Headstream’s Impact Navigator is a rare resource redefining the way entrepreneurs, investors and other stakeholders can measure the impact of digital technologies on youth wellbeing.
Dieumerci Christel, a 23-year-old entrepreneur, launched a company in 2018 to address chronic student disengagement. Englight, a web application designed to foster stronger connections between teachers and students, was motivated by Christel’s own disappointment with high school in the U.S. city of West Fargo, North Dakota — and a desire to make a broader positive impact.
He arrived at his school from a refugee camp in Tanzania bursting with expectations about sleek computer labs and engaged students. “I expected everyone to be walking around in white lab coats, but I guess Hollywood lied to me,” he joked. Instead, he found “lost Picassos, Einsteins and engineers” wasting their potential in crowded classrooms, unseen by overworked teachers. As a self-described problem-solver, he spent the following years investigating the roots of student disengagement, which he found tied to a common problem. “Teachers don’t have time to get to know their students and to truly ignite their potential,” Christel explained. “They are public speakers who don’t know their audience.”
The solution he developed empowers students to easily share their passions, interests and learning preferences with busy teachers. The survey-style web application compiles their information into profiles and dashboards that allow teachers to get to know their classes, at-a-glance. It shows them, for example, what percentage of students consider themselves visual or auditory learners, and who plays sports or loves music. It also allows students to have more agency. A polling feature allows students to vote on, for example, what book the teacher should assign next.
But Christel still struggled, as many entrepreneurs do, with the question of how best to evaluate its success.
Navigating the “Impact” Question
Qualitative feedback from teachers was encouraging, but it began to feel insufficient as potential investors asked him, over and over:
“What metrics are you using to measure your impact?”
It’s a difficult but important question for innovators tackling multifaceted challenges that aren’t tied to obvious metrics.
It wasn’t until Christel was accepted in 2020 to an accelerator for entrepreneurs run by Headstream that he began to learn more about impact measurement. The Headstream program creates inclusive digital economies that promote youth engagement and wellness, and has been pioneering impact measurement solutions. Christel eventually had the chance to try Headstream’s new Impact Navigator tool — a rare resource redefining the way entrepreneurs, investors and others can measure the impact of digital technologies on youth wellbeing.
The Origins of Headstream’s Impact Navigator Tool
The roots of Headstream’s Impact Navigator tool go back to the origins of Headstream itself. Before launching, the Headstream team conducted extensive research to identify areas ripe for innovation. They wanted to know what sort of products, services and business models would have the most impact on Headstream’s mission to “make digital experiences healthier and more beautiful for young people” — particularly those who are Black, Indigenous, Latinx, LGBTQIA+ and the intersection of those identities.
About two years later, the team followed up with a novel survey of 800 people from wide-ranging backgrounds — more than half of them young people — to further hone in on the areas most likely to impact the wellbeing of people between the ages of 13 and 24 as they grow up in digital places. The crowdsourced research pointed to 77 nodes with 13 critical areas related to positive relationships, accessible resources and balanced content.
The detailed findings now live on the Digital Delta website where startups, foundations, educators, investors and anyone else interested in supporting digital youth wellbeing can figure out where they should focus their attention. But the information also laid important groundwork for Headstream’s own impact measurement tool.
While developing Digital Delta, the Headstream team was simultaneously working to address a common question in the worlds of investment, education, health and startup support: how can people and institutions evaluate the effectiveness of digital technologies that claim to improve the lives of young people?
“At Headstream, there is a really wide range of impacts we are trying to capture — from a social media platform where users are anonymous to targeted digital mental health therapy — and there was no one metric that existed to help entrepreneurs and innovations evaluate that variety of impact,” explained David Ball, Director of Headstream.
What they realized, though, was that the Digital Delta findings provided the foundation they needed to build an impact measurement tool of their own. The result was Impact Navigator, a tool that provides entrepreneurs, institutions, and investors with a common language for evaluating the efficacy of startup products and services. It launched earlier this year after a group of innovators and investors had a chance to pilot the tool. Among them was Christel.
How It Works
The tool provides users with accessible descriptions of the impact they seek to make and maps that impact to social science. For startup users, it begins with a questionnaire that determines impact metrics most relevant for their business. In Christel’s case, the results indicated that in order for his product to “Enlighten minds” and “ignite student potential,” he should focus on the promotion of prosocial norms, pro-social opportunities, social competence and bonding. In essence, it translated his business objectives into specific, measurable goals rooted in research.
The tool then generated a questionnaire that users of his product (students) could use to help administrators (in his case, teachers) collect evidence and measure progress. Questions on that survey, which Christel programmed into the Enlight web app, included: Do you feel like you have an adult that cares about you? When you need help, do you trust that your teacher will help you? Are you successfully finding internships? The tool had customized these evidence-based measures of positive youth development for his product.
The results — even if they are “hard truths,”— Christel said, are valuable for teachers, students, investors and himself, an entrepreneur interested in demonstrating the impact of his product.
“The tool helped to really solidify my product’s value proposition. I’m now able to show educators exactly how we will make an impact and how we will track and measure it over time,” he said.
Headstream is continuing to develop Impact Navigator and now has its sights set on understanding how the tool can be used to measure the impact of the entire sector.
In the meantime, Christel will be piloting the student survey at the beginning of the fall semester and then re-polling students when the semester ends. “For the first time ever my company will have metrics to compare how students were doing before and after using Enlight. It was the missing piece of my puzzle.”