Relationships Podcast Post

Increasing Personal Agency with Sheila Akbar

George Grombacher November 17, 2022

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Increasing Personal Agency with Sheila Akbar

LifeBlood: We talked about increasing personal agency, helping kids with test prep, college admissions and career readiness, how to help young people explore their life goals, and how to get started, with Sheila Akbar, PResident and COO of Signet Education. 

Listen to learn how to think and work with your kids with timelines and deadlines.

You can learn more about Sheila at and LinkedIn.

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Our Guests

George Grombacher

Sheila Akbar

Episode Transcript

eorge grombacher 0:15
Hello, this is George G and the time is right welcome today’s guest strong and powerful Sheila Akbar Sheila how you ready to do this?

Unknown Speaker 0:22
I am all right, let’s

george grombacher 0:23
go. She lives the president and CEO of Signet education, their organization working to restore agency to students helping them to get admitted and find the right college for them the right career and the right life. Sheila, excited to have you on tell us a little bit personal life’s more about your work and why you do what you do?

Unknown Speaker 0:44
Sure, well, I think your bio covering it. I’ve been running Signet for about 12 years now, before that I was in academia. And before that, I tried a lot of different things before I found what I wanted. And I think that really inspires the work that we do at Signet, where, as you said, we’re trying to help teenagers find their path, and then support them along that path with you know, various services, whether it’s academic tutoring, test prep, we do a lot of college admissions work. And then we also do something we call coaching, which is really special. It’s a little bit broader than just executive function coaching, it’s a lot more like life coaching, where if you think about, you know, people who are our age or even older, getting an executive coach to help them think through, you know, what career moves they want to make next, how do they handle certain situations, we try to bring that energy and that relationship into the life of a teenager. And it is so empowering, and it gives them back their agency, and that some feel like there’s a partner in their corner to help them think through all the problems, challenges, decisions that they’re facing, and then move forward in their life with a little more intentionality.

george grombacher 1:54
I love it. Those are you through and another one of my favorite words at the end agency. I think one of my favorite words and intentionality is absolutely another one. Is this something you’ve always known and always been passionate about helping young people with?

Unknown Speaker 2:13
You know, I think I always knew it somewhere deep down inside, I didn’t have the language for it. And I didn’t know that it was a career. When I was growing up, there was a lot of pressure on me to become a physician, like my father, my brother succumb to that pressure. And he is now a very successful physician. I was on that path. until the middle of college, when I finally was like, Wait, there’s something missing for me from this from this path. And obviously, it wasn’t a doctor yet. I was just about to take the MCAT actually, I was like, this is like I really want to do. And I look back to my childhood when my father was, you know, God all the time. And I knew that’s not the life I wanted. I wanted to have time to do other things beyond just having family. I also was interested in, you know, having meaningful hobbies and friendship and sleep. It’s my life. And so I was like, you know, I don’t think this is the path. I somehow got up the courage to tell my parents, it’s not what I wanted to do. They were they were pretty heartbroken, but they ended up being supportive. At the same time, I had no idea what I really wanted instead. And I didn’t know how to listen to myself, or work with mentors to try to figure that out. So I just kind of went with the flow. And at the time, I was graduating in the early 2000s. Everybody just went to work on Wall Street. And so I did that with, I don’t know, 70% of my classmates from Harvard. And I was pretty miserable. I did that for about two years. And I was like, wow, I thought medicine wasn’t the right path. For me. This is definitely not it. So I kind of fell back into that state of like, Well, who am I? What am I doing? I probably had my quarter life crisis a little bit early. And tried a number of things I had worked in publishing, I thought I wanted to go to film school. And then I thought I wanted to be an architect. I actually even got an internship with an architect. The other day I was back home at my parents house, I found a registration ticket for the LSAT. So apparently, I was thinking about becoming a lawyer. And then somewhere in the midst of all this sort of chaos, I realized or I remembered there is this poetry that I used to read as a as a teenager really, that played a big role in my education in college. I was a pre med but I studied Near Eastern languages, because it was really interested in the Persian mystical poetry. And I was still reading it. You know, I started into college, I wrote a thesis on it. I really enjoyed it. I would translate it was just meaningful to me. And then I was like, oh wait, maybe I should go back and study the poetry like it has stuck with me. It’s still something that brings me joy. Hey, let me go try this. So I went, I did a master’s, under my professor who has taught me as an undergrad. And I just loved it. And I was like, wow, this is this is like, fun, I’m firing on all cylinders. I feel really successful at this. It’s meaningful. People are telling me I’m good at this. And so I was like, Okay, this because this is the path, I’m going to become an academic. I took a year off between my masters and my PhD. And when I started my PhD, I had the same sort of fire, I decided to do two PhDs to make myself, you know, more marketable on the academic job market, which is pretty brutal. And then as I got to the later stages of writing my dissertation, I started tutoring.

