Start, Scale, Sell

Grinnellians have always had an entrepreneurial streak. J.B. Grinnell himself founded a church in New York and the town of Grinnell. (He also dreamed up “Grinnell University,” though the college that stands today sprang to life from Iowa College’s relocation.) Robert Noyce ’49 famously co-founded Intel, Nordahl Brue ’67 was the brains behind Bruegger’s Bagels, and Lucia McMillan Cleveland ’74 launched The Spice Hunter.

Today, young Grinnellians are as ambitious as their predecessors, building companies they hope will change the world — or at least their corner of it. In the stories that follow, we share the big visions, the tough failures, and the grit that it takes to build a business from the ground up.

1. Start: From side gig to solopreneur

Illustration of Natz Soberanes ’13

As a student, Natz Soberanes ’13 seemed perfectly positioned to line up her dream job as counselor or a therapist. She majored in sociology. She was a great listener, and she was deeply empathetic.

But when a fellow Grinnellian introduced her to WordPress website software during her senior year, she quickly discovered both her talent and affinity for technology. That summer, Alexia Brue ’95 hired Soberanes to intern at the health website that Brue had co-founded, Well + Good. And in 2014, Soberanes’ aunt recommended her to a friend who needed a new website to promote her fledgling coaching business. 

Soon, through word of mouth, Soberanes had built a full-time business in a unique niche: women, often moms, who wanted a website to promote a new or growing business. It turned out that all those skills Soberanes had been burnishing to pursue a career in counseling helped her stand out in a crowded field of web designers. “A lot of my work is being able to empathize with others and understand where they’re coming from,” she says. “For example, a lot of women I was working with were nervous — they weren’t sure they had value to add because they were ‘just’ moms. But I’ve been able to connect with them and help them.”

While most business owners don’t think of their web designer as helpful coach, Soberanes does double duty in ways her clients love: She digs deep into their lives, learns about their priorities and passions, and translates those conversations into websites that truly represent her clients’ businesses and work. 

Still, she admits it hasn’t always been easy to run her own business. Her top-notch reviews ensure she always has a steady stream of clients (she has a perfect rating from more than 70 clients who have reviewed her on the hiring website PeoplePerHour), but the financial headaches are often just as constant. “Just because you send an invoice doesn’t mean that it’ll get paid,” she says. “Plus, unlike people who get a regular paycheck, I’m not guaranteed to make a certain amount on a certain day.”

That said, she’s thrilled with what she’s built so far. The business gives her the flexibility to travel — she splits her time between Mexico, Texas, and California. And today, she does work for women running businesses in construction and architecture, yoga and massage, and photography and fashion. They’re a diverse set of industries, but Soberanes brings their projects and larger business missions to life through their sites. “When you’re having long phone calls with clients where you talk about everything in their lives, not just ‘This is what I need on my site,’ you get to know the human aspect of them, and that helps the work,” she says.

2. Scale: Creating a company with millions of raving fans

Illustration of Jason Chen ’07

Jason Chen ’07 had never considered himself particularly lucky in love when he was growing up in Shanghai. He’d had plenty of crushes on girls — but they were always unrequited. By the time he arrived in Grinnell, he worried he might never be in a relationship.

But Chen wasn’t content to feel sorry for himself. He took action in perhaps the most Grinnell way possible — by making a beeline to Burling. He devoured materials on evolutionary psychology, sociology, and anthropology. He carefully observed the way that men and women communicated with each other. He planned to unlock the code to love.

Over time, and in his own way, he did. He found his first love at Grinnell — and experienced his first breakup. The deeper he dug into the complexity of emotions and relationships, the more he realized that the simplistic view he had once had of attraction and love was wrongheaded. “I realized that love isn’t about looks, height, or money, as I had previously believed,” he says. “It was about things like values, responsibility, empathy, and boundaries.”

He carried those ideas with him when he returned to Shanghai after graduation, and eventually, he wrote a post about it on an online message board called BBS, a Chinese version of Reddit. The post covered topics including confidence, self-esteem, and dating, specifically for men. And users were bowled over. Men started emailing Chen by the dozens, asking for his best advice. Soon, dozens of advice-seekers had turned into hundreds.

After sending out countless emails, Chen started seeing a bigger opportunity. He channeled that initial reader interest into a regular email newsletter, then an ebook. 

Chen credits an analytical approach — one he honed at Grinnell — as a secret to success. In a course about the presidency taught by Barbara Trish, professor of political science, Chen learned how to use quantitative and qualitative analysis to study State of the Union addresses. He closely analyzed the words they used, the frequency with which they used them, and the context that surrounded them to tease out important patterns and deeper meaning. He used that technique early on as he studied what his readers, viewers, and customers were most interested in, and it helped guide what he shared with his audience next.

Over time, he built a real business, MSW Media. He spent years developing top-notch material about dating and social skills. He built a website and a payment system. He worked with specialists who could help him protect his copyrighted material and thwart digital thieves, who are particularly rampant in China.

Today, Chen’s company has 13 employees, an online talk show with 4 million subscribers, and information products and courses on topics including confidence and masculinity.

Chen says that part of his success stems from pairing the lessons he learned from his studies at Grinnell to his deep knowledge of Chinese culture, whose values can look far different from American culture. “In China, it’s very common for parents to tell their children — in middle school, high school, and even college — that they should only be studying and not ‘waste’ their time in relationships,” he says. “A lot of these ‘good kids’ who listened to their parents then lack this kind of experience when they finally do have to interact in a dating situation.” By the time these same young men have graduated from college, their parents are urging them to marry, and that urgency often leads to disastrous attempts at romance and relationships.

As Chen looks ahead, he sees an even bigger market to pursue. “Steve Jobs always talked about following customers’ needs and that customers sometimes don’t know what they want until you put it in front of them,” he says. “Our next step is to teach people to go beyond dating and relationships, into how to be a better man, a better person. It will link up with Chinese philosophy, like Confucius and Taoism. I want to teach people about the inner game.”

3. Sell: Building a company worth buying

Illustration of Marcus Eagan ’12

When Marcus Eagan ’12 was 12, he started taking apart all the computers in his house so he could understand what made them work. His mom, understandably, was furious. His dad was more sanguine. “Neat,” he told his son. “Now put them back together.” 

While the scraps for most of the machines remain in his parents’ Detroit home, Eagan did succeed in reassembling one of the computers. That was enough to persuade his parents to put him in programming courses. By high school, Eagan was making serious cash on the side fixing websites.

 By the time he landed at Grinnell as a transfer student (he loved its link to Intel co-founder Robert Noyce), he was deep into the tech weeds. While there, he co-founded Freenet, which became the Free Network Foundation — an organization that supported a community to build, maintain, and own a share of the global computer network — after Eagan left Grinnell.

After bouncing around in an array of tech and writing jobs after graduation, Eagan landed at a consulting firm that did work with Target. He happened to be deeply embedded with the Target team when the company’s headline-making security breach occurred in 2013. While Eagan wasn’t working on anything related to the swiped data, he did have an insider’s view of what was happening. “Their HVAC system was networked, and it was on the same network as the payment processors,” he says. “Once that [HVAC system] got hacked, the payment processor was able to get skimmed,” he says.

It got him wondering about his own security. He’d just bought a Dropcam, a Nest, and an Xbox — all internet-connected tech that could theoretically be jam-packed with devastating viruses. But how would he even know? He felt confident that he could help solve the problem.

That led him to launch Nodal Security, a company that was focused on building a tool to help consumers discover whether their devices had been hacked. He landed a Stanford engineer as a co-founder and, with the help of some grant funding, a modest angel investment, and venture capital, built a small team that was working doggedly on the security device.

He quickly found that the startup life was comprised of almost endless fundraising and external skepticism. “This kind of work is already very hard and very stressful, and I had to endure a lot of racism,” he says, noting that he had to contend with people explicitly telling him that his white co-founder would be a better CEO than he was, even though his co-founder wasn’t interested in that job.

Eventually, while raising the third round of seed funding, he met up with Paul Judge, an angel investor and cofounder of Luma, a home wi-fi company. Judge immediately saw promise in Eagan’s idea and the company’s work, but instead of offering Eagan a check to help fund its growth, he offered to buy it on the spot. Within weeks, the deal had closed. Though the deal didn’t make Eagan a billionaire, it did give him some financial breathing room. (He did splurge on a few things, including a feast with friends and floor seats with a pal at a Celtics game.) As part of the acquisition, Eagan agreed to work as director of the Internet of Things (IoT) security for Luma.

Eagan left Luma last year and is currently dreaming up his next big entrepreneurial move. He deeply admires the approach of Elon Musk, who takes on multiple “moonshot” projects at a time, and he’s especially eager to tackle both climate change and computer security. As he looks ahead, he’s eager to bring the best and brightest with him. “A great idea isn’t one that’s only in your head,” he says. “Don’t hold good ideas inside. Share them.” 


