Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

Spring 2016


“We didn’t set out to start a school; we set out to attend one, and we couldn’t find one anywhere. We pioneered this model, and showed that it was even possible to teach in the way that we’re teaching.”

Entrepreneur\ovators: Alumni Carve Out the Leading Edge

By Ed Finkel
Entrepreneur\ovators: Alumni Carve Out the Leading Edge
From left to right: Alex White (BS08), David Hoffman (BS09) and Samir Rayani of Next Big Sound. Photo by Liv Buli

Alumni of the learning and organizational change (LOC) program at SESP surf the rolling tides of technology, globalization and changing demographics to create successful companies by becoming multidimensional, innovative thinkers.

Witness Neal Sáles-Griffin (BS09), CEO and co-founder of Starter League with fellow Northwestern alumnus Mike McGee. Their school has taught more than 1,300 people how to code web and mobile applications during the past five years. As pioneers of what Sáles-Griffin terms the “boot camp software school model,” Starter League provides students with tools to not only work for someone else but also start their own companies, he says.

Or take David Hoffman (BS09) and Alex White (BS08), who co-founded a company with fellow Northwestern alumnus Samir Rayani called Next Big Sound, which systematically tracks how fans interact with music and artists across cyberspace to give clients—who are artists, band managers, agents, brands and major record labels—up-to-date figures on a song-bysong basis. Fast Company magazine named the firm one of the 50 most innovative companies in the world, and the most innovative music-related company, while Internet radio service Pandora Media Inc. thought enough of Next Big Sound to acquire it in 2015.

Starting Starter League

During his undergraduate years as he thought of starting companies, Sáles-Griffin discovered that there were no resources to learn the technical know-how to build software and web applications. After teaching themselves how, he and McGee realized they had a new idea for a company.

“We didn’t set out to start a school; we set out to attend one, and we couldn’t find one anywhere,” says Sáles-Griffin. “We pioneered this model, and showed that it was even possible to teach in the way that we’re teaching.”

Starter League adapts curriculum to students’ needs and likes, guiding them to learn technical skills and also the means to apply these to something they really care about, says Sáles-Griffin, who has been named to the 40 under 40 List at Crain’s Chicago Business. “Rather than dangling a carrot like ‘you’re going to have a job that pays a lot of money,’ the emphasis for us is ‘you’re going to enjoy what you do and what you learn here. You’re going to learn to solve problems you care about.’ That level of fulfillment goes deeper.”

Pioneering Next Big Sound

Hoffman and his partners started working on Next Big Sound as undergraduates, although their original idea had been to “reverse engineer the music industry and figure out how artists become famous,” an idea he describes as “fantasy sports for music.” Despite initial good press, including an article in The New York Times, and interest from artists and fans, he and his partners could not figure out a workable business model


Then they had a new idea. “We built a program to see how many plays an artist was getting on MySpace,” the market leader at the time, he says. They thought, “Imagine what we could do if we could see how fans are engaging with every artist, all over the Internet?” And through their research, they discovered that “bands and managers were writing these numbers down by hand and had no idea how to make sense of them. That’s where Next Big Sound came in.”

As part of Pandora, Hoffman expects Next Big Sound will make even more noise. “We’ll continue to help artists use data to make better marketing decisions that help them engage with their fans,” he says. “We’ll continue on our mission of making data useful and transforming the industry, and doing it at a place like Pandora that has tremendous scale.”

Links to learning and organizational change

Hoffman links his and White’s success back to their education through the learning and organizational change major at SESP. “We learned how large groups of people learn and retain knowledge,” he says. “Then we entered an industry undergoing massive change, timed it well and built solutions to help adapt to change. … It was just this way of viewing the world that we learned at LOC and SESP—what makes some groups of people work well together and other people have conflict. It’s amazing how applicable that major ended up being for us.”

Sáles-Griffin feels the same way, recalling that his LOC course work was helpful in starting the companies he founded in college and even while serving as president of Associated Student Government at Northwestern. “It was pivotal to my ability to identify this opportunity,” he says of Starter League. “That educational exposure is what really gave shape to how I decided to structure my own school.”