Unknown Speaker 5:42
I had always sort of tutored on the side, because grad school doesn’t pay very well. But writing a dissertation is hard. And I was definitely looking for any distraction I could find. So my friend Jay, who is the founder of sing, it, had already started Signet. And I was living back in Boston, writing my dissertation, I got together with him. And I was like, You know what, I’m a tutor. Let me tutor for you. He did. And as I joined the organization, I saw there were a lot of things that could be done better done more efficiently, done differently. So I soon took over hiring, training our tutors building curriculum. Eventually, that became talking to families, advising students on college admissions, working with partners, whether that’s a school or a library system, to put programs in place for their constituents. And then I became president and CEO in 2018. And has been doing that and more ever since. So that’s kind of the path that I took. And throughout it, I sort of felt like I was failing. At every turn, I thought, This is what I wanted to do. But then it turned out not to be what I thought it was, or I didn’t like it as much as I thought it would, I thought I would. So I felt like I was starting over many, many times. And that was a bit demoralizing. And certainly, if I didn’t have, you know, the supportive parents I had, it would have been a different kind of struggle. But you know, the tutoring really got me through it. And, you know, not just financially but, you know, working with young people on real challenges that they’re facing to help them work around those obstacles and build skills for themselves, was really rewarding. So that got me through a lot of it as well. And so when I finished my PhD, I had this choice. Again, what do I do? Do I go on the job market? There were actually a couple of jobs that I was sort of qualified for? Or do I stay with Signet and do that work. And it wasn’t really that hard of a decision for me, I really knew where, where the meaning was for me, and I actually started to chase that, and it’s really paid off.

george grombacher 7:59
I love it. appreciate you sharing all that, I think we’ve at least I have experienced a lot of those things. And it’s hard for a young person 1516 2025 3040 to say, this is this is what I’m gonna do, this is the path I’m going to be on. I think that that’s probably less common than then then than it was 30 years ago, and certainly our parents generation, right. So giving, so doing what it is that you’re doing, to help them develop agency to help them think about and set an intention, and then manage through the things that I have control over and that I don’t have control over.

Unknown Speaker 8:46
Yeah, and I, I tell that story a lot. And I encourage parents to tell their versions of that story, because it is quite common. We don’t all end up doing the thing we dreamed about when we were four years old. And it takes us a couple of stumbles really to find our footing. And I think it’s so important for teenagers to know that there’s all kinds of pressure on them right now. Whether that’s from their immediate family, from the school kind of environment or just society in general, to kind of figure yourself out and do something meaningful. And they don’t really know how to do that yet. They don’t know how to find that they don’t know how to listen to themselves or what what voices really to trust. Because if we’re really listening to ourselves, we might just sit around watch Netflix all day. But there’s another voice in there that really lights up when you do something that is super meaningful to you. And that’s the voice that we want them to learn to listen to. And it’s definitely a process and they’re still going to meet dead ends and stumble and fail and you know, get back up. But they have to know that that’s normal. Otherwise, they think that they’re a failure. And that that’s, you know, they wasted their one chance or something But that’s just never the case.

george grombacher 10:02
Right? Difficult for for you to, you’ve got your own head and the way that your thoughts work, but you have no idea really how my brain and my thoughts work. But there’s got to be common connection in there somewhere. And we’re probably all experiencing somewhat similar thoughts. So helping people to understand helping young people to understand what is in your head is a normal and natural thing. Let’s fine tune it a little bit. And, and put you in a situation where you can be exploring and asking these questions and trying other things. And if you fall, you’re not going to splat on the concrete, you will, you know, there is a net there. I’m just sort of rambling at this point, Sheila

Unknown Speaker 10:51
know that this is exactly it, right? Like, we have to give them the space to practice those skills. So what you’re saying is exactly on point.

george grombacher 10:59
So, okay, now, are parents open to this? Would your parents have been open to this, our parents today open to this,

Unknown Speaker 11:07
my parents probably wouldn’t have been open to this, I still don’t think they know what I do for a living,

george grombacher 11:14
which is not a doctor, I’ve done it.

