Systems Change in the Trenches

An Interview with Systems Entrepreneur Talia Milgrom-Elcott

Talia Milgrom-Elcott

Talia Milgrom-Elcott

Many people talk about systems change, but far fewer have been in the trenches and done the long, difficult, and messy task of mobilizing a network to change systems.

I recently interviewed 100Kin10 Co-Founder and Executive Director Talia Milgrom-Elcott to discuss what she’s learned working as a systems entrepreneur and what advice she has for others on a similar journey.

Talia, tell us about 100Kin10.

After I discovered practicing law wasn’t my passion, I spent about a decade working in education. I helped build and then fund all kinds of amazing projects led by smart and passionate people. But over time, as the gleam of the projects wore off, a quiet thought began to nag at me: no matter how great the projects were; they weren’t laddering up to lasting progress.

Our funders, our boards, our metrics people, our comms teams – everyone was pushing us to focus on goals we could measure and lay claim to, not on the changes that would matter to real kids, real moms and dads, real neighborhoods.  Real lives don’t happen inside of projects. They cross every divide and every sector. But we were throwing billions of dollars at projects, and those projects were addressing symptoms, because “symptoms” were what we could claim credit for fixing.  And so we fueled a massive growth in projects without a commensurate increase in progress.

So when President Obama went for a moonshot during his State of the Union address in 2011, calling for 100,000 new science, tech, engineering, and math (collectively called STEM) teachers in ten years, I jumped in.

The biggest challenges and opportunities of the 21st century depend on STEM.  We needed 100,000 more STEM teachers to inspire millions more students to love those subjects and use them to solve our planet’s problems. As a mother, a citizen, an activist, this call fired me up.

Describe your journey in realizing why you needed to take a systems level approach.

What I knew when I heard 100,000 teachers in ten years was that if we were counting on the government alone, it was never going to happen. Right from the start we knew we needed a network. We couldn’t get to 10,000 teachers—let alone 100,000 teachers—with different organizations doing their own thing.

The first phase of 100Kin10 involved 28 various organizations coming together to make their unique contributions. It was like patching together a beautiful quilt of individual gifts and commitments. We played the coordinating and mobilizing role by continuing to invite and inspire likely and unlikely allies to join us. By the end of the first year, we had grown to about 100 organizations.

We started to hear from our partners that they wanted to collaborate and learn from one another. They were asking “what are others figuring out? What do they know that I don’t know?” Based on that feedback, we brought together all our partners in a summit, and realized that almost all the learning we needed, as well as the solutions, were available within this network’s collective expertise. So, then our role as an organization shifted to add an intentional focus on how to help our partners succeed at the ambitious commitments they had set out. We helped them learn from one another, innovate with each other, and implement new ideas and improve them.

100Kin10 brought together their partners to learn from one another.

100Kin10 brought together their partners to learn from one another.


But the big shift in thinking came for us one day when we were brainstorming what content to offer partners. We were putting together a list on the whiteboard of all the problems and challenges our partners face. And it hit me: we weren’t going to be able to come up with the list; it wasn’t going to be 5, 10, or 20 challenges. Instead, there could be over 100 things as root causes, and we weren’t going to discover them all unless we talked to different people with different perspectives and mapped the system.

And interestingly, at this same time, it looked like we were going to hit our goal of adding 100,000 STEM teachers in 10 years. But then what? Our network was supporting 280 diverse organizations running 280 diverse programs. We had to unearth the reasons why we needed all these programs in the first place.

There was no way our efforts, and our partners’ efforts, would actually solve the problem unless we identified the root causes and organized the network to address them. That was the moment we knew we had to go beyond this network and address problems at the system level.

I take it that’s what led to the systems map that you released this summer. Can you share more about that process?

Well, the first thing we realized was that you can’t solve a problem you don’t understand, so we needed to understand the whole thing. We didn’t think it was possible to do that alone. We needed to see this from everyone’s perspective. That set us off on the research and learning phase where we did a lot of workshops, surveys, interviews, and conversations that got us to the full map.

Then we had this big and comprehensive map that had 100+ root causes. But as we showed it to people everyone said the same thing: “yes, this is it, but what do we do now? How do we take action on it?” So that’s when we had to reframe it as an ecosystem and find what’s causing what, what’s upstream, downstream, and are there changes to make that are higher leverage than others.

We call this roadmap the Grand Challenges, and it’s available for anyone to check out online.

100K in 10 Systems Map

The systems map identifies the root causes that hinder high-quality STEM education


Where do you go from here?

Now we have to activate our partners to work together and make progress on these deep, and seemingly intractable, problems. Every partner is in the process of tagging themselves so people know who is working on each of these items.

For each of the challenge areas there’s a short research brief that summarizes everything we know and don’t know, what’s been tried, what works, and what doesn’t work. There’s a growing list of “bright spots” to show you that it is possible to address this and that there are bright spots out there where good work is happening.

We now need to help people figure out how to use this and what tools they need to meaningfully address the root causes. In general, that’s not been how people have typically run programs. They’ve been focused on running their projects, not necessarily tackling the root cause, so this is a big mindshift.

