I originally wrote this in June 2019 after a call with Leland, Spark's founder, who was living in Berlin. I was in San Francisco at the time working at a startup, just like Leland had been when he decided to start Spark. This is one of the most special conversations I've had throughout my last four years in Spark. There's something so precious about learning about your heritage—even in this sense. At the end of our call, Leland said, "The origin story is interesting and somehow I'm more curious to know what people think the origin story even was. Even when we were starting it was a really ethereal experience. Everyone saw it in a different way at the time. Somehow it's part of why Spark is what it is."
Our origin story
It started in the dorms
It all started Leland Coontz's freshman year in Birnkrant, USC's previous honors student dorm.
"There was a crazy sense of community on each floor, where everyone would hang out and do homework together. They mastered this awesome vibe of being smart and enjoying themselves and getting shit done. A synergy! - Leland
College went on and Leland would think about Birnkrant frequently: the energy and dynamic and diversity that fueled him to be his best, most curious, and ambitious self during his first semester in an unfamiliar place. At the same time, he was learning about the power of student groups. Over the years his friends from freshman year were joining up to organizations to add positions to their resumes, to collect titles and accreditations.
Leland started a cooking show called Delish and tried to create a sense of family among the crew. Some kids working on the show were originally students in the cinema school working on the show for credit but would stay on for multiple seasons because they enjoyed it so much. That retention led Leland to realize that groups of students could be more than accolades.
Secret garages and secret umbrellas
Leland worked one summer at a startup in SF where he felt the entrepreneurial spirit in full-bodied form. He returned to USC and attended the entrepreneurship events at Marshall, but the vibe at those was the clear opposite. Everyone was talking about finance, not entrepreneurship as he understood and loved it. Marshall didn't teach anything [back then] about groundwork, prototyping, or getting heads together and trying to make shit that you could test immediately. There were a handful of folks who were in the know — but it felt siloed and everyone was working independently in their own "secret garage." There was no space to share what they were working on.
Leland had a group of friends who were spread out across USC's different schools... and there was no place on campus where people could come together and share stuff and try to work on something. He was wondering why this place didn't exist when the schools' individual potentials were so deep. Then he realized: "each school cares about its reputation and image to the external world so much that sharing context with other schools detracts from the individual schools' agendas."
"This place was something that should have already existed; its absence was inexcusable."
How could someone put this idea into student org form? Leland grabbed the smartest folks he could find to organize around this idea and help find physical space.
Among these people was a sense of creating an open community for everyone to have access to this synergistic, collaborative spirit. It would be run by the smartest, most passionate people — but the key was that they would run it in the background, almost silently. "If you looked at all the other clubs, their leaders were somehow always for themselves." Leland and his friends wanted to create something that went almost unnoticed.
"It's hard to explain what went on because it was so ethereal. We had a freshman in the room, not knowing how he got there or why he was there, and the next thing we know: he was on track to be the president of Spark. That was Neel."
When it got into the nitty-gritty, Leland and his friends just met as a group of people who recognized problems on campus. There were some competitors, which included a snakey pitch competition. Leland wanted to provide something different.
"We were looking for people who were passionate, ego-less, wanting to build something bigger than themselves. We were on this fine line of inviting everybody who was interested in creating things. We were averse to becoming a club. We were very clear about that. We called ourselves an umbrella organization."
Doing that was really tricky and it involved compromises. Leland and his friends knew what they wanted to create and that they wanted to invite people in existing positions to join, but everyone had their pride over their previous accomplishments. They didn't want to take those away, so they came up with this idea of being an umbrella org to bring people together to foster this energy before all else — before anything that required structure.
"Space was critical; I had for sure ingrained that into our strategy for getting off the ground. We fought really hard for space; we had Incubatrix, which was a building that got bulldozed for the Village. We convinced the guy to let us use the space and host Hack Nights.
Relationship management with USC Administration was always critically important from the get-go. They had to manage something intangible between the schools and this required sensitivity and a delicate touch, even with other student leaders. "To be honest, it was always a finessing strategy of dealing with admins and treading carefully to never take over everything and make people feel inferior. Somehow, every other org we wanted to include always seemed to have a selfish agenda. We had to be open to collaborate with that without falling into the same trap."
Though they'd wanted to keep from becoming an official club, Leland and his friends had to adapt to the practical realities of operating at USC. They created Spark SC and used 1KP to build its brand presence. "What was really magical was 1KP, which was horribly difficult to commit to and make sure it ran well. But it was so important to go from this idea to something tangible: we are a brand on campus that is representing this."
"I can't stress how important 1000 Pitches was to transforming Spark from a group of passionate people into something bigger than us."
"I can't stress how important 1KP was to transforming Spark from a group of passionate people into something bigger than us. Now that the brand has been built and has a heart and mind of its own, we might not need to do it... but it's very in line with what Spark believes: everyone can do it, and we're all in this together."
Giving form to matter
"Before 1KP and before we were Spark, Megan, Calvin, Adena, Stephen and I did an interview process where we really gave life to Spark. We were just an idea and people meeting to talk about it." They pitched Spark as an umbrella organization that helped other orgs coordinate.
"We ended taking a really obvious core team. Some of the core team members didn't realize that they were core team members. They were people who would never take the president role; they were just passionate. They were the perfect people because they cared to make this happen, were sensitive, were capable of finessing with administrators and other organizations.
When I left I was confident that they'd carry these images of what we were going to be on campus, this umbrella org. This highly selective culture of people who are passionate."
Spark's greatest ongoing challenge
"Spark's biggest challenge is thinking that it's something, rather than nothing. It was always supposed to be nothing. That's the whole thing... it was supposed to be egoless. I thought it might go down the path of every other organization... at its core, its principles were diversity, flexibility, sensitivity, dynamism. Its goal was to create something for every other student on campus. [We asked ourselves,] 'How do you expose someone to their potential without being an org that's obsessed with itself?'
As I stepped out of USC and this is something I only realized recently: Spark should be a place where you find a greater value in relationships than might typically be found in the classrooms or other organizations on campus...
One of the sad things about USC is that it's really image-driven. So many students get lost in that, and there are so many beautiful people on campus. One metric I'd be proud for us to track: how many board members successfully start businesses and projects together and keep those relationships beyond USC?
At the end of the day, it's a living, breathing organization, so we refrained from putting principles in writing. It's about responding to the environment around you with ideas you have with the people who are passionate about them."
Note from Stephen
Some additional context to further color between the lines. A little over a year into Spark's founding, we put together a "year in review" which was our attempt to recount the org's history. It covered a bunch of the stuff Leland alluded to and many other details as well!
Original link here, but I've copied the files over here too. Checked with Beez and figured it also might be of interest to some people. :)