Unknown Speaker 11:17
But you know, I do have two PhDs. So I am a certain kind of doctor. Sometime they wanted? Yeah, I think that there is, you know, they may be a little older than me, they certainly are older than the generation of people that are raising teenagers today. And I think our society is moving towards this, because so many people of that next generation have experienced this themselves. And there’s a lot more openness in our society to talking about things like, you know, where we struggle, mental health challenges, learning differences. And, and there’s a general acceptance that everybody is sort of on their own path and timeline, there’s certainly still pockets of society that don’t feel that way or feel very strongly that there is a timeline. But I wouldn’t say we’re moving in, in the more open direction. And I actually think that’s one of the reasons I like working at Signet, because the people who really feel that way, and what that for, for our, for their kids, they seek us out. And there may be a little bit of sort of hand holding expectation setting. And, you know, reassurance that we have to provide to the family. And of course, they’re an essential part of this process. So, you know, the more they can be on board with, Oh, these are my students goals, how can I support them without showing them what to do? Exactly without doing it for them? How can I hold space for their goals and their decisions, but still provide that sort of safety method so that they don’t go, you know, off the rails too much? Like I said, they’re, they’re just an integral part of this for the team. So we love it, to have parents who really get it. And even if they weren’t raised that way, they see that there is another way, and they want that for their kids. So yeah, I mean, the only reason we’re in business today is because we have families who do feel this way unless it’s to their kids.

george grombacher 13:19
That makes sense. Yeah. So timeline, and, and deadlines. Okay. It’s it’s tricky. Both both both are things

Unknown Speaker 13:32
they do exist in the world. Yes. So our college admissions is probably the place where we deal with timelines the most, right, there is a high school timeline, and a timeline at which you’re supposed to apply to college and go off to college. That still can be flexible for some students, many students stick to that traditional four years of high school, and then I’m going off to college. But we do see an increase in students who are taking a gap year between high school and college, or they’re doing college in a either different way, like a Co Op program that allows them to work during their academic studies, or they’re taking longer to finish college, they may be taking a gap year in college, they may be taking a semester abroad. So there are different ways that that timeline might, you know, look a little different for each student. And, you know, we live in a society we can’t throw, you know, all of these systems out the window, though, sometimes I know, we wish we could. But sometimes there is something very valuable in working towards a deadline that is imposed by an outside source. You can still work towards it in a way that feels right to you. Right. But you don’t necessarily have to get rid of the deadline to say I’m doing things my way.

george grombacher 14:52
Yeah. Fascinating. And I agree. That is a time that we’re questioning everything. And we have the ability to do it, why not? Why not? Why not explore these things? So how does it actually work? I put my 15 year old into Signet education. Walk me through the experience.

Unknown Speaker 15:16
Yeah. This was a phone call with me or one of my colleagues, and we really want to first understand what’s going on. What inspired you to call us today? And sometimes it’s not this big question of my kid doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. It might be we’re struggling in algebra, or the LSAT is coming up. And I want to understand, how do we get ready for it? I’ve heard that colleges are test optional now. So what does that mean for us? And so we start with a consultation, where you’re gonna get real answers and real advice around, you know, how do you deal acutely with the thing you’re dealing with right now. So we’ll talk through all of that I want to understand kind of the educational history, if there are any goals in mind, and whose goals are they because sometimes, parent was in a in all classes, and sometimes the students like a cat, get an A in every single class, I’m okay with a B in this class. But the rest of them I’m gonna work really extra hard on because I have this extracurricular, that’s really meaningful to me, and it takes up all my time, what have you, right, so we try to get a sense of all of those voices in the room. And then what we want to do, if we determine that they’re in need of something that we can provide, we want to match them really carefully with one of our educators. So most of my tutors have masters or PhDs. Many of them do multiple things. So they might be an LSAT tutor, and a life coach, or a college admissions consultant, and someone who can teach statistics, right? It comes in kind of all different flavors. But beyond matching them around the need, right, if there’s an algebra tutoring need, we want to make sure the person can tutor algebra, we also want to make sure that this is a person that the student is going to respond to, right. Most kids do not like having a tutor, they may feel they need a tutor. But it’s hard to be vulnerable in front of somebody and say, I don’t understand this, I need help or I dropped the ball. And I didn’t study the way I should have for this test. And now here I am in front of a tutor. So there’s a lot of sort of shame involved. I think for teenagers, we want to make sure that this is a person they’re gonna feel comfortable with. And usually that’s because they have a shared interest. You know, all of my tutors are academically very talented. But they’re also really interesting people, I’ve got a guy who