Is Grinnellink Right for You?

Now, years after Grinnell opened Miller’s eyes to the injustices of the world, Grinnellians continue to feed her passion for righting the world’s wrongs. In return, she is helping students find their own paths to success, whether they choose law school or something else entirely. 

As to whether other alums should consider the Grinnellink program, Miller says, “Yes! Yes! Yes! I want to give two thumbs up to anybody who thinks the Grinnellink program may be something they want to think about.”

Although there are many internship opportunities available to college students, a Grinnellink internship provides Grinnell students the unique opportunity to develop and cultivate their professional networks, build on their academic backgrounds, develop professional skills and confidence, and foster career exploration with alumni or friends of Grinnell. 

In addition, any student who secures an unpaid 8–10 week, full-time Grinnellink internship is eligible to apply for grant funding to offset the costs of food, transportation, and housing during the internship. 

Thinking of hosting an intern but unsure whether your profession or organization would be the right fit? Interested in learning more? Contact Jovan Johnson, assistant director of employer engagement and internships, at johnson5[at]grinnell[dot]edu or 641-269-4782.


Taking Interns Seriously

As one of just three full-time lawyers working at American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, Amy Miller ’93 puts her boundless energy, empathy, and passion to use on a daily basis. She seems so entirely in her element that it’s hard to imagine there was a time when she balked at the thought of becoming a lawyer. 

An art history major from suburban Nebraska, when Miller first came to Grinnell she pictured herself in a profession that involved plenty of books and little cause to be the center of attention. But a series of experiences at Grinnell and an insightful adviser changed all that.

“I feel like a jellyfish that rode the wave and washed up in the most perfect ocean that I could have hoped for,” says Miller. Now, as a mentor with the Grinnellink internship program, she’s helping a new generation of Grinnell students find their own perfect ocean. 

Discovering her “right place”

When Miller was considering her options for college, she had a few criteria. She knew that she wanted to go to a smaller school in the Midwest with rigorous academics and that she was not interested in sports or a Greek system. She added Grinnell to her list because the promotional materials she received included student-written essays that were “sassy, funny, and quirky.” She decided to visit. 

“The minute I stepped on campus, a guy walked by wearing one of those long, floaty, Indian cotton skirts, and I thought ‘Yes, this is where I want to go!’” laughs Miller. “My parents were totally freaked out but I knew I was already in my right place.”

Before coming to Grinnell, Miller had not experienced much outside her “suburban bubble” in Nebraska. “My parents were more on the conservative side … they certainly weren’t taking me to protests or anything like that,” she jokes. 

But her undergraduate experience was to prove transformative. Grinnell, Miller says, “took my head and opened it up.”

Amy Miller in office talking with coworker

A crisis of conscience 

When Miller was a first-year student, some of her Langan Hall floor mates invited her to volunteer with a group that helped out at a homeless shelter in Des Moines, Iowa, on weekends. It was unlike any experience she had had before. “It feels dumb to admit it, but I had not really had that face-to-face experience with people living in impoverished situations,” Miller says. 

Then, in her third year, she studied abroad with Grinnell-in-London. 

“That was my next crisis of conscience,” she says. Her first time in a big city, Miller saw things that shocked her. There were people sleeping on the streets and police hassling people who clearly didn’t speak English or understand what was happening. She recalls thinking, “Why are you hassling him? He’s trying to do the best he can!”

“I had kind of a meltdown,” she says. “I had met people at the homeless shelter in Des Moines, but they had a roof over their head and they had their own room. Wow. It sounds naïve, but I had no idea that was how the world worked.”

She talked to her Grinnell-in-London professor, the late Michael Cavanagh, trying to make sense of it all. After listening to her concerns, he suggested a career path she hadn’t considered: law school. She initially resisted. “I was a very shy person, and I couldn’t envision myself standing in court shouting ‘Objection!’”

Cavanagh insisted that she wouldn’t be happy unless she was actively making a difference. She relented. “I told myself I just wouldn’t be the courtroom type of lawyer.” 

Going back to Nebraska

Miller has now been “the courtroom type of lawyer” for nearly 20 years. She started working part time at ACLU of Nebraska in 1999 and came on full time in 2001. Miller has long since overcome her shyness. “People were being mean to my clients! And I realized no matter how shy I’m feeling, I’ve gotta figure out how to yell at somebody.”

After Grinnell, Miller returned to her home state to attend law school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She decided she should use her “gift of a good situation” to give back and right some of the ills in the world. “And then I thought, well, I should do that in Nebraska. Because we do suffer from brain drain, and somebody has to stay and fight. I guess I decided I would do that.”

Then, after a few years working at ACLU, Miller saw an appeal from Grinnell asking alumni if they would like to host student interns. “And I thought, ‘Uh, Cha! Yes, I would!’” Miller has been hosting a Grinnell intern each summer ever since. 

Practical help and a fresh perspective

Miller had never thought to take on an intern until she saw the call for volunteers, but she now sees interns as an invaluable asset to her office. “Grinnell students pick things up so fast, and they really are quite independent, because that’s how the College is training them,” she says. 

She also appreciates the more intangible benefits of mentoring Grinnell interns. Interns come back from court appalled at how the judge is treating people, or don’t understand why police seem to resist cultural sensitivity training. Seeing interns’ genuine reactions reminds Miller that certain things that seem commonplace to her aren’t so commonplace to those viewing them with fresh eyes.

“Having that fresh perspective keeps me in check so that I don’t allow injustices and inequities to seem like they’re just day-to-day business,” she says. 

Her interns also help her keep tabs on what is happening back at Grinnell. While much has changed, she can always find common ground. “It is restorative and charming to remember there is life continuing on campus even though I’m not there anymore,” says Miller. 

Taking interns seriously

Every year, Miller takes projects that she knows will require hours of in-depth research and sets them aside specifically for her Grinnell interns. She also tries to give each intern at least a couple of options to ensure that they can work on something they’re passionate about and get the most out of the experience. 

“It boggles my mind that there are internships that don’t fully embrace the opportunity that a talented, intelligent Grinnell student brings to the table,” says Miller. “I don’t need someone to go get me coffee — I can get my own coffee — but I do need help doing the substantive research that takes a lot of focus that I don’t have the time to do.”

This philosophy has served Miller — and her interns — well. Several bills have been introduced and passed into law in the Nebraska state legislature as a result of Grinnell intern reports. 

A success story

Nathan Calvin ’18 is the latest intern whose research has made a lasting difference. During his 2017 summer internship at ACLU, Calvin wrote a report focusing on the high cost of calling home from jail, as well as privacy issues surrounding attorney-client phone calls. A law prohibiting “excessive commissions and bonus payments” and guaranteeing free calls between attorneys and their clients passed with bipartisan support in April.

Of working with Miller, Calvin says, “It’s really hard to imagine anyone taking their intern having a good experience more seriously. She’s not just a great boss, she’s a great mentor and friend.”

He credits the internship with solidifying his resolve to go to law school and helping him to understand the sort of work he wants to spend his life doing. He wrote about the experience in his law school applications and asked Miller for letters of recommendation. He has now been accepted at Stanford Law School, but will defer admission for a year to work on artificial intelligence ethics issues at Oxford University’s Governance of AI Institute. 

Read more about internship opportunties at Is Grinnelliink right for you?

A glimpse in the rearview mirror

Lisa Grant ’88 spent her third year in Tokyo, Japan, because she wanted to learn Japanese. “The skills I learned in communicating across cultures — resiliency and perseverance — continue to serve me well.”

Miriam Clayton ’15 had originally planned to find a Spanish immersion program, but thanks to her interest in social science, she was encouraged to look into the DIS Copenhagen program. “I liked it and honestly was more challenged by differences in culture than I had anticipated when imagining Western Europe. The biggest changes in my life came from the freedom and responsibility to plan and execute travel — I visited 12 different countries over the course of the semester, which did a lot to boost my sense of confidence and self-efficacy.”

Laurie Kauffman ’99 studied in Costa Rica on the Associated Colleges of the Midwest Tropical Field Studies Program. “I chose it because my Grinnell financial aid covered it, because it was Spanish-speaking, and because I could study monkeys. It was hugely influential for me. I made my research into a book chapter, I’m currently a biology professor and primatologist, and I’ve led several study abroad trips with my own students back to Costa Rica.” 

Kirk Karver ’83 spent a year in Seville, Spain. “[It] changed my personal and professional life in profound ways. To start, I was a history major when I arrived in Spain, but ended up at Grinnell as a Spanish major. More significantly, I met my future wife during my year abroad, and we’re still facing life’s challenges together 37 years later! And professionally, as a career Air Force officer, I have used my Spanish for the bulk of my 30-year career, which has included multiyear assignments in Panama, Spain, and Uruguay, not to mention shorter work trips to another dozen Spanish-speaking countries. I think no other year has changed my life in so many meaningful ways!”

