Education gets real

When a business's marketing professionals, recruiters and other leaders sit down with a District C team of high school students they're presented with fresh, next-gen perspectives on how to solve problems.

Education gets real

The magic of District C is that it's all real. When a business's marketing professionals, recruiters and other leaders sit down with a District C team of high school students they're presented with fresh, next-gen perspectives on how to solve a problem that has stymied their business.

It's typically a surprising outcome for the business which, more often than not, chose to participate in the team-based internship programs as a way to support and engage with their local community – with no expectation that the few hours invested would produce actionable results. Five years in, and 86 percent of the businesses that have partnered with District C are implementing part or all of the solutions presented by students.

'It would be easier to use a hypothetical situation or a case study with students; but what makes this program magical is the opportunity to work with a real business and real professionals on a real problem,' said Dan Gonzalez, a former teacher and education professional who started District C with his wife and business partner, Anne Jones.

District C

Co-founders: Dan Gonzalez, CEO; Anne Jones, chief strategy officer

Based: Chapel Hill; Website:; Email: EMAIL

Launched: 2017

Employees: 7

2022 Revenue: $575,000

For the businesses, it's a 'low-lift, high-impact opportunity,' explains Danielle Mayber, partnership manager at District C. Businesses do not pay to participate but simply volunteer their time. 'It's a max of a five-hour commitment to partner on one teamship program,' she said.

The programs are led by educators who are trained and certified as District C coaches; roughly 90 percent of the students and teachers involved come from public school systems and are representative of diverse communities. School districts pay for the professional development, as well as an annual membership fee for District C to support implementation of the teamship projects. During the school year, programs run for three to four weeks – although they can last up to nine weeks. Summer programs are typically full-time commitments for one or two weeks. All projects culminate in the team, usually four students, presenting their recommendations to the business professionals.

Unlike most nonprofits, the business model at District C centers around fee-for-service revenue rather than fundraising. Revenue in 2022 reached $575,000 and that number is expected to more than double (Gonzalez believes likely triple) in 2023, as the program scales across the state and beyond.

'Primarily, businesses want to engage with students in their own backyard,' Gonzalez said, noting that Novo Nordisk was interested in meeting and learning from students in the Johnston County Public Schools, not only because they wanted 'to play a meaningful role in the community, but also they're thinking of these students as their future [talent] pipeline.'

District C has established partnerships with more than 50 school systems or schools – including public, private and charter high schools in the Triangle and across North Carolina – and they have emerging partnerships underway in Virginia, Massachusetts, New York and Wisconsin.

'Geographic diversity is important because students in rural areas don't have access to the same kinds of work-based learning opportunities, or business connections and networks, as students in the Triangle. We are increasingly reaching other parts of the state to increase that equitable access,' Gonzalez said.

Business partners also come from beyond the Triangle. 'We connected students in Durham with a business partner in Manhattan, and those students were blown away to be meeting with a senior VP who was sitting in a high rise in the middle of New York City and running product [development] for a global company,' Mayber said. 'There is a lot of local-first orientation to the work, both from the school system perspective and the business partner's perspective, but there is an opportunity to connect across geographies.'

Developing a growth strategy was the immediate challenge for Raleigh-based Care Yaya, an online platform that connects people in need of caregiving support with college students who provide the service at an affordable hourly rate. Since launching in 2021, Care Yaya has established a strong presence in the Triangle and is looking to expand throughout the state. Three District C teams of Research Triangle High School students helped Care Yaya develop that strategy.

'They were a pleasantly surprising resource and gave us a ton of ideas for how to scale faster without spending money,' said Care Yaya CEO Neal Shah. 'They were able to do market research, which we couldn't afford to do, and they went beyond ideation to actual execution. They made brochures, reached out to community health fairs and media, and got us on social media platforms like Next Door.'

On the academic side, teachers are looking for programs that engage students in work-based, real-world career exploration.

Peter 'Mackie' Hayman, who teaches advanced courses in entrepreneurship at Heritage High School in Wake Forest, has worked as a certified District C coach since 2019. His students engage in roughly three teamship programs a semester.

'My favorite part is watching them do presentations to the businesses; it's authentic eye-to-eye [interaction] and these kids surprise you,' Hayman said. 'On a multiple-choice test, students don't get the chance to surprise you; they're just working for the grades. These projects have a different motivation; the kids have a sense of ownership, that their work makes a difference.'

His students have done team-based internships across a range of industries, including retail, real estate, an international consulting firm and an athletic booster organization. After graduating, some of his former students are working in social media for those same businesses.

'The problem we're trying to solve is the increasing gap between the pace at which work is changing and the pace at which education is changing to prepare students for that work,' Gonzalez said.

That disconnect centers around evolving innovations in technology – like increased reliance on automation, artificial intelligence or robotics – and the misconception that technology negates the need for human interaction. Instead, the need for human perspective is being intensified. That's what Gonzalez hears from business leaders who say they need people who can work on diverse teams, with people who think differently, to achieve collective problem-solving.

'We prepare students with the mindsets they need for modern work and we connect them with future employers,' he said. 'It helps businesses engage with the community and with their [emerging] talent pool."