Pretend you are your 13-year-old self: You’re riding home from school with a friend when his mom starts responding to texts on her phone while driving. This makes you uncomfortable, but she’s an adult, an authority figure. What do you do?
If your answer is “I have no idea,” you are like today’s typical teenager, says Laura Tierney ’09. And she believes you should be better equipped to handle such social dilemmas.
Tierney is the founder and CEO of the education technology startup The Social Institute, whose online learning platform helps young people navigate the myriad social challenges they face online and in real life.
“I think of it kind of like driver’s ed,” says Tierney. “Kids get cars and they need to be educated on how to drive. It’s the same with their devices. We’re teaching self-management skills, self-awareness, responsible decision-making.”
The texting-mom scenario is one of the situations covered in TSI’s program, called #WinAtSocial, which is being used in hundreds of schools across North America. There are no right or wrong answers. The learning comes from the discussions that take place – the interactions that enable young voices to express opinions and hear those of their peers.
That’s important to Tierney: “I really wanted my voice to be heard and understood as a teenager, and I think there were moments when I didn’t feel that.”
Growing up in the small Pennsylvania town of Bear Creek – “You couldn’t get pizza delivered to my house” – she attended public school, playing on the soccer team through eighth grade. For high school, however, her mom wanted her to have the best education and athletics experience possible, encouraging her to play field hockey at nearby Wyoming Seminary, a private boarding school. So Laura Suchoski became a field hockey player, commuting 45 minutes each way to school as a day student.
She remembers the frustration of moving from the comfort of her public school to the private school world.
“These people were driving Audis and I had my used Corolla,” she recalls. “I felt like kind of an outcast, and I think the social skills I developed through sports helped me find friends and fit in.”
It all worked out, she admits, and her efforts on the field earned her a scholarship to play field hockey at Duke in 2005. As a midfielder and two-time team captain for the Blue Devils, she was a standout from the start, making the All-America squad all four years and being honored as Duke Athlete of the Decade in field hockey.
After graduating with a degree in sociology, Tierney went to work in advertising in New York. She quickly landed a dream job at ESPN as social media manager for its women-focused website, espnW. An assignment to talk with students about their media usage planted the seed for a business idea: What if she could help students learn to use social media responsibly – safely – by sharing some of the life skills she had learned as a student athlete.
She used vacation days to travel across the country giving presentations to sports teams and school groups. When she started getting paid for it, The Social Institute was born.
Ravenscroft School in Raleigh, North Carolina, was an early partner that pushed the transition from Tierney’s in-person presentations to an online platform that teachers could administer in the classroom. Building out the tools for teachers and baking in gamification were essential, especially for younger grades.
“The benefit is the engagement aspect,” said Louis Tullo, chief technology officer at Ravenscroft. “One of the reasons the program has been so effective is that gamifying this information helps students remember important lessons about how to conduct themselves online.”
When Tierney began putting together her team in 2017, employee no. 1 was Shayna Heinrich ’08, her field hockey teammate at Duke. Also on board was husband Colin Tierney ’09, whose business strategy experience informed TSI’s business plan.
Despite graduating from Duke the same year, the Tierneys did not meet until they were working in New York. Back in North Carolina, they settled in Chapel Hill and have two young sons. As a parent, Tierney’s responsibility as a role model for her kids is never far from her mind.
“We use a phrase in our work – kids can’t be what they can’t see. I’m a big believer in that statement.”