Élen Rhoades Kidd ’03 studied in Stockholm with The Swedish Program in the spring of 2002. “It was hands down one of the best decisions I’ve made. I chose the program because I wanted to study in English, but not be limited to an English-speaking country, and wanted to take courses in a range of subjects. I also have Swedish roots (maternal grandfather) and loved the idea of studying anywhere in Scandinavia. I wanted a small program and didn’t want to be surrounded by Grinnellians. I credit that semester with so much personal growth. 

“In 2005, I returned to study on my own and ended up reconnecting with The Swedish Program. As luck would have it, they were creating a new position for a recruiter, set to start right when I would be returning to the U.S. They offered it to me, and I accepted. I’ve now been working for The Swedish Program for almost 12 years and love my job. I visit colleges and talk with students about studying in Stockholm, travel to our site twice a year for orientation week with our new students, and now work in alumni relations as well. I love that I have been able to make Stockholm my second home and keep my Swedish skills (more or less) fluent.” 

Share your story

Did you study off campus? Where, when, and why? What did you get out of it? Any advice for students considering off-campus study? If you didn’t study off campus, why not? Please tell us about it at magazine[at]grinnell[dot]edu.

Current students

Read about Thomas Aldrich's study abroad experience in his words. 

Why study abroad?

I was quite single-minded when I came to Grinnell. I intended to major in French and study abroad, which I did, although I chickened out from a full semester because I was married and didn’t want to be away from home that long. Instead, I did a summer program in Lyons, France, that included a homestay. 

Perhaps because of my own single-mindedness, it never occurred to me that someone would study abroad for reasons other than increasing their language skills. So I contacted students and alumni to learn why they chose their study abroad programs and what they got out of them. 

Nolan Boggess, Sarah Cannon (pictured), Sophia DeLeonibus, and Steven Duong, all class of 2019, shared a three-bedroom, two-bath flat in London’s West End. They joked about learning that both Boggess and Cannon sing loudly in the shower and that Duong lea

Best laid plans

Sarah Cannon ’19 studied Spanish throughout her K–12 years and intended to continue studying it at Grinnell. “But then I saw a special-topic course my first semester,” she says. “It was Intro to Peace and Conflict Studies. I took that instead of Spanish.” 

As a result of that course, Cannon’s interest in the Middle East region grew. That, in turn, increased her interest in learning Arabic. But she was torn. Should she continue with Spanish or take Arabic? She felt she had to choose one or the other. Ultimately she decided in favor of Arabic. 

Before the end of her first semester of Arabic, she talked with Mervat Youssef, associate professor of Arabic, about studying it abroad. 

Cannon chose a program in Jordan in part “to explore a culture that’s almost completely different from my own.” It would allow her to continue to develop her language skills without being totally immersive, since she only had a year’s worth of Arabic under her belt. But a U.S. State Department travel advisory put the kibosh on that plan.

By the time Cannon learned she wouldn’t be able to go to Jordan, Grinnell-in-London (GIL) was the only off-campus study program she still had time to apply for. Before she arrived in London, Cannon anticipated it would be “too similar to the U.S., just America but bland.” Not long after she arrived, however, she realized that her preconceived notion was “so wrong.” 

While in London, Cannon chose to live in a flat with four fellow Grinnellians whom she did not know well. It was the first time she’d been on her own without some sort of structure. 

“Living in a dorm is very different,” she says. “I know a lot of people who study abroad live in international dorms, or do homestays. I think our living experience is ... not unique, but I think it’s important to our experience.”

Cannon took time to explore interests that she’d “largely put on the back burner in Grinnell” — in particular, the theatre scene, which she enjoyed with her flatmates.

GIL was ultimately a good fit for the political science major from Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, especially due to her internship experience. She interned with a member of Parliament, which presented an interesting contrast to her summer 2017 internship with the office of Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis. Baldwin has been in government service for more than 25 years whereas Cannon’s MP was fairly new to the role. 

“Nothing could have prepared me for the hectic and often chaotic nature of working in a Parliamentary office,” Cannon says. “I will definitely carry the lessons I learned in Parliament with me for the rest of my life!”

Thomas Aldrich ’19, an avid bicyclist, appreciated all the dedicated bike lanes in Copenhagen. His host father loaned him a bike for commuting to classes. Aldrich rode it to the train station a few minutes away and then took the bike on the train with him

A dog named Floyd

Thomas Aldrich ’19, a history major from Minneapolis, always knew he wanted to study abroad. He heard stories from his older brother Peter Aldrich ’15, who studied in London, and his dad Bob Aldrich ’79, who spent several months in Israel.

The DIS Copenhagen program was a good fit for Thomas for several reasons, including the option to do a homestay with a Danish family and that the language of instruction was English. Aldrich was not a confident foreign language learner and had not taken any language courses at Grinnell.

However, he took Danish Language and Culture because the College requires students who study abroad in countries where the primary language is not English to take a class in the country’s main language. “Even though the language is really hard, learning about the culture and how to use the limited amount of language that I have is really useful,” he says.

During the first week of his homestay in a suburb outside of Copenhagen, Aldrich noticed that after every meal, his 13-year-old host brother said, in Danish, “Thanks for food.” In fact, Aldrich noticed that Danes said “thank you” a lot. 

In Danish Language and Culture class, Aldrich says they discussed why, in an egalitarian society, you may not want to use “please” and “sorry,” and why you would want to use “thank you.” 

“They don’t say, ‘Could you please pass that?’  They just say, ‘Can you pass that?’ and then they say, ‘Thank you,’ because it’s a much more egalitarian way of approaching things,” Aldrich says. “Saying ‘please’ and ‘sorry’ instantly subjugates you to the person to whom you are speaking. Saying ‘thank you’ subjugates, but in a way that you are not asking for anything. You’re not asking for forgiveness. You’re not saying, ‘Please, can I have this?’ You’re just saying, ‘Thank you for giving me what I needed,’ basically.”

Small shifts in perception like this are another reason Aldrich wanted to study abroad. Living with a Danish family presented many such moments.

One night his host mom said they were having Mexican pancakes. Aldrich wondered what the heck that was. “Tacos. We were having tacos. She was referring to tortillas.” Aldrich found the food his Danish family served to be similar to American food. “They eat a lot of potatoes,” he says, “so I’m kind of in heaven.”

For a 20-year-old used to coming and going as he pleased, living with a family had a few glitches. “I’ve come home at 4 a.m. before, and I know that I wake up Carsten [the dad]. Not because of me, but because Floyd barks.”

While Aldrich loved the quiet of his homestay, the 35- or 40-minute commute made socializing with friends trickier. “That’s one thing that I hadn’t really thought about when I first got here,” Aldrich says. “I have to be willing to just kinda hang out at my homestay. I have to be content with that if I want to make some really cool friendships here that, otherwise, I wouldn’t have made.” He pauses and nods. “It’s worth it. It’s really worth it.” 


Lisa Grant ’88 spent her third year in Tokyo, Japan, because she wanted to learn Japanese. “The skills I learned in communicating across cultures — resiliency and perseverance — continue to serve me well.”

Miriam Clayton ’15 had originally planned to find a Spanish immersion program, but thanks to her interest in social science, she was encouraged to look into the DIS Copenhagen program. “I liked it and honestly was more challenged by differences in culture than I had anticipated when imagining Western Europe. The biggest changes in my life came from the freedom and responsibility to plan and execute travel — I visited 12 different countries over the course of the semester, which did a lot to boost my sense of confidence and self-efficacy.”

Laurie Kauffman ’99 studied in Costa Rica on the Associated Colleges of the Midwest Tropical Field Studies Program. “I chose it because my Grinnell financial aid covered it, because it was Spanish-speaking, and because I could study monkeys. It was hugely influential for me. I made my research into a book chapter, I’m currently a biology professor and primatologist, and I’ve led several study abroad trips with my own students back to Costa Rica.” 

Kirk Karver ’83 spent a year in Seville, Spain. “[It] changed my personal and professional life in profound ways. To start, I was a history major when I arrived in Spain, but ended up at Grinnell as a Spanish major. More significantly, I met my future wife during my year abroad, and we’re still facing life’s challenges together 37 years later! And professionally, as a career Air Force officer, I have used my Spanish for the bulk of my 30-year career, which has included multiyear assignments in Panama, Spain, and Uruguay, not to mention shorter work trips to another dozen Spanish-speaking countries. I think no other year has changed my life in so many meaningful ways!”

Élen Rhoades Kidd ’03 studied in Stockholm with The Swedish Program in the spring of 2002. “It was hands down one of the best decisions I’ve made. I chose the program because I wanted to study in English, but not be limited to an English-speaking country, and wanted to take courses in a range of subjects. I also have Swedish roots (maternal grandfather) and loved the idea of studying anywhere in Scandinavia. I wanted a small program and didn’t want to be surrounded by Grinnellians. I credit that semester with so much personal growth. 

