From crisis to confidence: How RahRah is responding to COVID-19 to help Higher Education

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Many of us have spent the last several days reflecting on how COVID-19 is going to impact our lives. During this reflection, I have worn many hats: son, brother, friend, neighbor, teammate, and fundamentally, human. I’ve contemplated how we as a business can adapt in order to add value for our customers in the wake of the virus’ disruption. The effects of this pandemic have permeated every corner of society, sowing fear and uncertainty in its path. Yet, even while quarantined in my apartment, I feel a consistent sense of hope and confidence. Time and again history has shown how the collective human spirit is capable of overcoming even the most daunting of challenges. I take solace in our record of persistence and grit to get over whatever hill faces us.

I wanted to take a moment to share four lessons I’ve learned, from childhood to now, that are guiding the way I am viewing and responding to today’s challenges. My hope is that these will help a friend, educator, fellow entrepreneur or neighbor (everyone now in this digital world) plot a path back to normalcy (or, at a minimum, give you something to do until sports return).

As a founder of a startup in the higher education technology space, I’ll admit that this has been a challenging time. Higher education has essentially shelved certain tasks for the foreseeable future–and rightfully so. Right now there are higher priorities than determining what software to purchase. Our mission since day one has been to simplify student life. At this time, that isn’t done through trying to schedule a meeting, give a product demo or fill someone’s inbox. When I was recently speaking with one of our investors, Phil Wilmington, the Vice-Chairman of Workday, he told me to lean into altruism, first and foremost, during this time of uncertainty for our industry. Afterward, I refreshed my memory on the actual definition of altruism.

Since day one, RahRah has always attempted to align ourselves to institutions, not just sell our product to them. We have always wanted to really understand their biggest challenges and pain points. Because of this approach, our team has been able to have some wonderful conversations over the past few weeks. During these conversations, we noticed that administrators, coordinators and everyone in between were filled with hope, positivity and great ideas on how to move forward in this “new normal.” But we also noticed they had no easy way to share ideas with peers facing the same issues across the nation.

Coincidentally, as I was preparing to post this blog this morning, Inside Higher Ed posted an article by Jeff Selingo and Martin Kurzweil titled “The Networked University in a Pandemic — And Beyond”. I implore all you to give this a read. I couldn’t agree more with just about every point made. This statement in particular resonated with me:

“In a recent study, we found that multifaceted higher education networks are necessary to tackle complex problems when the expertise is distributed across different organizations and when the situation has no readily apparent solutions. This current crisis has all the elements for that networked solution in higher education.”

Unfortunately, there is still no true network to enable instant communication among higher education professionals across different institutions. We’ve seen plenty of webinars and opportunistic companies making an effort to sell their products during this time, but no one is really giving the student affairs community–those on the front lines dealing with this crisis–an opportunity to talk. So over the past week, we went to work to come up with a way to enable student affairs professionals, from every corner of the world, to connect through real-time open dialogue… and maybe have a little fun while they’re at it.

We’re doing this by creating a Slack workspace, solely dedicated and free to any and all higher education community members. Slack is an instant messaging tool, originally created for businesses but now used to connect digital communities around all sorts of topics. In the space we’ve set up, there are specific channels users can join to discuss a range of topics relevant to today’s higher education challenges. The mission of this is simple: engage with one another, express empathy, and share ideas for solutions!

What this Slack won’t be used for is a place to talk about Rah Rah or be pestered by any of our teammates. Sure, if you’re curious about our software, how to deal with Gen-Z or want ideas for what to make for lunch, we’re here! But the purpose of this slack is to Rally Higher Ed and share ideas for a brighter future.

Use the following link to join the Rallying Higher Ed slack workspace and share knowledge with your Higher Education community:

Growing up, I spent most of my weekend mornings and evenings on the back porch of my childhood home. The company varied but some of the original cast of characters included my family, neighbors (some crazier than others) and friends. The conversations spread across all topics but one particular night, while trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life, my parents gave me the following advice: In life, there will always be things you can control and things you cannot. We are measured by how we accept and respond to both.” I’ve used this piece of wisdom each day since and it has rung particularly true over the past couple of weeks as our world has been knocked off its feet.

COVID-19 has introduced all of us to a new way of life–a new normal. Something that none of us could have entirely prepared for (what we can’t control). I am beyond confident that we as a society, as a campus or any community like this little company, Rah Rah, can and will respond and recover effectively (what we can control). While sometimes headlines from the news or social media can seem dreary, evidence of this element of control is coming through every day. ‘Social Distancing’ is working, testing is on the rise and we as a community are responding with humility, respect, and acceptance. I’m particularly impressed with how quickly universities moved to keep students safe and secure, through remote learningresidence management, and telehealth services.

