Ankur Rastogi is a senior at USC studying Computer Science with a focus on biotechnology. He’s worked on the Startup Career Fair, been on the executive Core Team, and co-founded Tech.LA Fellows while in Spark.
Some Notes on Teams, Collaboration, and Building Projects
Fall 2018! It’s senior year here at USC, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve learned since I landed on campus in 2015. I spent my first semester taking it pretty easy, but by the time spring semester rolled around, I knew I wanted to get involved. I applied to Spark in the second week of classes, went through the interview rounds, and found a spot in the organization. Every semester since has consistently reshaped how I think about tackling hard problems and how I view collaboration.
A brief aside here: I believe that Spark is fairly unique in the way it’s structured. There isn’t an “executive board” per se. Instead, a Core Team handles organization-wide administrivia and logistics. The real impact of the organization, however, is decentralized into committees of 3–8 students apiece, each working on their own independent initiatives. Each committee has a lead, and leads work to organize their committees’ work, timelines, and general progress. New members are put onto committees as soon as possible and get working on actual initiative work ASAP.* This structure isn’t perfect, but the autonomy it places in the hands of individual teams and members goes a long way in describing the amount of trust we place in our members.
That philosophy is also a reflection of the way Spark collaborates, and how those strategies encourage great work. As I head into my senior year, I wanted to take some time to write down some of the lessons I’ve learned after having been on a variety of committees, leading a few, and seeing the highs and lows from both sides. Here are some condensed ideas from the semesters in the trenches.
One thing I think Spark does really well is identifying people who resonate strongly with our mission. We believe firmly that the best work happens when it’s done by a team of people deeply excited about the project they’re working on. Our mission is to inspire a culture of innovation, expose students to their creative potential, and connect makers across diverse communities. We’ve maintained a heavy focus on that since things got started, and that consistent focus has been the keystone of our continued growth and progress.
Trust is critical.
Spark’s structure means that our Core Team can’t oversee everything directly all the time. It’s up to leads to create cogent plans, execute well, and push their teams towards progress. We opted for this decentralized structure to make our organization more flexible, but the glue that keeps everything together is an immense amount of trust. Leads trust our Core Team to interface with administration and handle logistics, the Core Team trusts leads to executive effectively, and teams operate under the assumption that everyone involved is a smart, capable individual. This sounds really straightforward, but having this trust has pushed committees to incredible heights.
Empower team members.
My first semester in Spark, I was immediately pulled into the organizing committee for Unite, the collegiate entrepreneurship conference we hosted the summer after my freshman year. I was barely 5 months into school, and my lead pulled me and Landon, another Spark member, aside and told us that we’d be in charge of fundraising for the entire committee. He told us that he knew we hadn’t done it before, that he trusted us both, that he’d be there to help, but ultimately it was on us to get cracking. I have never worked harder on something than I did on that conference for the next 4 weeks. Landon and I sent piles of emails, hopped on calls with every company, venture capital firm, and nonprofit that would take our calls, and dialed in aggressively. Funnily enough, we didn’t raise much money, and our lead later told us he had expected that, but the responsibility he put in our hands pushed us to work harder, and we learned a ton along the way. That culture of empowering team members to do more than they think they are capable of is crucial if an organization is going to reach its full potential.
Progress beats perfection.
This is something I struggle with constantly. I’ve been an aggressive perfectionist for a long time. It was a great mentality to have in high school, when what I was doing revolved around quizzes and tests. In college, it falls apart quickly. The goal shouldn’t be perfection; it should be progress. We’re hardwired to make mistakes and learn from them, and being afraid of those missteps leads to an intensely risk-averse, low-progress mentality. Spark has not succeeded at everything we’ve tried to do, but we’ve put a huge emphasis on pushing things forward over making them perfect, and allowing for that flexibility has let us cut the initiatives that don’t work, double down on the ones that do, and move quickly.
This ties in with the last point, but it’s also one that deserves its own mention. You will always be strapped for resources. Those can be time, money, buy-in from stakeholders, skill level, or something else. No matter what you’re working on, you’re not going to be operating in a petri dish of plentiful resources. Learning to build something when things aren’t easy is critical, and letting things slow down because of a perceived lack of money or time is likely the death knell of many good ideas. Learn to thrive, even with restrictions.
Build a family.
One of Spark’s most defining characteristics is our sense of community. We work hard on the initiatives we’re building, but we also consistently focus on building to our organization’s sense of family. We do our best work because we all trust, respect, and appreciate one another, and that has also made us all great friends. That sense of community is not unique to our organization, but it is something that I’ve found uniquely strong here compared to other groups I’ve worked with. Inculcating that sense of family from the very beginning, and perpetually cultivating it, is one of the best ways to keep up organizational health.
I’ve spent a good amount of time raving about my favorite parts of Spark, and why I enjoy being part of it so much, and most people I know in Spark are proud of the work we do. But, the people I’ve worked with have a knack for deflecting credit when it comes their way. I believe that sense of humility has been a consistent strong point of the organization, and it’s one that keeps our sights set on what we can work on next to make things better.
We’re not perfect by any means, and our organization isn’t always a well-oiled machine. But more often than not, I’m proud to say that I’m part of a group of students that’s managed to build a fast-moving, highly flexible, tightly knit community of forward-thinking students. Each of them has had a massive impact on me and the way I think, and the points above are testament to our ability to take on the next year and beyond.
It’s been a wild ride, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Since joining Spark SC, I’ve gotten the chance to work across the gamut of initiatives. Here’s a quick sample.
- TechLA Fellows: a summer-long technology internship program partnering college students from across the nation with startups in Los Angeles. I co-founded this with another Spark member, William Wang!
- Spark XM: a student-run podcast highlighting student entrepreneurs, what they built, and how they got to where they are today.
- Unite: a national collegiate entrepreneurship conference bringing together students from 7 different universities for a 2-day conference in Summer 2016.
- Startup Career Fair: a semesterly career fair at USC where we bring together around 15 startups from LA to campus for students to find internship and job opportunities
- Augment: An internal committee where we focused on revising Spark’s fundraising structure.