“In 2005, I returned to study on my own and ended up reconnecting with The Swedish Program. As luck would have it, they were creating a new position for a recruiter, set to start right when I would be returning to the U.S. They offered it to me, and I accepted. I’ve now been working for The Swedish Program for almost 12 years and love my job. I visit colleges and talk with students about studying in Stockholm, travel to our site twice a year for orientation week with our new students, and now work in alumni relations as well. I love that I have been able to make Stockholm my second home and keep my Swedish skills (more or less) fluent.” 


Uncompromising Journalism

Jeanne Pinder ’75 has been steeped in journalism all her life. The Grinnell native honed her craft over the years with the Grinnell Herald-Register (which her grandfather bought and her family still owns), the Associated Press, the Des Moines Register, and The New York Times.

As a journalist and a student of the old Soviet Union, Pinder demonstrated an affinity for complex issues. As a Times editor, she dealt with heady topics like the fall of communism, the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and “a couple of Persian Gulf wars.” 

Pinder wrapped up a career in what could be called conventional journalism in 2009 when she volunteered for a buyout from the Times after two separate stints totaling 23 years. What she did after that could hardly be called retirement. Rather, she reinvented herself as an entrepreneur, took an even deeper dive into journalism, and dedicated herself to a question for which no one seemed to have any answers, namely, “What do things cost in health care?” 

Pinder’s business invention, aimed at demystifying the health care industry for the practical benefit of consumers, is an entirely different breed of journalistic cat. Called ClearHealthCosts (clearhealthcosts.com), it has become nationally recognized for its expertise in health care pricing. Its data-driven, consumer-savvy approach to web-based journalism has been covered by The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, Harvard Business Review, and the Journal of the American Medical Association, among others. 

It would not exist had Pinder not answered a challenge to re-examine everything she knew about the information business.   

Remaking the model

Uncertain about what she wanted to do after leaving the Times, Pinder decided to join a class in entrepreneurial journalism taught by new-media guru Jeff Jarvis at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. 

“The theory of the class,” says Pinder, “was that if CUNY is a journalism school making little journalists, it is doing it for an industry where the revenue model is challenged, if not completely broken. We had a responsibility to think about that and do something about it.”

The charge, she says, was “how to make journalism that pays for itself.”

Denizens of a newsroom have been known to regard the subject of advertising revenue with varying degrees of contempt, but Pinder enjoyed a distinct advantage among journalists trying to imagine a new way of doing business. “I’d worked on the business side on the Herald-Register,” she says. “I’d sold advertising. I knew how important it is. I had more of a business background than a lot of journalists who had been only on the writing and editing side.”

During the run of the class, students had to come up with a business idea, design the model, refine it through a competitive analysis, and convince an expert panel of its efficacy. “At the end of the class, we had a Shark Tank-type pitch contest with a jury of New York City venture capitalists and Internet illuminati to judge us,” Pinder says. “I won 20,000 bucks.”

No sooner did Pinder invest her winnings into a startup devoted to pulling back the curtain on health care pricing than detractors began to surface. It was a sure sign that she was on to something.

“I had a constant chorus of people telling me it didn’t make any sense, it was stupid, it wasn’t doable,” Pinder says. “This was in 2011, so people were saying things like, ‘When the Affordable Care Act comes into effect everyone is going to be insured, so everything is only going to cost $20 and what you’re doing is completely irrelevant.’ Or, ‘Powerful forces will put you out of business because health cost transparency is in nobody’s interest,’ which is true, actually, but those powerful forces have failed to put us out of business so far.”

Undaunted by critics, Pinder forged ahead with funding by “angel” investors and with additional grants from the likes of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, the International Women’s Media Foundation (funded by the Ford Foundation), and the McCormick Foundation (via J-Lab at American University in Washington). “It wasn’t really enough to form the business and certainly not enough to dismantle the health care industrial complex, but enough to get a start,” she says. 

Secrets in plain sight

Pinder’s team of research journalists immediately began surveying cash or self-pay prices for a range of common — she calls them “shop-able” — medical procedures. “There are about 35 of them on the website,” Pinder says. “Not big complicated things, but things that are pretty much apples-to-apples — MRIs, cardio stress tests, Lasik, ultrasounds, an IUD, a vasectomy, a well-woman exam — fairly common things for which you would have discretion over where you wanted to go.”

Prices are plugged into a software tool called PriceCheck, also developed by Pinder’s team, that allows consumers to share, search, and compare what actual providers are charging for comparable medical services in specific locations. It allows consumers to shop for mammograms or teeth fillings with the same price intelligence they’re accustomed to having when buying cars, shoes, or any other consumer item. 

Another data set on the site (hospitals.clearhealthcosts.com) collects prices for bigger-ticket items —knee arthroscopy, childbirth, ear tube surgery — from various web sources. Because these prices are collected and categorized in a different way from other prices, the site displays it in a separate data set. 

Helping consumers access real prices is a service that, to date, has been provided by no one in the health care industry — unless you count a handful of companies that match up provider and patient and take a nontransparent cut of the transaction for providing this service. Citing her own commitment to being a careful consumer, Pinder says the inability of otherwise intelligent people to understand their own medical costs makes even less sense in a health care sector that accounts for nearly 20 percent of the U.S. economy.     

“We receive these medical bills and explanations of benefits that are completely incomprehensible,” Pinder says. “People have no idea what they mean, why they’re being charged these amounts, or what the insurance company is paying. Nobody seemed to know what anything costs. It’s like a secret hiding in plain sight. I thought, why can’t we understand this? It should be pretty straightforward, right? Well, ha!”

The power of agency

“Coming from The New York Times and coming at this problem as journalists, we take a very different approach from what the current incumbents in the health care marketplace have,” Pinder says. “We like finding stuff out and telling people about it. That’s not necessarily high on the agenda of people in the health care marketplace. They have other agendas. 

“We are giving people agency in the marketplace, and that’s a very powerful thing.” 

Just how powerful is revealed by the numbers on ClearHealthCosts’ website. Pinder and her team of journalists and tech experts, with the help of data supplied by web users, have uncovered disconcerting price disparities in comparable procedures across the board. For example, a vasectomy that costs $150 in Stamford, Conn., can cost as much as $17,000 in Oakland, Calif. An MRI costing more than $6,000 through one provider in San Francisco can be bought for $300 at another provider only a few miles away. Furthermore, nobody in the industry seems interested in advertising the difference. 

“There is massive confusion in the marketplace,” Pinder says. “We know it’s true that people who are insured are frequently being asked to pay more than people who are uninsured. It’s a whole new thing for many people because it used to be that having insurance gave you access to a lower price and no additional out-of-pocket. Well, guess what?”

We could guess that in many cases one might do better as a price-negotiating cash customer even if one has insurance, and, Pinder asserts, we would be correct. The actual prices, at least those that can be found out through real customers or that are supplied by willing providers, prove it. 

“Insurance companies don’t profit by price transparency,” Pinder says. “They profit by keeping all of this stuff a secret, because if you’re not sure what you’re going to have to pay, then you’re inclined to buy more insurance. 

“What we do here is completely separate from any insurance question, because insurance companies won’t tell us what they pay,” she says. “If you’re an insured person, they won’t even tell you. So we do the cash or self-pay price and the Medicare price because those things are fundamentally knowable.” 

Beyond that, members of the community share what they were charged, what insurance paid and what they paid, often sending in their bills and statements as proof. This is a compelling back-check on the cash prices, revealing the hidden secrets in the marketplace and helping community members make decisions. For example, Pinder explains, an insurer might pay $400 to Provider A for an MRI, but $2,400 to Provider B for the same MRI in the same metro area. 

Actionable information

As experienced users of health care are aware, charges for services depend largely on how services are coded. Most of the searchable prices on Pinder’s site are based on the five-digit Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System, or HCPCS. Medicare reimbursements are shown for the same procedures, because, Pinder says, “Medicare is kind of a yardstick; it’s the closest thing to a fixed or benchmark price in the marketplace.”

Medicare prices also vary according to geographic location. And while we might be temporarily distracted by the fact that Medicare pays $570 for an MRI in California but only $387 in Iowa, ClearHealthCosts is less about fixing everything that’s wrong with the health care machine and more about helping consumers deal directly with factual realities. 

“When we write our blog posts, we don’t just point at the problem, we also tell you what to do about it,” Pinder says. “We do data journalism, but we also tell you anecdotes, like what has happened to people, why are they getting charged, and what should you do about it to protect yourself.

“One of the things that we’ve learned is that people are really upset about this issue,” Pinder says. “They don’t want to read any more stories about partisan bickering in Washington. They don’t want to read news stories about Obamacare rates. They don’t want to read stories about insurance companies whining that they’ve been poorly treated. They want actionable information. They want to talk about it, and they want to make a difference. 

“Some people want us to think that it’s only uninsured people who care about this, but nothing could be further from the truth,” she says. “Insured people really care about this, both high-deductible and not.”

