Nada Djordjevich – Co-Founder of On the Page

I always see each client, and each person I work with as individual, and I never take a cookie-cutter approach to my work.

Nada Djordjevich has been active in education, public policy, and arts advocacy for fifteen years. As the Executive Director of Gibson & Associates (G&A), she worked with more than 40 California schools to develop and implement initiatives to improve outcomes for children, youth, and families. Selected to evaluate the 29 million dollar Race to the Top grant for New Haven Unified School District, she has also presented on evaluation at the California Department of Education, and to private foundations and local program providers. Dedicated to the arts, she co-founded an online literary magazine, taught creative writing for several years, and has won honors in fiction and screenwriting.

Nada Djordjevich has degrees from Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley. She crafted more than 20 successful private, state and federal grants to improve early childhood education, after-school programs, literacy, STEM initiatives, expanded-day learning environments, and college-career access. Her deep understanding of the proposal process enabled her to work with municipalities to better design requests for proposals and to develop greater transparency and accountability in program funding. She has facilitated numerous strategic plans, and engaged community stakeholders on topics ranging from early childhood education access, to addressing the teacher shortage, and improving health and environment through increased bicycle routes, public transportation, and sidewalk expansions. A dedicated educator, she has served as academic dean for the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth program, worked for Teach for America as the Director of Auxiliary Operations, and taught writing and humanities in a variety of settings from City College of San Francisco, to the Jewish Community Federation, to youth at Packer Collegiate Institute in New York City. In her free time she volunteers for the Acting for Critical Thought program at 826 Valencia in San Francisco.

A member of Bay Area Women in Film and Media, Nada Djordjevich has been engaged in media and literary arts for more than a decade. She developed online strategies and content as the web manager for Clif Bar and Company, and co-founded On the Page magazine, an online literary endeavor. A recent finalist in Boulevard Magazine’s emerging writer’s contest, she will be performing at the October 2017 San Francisco Litquake Literary Festival. She has also received fellowships to attend the Vermont Studio Center, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Screenwriters Conference, and the Southampton Writers Conference. Three of her screenplays placed in competitions including BlueCat Screenwriting Competition, Chesterfield Writer’s Film Project, American Zoetrope Screenwriting Contest, and Fresh Voices.

Where did the idea to work in this field come from?

While working at Clif Bar and Company, I was recruited to serve as a consultant in education reform for Gibson and Associates, a private firm that worked with public sector and nonprofits. Prior to working in technology, I had worked for a number of education agencies and had been a teacher and researcher. Initially I focused on ground-level experience helping individual schools to develop homegrown improvement plans. The vast majority of schools I worked with made significant gains in student attendance, graduation rates, and in student performance on state assessments, and I was selected by the California Department of Education to lead reforms at a regional level. For several years, I worked with six districts, facilitating the development of three and five-year strategic plans. In addition, to this work, I crafted numerous grants and supported a variety of agencies including museums and municipal governments in evaluation, outreach and programs.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

My firm used to facilitate leadership training and coaching for educators and nonprofit administrators called Strategies for Effective Organizations. One of the key aspects of this training was to learn to be productive during hectic times. One of our most basic methods, which I still use, is to start each day with a paper and pen list of “to dos.” The paper and pen list is in keeping with much of the research on how the brain works. There was a recent 2016 publication of study conducted at MIT on freshman at West Point that showed that students who used paper-pen rather than computers had better end-of-semester results. This seems to be in keeping with bran scans analyzed by Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, who described in a 2010 Wall Street Journal article, that you activate your brain and memory by literally writing letters. The cognitive process of writing down your goals for the day seems to generally make you productive than typing or speaking them into your phone or tapping them on the keyboard. Beyond completing the task list, I am also a big believer in daily walks and use my lunchtime and early evening to reflect upon my ideas.

How do you bring ideas to life?

My work is always collective and synergistic. I look for shared perspectives and ways to find a common ground. For my creative writing, I tap into my experiences. My screenplay Save the Date is about an Oakland teacher at a “failing school” who uses Shakespeare to successfully teach kids that had previously been failing. After I finished this script at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and it placed in the American Zoetrope Screenplay Contest, I met with teachers from update New York who have had great success with Shakespeare to engage formerly incarcerated youth. Another script of mine Fetch! (That also placed in a few screenwriting competitions), was based in part the outreach work I conducted for a municipality designing community climate plan.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

Public and private funding of the arts in California has provided the state with good news. In June 2017, Governor Jerry Brown permanently expanded the arts budget. Prior to this, in 2016, California ranked 40th of 50th of state funding for the arts. California is ranked as one of the top ten economies in the world and that art-related work makes up 8% of the state’s economy, so funding artistic development of young people is a practical investment. In addition, several studies have pointed to the other benefits of the arts, including cognitive and social-emotional development, something evident not just in youth, but in adults. Another exciting development has been in the development of public art that supports creative expression and dialogue in public spaces. When I am traveling, I find myself taking pictures of public art and posting these images on Instagram or Flickr, trying to recreate the shared experience.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