Unknown Speaker 17:41
has a PhD in music theory, who also, you know, makes his own pasta has a music podcast. And, you know, can can talk for hours about, you know, literature and all sorts of really kind of philosophical things. But he also loves to golf, he gets along with, like, teenage boys who likes sports, and he’s just a real renaissance man, right? I have other tutors who are acting or singing or dancing on the side. And if that’s an interest that a student has, that can be a real thing that creates a bond and helps build that relationship. So the student can feel comfortable saying, Hey, you really didn’t understand that. And supported at the same time, when, when a tutor might say, Hey, you got this question wrong. I know we worked on this. So what happened here, talk me through your process. So that relationship is really important. So we’ll match the family with a tutor that we think is going to kind of check all those boxes and also be able to create that relationship with the students. And then you go off and you work with your tutor or your coach or your admissions consultant. Families form really, really strong relationships as well with these tutors. Oftentimes, they request the same tutor for their other children, or they tell their friends, hey, you got to work with this person. And I love to see when that happens, because it means something’s really working. But on the sickness side, we are keeping tabs on everything. You know, our tutors have to report to us about every meeting, they also report to the families about what did we do in this meeting? What kind of progress are we making towards our longer term goals? What kind of short term issues are coming up? What else do we need to be talking about here? Does a student maybe need to see a therapist? Should the student be building a better relationship with their algebra tutor by or their algebra teacher by going in after school or something like that? Do they need to work on taking notes that are and maybe someone else on our team is going to be able to help them with that more than our math tutor. So we try to have what we call a family meeting once every quarter or so that about lines up with the semester system. So they’re getting these updates every week whenever they’re meeting. But then there’s a broader conversation about hey, when you came in, these were the struggles. Not just In the grades, but at home, you know, you guys were fighting over homework, tell us what’s happening, what’s changed. And we use a number of different tools internally to measure that with the student, report that out to the parent and then reflect on that progress. And what what do we need to change? You know, are there goals that we need to change? Do we need a different tutor in here? What’s coming up next for the student? A lot of them will come in maybe freshman or sophomore year for subject tutoring, that’s a great opportunity to look ahead to say, Okay, you need to decide, are you going to do the SATs of AC T or apply to test optional colleges? If they’ve done that with us? Well, where are you applying? Let’s talk about how are you going to put your best forward best foot forward in the college process. And, you know, let’s see if we can help you with that, too. There’s really a full High School relationship that we are trying to build with our families. And it’s so meaningful as well to remember where they started, and then see where they end up.

george grombacher 20:59
Love it like that. That’s fantastic. Thank you so much for coming on. Where can people learn more about you? And how can they engage with Signet education?

Unknown Speaker 21:07
Yeah, the best place probably our website, Signet You can also find me on LinkedIn, just under my name, Sheila Akbar. I post a lot of really great content there. And you know, free free videos and guides and things like that. So you can always hit me up on LinkedIn.

george grombacher 21:24
Well, if you enjoy this as much as I did, show your appreciation and share today’s show with a friend who also appreciates good ideas, go to Signet That’s si G and et Find Sheila on LinkedIn as well. And find out if this is a good opportunity for for your brilliant children. Thanks. Good Sheila.

Unknown Speaker 21:44
Thank you, sir.

george grombacher 21:45
And until next time, remember, do your part by doing your best

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