My Real-World Learning at My Family Business? It Should have Counted.

Note from Education Reimagined   19 April 2023
By Kelly Young, Education Reimagined


Limiting what, when, and how we credential or value learning asks our kids to leave part of their identities at the door, and ill prepares them to leverage their full set of skills, interests, and competencies in their adult lives.

Kelly Young
Founder and President, Education Reimagined

My mom was an entrepreneur. She started and ran a ski travel business for 20 years, and I grew up helping her.  As a young child, I’d do things like fold and stamp marketing letters for bulk mail (earning 25 cents for every 100 letters). As I got older, I gained more experience and responsibilities, taking on more serious tasks like adding up the ledgers and balancing the books. Over time, I developed skills in almost all aspects of the business from accounting to sales to marketing. 

I learned some of my most durable and transferable skills from this experience. And, I watched my mom build a successful organization around her idea. My confidence was emboldened by all of it. But, in our conventional system, this experience didn’t and still doesn’t get counted officially as “real learning.” This needs to change. 

Truth be told, until very recently, I wouldn’t have counted working for my mom as learning either. When asked about which learning experiences I’d found most powerful, I would proudly cite programs like Model UN and Youth & Government from the YMCA—which were also incredibly powerful and life-changing. 

It wasn’t that working in my mom’s business lacked impact for me. But, in my mind, this work didn’t fall in the category of a learning experience—even with all the speaking I do around credentialing real-world learning as part of my work in education.

Now I see how arbitrary the dividing line is between these experiences—and how much of an impact that line can have for young people. Most real-word learning that happens outside of conventional settings doesn’t “count.” When learning doesn’t come from an institution or an accredited source, it often goes unacknowledged. And, perhaps more importantly, young people themselves miss the opportunity to own some of their most meaningful learning experiences and to understand the competencies they’ve gained. Without purposeful reflection upon what’s being learned, young people may miss some of the invaluable meaning that can come out of discovering what one is good at, how to improve, or what one wants or doesn’t want out of life. 

A teenager working two jobs to help her family isn’t acknowledged for the customer service and time management skills she is perfecting. Likewise, the young man who helps out his grandmother with her mobility issues isn’t invited to consider the competencies he is demonstrating. And, the ten-year-old who is marketing and selling the friendship bracelets his sister made feels the need to turn off his entrepreneurial spirit when the “real learning” of the school day begins. 

Limiting what, when, and how we credential or value learning asks our kids to leave part of their identities at the door, and ill prepares them to leverage their full set of skills, interests, and competencies in their adult lives.


What if my experience at my mom’s shop had been embedded in an ecosystem? Looking at it through this frame helps me see incredible benefits for young people and communities alike.

Kelly Young
Founder and President, Education Reimagined

Ecosystems Value Experiences that Conventional Approaches Might Miss

As we consider what it will take for learner-centered ecosystems to come to life in diverse communities across the country, the matter of including, valuing, reflecting on, and credentialing all kinds of learning is pivotal. Making learning count, wherever it happens, will do more than just bulk up a learner’s transcript or portfolio—it will give their learning and lives greater meaning and relevance. 

What if my experience at my mom’s shop had been embedded in an ecosystem? Looking at it through this frame helps me see incredible benefits for young people and communities alike.

Young people gain exposure to careers and other pathways, developing awareness of what they want to pursue and the associated skills needed.

In my case, I learned a lot about how the business world works, as I watched my mom—as founder and sole proprietor—seize opportunities, navigate challenges, and sharpen a host of skills. She learned nuances of leading customer service and marketing, as well as how to make critical financial investment and real estate decisions. By asking lots of questions to figure out how all this worked, I honed an understanding of what parts of the job intrigued me, and also what wasn’t for me.

In an ecosystem, the child’s experience might not be that different from my own; but they would have advisors and others to help them reflect on and make sense of their learning, not to mention access to other opportunities to shadow, intern, or work.

Young people build connections, relationships, and social capital that can be leveraged throughout their lives.

Working at the shop, I built a network with clients and others in the industry, and even though I didn’t stay in the travel industry, I gained the skills necessary to build networks in the sectors that I most cared about.

In an ecosystem, the development of social capital and the building of strong, lasting relationships are intrinsic to every part of the promise. All learning is socially embedded and integrates community members to engage learners with ideas, show them the ropes, and deepen their understanding of the world.

Young people cultivate agency and confidence in their capacities to contribute, solve problems, and lead in real-world, tangible circumstances.

My mom fed my own entrepreneurial spirit, as I supported her in advancing her business. Being part of that success propelled me to have ideas, and then act on them. It gave me the confidence to start Junior Achievement and other clubs in school, and eventually to form my own organizations, including Education Reimagined. My experiences enabled me to express what I was good at and what I wanted to do, and then have enough skills, savvy, and confidence to make it happen.

In an ecosystem, learning is designed to bolster a learner’s confidence by pursuing their ideas as projects, developing skills all along the way. This experience at a field site or with a community mentor would be credentialed, enabling the young person to demonstrate their expanded skillset, with ease, to employers, higher ed institutions, and their families. They would own and wield that credential proudly, able to share compellingly about what it took to develop their competency and what they learned by advancing their ideas.

These are but a few of the benefits that would come from an ecosystem structure that supports young people’s learning and exploration within and amidst the community. And, we can already look to advanced examples of how learner-centered models are creating these opportunities. From Big Picture Learning to Purdue Polytechnic to Iowa BIG, their approaches vary but the commitment remains—to break the silo of “education” being something that happens only within the four walls of school, during a limited set of hours. They are holding invaluable lessons learned and pieces of the puzzle of ecosystems.

In a similar vein, we can look to the policy realm, where a number of states have taken steps to explore how to create programs for learners to earn credit for learning experiences outside of the classroom: from youth apprenticeships, work-based learning, and programs that allow credit for extended learning

One standout example is happening right now. This legislative session, Hawai’i policymakers have made a clear call to action for the board of education to take intentional steps to identify ways to ensure all learners have access to learning experiences outside of the classroom. 

As we continue to mobilize ways to bring ecosystems to life, we must be clear and intentional about the questions we are asking and the solutions we are seeking:

  • How can we ensure that life experiences—like helping to run a small business or babysitting younger siblings or working a fast food job—are honored, validated, and counted as opportunities to build important life competencies? 
  • How can we ensure children’s equitable and safe access to diverse experiences with employers, community organizations, and other opportunities within their communities and virtually?
  • How can we leverage already existing policy openings to take this work to new levels of impact?

We must see learning as integrated into society, rather than thinking of learning as something that only happens with an educator, mostly separate from everyday life. Looking back, I wouldn’t have even thought to put my experience at the family business on a resume. I now realize that I was missing out on seeing the value of these experiences, and on sharing what I learned with the world. Let’s break down these silos and invite our children to be recognized for the learning they are doing every day, through every facet of their lives.

New resources and news on The Big Idea!


We recently announced a new R&D acceleration initiative to connect and support local communities ready to bring public, equitable, learner-centered ecosystems to life.