Media partners and crowdsourcing

Pinder’s business aims at building a critical mass of pricing data specific to as many regions of the country as possible. Consistent with its entrepreneurial origins, it is a for-profit endeavor; so to seek viability on a national scale, Pinder ultimately hit on a strategy of partnering with big media organizations to do crowdsourcing on their sites. ClearHealthCosts now has its price-checking software tool placed on public radio and other media websites in markets like New York, Miami, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and New Orleans.  

“Our partners pay us to build and customize this tool for them,” Pinder says. “We do the survey and prepopulate the database with information so that their communities can share and search for things while they’re in their pajamas at 3 o’clock in the morning. We also consult with them on how to generate more traffic and how to write great stories out of this information.”

It’s a mutually beneficial proposition. For its role in the partnership, KQED in San Francisco won the Society for Professional Journalists prize for innovation in journalism. WHYY in Philadelphia won the Pennsylvania Public Service Award for broadcasters. While the middle part of the country isn’t nearly as well represented by media partners as coastal urban areas, in five years Pinder envisions more partnerships, more price transparency, and a bigger, broader version of ClearHealthCosts.  

“We don’t have a partnership, say, in Iowa right now,” Pinder says. “We would love to have one. I would say there are six or eight partnerships that are nearing fruition in other states. Non-media partnerships are really attractive, too, but our sweet spot is media. They get it. They understand what we’re doing. We’re not compromised by anybody. We don’t pull any punches. We can’t. We’re all about full-on transparency. Journalists really get that.”

Half-truths versus the internet

What consumers understand is that they will always need health care and that genuine advocates in the medical marketplace are few and far between. As long as buyers have choices in services and providers, the kind of journalism produced by Pinder’s organization can only gain relevance.

“The topic of money will be in every conversation about health care where there’s a discretionary element,” Pinder says. “It has to be, because there’s no way a system can continue like this, charging some people $6,000 for an MRI and some people $300. The Internet doesn’t like it when people lie and keep secrets. And the healthcare marketplace is full of half-truths and secrets about who gets paid what. 

“It’s really ripe for some completely crazy thing like somebody telling you that an MRI could be $500 or it could be $2,400. Do you want the $2,400 one? Do you want the $6,000 one? Then you should have that. But if you want the $500 one, then you should have that, too.” 

What about quality? Measuring it is difficult, owning it more so

Questions about quality are sure to arise when price discrepancies are significant. Jeanne Pinder tells why ClearHealthCosts is not in the business of quality assessment:

“We’re not medical professionals. We’re not doctors. The medical profession needs to do that, or somebody other than us,” Pinder says. “My partners and I were invited to a state radiology association to tell them about our project. So we went through our presentation and one guy said, ‘You didn’t say anything about quality,’ and we asked, ‘Well, what’s a good quality MRI?’ 

“There were about 25 radiologists in the room. One of them said, ‘It’s the machine. It has to be the best machine.’ Another guy said, ‘Well if it’s a great machine and it’s not maintained or calibrated, then it’s not a good MRI.’ Another person said, ‘It’s the technologist who arranges the body parts and takes the pictures, because if they’re no good, then the MRI’s no good.’ 

“Another person said, ‘No, it’s the radiologist who interprets it.’ So they’re having a big argument about it and finally one guy says, ‘The worst MRI is the one that doesn’t get taken because the patient believes that she can’t afford it.’ And they all shut up. 

“If somebody shows me a good quality metric, I will incorporate it in a heartbeat,” Pinder says. “But there aren’t any good quality metrics now. There are a lot of efforts to assess quality, from the federal government, from the states, from insurance companies, from hospital chains, from trade groups. There are a million different quality metric efforts, none of them very effective or consumer friendly. But it’s not on us to fix the entire health care marketplace. Somebody should have done that a long time ago.” 

Studying Haitian Art in Iowa

If you were asked to name a major Haitian cultural hub, you’d be forgiven for not shouting “Waterloo!” But when Fredo Rivera ’06, who grew up in Miami, first came to Grinnell, what he found surprised him. “Oddly enough, my foundation with Caribbean art is rooted here,” he says. Iowa, it turns out, has one of the largest concentrations of Haitian art in the world. And after returning to Grinnell as an art history professor, Rivera is making sure his own students can take full advantage. 

A fortunate fluke

On a frosty winter morning in 2002, Rivera’s first-year roommate ran into their dorm room in Loose Hall, pelting him with a snowball. Far from being angry, Rivera was delighted — it was his first time seeing snow. “I ran outside to play in like half an inch of snow,” he laughs. “I don’t even know how he managed to get enough to make a snowball!”

Rivera’s decision to study at Grinnell “was a fluke,” he admits. Neither of his older siblings had left Miami for school. Originally Rivera was only looking at large universities on the East Coast, but then a little college in the Midwest described as “weird and dorky” caught his eye. That fall, he was off to Iowa.

Rivera arrived at Grinnell eager to explore his interests in art, history, sociology, and political science. He settled on an art history major with an Africana studies concentration and found himself increasingly drawn to Caribbean art. There was just one problem: none of the art history faculty at the time had any expertise in Caribbean art. They were all Europeanists, specializing in Western art. 

Luckily, Rivera still found ways to engage in his chosen subject. “I was very blessed to have faculty members willing to go out of their way to do independent guided readings,” he says. Jenny Anger, professor of art history, led Rivera in independent study and introduced him to David Campbell, Henry R. Luce Professor of Nations and the Global Environment, who has a large personal Caribbean art collection. 

Beyond campus, Rivera discovered that he had stumbled upon what might be one of the best locations to study Haitian art. The Waterloo Center for the Arts in Waterloo, Iowa, has the world’s largest public collection of Haitian art, and the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa, has another impressive collection — including many works by Haitian-born artist Edouard Duval-Carrié, a fellow Miami resident. 

“It’s quite peculiar that we have these collections in Iowa, and wonderful as well,” says Rivera. While it was his Puerto Rican roots that had initially drawn Rivera to Caribbean art, at Grinnell he became increasingly interested in Haitian art, delving into the relationship between Haitian and African American art in his senior thesis. 

His love of Caribbean art cemented and his curiosity about Haitian art piqued, Rivera returned to the East Coast after graduating from Grinnell to further his art history studies at Duke University. In 2010, while Rivera was spending a year in Miami as a research affiliate at the University of Miami School of Architecture, he paid Duval-Carrié a visit in his Miami studio. Rivera learned that Duval-Carrié, whose work so impressed him as an undergraduate, was collaborating with Duke’s Haiti Lab at the time. “I told him about my discovery of his work in Iowa, and by the end of the conversation we just very much intellectually clicked,” says Rivera. Duval-Carrié invited Rivera to begin work on a major exhibition project exploring the role of photography in Haiti, From Within and Without: The History of Haitian Photography at the NSU Art Museum–Ft. Lauderdale. Duval-Carrié and Rivera have been working together ever since.

There and back again

In 2016, Rivera found himself at a crossroads. His time as visiting assistant professor at the School of Architecture at Florida Atlantic University had come to an end, and he was weighing the pros and cons of remaining in academia. He loved teaching, and he loved his research, but he was also unsure if the academic landscape was right for a queer artist and scholar such as himself. “I was like: you know what? I don’t think academia is somewhere where I can thrive and just be myself. I think there’s so much pressure to perform in a certain way and to conform in a certain way,” he says.  

He was contemplating his options, considering working on some of his art projects independently, when he got a nudge from Anger, his senior thesis adviser at Grinnell. There was a position opening in the art history department, and she encouraged him to apply. Rivera decided to go for it. While he was still unsure how he felt about academia as a whole, he knew “Grinnell would be a perfect place to figure that out.” Of course, once he got the job, he was faced with a new problem: how to fit everything he wanted to accomplish at Grinnell into his new two-year position.

Rivera was intent on not only investing in the aspects of the department that he loved the most, but also expanding its offerings for students. He could give students what he hadn’t had — access to a Caribbeanist art historian on campus — as well as offering classes on architecture and urbanism. To this end, he had two priorities. First, he wanted to teach the exhibition seminar, a class that gives students hands-on experience curating an art exhibition for the Faulconer Gallery. Second, he wanted to give students the opportunity to work with Edouard Duval-Carrié.

Connections with collections

Rivera’s desire to teach the exhibition seminar came from personal experience. He had taken the class himself as a student at Grinnell. “I think it was a profound experience that followed me to this day,” he says. “I would say that it is not only a highlight of what we do in our department, it is also unique among our peer institutions. This is the reason we go to Grinnell — to have this very hands-on, intensive experience.”

“We were blessed to hire [Rivera] whose research and curatorial interests on the Caribbean complemented my passion for writing and talking about visual culture in Latin America and the Caribbean,” says Abdiel Lopez ’18, a sociology major who participated in the exhibition seminar.