Work recently brought me to the great state of Oklahoma. During that time I was lucky enough to celebrate my 27th birthday with all of my grandparents who are still spinning around the sun. I met my grandpa at the sandwich counter where we used to meet for lunch every Friday while I was in college. When I first saw him I told him how good it was to see him. His response: “well it’s better to be seen than viewed.” Good to know he still has his sense of humor.

During our meal, we discussed life, the past, the future and what it means to be 27. After a long time spent on the road, I was a bit run down and he could tell. Towards the end of our conversation, I asked him what his plans were for the rest of the day. He responded that he had to go home and chop some wood before his shows came on (he’s a big bachelor fan). He wanted to “earn it.” He has chopped wood to warm his house for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t realize he was still at it at the ripe age of 85. I was astounded! With that small declaration of the task, he quickly reminded me of the opportunity that I (and the rest of us) have whether we are 27, 85 or anywhere in-between or beyond. In that one statement, it dawned on me how lucky we all are. That what we seek in this life, the impact we make, only comes through effort and consistency. So with that, I say to all my friends: keep chopping away. Whether you’re in higher ed, a nurse, a delivery person, keep chopping. Your effort and commitment do not go unnoticed and we thank you.

Both of these are necessary and serve a distinct purpose. To this point, higher education has done an excellent job of deploying its parachutes (following procedure, executing clear communication and getting students off campus safely). Change is hard no matter when it comes but the change that swept the higher education system over the past few weeks has been unprecedented (like many other spaces). We have seen large, complex universities decipher which students need to stay in a residence hall and which students should and could go home–no easy task. They did all of this (and so much more) with one common goal in mind: to ensure the safety of their students, staff, and communities. Deposits, tuition, and grades were all put behind that one common priority. These are all necessary parachutes that were deployed.

Many people on the news are calling COVID-19 a “disruption” to the higher education space. A little harsh, no? In my opinion, this change can be seen in two ways that coexist with one another. A correction, and more importantly, an opportunity. Traditionally speaking, higher education is a space that has been resistant to change–and justifiably so, in my opinion. Any change, large or small, can affect the outcome of one to thousands of students, requiring deliberation, planning, and thoughtfulness. This, however, can slow the pace of innovation. Well, now higher education has been dealt a hand where change was inevitable and what have we seen? A whole lot of airplanes are being built. In a matter of weeks, we’ve seen an entire system go 100% online. We’ve seen institutions embracing innovation and thinking through this ‘new normal.’ None of this goes without mentioning the massive research efforts taking place.

Second is opportunity. Now that the need for digital innovation has essentially become a requirement, the education space now must lean into the digitalization of the campus. I recently saw a quote that read: “the biggest loss, in the end, is if we come out on the other side unchanged”. Based on the many conversations our team has had over the last few weeks with friends in the industry, we are confident that higher education will continue building airplanes to make positive changes for this new normal.

Life will inevitably throw a curveball our way sometimes. When it does, I like to think about a Hunter S. Thompson quote: “a person who procrastinates in his choosing will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance.” We all still have a luxury of choice, and for our team, that choice is to keep working, stay positive and do whatever we can to help. Because of these choices, and the lessons listed above, I as an individual, and we as a company here at Rah Rah have confidence in the wake of a crisis.

When the world looks back at the response we all had to this crisis, what will they say about the many parties, organizations, and industries? Based on the past few weeks I formed a strong opinion that there will be nothing but praise for the higher education space. They have acknowledged what they cannot control and executed (to a T) what they can. Universities quickly deployed their parachutes and got back to what they have done for our nation for so long: inspired and educated us in the most innovative, forward-thinking ways.

On our end here at Rah Rah, we are doing what we can in the only way we know how; we will continue to enable higher education. In the short term by Rallying Higher Education to share ideas and strategies through Slack. We are confident that, like our software, Slack will break down institutional silos and enable higher ed professionals to do what they do best–work with and for students to enable their success.

Thinking about the long term, I can promise you that our team will keep chopping away. We here at RahRah have dedicated ourselves and the past two years to building the first of its kind Student Life System. Something that is truly built for the future of higher education while revolutionizing the campus of today. We didn’t want to be like other EdTech companies and build blindly to make a quick sale. Since day one we have been chasing impact and long-term value–that isn’t done through just selling a piece of software. It’s done through building it with and for the people you serve. We can’t wait for the world to see and use it. In the meantime though, let’s all come together here to focus on what’s most important: battling COVID-19 and running with confidence to the new normal.

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