Like so many entrepreneurs, Rebekah Neumann’s impetus for her new venture was solving a problem for herself.
As her oldest daughter’s kindergarten class progressed, “it just wasn’t the right environment,” recalls Neumann, a mother of five young children and the founding partner and chief brand officer of WeWork, the world’s most successful coworking community.
When she and her husband Adam Neumann, WeWork’s founder and CEO, evaluated first-grade options for their daughter—”looking at schools both here [in New York City] and on the West Coast, by the way”—their dissatisfaction grew.
“We couldn’t find the school that we felt would nurture growth, her spirit as well as her mind,” Neumann says. “These children come into the world, they are very evolved, they are very special. They’re spiritual. They’re all natural entrepreneurs, natural humanitarians, and then it seems like we squash it all out of them in the education system. Then we ask them to be disruptive and find it again after college.”
In a matter of months, “we came up with this concept for the pilot class, gathered friends and families, and we launched,” she says of her new school for children in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Although the exact nature of the relationship between her education startup and the communal real-estate venture WeWork–which is valued at $20 billion–is not totally resolved, the two enterprises at minimum share a mission. Much as WeWork aspires to help its members do what they love (as one of its slogans asserts), WeGrow wants children to “understand their superpowers,” she says.
“The past seven years [of WeWork], just witnessing the movement that started, the ‘we generation,’ we just felt that we wanted our eldest, and all of [our kids], to be raised as conscious global citizens of the world, to understand their passions, and know how to use those gifts to help others,” she says.
Seven children, ages 5, 6, and 8, are enrolled in WeGrow’s pilot class, which is currently running at a Chabad school in New York City. The program joins the growing ranks of “micro schools,” educational institutions that offer a modified Montessori-style program for students of different ages in a shared, multi-purpose space.
There are several distinctions between WeGrow and its ostensible competition, but what binds it to the micro school trend is that just like AltSchool, Portfolio School, or Tinkergarten, WeGrow was created by a successful businessperson with specific ideas about how to educate her own children (Neumann’s oldest child, the first grader, is one of WeGrow’s current beta pupils).
“Now that I’m a mom, I’m noticing there’s been a huge missed opportunity in the educational system, because children are ready to start creating their life’s work when they’re 5,” Neumann says.
“And that’s just the truth of it. So why are we waiting until they graduate from college? I don’t even know if my kids are going to go to college.”
Neumann believes that the current system is built on an old model that doesn’t reflect today’s values and priorities.
“The whole format was created during the Industrial Revolution, so that people would grow up and learn how to take orders on an assembly line,” she asserts. “A lot of parents say, ‘Schools are not doing it right. But we’re going to kind of go with that anyway because there’s no better option.’ I just wasn’t willing to accept that, especially during such formative years.”
The pilot school, which opened just last month, focuses on creating “a culture of kindness,” “conscious entrepreneurship,” and a connection to nature.
“The curriculum is going to be, and already is, integrated with mindfulness and yoga and meditation and farming and farm-to-table cooking, and all these sorts of things,” explains Neumann, who is also a trained yoga instructor. WeGrow students are already “learning reading and math and science through working on the farm, through coming to WeWork, and running their own farm stand,” she says.
The farm in question, Linden Farm, lies north of New York city in the tiny town of Pound Ridge. In early 2016, before the idea for WeGrow came about, the Neumanns purchased the 60-acre property for $15 million, according to Zillow.
Recently, the students visited the property, and then set up a farm stand at WeWork headquarters.
“We were all blown out of the water,” Neumann says. “These children, who have never been in this setting before, literally opened up a farm stand of crops that they themselves harvested out of the ground. They weighed them all. They were checking everybody out on their own, making change, swiping people’s credit cards, sending them receipts via text and e-mail. They sold out. It was just a really empowering experience for them.”
Neumann would like WeWork itself to play a significant role in what differentiates WeGrow from other alternative education programs. Applications will be open to WeWork members and employees, as well as locals from each of WeGrow’s surrounding communities. After this year’s pilot program, the first official WeGrow will open next year in WeWork’s headquarters in Chelsea, Manhattan. The school will change locations in 2019 when WeWork moves into new headquarters on Fifth Avenue, on the site of Lord & Taylor’s retiring flagship department store.
Accepted students will have access to WeWork’s member network and employees, who will be woven into the curriculum itself. By way of example, Neumann shares another story from the farm stand project.
“There’s an 8-year-old child who was working with our brand team, designing shirts and collateral for our farm stand,” she says. “We notice that she has an aptitude for design and a true passion. So instead of just noticing that and then going back to the classroom and strictly teaching geometry, we’re like, ‘Wow, this kid is great. She loves this.’ There’s a member in WeWork who she can apprentice under. That whole art of apprentice-mentor is a lost art and a really critical one to the development of humanity.”