As the first exhibition seminar student in Grinnell’s history to come back as a professor and teach the class, Rivera felt compelled to take the class further than ever before. He knew that he wanted to build the student exhibition around Haitian art; but to do this, he would have to introduce a new element to the course. While the exhibition seminar historically pulls on work from  Faulconer Gallery’s own collection, Rivera wanted his students to look outside the Faulconer offerings to build a full exhibition of Haitian art centered around Duval-Carrié’s pieces. So, Rivera’s seminar students were treated to yet another first for the class: course-embedded travel to museums in Miami and Iowa. 

To kick off the semester, the class visited five different institutions in Miami, got a behind-the-scenes look at an exhibition installation, and met with Duval-Carrié in his studio. Then, over fall break, the students spent three days traveling throughout Iowa. They were able to go into the vaults at Waterloo Center for the Arts to select works that they wanted to borrow for their exhibition. Rivera let the students have full control over which artworks they chose. “I think the teamwork really formed at that point, and that’s when they started meeting outside of the class of their own accord.”

“The opportunity to meet museum professionals gave us essential experience in approaching a project of this scale,” says Ellen Taylor ’18, an art history major. “It was especially interesting to observe the approaches of institutions, and how their different resources, needs, and goals affected the process of exhibition.”

Over the course of the semester, Rivera also assigned the students readings on Haitian art and museology, and they debated the cultural politics of displaying the art respectfully. Some of these readings were the very same papers he had read in his exhibition seminar — bringing them back and assigning them as coursework in his own class after having to find them himself as a student was “very surreal,” he reflects. 

“I am 100 percent sure that we would not have received this wealth of knowledge in a typical art history seminar,” says Lopez, “mainly because we were able to not only talk to professionals who’ve been in the business for a while, but also because we designed this exhibition from beginning to end while reading about Haiti along the way.”

Rivera found himself blown away by the passion and dedication his students applied to their work. “I think the thing that most impressed me is I came into the classroom proposing doing an exhibition on Haitian art with an idea of what the exhibition would be, but as the students engaged with the course material, they took the exhibition to a place that I never thought was possible. I see this as the students’ exhibition — I merely provided connections with collections and a broad idea.” 

Rivera’s students also identified and contacted guest speakers (including a vodou priest), helped design the catalog, and assisted in installing the exhibition. Giving the students such a sense of ownership of their work seems to have paid off — several of Rivera’s students have now expressed an interest in furthering their studies as curators themselves. “This particular exhibition seminar on Haiti has completely altered my professional track,” says Lopez. 

Iowa: hybridity embedded in green

Rivera’s influence on student opportunities has not been limited to the art history department. Inspired by their “Haiti: History Embedded in Amber” art project at Duke’s Haiti Lab, Rivera invited Duval-Carrié to Grinnell to teach a short course as a visiting artist last fall. The course became a collaborative endeavor that stretched across departments, producing a piece of art to be installed in the new Humanities and Social Science Complex on campus this fall. 

The installation is made up of 35 green-tinted epoxy resin blocks set into a metal grid and lit from behind. Poured in a series of six liquid layers, the resin blocks encase archival images depicting historic scenes from Haiti to Grinnell, focusing on histories of freedom and abolition. Each layer also contains three-dimensional objects such as keys, plastic figures, beads, and sequins to highlight or complement the images and their meanings. The green tint of the blocks is indicative of Iowa cornfields and represents the intertwined agricultural history of Haiti and the United States. Presented together, the resin blocks represent a “collage of histories,” says Duval-Carrié. Two of the students enrolled in the short course are creating a website that will accompany the installation with narratives explaining the visuals of each block. 

Duval-Carrié tried to maximize the creative freedom of contributors while also encouraging them to think deeply about historical and cultural themes. “I gave them the theme and the color and the format,” Duval-Carrié explains, “but the rest is theirs.” While just five students enrolled in the short course, anyone who took an interest — or even who, as I discovered, happened to be in the room at resin-pouring time — was enthusiastically encouraged to join in. 

Most of the students and faculty members who contributed to Duval-Carrié’s art project were not art majors themselves, instead drawn to this unique opportunity to tell a visual story. Doug Hess ’91, assistant professor of political science, brought his first-year tutorial class on the Haitian Revolution to create blocks. Timothy Dobe, associate professor of religious studies, came with a student activist group to contribute; and Sarah Purcell ’92, L.F. Parker Professor of History, recruited students from her own department. A student in Rivera’s exhibition seminar, inspired by Duval-Carrié’s work, also joined in to help with many of the blocks. While participants were new to the medium, all were enthusiastic about this fresh way to explore themes usually confined to the more traditional linear structures of essays and research papers. 

The final product is a hybrid exploration of Iowa, the United States, and Haiti amassed by a group of disparate people. Given a new medium and free reign, Grinnellians produced a collage of layered histories as vibrant, disparate, unique, thoughtful, and bold as the individuals who created it. While Rivera once had to go out of his way to find resources to study Caribbean art at Grinnell, now he has come back to give his own students direct, hands-on experience — balancing intellectual rigor with creative freedom.

As Rivera and I wrap up our conversation, he sips the last of his piña colada. He has a Liberal Arts in Prison class on architecture to prepare for and more readings to assign his art history students before he leaves for the weekend to perform in the Wigwood drag festival in Miami. Attending Grinnell may have been a fluke, but it gave Rivera access to the resources he needed to be his own kind of student. Now, he’s returned to be his own kind of professor — connecting students to the subject he loves without feeling that he has to lose a part of himself in the process. He, in turn, is helping students to find their own unique expression. 

Rising High

Erin Whalen’s pursuit of educational equity drives the high energy and enthusiasm he brings to his work each day as assistant principal at RISE High, a project-based charter high school in Los Angeles.  Whalen ’12 realized that as a black, Hispanic, indigenous male, his educational experience was a rarity; and he became passionate about creating experiences for other youth in marginalized communities. 

Whalen attended a progressive pre-K–9 school in his native LA before graduating from Santa Monica’s New Roads High School. A Posse Scholar at Grinnell, he graduated with a degree in anthropology and joined Teach for America to teach middle school English in Miami before returning home to teach in a charter school in Los Angeles. 

These experiences, plus off-campus study in Cape Town, South Africa, confirmed Whalen’s stated desire to work for those who seek educational equity and justice.  

RISE, which stands for Revolutionary Individual Student Experience, was designed to meet the needs of students who have experienced housing instability or foster care, or for students who have found that the traditional school model simply didn’t meet their needs. Students come to RISE through referrals from social service agencies and community partnerships. 

“These are kids who often miss school to go to court or to meet with their social worker. RISE High meets students where they are, bringing educational equity and justice to them, with resources available on site,” Whalen explains.

RISE High has two sites, one in south-central Los Angeles located with social service agency A Place Called Home, which is, Whalen says, “aligned in mindset and ability to engage with students. Small environments are important to kids who have been through trauma and need to feel safe.”  

Last year’s pilot served 30 students, and this year there are48 students at the south-central LA location (which has capacity for 120) and 43 at the Hawthorne, Calif., location (with capacity for 50).  Both locations use in-person learning and online learning platforms to allow students to engage in real-world projects and gain credit for their life experiences.

“Given the hardships many of our students face with transiency and instability, we often find their credits are not an adequate marker of their preparedness for college or the workforce. There are no grades at RISE. We focus not on their seat time, but on chapters through life by building portfolios of their work from jobs, internships, and employable skill sets so they can thrive independently,” Whalen says. 

Funding for RISE High, part of the DaVinci Schools Partnership charter schools network, was provided by a $10 million grant from the XQ Institute, funded by the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs. Whalen and Kari Croft, who is now principal at RISE High, became aware of the XQ Institute while associated with Teach for America. They talked to students in the foster care system and those experiencing housing instability about what school environment they needed to best support them and together with teachers, administrators, and industry partners, wrote the grant and charter petition to secure the $10 million grant that provides startup funding for RISE High, which could eventually serve 500 students. 

“The XQ grant was an intense competition and receiving the award was a huge dream. We based the proposal on what the students told us they needed to be successful. The XQ grant provides a launch point to respond to those needs,” Whalen says.

Erin Whalen ’12 working at a computer

Rising year-round  

Classes started Aug. 17 at the year-round school — year-round, Whalen says, because “these students need stability and services year-round, not just eight months of the year. 

“Our biggest challenge is tracking down our students’ transcripts and records. The larger educational system hasn’t done a good job of tracking and crediting transient youth. Many have the skills but are consistently put in the same classes year after year because they don’t meet the required ‘seat time.’ At RISE, we focus on mastery as a marker of success, not seat time.”

At the same time, the biggest reward, he says, is seeing the students from last year’s pilot return and rally around each other and help new students. “The more students take over, the better. The environment I’m trying to create is having productive conversations in the classroom about issues on campus and around the world. That’s what I saw modeled at Grinnell, and I want our students to have those experiences.”

