Doers to Donors: Jeff Sandefer on the Power of Freedom in Education

In the second episode of Philanthropy Roundtable’s “Doers to Donors” interview series, Roundtable President and CEO Elise Westhoff interviews entrepreneur, teacher and philanthropist Jeff Sandefer, co-founder of Acton Academy and the Acton School of Business.

Sandefer, founder of the successful oil and gas company Sandefer Offshore and energy investment firm Sandefer Capital Partners, grew up in Abilene, Texas, and learned about risk and reward at a young age on the sweltering Texas oil fields. His father engaged in wildcatting, a form of exploratory drilling that Sandefer said either paid off handsomely or not at all. He became an entrepreneur at age 16, launching a business painting silver oil tankers on lease. 

Sandefer later earned a petroleum and gas degree from University of Texas and an MBA from Harvard University, where he learned about the Socratic method – a teaching tactic he would employ many times in his life, first as a professor at the University of Texas, then with the Acton School of Business MBA program and Acton Academy. His entrepreneurial and teaching pursuits, coupled with his desire as a parent to provide the best opportunities for his own children, have led to decades of work in K-12 and higher education, where his programs have benefited thousands of children. 

In a wide-ranging discussion with Westhoff, Sandefer talks about entrepreneurship, philanthropy, education and the advice he would give entrepreneurs on how to make their philanthropy effective. 

Following are some highlights of this discussion, which can be viewed in full here.

Acton Academy: Where Every Student is a Genius

Sandefer and his wife Laura founded Acton Academy, a global network of innovative K-12 schools that encourage students to be “curious, independent, lifelong learners.”

In his conversation with Westhoff, Sandefer said the mission of the academy, which has 300 locations in 25 countries, is centered around the idea that every student is a genius.

“We believe that every person who enters our door is a genius who deserves to find a calling that will change the world,” he said, adding, “That’s really at the core of everything we do.”

That concept is evident in Acton Academy’s operation as a “one-room schoolhouse,” where often there’s only one teacher per school.

Westhoff asked Sandefer how students react to the amount of freedom they are afforded. In response, Sandefer relayed an encounter with a young student who greeted him one day when he visited an Acton school in North Carolina.

“I asked him the question, ‘What’s the most important thing about Acton Academy?’ And he said, ‘Freedom,’” Sandefer recalled. “Then after a long pause, the student added, ‘Freedom comes with responsibility.’”

“That young man … was five-and-a-half-years-old. That’s what we see over and over and over again. If you provide freedom with responsibility and the right guardrails, then you get out of the way, amazing things happen,” Sandefer said.

Acton Children’s Business Fair: Sandefer’s “Single Best Thing”

Sandefer is also deeply engaged in Acton Children’s Business Fair a collection of one-day fairs in 331 cities that promote businesses created and launched by children.

According to Sandefer, this fair is the “single best thing” he and his family have done as entrepreneurs. The event was inspired by Sandefer’s two boys, Charlie and Sam, who came to him one day and said they no longer wanted to run a lemonade stand. Instead, they wanted to host an event for other young business owners to help them sell their products and services.

Seven aspiring entrepreneurs showed up at the first fair, including Charlie and Sam. Despite its modest beginnings, the Sandefer family decided to make it a tradition, and grew the Acton Children’s Business Fair to over 200 booths selling products and services to 5,000 people. The fair now offers a launch kit for others interested in starting a children’s business fair of their own. Thus far, 1,018 Acton Children’s Business Fairs have been held in 16 countries around the word.

“[The kids] say the best thing about the business fair isn’t learning economics or learning to open a checking account. It’s to speak to an adult, to shake their hand and have the courage to talk to them as if you’re on the same plane,” Sandefer told Westhoff.

The Acton Business School: “Expect to Earn It”

While the Acton Academy focuses on students in elementary through high school, Sandefer’s Acton School of Business was, until recently, an MBA program dubbed “boot camp” for entrepreneurs. 

Founded by Sandefer and his former colleagues at the University of Texas, the Acton School of Business offered a rigorous, 100 hour per week program that hosted Navy SEALs, Olympic athletes and aspiring entrepreneurs. 

Professors told Acton Business School students at the outset: “Expect to earn it.” For those willing to put in the work, the school promised an education that was “better, faster, less expensive — and most importantly, more meaningful — than anything offered by traditional business schools.”

Despite the accolades it earned, the Acton School of Business recently stopped offering its signature MBA program – and transitioned to a new platform designed to help students find careers.

“We all know that disruption is taking place in higher education,” Sandefer said. “We decided to disrupt ourselves. We gave back our MBA accreditation … and we want to try something called the Next Great Adventure.” 

The Next Great Adventure will engage budding entrepreneurs between the ages of 17 and 24 in a series of challenges over six weeks to “help you find your calling, accelerate your life and live a life of meaning.” Those challenges will culminate in a TedX-style forum, where participants will pitch ideas to “bring these next great adventures to life.” 

“[They’ll] say that’s where I’m headed. This is why it matters to the world. If you help me, this is what I promise in return,” Sandefer said.

Participants will be provided mentors to help guide their journey and could receive up to $100,000 from Sandefer’s foundation to bring their ideas to life.

Advice for Philanthropists: Respect What Works

On his philanthropy, Sandefer credited Philanthropy Roundtable with guiding many of his decisions, particularly concerning donor intent. He also said he pays attention to others who have been successful. 

“The thing I’ve learned from philanthropy, at least from our failed philanthropy, is paying attention and giving great respect to what works in the world. You want to change the status quo, but you also want to look at the models that work,” he said.

Moreover, he believes in getting deeply involved in his charitable efforts.

“Listening to people about what they want, investing in them personally, being in the trenches doing the work, that’s far more important than money,” he concluded.

Learn more about “Doers to Donors,” and watch the full interview featuring Jeff Sandefer here. Subscribe to the Roundtable’s YouTube channel to make sure you don’t miss future episodes.

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