Brooke Allen

M.Ed. Special Education 2010

Founding Director, Diverse Learners Cooperative

Could you provide a brief recap of your career since graduating from Peabody?

I began my career as a teacher at a metro Nashville public school. I then went on to become the leader of special education efforts for several founding teams of new charter schools here in Nashville. I was at Nashville Prep, then I was at Valor for a few years and I helped grow the programs there. When I was leaving Valor, I was connected to a non-profit organization that had some money to do a needs assessment of special education in charter schools, specifically in Nashville. By that point, I had a lot of connections across the city in the special needs education zone, so they selected me to perform this assessment. I dove in to gather as much information as I could to determine the state of special needs education in charter schools and what should be done to close some of the gaps that are present. I came up with a proposal that the issues present are not student issues, but teacher challenges where special needs teachers do not have access to the support and resources needed. This proposal really spoke to my own experience in special needs education, and made me realize the problems I had seen and felt were not isolated issues, but widespread problems felt across the city. Recognizing this is what really made me want to take action, and thus, the Diverse Learners Cooperative was formed. 

What is your company and where did the idea come from? What served as the biggest motivator or influence in starting your company?

Diverse Learners Cooperative was founded as a direct result of the assessment I completed on special needs education. I found that the experience I had as a special educator was not uncommon and was felt by other special educators across the city. Teacher turnover was very high due to a lack of support and resources, and I knew something needed to change. I wanted to fill the gaps I found and provide support for special educators by advocating for resources and coaching on-site, as well as providing it through the Diverse Learners Cooperative. We create networks with teachers, study the success of various curriculums, and do lots of training and collaboration. 

What is the most challenging thing about being an entrepreneur and how have you worked to overcome this challenge?

The biggest challenge is definitely fighting imposter syndrome. In a lot of conversations, I’ve been thrust in the seat of an “expert” and someone with answers that will direct a team. It’s easy to feel like I’m not equipped, don’t know enough, or may easily trip up. To combat this, I am intentional about surrounding myself with experts with whom I can collaborate and get advice. And then reminding myself that I do have something to offer, and that my ideas don’t always have to be groundbreaking to be valuable to those I serve or lead.

What qualities are most important to possess as an entrepreneur?

I think from my classroom days and my time doing the work I do now, the top quality I always come back to for entrepreneurs is being curious and being a really good listener. I think asking good questions will get everyone to better solutions quicker, and help in forming understanding, relationships. Following pathways of curiosity, asking the right questions at the right time, listening and putting things into action is so important. Also being persistent to find the answers to your questions and figure out the solutions that work for you and your mission. 

What are you most proud of about your business?

As a teacher, it is very hard to see outside of your classroom and see the greater problems in education efforts. So, I’m very proud that I saw a need from within the classroom and grew an idea that filled that need and helped it grow. The founding story of the Diverse Learners Corporation is one that really resonated with teachers not only in our city and state, but across the country. It makes me feel good that we can help in the ways we are. 

What advice do you have for students as they launch their business? Are there any tools you consistently use as an entrepreneur?

I think growing your network is the most important part of launching a business. The reason I was initially chosen to perform the needs assessment that launched the idea for my business was because I was well-connected and trusted throughout town in the special needs education world. They knew and trusted me and my work. Thinking about ways to grow your network beyond LinkedIn that is respectful and mindful of others can open so many doors down the road. Another tool I have found useful is identifying people who can speak for the sides of your business you are not as knowledgeable about. For example, I am not a finance person, but I have to run the finances for my company, so I have people who know more about the finance side of things than I do and I confide in them to help me. 

What do you do to live a balanced life? Do you have any interesting or fun hobbies?

I have three kids, so being able to spend uninterrupted time with them is very important to me. Everyday after I pick my kids up from school, we have snack time around the kitchen island where we debrief from the day and I take a few hours off from work until I put them to bed. My team knows these hours are sacred time for my family, and I try really hard to be present with them.