There is no typical day at RISE High, given the students’ many background challenges. With flexible scheduling, students are offered a wide variety of electives, from IndepenDance taught by Whalen to life skills and social awareness taught by a student. Students are also part of an advisory family where they process challenges and build social and emotional competencies.

Grinnell principles at RISE

What resonates with the Grinnellian most at RISE High is that “students create the culture and curriculum; students are the voice for other students; that’s self-gov,” he recalls of his own campus experience. At Grinnell, Whalen helped start IndepenDance, a hip-hop dance group, and was a member of the Student Organization for Latinos/Latinas (SOL), monitor at the Black Cultural Center, and Posse liaison and summer intern.

“My strongest experience at Grinnell was the First-Year Tutorial. Here was a kid from LA trying to assimilate to Grinnell, and to have the one-on-one tutorial environment was exceptional. We became consistent friends similar to a Posse. 

“I came to Grinnell as a biology major and had also thought about law school for social justice issues. Then I fell in love with anthropology. Working with Professor of Anthropology Katya Gibel Mevorach was outstanding. Through cultural anthropology, we studied how we ignore equity; and it allowed me to look at different perspectives that I now use to create an engaging environment for RISE students,” Whalen says. As assistant principal, he is responsible for curriculum development and student culture.

Whalen himself plans a return to the classroom to begin work on an eventual doctoral program in educational leadership, “to continue to fight for educational equity at the district or national level.”   

Proof is in the students

Erin Whalen ’12 talking with a studentThe proof of concept for RISE High will be in the students’ successes, says Erin Whalen ’12.

“Given that we seek to serve students whom the traditional system has not served well, we often receive students who are older. We often find that regardless of their mastery of essential skills, their credits are not an adequate marker of their preparedness for college or the work force. We don’t actually use the terminology of grade levels in our community. We speak about a student’s progression through high school in terms of chapters through life. Chapter 1 being furthest from graduation with particular attention on foundational skills and Chapter 3 being closest to graduation with focus on college pathways or work preparedness.”

These students say Erin and RISE High are already making a difference in their lives. (No last names are used since the students are minors.)

 “Erin has assisted my transition to high school by providing me with the materials and opportunities I need to become the man I wish to be and by pushing me to the platform I need to satisfy my ambitions. He is very dedicated to all those around him and is always finding new ways to provide success to his peers and himself,” says Hiram, whose ambition is to become “the next black leader.”

Aracely, who attended RISE last year and is now a junior, says RISE “offers me a voice to speak my mind with no judgment from my peers. 

“Ever since I met Erin, he’s been nothing but supportive of me. Erin helps my problems inside and outside of school, giving me emotional stability and supporting my interest beyond high school in psychology.”   

Truth Detector

The defendant said it was self-defense. The prosecution called it murder. And former homicide detective-turned-private investigator (PI) Todd Troutner ’89 got the phone call, asking him to figure out what really happened. 

“My client was just arrested. You need to come up to the jail and take pictures to document any evidence that he was in a fight,” explained the criminal defense attorney. “Look for bruising and scratches.”

It was May 2012, and the case was Troutner’s first murder investigation as a PI. He’d worked dozens of violent crimes as a cop in Prince William County, Va., so he was thrilled to be back in the game. Troutner got in his car, drove to the Montgomery County Correctional Facility and began what turned into a seven-month quest to determine if the defendant, a 51-year-old Army veteran and security guard, had murdered his 23-year-old son. 

In his five years as a private investigator, admits Troutner, “It’s my favorite case, but it was a horrible situation.” Hired by the defense to see if the man’s claim of self-defense was true, he started with a jailhouse interview of the father and then watched the initial videotaped interview by the police. Finally, he went to the crime scene — an opportunity not every jurisdiction grants to private investigators. 

In this case, it was critical that Troutner examine the apartment where the shooting took place. He walked around and reinvestigated as if he were both evidence technician and cop, taking photos and measurements. “As I’m going through, I already knew the story so I had to make sure it made sense,” he says. He spotted a phone that was ripped out of the wall, for example, that matched the report. The prosecution’s theory was that the son was standing by a door at one end of a hallway when Dad deliberately took aim and shot him. Blood by that particular door and nearby carpet and tile supported that theory. 

But Troutner noticed blood farther down the hall, closer to where dad was standing when he pulled the trigger, which wasn’t mentioned in the blood pattern analyst’s report. That blood supported the defense’s claim that the son was shot when he charged at his father after threatening to kill him, a theory that police and prosecutors had dismissed. In fact, said defense attorney Steve Kupferberg, the father had been beaten and choked and grabbed his gun “as a last resort.” In the end, the verdict was not guilty. 

Kupferberg, who specializes in criminal defense and frequently works with Troutner, had been impressed with Troutner’s skills on a previous case, back when he was a cop. “I told Todd that if he ever got done with the police department he should speak to me about being our investigator. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the best in the business in the [Washington, D.C.] metropolitan area.” 

Todd Troutner ’89


A one-man show

People often think of the private investigator as the guy who follows cheating spouses; and there’s a segment of the industry that’s very good at that and works in teams, with cameras, recording devices, and other equipment. Troutner, however, operates alone and refers cases like that to other investigators. His main area is criminal defense work, from homicide and kidnappings to shootings and assaults, and civil cases, such as car crashes and work-site accidents. 

Troutner likes to say he reinvestigates cases, searching for witnesses or evidence that might have been missed, video footage that wasn’t looked at, and statements in police and other reports that, in his experience as a former homicide investigator, don’t add up. 

 “I tell people I’m a fact investigator,” says the soft-spoken Troutner. “I work for the defense attorney but I’m not taking sides. When I investigate I look at all the facts, not just the ones that support our case. You need to give the attorney all of the information so they can make good choices for the client.” 

The investigative process usually starts with a phone call from an attorney. Troutner gathers all the discovery the defense has — transcripts, photos, reports, recordings, affidavits — and comes up with his own plan for investigating the case. He often creates a to-do list for attorneys: Issue subpoenas for particular documents, send out a preservation letter to a store to keep a security video, get cell phone records, interview particular people.  

In other cases, he’ll mainly focus on paperwork. “I have a murder case right now with well over 2,000 pages of police reports, forensics, and transcripts,” says Troutner, who is licensed to work in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. “You have to be able to digest documents and pick out what’s important and what’s missing, and you need to present the findings of your investigation in a written report to a client — usually an attorney — in a way that makes sense.” He’ll see what questions weren’t asked and who was or wasn’t talked to; he’ll corroborate statements and follow up alibis that weren’t pursued. “I know what an investigation is supposed to look like and include; and if police and other official reports don’t have certain things, or they cut corners or made leaps of faith, or got tunnel vision and focused on just one guy, I look into it.” 

There are good private investigators who haven’t been cops, he says, “but it’s a huge advantage when you’ve been one. You can read case files and see if it’s a good investigation.”

The best defense: A good PI

To Troutner, a private investigator is an essential part of an effective defense, yet “it’s a minute percentage of defendants that get one, so there are people going to trial without the best defense.” Many clients can’t afford a PI, or the court won’t appoint one, even if it’s an option. In some jurisdictions, he says, the prosecution isn’t required to hand the case file over to the defense — yet another critical reason for a good PI.  

Sometimes, however, Troutner finds that witnesses aren’t wavering, or they corroborate official reports. In that case, the attorney may go back to his client with the findings and say, “We can take this to trial but you’re going to lose.” At other times, Troutner’s work has persuaded prosecutors to drop charges.

“I really appreciate talented investigators, and Todd brings together a remarkable series of skills,” says Fairfax, Va., trial lawyer Peter Everett. “He’s really smart and a strategic thinker. He comes back and says, ‘What about this angle, or that theory?’ It’s so far beyond what most people do that it really stands out.” Plus, says Everett, Troutner is good at establishing a rapport. “You often get people who say they don’t want to talk. He connects with witnesses, and that’s really important.” 

The investigative approach he uses in civil cases is similar; a typical case is a car crash where Troutner is working for the injured party’s attorney. If the client says she suffered traumatic brain injury, Troutner asks witnesses how the injured party was acting; was she conscious, coherent, were there any obvious injuries? “You try to jog the witnesses’ memory,” he says. In other cases, he’ll look for traffic cameras or drive the route with a GoPro camera on the hood of his car to determine if a driver had an obstructed or clear view at an accident site. And he’ll review the accident report to see if something doesn’t make sense. “Some attorneys don’t realize that in addition to a report, it’s also important to get records of 911 calls from witnesses. I just had a case where I had to remind an attorney to get those.”  

Becoming Detective Troutner

Todd Troutner ’89 with flash lightPrivate investigator is Troutner’s third career (so far), though it follows in a logical chain. The self-described Navy brat was born in Guam, grew up in Rockville, Md., and attended high schools in Hawaii and Washington, D.C. With both parents originally from Marshalltown, Iowa, the family spent nearly every summer in Iowa. “On one of those summer trips I toured Grinnell, and I liked the feel of the campus and said, ‘I’ll go there.’”

