Chip Linehan has always felt driven to make the world substantively better. He speculates that this drive was forged through challenging personal circumstances, from feeling like an outsider as a kid and, importantly, from his parents’ passion for civic involvement.
While building his career at New Enterprise Associates, one of the world’s largest venture capital firms where he became the youngest person to be named partner and co-managed the firm’s health care practice, Chip co-founded a nonprofit in San Francisco to help students overcome systemic barriers to achieving college degrees. When thinking back to the beginning of SMART—which remains a thriving, high-impact nonprofit—Chip says of his co-founders, “We were in our mid-twenties, and we were too naïve to realize that it might be difficult, so we just did it.”
Two decades later, Chip felt it was time to do more. He enrolled in Harvard’s Doctorate of Education Leadership Program. As part of his coursework, Chip reimagined what a public high school could look like. That assignment turned into the vision for Building 21, a nonprofit committed to designing school models that adapt to meet learners where they are, help them to pursue their interests and passions, and create pathways to college and career success.
Since its launch in 2014, Building 21 has opened two lab schools in Philadelphia and Allentown, Pennsylvania. With no admissions criteria other than district residency, the high schools are built on a three-pronged foundation: 1) relationships are paramount—young people learn best when they feel connected to and valued by others; 2) permeable infrastructure—students are pushed out into the surrounding community for “real world” experiences, and community leaders engage with students within the school walls; and 3) competency-based education—students track learning progress based on mastery of competencies that measure post-secondary readiness, rather than the time they have spent in a certain course or grade.
"If you say ‘I can’t do this,’ that’s actually just you limiting yourself. That’s something that they teach us basically every day."
ILLIANYS DE LEON RIVERA
Sophomore, Building 21 Allentown
In some ways, Building 21 echoes Chip’s career in the Silicon Valley venture ecosystem: Chip has been—in part, out of necessity—entrepreneurial every step of the way.
One of the biggest challenges with competency-based education is measurement and communication—so the Building 21 team created a platform that uses a portfolio model instead of a traditional credit model. Chip and Building 21 are committed to sharing knowledge, so the platform is completely open source.
When Chip and his partners realized how much they had learned through the lab schools, they created the Learning Innovation Network to significantly scale their impact. Today, Building 21 supports more than 30 schools and districts that are striving to deliver more personalized, human-centered education.
When they didn’t see solutions for the employment gaps experienced by people of color from underserved communities, the Building 21 team created Launchpad—seeking to directly connect young people to living-wage jobs in upwardly mobile careers.
“It was soul-crushing to see these talented, hard-working young people get stranded after high school,” says Chip. Through Launchpad, students “learn and earn”—they don’t have to choose between supporting their family and investing in their future.
Says Chip, “Building 21 is the work of my life. My team at Brown Advisory has set up my investment plan so that I can pursue it. They have supported me—with expert advice, an investment framework and careful listening to what matters to me and my family—throughout this journey.”