up?

There are exciting things in the works. Follow @projectjade_ on Instagram!

What are you most looking forward to during your week at R. House?

I look forward to cooking food that I think tastes good and sharing it with the public for the first time. Obviously, with something of this caliber, it is harder to get a message across, but I hope some walk away either thinking something I made was cool or with a new insight on my Chinese American experience.

I’m excited to feed Baltimore!

If you’re not cooking, where do you like to go eat in Baltimore?

I spend a ridiculously large amount of time at Fadensonnen. Lane Harlan’s relatively recent project sees some of the most interesting people in the city come through. I’ve been at least five times within the last few months just for the Masarap pop-ups!


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