After graduating with a political science degree, he moved to Washington, D.C. (at the time his dad was a police officer on a nearby naval base), to consider law school and work in politics. He ended up as a lobbyist for several large law firms, covering issues from transportation to international trade and software, and meeting with congressional staff and bureaucrats. “I was having a lot of fun in D.C., but after a while it started to be like Groundhog Day — the same legislation and the same hearings every two years. After doing that four or five times, I decided I couldn’t do it again and again.” 

No longer interested in law school, he decided it was time for something different. “I think my dad set a really amazing example of living a life of service, first with his [27-year] career in the military and then transitioning to police work — and demonstrating that money should not be the determining factor when deciding on what sort of job you’re going to take,” Troutner says. He knew there would be exciting aspects of police work, “but that’s not why I took a $15,000 pay cut while my wife was pregnant with our first child,” he explains. “I wanted to help and protect people. And my ultimate goal was to be a homicide detective, where I would be challenged to solve the most serious cases.”

From April 1999 to April 2011, Troutner was a member of the Prince William County Police Department. “I loved it,” he says. Troutner spent six years in patrol, then went into major crimes (property and white-collar crimes) for six months. After that he was assigned to the Violent Crimes Unit (VCU); and for four years he worked on robberies, rapes, murders, and other death investigations. 

“A lot of people don’t want to go to VCU because you’re on call and it’s disruptive to your personal life,” he says, but Troutner thrived. “I enjoyed it on a bunch of levels, especially the investigation part. You get to a scene and you have to figure out what happened. You talk to officers who are there first, you ask for witnesses, you canvass the area; you’re pretty much in charge because oftentimes it’s at night, so you’re relied on to take care of the scene. You could catch guys who were hurting people. You could come into someone’s life who was having the worst experience possible and be a steadying presence.” He spent time studying case law and the latest legal decisions, because “part of your responsibility isn’t just catching the bad guy, but doing it in a legally correct way so you don’t get the case tossed out.” 

However, the immense amount of overtime required to work violent crimes (the equivalent of three to four months a year) was leading to burnout, and Troutner returned to patrol, which after years of homicide investigations wasn’t that satisfying. “When you’re young every call is exciting, but at that point, I didn’t care about arresting people for weed anymore. It seemed like a total waste of time,” he admits. “It was the same types of calls all the time — domestics, car crashes. I was basically driving around 10 hours a night looking for drunks.” 

It was time to move on. He took a few months to think and decided he most liked the investigative aspects of being with the police. He put the word out and was hired by several law firms that had been impressed with his work as a cop; as time went on, Troutner’s PI business, Broadside Investigative Group, blossomed. 

Today, out of his Fairfax office, a white board charts the one to two dozen cases at a time that he works on. When phone calls come in, Troutner glances at the board to remind himself which case the call is connected to and what information he needs. In his mild Virginia accent, he’ll explain that he’s a former homicide detective, now a private investigator, looking into a case. 

Being a private investigator is incredibly rewarding, says Troutner. “The thought of an innocent person going to prison is horrifying to me, which is why I believe so passionately that the accused be provided the resources to present the best defense possible. I’ve learned that it’s much more satisfying keeping people out of jail than putting them in.” 

Taking a Chance on Me

When the recession hit in 2008, Rishi Misra ’01 parted ways with Deloitte, a large corporate consulting firm that had employed him for almost five years. This was a gamble not only because he had to find employment, but because the India native also had to restart the green card application process from scratch. If he couldn’t find a company that could sponsor his green card application, he’d have to leave the United States and possibly never return. Time was running out. 

In 2009 he landed a job with a startup in San Francisco that hired a small immigration law firm to help. Eight months later Misra had a number in the green card line, but by then the line wasn’t moving.

“It’s important to understand why that happens,” Misra says. “It’s because, in the year 1990, which is when the high-skilled immigration system was last updated, there weren’t that many Indian and Chinese nationals walking around with graduate degrees and five years of U.S. work experience. [In] 2013 or 2017, they’re all over the place. So, the lines for that category, and those countries in particular, are going to be incredibly long. Which is why someone who had come from Pakistan, or Sri Lanka, or Bangladesh at the same time I did, or applied the same time I did, would have been done well before I was done.”

Having to start the green card process over again made him think even more about how the U.S. immigration system could be improved. “Initially I thought there shouldn’t be per-country limits in the employment-based system,” he says, “because I felt like I was being judged based on where I was born.”

He sent a PowerPoint proposal to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) office in California, and her staff invited him to come and present it. “I said, ‘Here’s the issue. I’ve been in the country for over 14 years and in this process for [5-plus years]. It doesn’t seem like this line’s going anywhere. Why am I being judged on my country of birth and not my contributions?’”

Feinstein’s staff told him that if you remove per-country limits, people from less populous countries won’t get a chance in the employment-based system because India and China would dominate the whole quota. Misra thought that was fair.

“One of the things I value about the United States is diversity of national origin,” he says. “I think that’s important for this country to keep, for its long-term competitiveness, for attractiveness to other countries, or other immigrants, really.”

So he wondered what else could be done to fix the employment-based immigration system. “The answer to me was quite fundamental. Why not just raise the bar so that these lines don’t get that long?” 

Intent on sharing his views about how to fix the system, in 2013 Misra started attending meetings held by FWD.us, a political advocacy group founded by Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Reid Hoffman — the Who’s Who of tech — to modernize the immigration system and keep the United States competitive.

They invited him to speak on panels and meet with members of Congress. Misra was also invited twice to meet with the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. “They sought my opinion on what could be done to streamline the high-skilled system,” Misra says, “and also what could be done to attract foreign entrepreneurs to build companies and create jobs here in the United States.”

Meanwhile Misra was still stuck in the green card line. So in 2016, he decided to apply for the “alien of extraordinary ability” category, an EB1 visa. 

This is the fastest line and has tougher criteria to qualify. Some of the 10 criteria are reserved for artists, entertainers, and athletes. Misra applied for five criteria, including making original contributions of major significance to his field. 

“I think that’s a great thing because it doesn’t measure me on contributions to any single company but measures me on contributions to my field, which in a sense are my contributions to the United States,” he says. “I had to have people that I didn’t even know vouch for the fact that the work I had done, in building a company and creating jobs, among other accomplishments, were of major significance. It had to be completely objective and unbiased,” he says. He had to meet three of the 10 criteria to qualify and thinks he got four. 

In October 2016, Misra was granted a green card and looks forward to becoming a U.S. citizen by 2021. 

Challenges of the H-1B visa 

Unlike the EB1 visa that Rishi Misra qualified for based on his individual accomplishments, the H-1B is employer-based. Companies in the United States apply for these visas on behalf of workers they want to hire because they have specialized knowledge, typically in science, engineering, or information technology, and a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent. 

Misra worked on an H-1B visa for 12 years because his first employer didn’t follow the green card application process as well as it might have. They parted ways and he had to find another employer who could start the process over. 

Misra says, “The high-skilled visa is pretty controversial. One of the issues with that visa is the quota is limited to 65,000, and then another 20,000 for people with U.S. graduate degrees. Most of that quota is taken up by a handful of companies, and when you look at who those companies are, all those companies have outsourcing as a significant business component and revenue source.

“So when I looked at that, I was like, ‘Why are we giving most of the visas to companies that are taking jobs overseas? And these entrepreneurs, who could potentially create jobs in the United States, why are we depriving them of visas?’ I think that part of the system needs to be reformed as well.”

Focus on Biomedical Engineering 

Rishi Misra ’01 was very good at physics in high school, so when his high school physics teacher told him to apply to Grinnell, he did. He was also interested in engineering, so he pursued a 3-2 program in biomedical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, transferring after his third year at Grinnell. He earned his B.A. in physics from Grinnell, a B.S. in biomedical engineering at Washington, and then an M.B.A there too. 

One reason Misra wanted to stay in the United States was to do something innovative in biomedical engineering, which he couldn’t do back home in India. Bangalore has since become India’s version of Silicon Valley, but when Misra was looking for work in 2003, it wasn’t yet.

Misra has worked for a handful of companies, always seeking new opportunities to challenge himself. He’s passionate about preventive medicine. For the past four years, he worked on “this pretty innovative product that takes data from a patient's medical record, plugs it into a very sophisticated mathematical model, and predicts their risk of chronic conditions — like heart attack, stroke, diabetes, things like that — and helps doctors work with those patients to reduce that risk.”

In June he took a new job with a startup funded by Boston Consulting Group’s Digital Ventures arm and the American College of Cardiology. He says they’re “doing very cool things with data, measured by a noninvasive device that’s just kept under someone’s bed. It takes data from a patient’s heart to again try and predict when something bad is going to happen and prevent that from happening. Because when a patient has that first event, their life changes, and we want to make sure that first event’s avoided.”