There’s a famous quote, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter,” it’s been attributed to Mark Twain but I think it was Blaise Pascal. At any rate, as both a consultant and a writer, most of my finished work is designed for public consumption, and I make it a habit to build in time at the end to “write the shorter letter.” Ultimately too, in this day, you need to have a few additional ways of summarizing information in one or a series of 140 character Tweets, and an elevator speech for your work too. I had a wonderful professor at Harvard University, the former dean of the Graduate School of Education, Dr. Patricia Albjerg Graham. She emphasized the need to master the one-page-memo, so that the decision makers can quickly understand the essence of your analysis. It’s not that one doesn’t also write the 40-page document that includes the data and analysis, but that the summary memo is necessary to keep the ideas succinct and actionable.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

My first paid job was at a concession stand in an amusement park. The minimum wage at the time was dismal, and I was working 40 hours a week, and during the busy summer months I was offered overtime which I frequently accepted. I learned however that working at a concession stand for 60 hours a week, whether you’re 16 or 60, is not good for you. I re-learned this lesson a few years ago, when I had said yes to too many projects with nearly the same deadline. While I wasn’t wearing polyester gauchos and working in the hot sun, I had that same feeling of being worked to the bone that I had when I was 16. I now know when to say no and recommend clients to other agencies if I am too busy.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

One of my first jobs out of college was as a bicycle trip leader at Backroads Travel Company. This was an amazing experience and if I had the opportunity to do things differently, I would have continued for a second season. It was a great way to see the world, but I decided not to renew my contract because I had been accepted into graduate school. Last year, I completed Cycle Oregon, a 400-mile bike ride across the southern part of the state. There, I had a reunion with two former Backroads employees, and it reminded me that I should have spent an additional season. In addition, the second year, would have been much easier than the first year. Like the first year of teaching, it was a bit of trial by fire.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

More than ten years ago, I conducted case studies of people who love their jobs for On the Page magazine. It’s still one of the most frequently read items on our site. What these “job lovers” had in common was a passion for some aspects of their work and a recognition that they couldn’t do everything they love about their work all the time. I would recommend then as Joseph Campbell says to “follow your bliss” but also be realistic that work won’t always be blissful.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Relationships have always been at the forefront of my work. I have worked with multiple clients for five or more years, and when I taught writing at City College of San Francisco, usually at least half of my class was made up of returners, taking my class for more than one semester. While I have created templates to increase efficiency, I always see each client, and each person I work with as individual, and I never take a cookie-cutter approach to my work.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

About ten years ago, I worked with a client to write a 3 million dollar grant. Six months later, when they received the grant, the leadership had changed. There was no one invested in implementing the grant as designed. I learned from this perspective that I need to bring in a number of stakeholders early on, to be sure that they are fully engaged invested in the vision of the grant, and to be sure that it is aligned to broader mission of the organization. A good grant or program has a life of its own and is not dependent on one individual. And since that original time, there have been several times in which leadership has shifted between grant submission, award and implementation, but because of my strategies focusing on alignment and engagement, these grants have been successfully implemented with the new leadership.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

We need to find ways to improve upon private philanthropy to make funding quality nonprofits easier. For example, let’s say you believe providing equitable access to performing arts for young children is vital, wouldn’t it be great if you could very quickly identify the quality agencies that provide these resources and select one to fund? In addition, we should find ways for donors of more moderate means to create collective impact programs. Instead of a “Go Fund Me” site created by the practitioner, we should develop “I Want to Fund” developed by smaller donors. This type of site would include a request for proposals, and a portal vetted by an outside vender that would include financials, outcomes and other information to support transparency and accountability for agencies receiving funds.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Skiing in Tahoe. We bought two days of lift tickets for $79 each and then with lunch it was $100. I had not been to Lake Tahoe for the past four year during the drought. I forgot how much I love skiing, and how beautiful the Sierras are when they are covered with snow.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

I have found that nearly all the online survey tools make life easier –SurveyMonkey, Google Forms, and Gizmo. I love Pinterest, Flickr and Instagram for sharing visual stories. Obviously Twitter is a wonderful resource for quickly assessing ideas of the day, and I like it for policy information and social science research. The more I use Medium, the more valuable I find that source. For sharing videos for work and for fun, YouTube and Vimeo are both great. With Tumblr –it’s amazing to see the possibilities across multiple modalities.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I would recommend The New Yorker as a way of finding new writers and ideas. For example, through the magazine I was introduced to YiYun Li, a wonderful short-story writer in the style of Chekov and Joshua Ferris, a novelist who wrote Then We Came to the End, and to the essays of Gary Shteyngart. The only problem I have with The New Yorker is that I can never think of a caption clever enough to submit for their cartoon contest.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Carol Dweck is a professor at Stanford University, and I had the good fortune of interviewing her many years ago about the idea of growth mindset as oppose to a fixed mindset .I have given her book out to a number of people.

The Sun magazine was highly influential for me in crafting my own magazine. In particular I l enjoy the first-person true stories of the Readers Write section. They have a deep commitment to humanity that is present on every page.

I am a big fan of story telling and listen to the podcasts of The Moth.

Clif Bar & Company, where I worked as the web manager when I first moved back to California has been a great source of inspiration to me. The company continues to impress me with its environmental leadership, support for nonprofits, athletes, advocacy for women’s rights, and promotion of women artists through LUNAFEST.

CityLab, originally called The Atlantic Cities, was launched in September 2011 and went through a few metamorphoses. They have great ideas and present interesting information about cities and neighborhoods around the world.