Nick Martin '04 Leads the Way for New Swat Entrepreneurs

by Lorand Laskai '13
Nick Martin '04
Nick Martin '04, the president and CEO of TechChange, says he started to think about ways technology might facilitate learning while at Swarthmore.

It's a truism that you go to college to learn. But, as entrepreneur and founder of TechChange Nick Martin '04 found out, you also go to college to learn how to learn.

TechChange is a DC-based start-up that delivers online courses on emergency management and social media for social change, among other topics, to students in over 80 countries and organizations such as the United Nations, UNAID, World Bank and Google.  A recent profile in The Economist referred to TechChange as a team of "'socially conscious nerds' [who] came together...to further the use of technology for development."

Martin's interest in online learning began in earnest while receiving his master's at the United Nations University of Peace (UPEACE), where he realized the potential of online learning to meet a broad audience, but also experienced frustration with some of the more cumbersome platforms.

"I realized when helping organizations that most online learning platforms are not well adapted to their needs and that most online courses are pretty terrible," he says.

Martin began teaching himself programing, before helping to build an online learning platform for the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP). Soon thereafter, he won a grant from the Starbucks Foundation to start TechChange.

However, the training that helped Martin get to this point began much earlier, as an education major at Swarthmore. Here, he first learned to engage critically with the nature of pedagogy, and what role technology might play in facilitating learning. Martin opted for the ninth semester option, which allowed him to stay a semester after graduating to become teacher-certified.                                       

"What I really got out of Swarthmore was a broad education that taught me how to learn and communicate effectively. That passion for learning is probably what inspired me to go into professional development as a career choice ­- we all have to keep learning throughout our lives."

Many current students aspiring to pursue their own entrepreneurial ideas upon graduating agree: Swarthmore's broad education is ideal for entrepreneurship.                   

"There is no textbook on entrepreneurship," says Aldo Frosinini '15, an economics and psychology major from Houston, Texas.  "Entrepreneurial success comes from a variety of factors, especially the ability to approach situations at different angles which is the liberal arts strong suit. 

Marisa Lopez '15, an economics and religion major from Ashland, Ky. agrees. "Students here are taught to think in innovative and creative ways that are very reflective of the entrepreneurial mindset," she says.

Frosinini and Lopez are co-presidents of the Swarthmore Entrepreneurs Club, which is hosting Swarthmore College's first business planning competition, SwatTank. The competition - which will conclude with five finalists pitching their business plans to a panel of alumni on March 23 - is intended to give students the opportunity to bring their ideas to fruition. "Anyone with an idea can be part of SwatTank," Frosinini says.

"Beyond just the competition, SwatTank is designed to be a learning experience, giving students the skills they need to take any idea from a thought, to a fully-fledged business," says Frosinini. Indeed, through a series of Webinars and the mentoring of alumni, participants will learn the ins and outs of entrepreneurship.

"Swarthmore is full of bright and innovative students who want to change the world, and I think entrepreneurship is an outlet that lets this change be possible," says Frosinini.

These are also busy days for Nick Martin and TechChange, which is busy working on two new course courses in Digital Organizing and Emergency Management. TechChange also recently broke into the domain of mobile technology, rolling out courses on "Mobile Phones for Public Health," in collaboration with the United Nation Foundation and the mHealth Alliance.

Martin is also teaching a course at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs on "Technology for Crisis Response and Good Governance."  But, while times are changing for the Swarthmore grad that taught himself computer programming, Martin says "like always, I'm going to be learning alongside our participants."