The analogy I use is that for a long time our partners have operated like an ER, rushing to cure the ailment and save lives. Now we’re asking them to think about how to prevent the illness in the first place. That’s not an insignificant shift in thinking.

How have you gone about building trust and creating a safe place so that all your partners feel bought into the collective goal?

Very early on I realized how critical trust is to our success. We often say that “the speed of a network is trust: the more trust, the faster you move.”

I tried to get underneath the why and how of trust in three posts: I began by explaining that our work depends on collaboration, and the essence of collaboration is trust; why trust matters; and the steps we took to establish trust with our partners.

Ava’s note: Definitely read Talia’s third piece, as it provides worthwhile examples of how their organization helped create a safe space to acknowledge and learn from failures. It echoes Geneva Global’s own belief that the philanthropic sector would be improved if there was a greater appetite for embracing “successful failing.” It’s one of the eight key pillars we believe makes for more effective philanthropy.

We know from firsthand experience, as well as from talking to other systems entrepreneurs, that there’s often a disconnect in how foundations and other funders give to and measure the work. What’s been your experience in talking to donors and how what have you found works in communicating your vision and approach?

There are some funders who get this right away. One of the things I’ve found that resonates is the fact that they’ve been at this problem and been having the same conversations for a long time. But yet, they are not seeing the results they are looking for. So, they are evolving to think about systems and networks now.

But I also have a lot of conversations in which a funder will say “your approach is very interesting, and if something comes up as a ‘top of the waterfall’ challenge that falls within our program focus area, let me know, otherwise we’re not interested.” So not everyone sees the point of what we’re trying to do.

Have you been able to educate funders? Or do they either get it or they don’t?

I think a lot of people are starting to think this way and perhaps we are just a bit ahead of the curve. Funders are emerging into this space, they are starting to think about systems. I think the key “aha” is that donors are seeing their individual programs hitting their benchmarks but yet they aren’t seeing change. We can see these examples all around us: we’re serving the right number of meals at a homeless shelter but homelessness is still going up or we’ve cut the size of sodas but obesity rates aren’t changing.

Can you talk a little bit about the data and measurement side of things? What kind of data and/or metrics are you using to measure both progress and success?

First, the map itself is a pretty big success story. I’m not trying to be self-congratulatory but it’s a comprehensive mapping of a social sector problem that has research, testimonials, and so on. There’s really nothing else like it.

But the proof in the pudding is what comes next. We’re neck deep in thinking about what it takes to mobilize a network of organizations committed to a shared goal to take up this different level of challenge. I don’t think we know what that looks like yet. And I don’t think anyone does. I don’t think anyone has moved a network—let alone a national one as diverse as ours—to tackle root causes.

There are two big learnings—and corresponding questions—that came from the mapping. First, all the root causes are connected, so no one program will “fix” any big problem that’s making it hard to get and keep great teachers. You are going to need to work in collaboration with other people to have change. But how do we mobilize a network to do that?

The second is that there are root causes that are higher leverage than others. So how do we focus people on those so we can get some momentum going?

Those are the two big challenges we’re currently working on. My hope is that people come along with us on this journey and understand just how interesting this next phase will be and what it means to be activating something this large.

What advice would you give others who are earlier in their journey of systems change?

Well, we designed this whole process very intentionally so that we could strip out our content and let others put in their own content. You can use our approach and process for other things, like mapping obesity, gun violence, opioids, climate change, and so on. I’d encourage anyone starting out to use the mapping process.

To fully understand the scale of the problem and accurately map it, you must crowdsource the information. There are things you don’t see, no matter who you are or how smart you are. Make sure you are talking and listening to people who are different. Be open to seeing various perspectives. For example, on the map there were things that only teachers saw, and if we hadn’t talked to them, we’d never have seen it.

Once you have the root causes mapped, you have to turn it into an ecosystem. The flat map doesn’t give you the full tools. You need to connect things to one another to help chart the path of action.

Then, I’d say you need a network to take action on it. None of these problems can be solved alone. You’ve got to have a network committed to one another, willing to work together to move on these things.

Lastly, I can’t stress the trust factor enough. If you do not build trust, people will not be vulnerable and willing to collaborate.

What’s been the most fulfilling aspect of the journey for you? And what’s been the most difficult part?

The most difficult part is where we are right now, which is how do we activate people.

And the most fulfilling? Honestly, I love this process. It is getting to the crux of why there is so much action, yet so little progress. There are so many programs, so few solutions. At the end of the day, I’m not in this to run another set of programs. The thing that gets us up in the morning is to make meaningful, lasting change for kids. And that hasn’t happened and this feels like the vehicle for getting to that.

I hope 100Kin10 will always play an important role to support organizations to keep learning and making connections and building collaborations. But the fact that we are galvanizing around a commitment to go above and beyond to do something as basic as getting teachers into classrooms to educate the next generation? That should not be necessary—it should be what happens in the course of any civilization. And we see it in lots of countries, like South Korea, Denmark, and Canada, so we know this can be achieved.

Our goal is that we, as a nation, come to a place where filling our classrooms with capable and inspiring STEM teachers is a normal part of what we do for all our kids and not the herculean task it has become.