WeWork’s vast network of creatives and entrepreneurs, Neumann hopes, can help WeGrow students cultivate their passions.
She also believes that connecting WeGrows with WeWorks can help bring families–torn apart, arguably, by the remote-work culture WeWork helps facilitate–back together.
“We have WeWorks located all around the world, thank God,” Neumann says. “A lot of members don’t see their kids for many, many hours a day. So I’m passionate about actually opening these schools inside WeWork buildings, so that parents can bring their kids to school, see them possibly at lunch, maybe bring them home.”
Ultimately Neumann would like to build WeGrow into as far-flung an operation as WeWork itself, in part to accommodate the globe-trotting careers many WeWork members have embraced.
“The idea that once your kids enter kindergarten you cannot move around the world anymore is completely archaic,” she says. “We have many global entrepreneurs, citizens of the world, who want to live global lifestyles or need to for work,” she adds, pointing to WeWork and WeLive–WeWork’s communal living offshoot, which has two locations in New York and Washington, D.C. WeLive had promised investors it would have 70 locations by now.
Now, Neumann says, “we’re going to have a school, God willing, at each of these locations where people can bring their whole family, and students can have a much more well-rounded global education.”
WeGrow’s pedagogical plans intend to rely on a lot of best practices that have been proven to work elsewhere, including programs that encompass hands-on learning and collaborative projects. But again, the hope is that being affiliated with WeWork creates opportunities that transcend what other schools can do.
“One of the problems of education has always been the limitations of the individual teacher,” says a veteran educator who is currently advising WeGrow. “You have one teacher, who can be incredible and wonderful, but they’re not a specialist.”
Neumann raises worthwhile questions about the traditional education model, but WeGrow may introduce other concerns. “What if people don’t want to be entrepreneurs?” asks Corey Pein, author of the forthcoming Silicon Valley critique Live Work Work Work Die. “There’s a certain amount of naivete among this elite class that thinks everyone can become a stellar startup founder.”
Neumann is still assembling a team to help achieve her global WeGrow ambitions. So far, she’s working with Hannah Flood, who apprenticed under chef Dan Barber at Stone Barns (a sustainable farm, restaurant, and educational center); Barber himself, “who has become a friend,” Neumann says, and is offering input; and star architect Bjarke Ingels, who has signed on to design the first WeGrow.
“What we’ve tried to do is undo the compartmentalization that you often find in a school environment,” says Ingels of the WeGrow design (see renderings above). He cites his work on the Lego House in Denmark as his most relevant experience to the WeGrow project.
Lego House, he says, is “an experimentarium for Lego, a kind of interactive environment where the kids are invited to touch all the exhibits. It’s like one of my favorite pedagogical statements: What I’ve been told, I forget. What I’ve been shown, I might remember. And what I’ve done, I know.”
The WeGrow design, he says, reinforces “the significance of engaging kids in an interactive environment. We’ve been trying to make the space more tactile and visually stimulating, more free and flexible.”
At present, WeGrow is more tell than show, and Neumann admits “what I have now as much as answers are questions.” When I ask whether WeGrow will be financed with some of the $9.8 billion that WeWork has raised from investors, Neumann tells me, “We are still trying to figure out what the model will be moving forward that’s going to allow for the most flexibility as we pilot new ideas. I don’t know what WeWork’s involvement financially will be, but I know for sure that Adam and I financially are going to be supporting this.”
A WeWork representative indicated that the school would be a for-profit enterprise to start, but could transition to not-for-profit status at some point in the future. Tuition has not been finalized, but the intent is to reinvest any funds back into WeGrow’s development.
I also ask Pein whether he anticipates any negative response to WeGrow, given the rising skepticism in unicorn companies such as WeWork, which in the last couple of weeks has been the subject of stories questioning its $20 billion valuation, CEO Adam Neumann’s negotiating style, and its foray into gyms.
“The bigger issue here is private rich people deciding on their own what used to be public policy,” Pein suggests. “They have a right to do that under our laws, but there’s a big question about whether that’s the right thing for the people as a whole.”
I pose Pein’s critique to the educator advising the Neumanns. “We want to start now,” this person says, citing the bureaucracy that would be required to launch any kind of initiative within the public-education system. “Ask Zuckerberg what happened to his $100 million in Newark.” Ultimately, the hope is to leverage what happens at WeGrow to bring successfully incubated ideas into the public-school world. “Starting this way is by far the best way to do it,” the educator says.
If Neumann is worried about blowback and bad PR, she isn’t letting on.
“We know our agendas, our motives, and we know what’s driving each one of us,” she tells me. “I just try to focus on having a really good intention, and approaching each day with humility and joy and wonder, and putting all my energy into creating meaningful things for myself and my kids, my husband, and hopefully the world. The rest is not up to me, right?”