Stronger Together is a series of entrepreneur profiles created by Baltimore Small for Made In Baltimore. Each profile tells a story of innovation and collaboration in the face of the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.  This story first appeared in Bmore Art on June 29th 2021.

“My professor told me, “Look, if you’re a human being, you’re a maker. Don’t compare yourself to other people, compare yourself to where you are now and where you’ll be at the end of this class.”

“When I was at Stanford, I had a life changing experience. I took a course on making. I tried to drop out after the first day of class because I was intimidated by the machines and by my classmates who were engineers who had been building since they were five years old, and I literally just played with Legos. 

I felt like I didn’t belong there and I tried to drop out. My professor told me, “Look, if you’re a human being, you’re a maker. Don’t compare yourself to other people, compare yourself to where you are now and where you’ll be at the end of this class. It’s going to be a lot of work, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes, but if you stick with it, you’ll realize that you too can create things and it’s a pretty, pretty awesome thing.

Luckily, I stayed in the course and it changed my life when I first built physical products and turned raw material into objects. It was this transformation of creation that wasn’t like producing the right answer or regurgitating a fact, it was building something. 

It also taught me that you can take problems in the world and see them as opportunities and create something to solve them.

While in grad school, I decided I wanted to start Dent Education. I met my co-founder Jackie there, who had taught high school in Baltimore City. When I talked to her about what I wanted to build, she told me Baltimore City has young people that have all of these innate qualities that embody what it means to be an innovator and entrepreneur, whether it’s resourcefulness, resilience, collaboration or community. 

“When I graduated, she and I moved to Baltimore City in 2017 and we were welcomed by the community here and have been able to build what I’d envisioned.” 

Unfortunately, the outcomes for youth are not that great and that’s because the system is not matching their potential with real opportunity. I knew something like Dent could have a lot of impact in Baltimore. 

When I graduated, she and I moved to Baltimore City in 2017 and we were welcomed by the community here and have been able to build what I’d envisioned. 

We work with high schoolers across the city and everything we do is centered around the Dent mindsets. Our first mindset is we see problems as opportunities. When the pandemic hit, there were a lot of problems that became very noticeable to our team and our youth.

We connected with our youth virtually and noticed some of the same challenges existed for them. School wasn’t engaging and even less productive. Students also felt isolated and wanted to be part of something bigger. Financial constraints became really real, that pressure was acute, and there didn’t seem to be a lot of resources or answers on how to navigate. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a big PPE shortage in our community. A lot of our students told us their family members, who were essential workers, were going without much protection. We see problems as opportunities, so we thought about what we could do. 

Pictured above: Lucas Lee

We decided we would address the PPE shortage, but at the same time, youth could earn money. One dollar of each face shield sold goes directly to the Baltimore City high schooler who helped make it. 

There were several challenges we had to overcome to create and distribute the face shields. We needed a central space for thousands of plastic sheets, elastic and foam and were really lucky that our partners at the 1100 Wicomico building provided the space for our materials.

Everything we do at Dent is a product of community collaboration. Hack Baltimore built our digital system to track inventory and sales because students were making the face shields at their homes.

We also needed drivers, that was a big challenge. We had to figure out how to get everything from this one site to 70 homes across the city. Volunteers helped and we started paying folks to help us drive, but our Denters came up with another idea. Since we weren’t able to get enough drivers to make this process smooth, our students started delivering materials on cargo bikes.

Another challenge was making sure the units were being made correctly at each home. We created training teams and then youth started training other youth virtually. 

There were also issues with technology. Some students didn’t have computers or adequate bandwidth. We then partnered with Digital Hardware Foundation and the Digital Equity Coalition to make sure all our youth had laptops. 

Rajan Patel, Co-Founder & CEO of Dent Education

Innovation Works built a coalition with medical institutions that were looking for PPE and they coordinated with us to list our product on their platform to get buyers. Baltimore Development Corporation connected us to an opportunity with Baltimore City and we were able to deliver over 12,000 units to the Baltimore City Office of Emergency Management Services.

Dent started as an idea and a program, and while that is still the core, the most influential and most important part is also the part that brings me the most joy, which is the community we’ve built.

The way we engage students is in partnership with so many other people: our staff, coaches and organizational partners. Our community is excited by the work we’re doing and want to be a part of it and enable the youth to have more real-world experiences. 

We started with just eight high schoolers and now we’re engaging hundreds of students and they are such a joy to be around, especially with all that is going on in the world. 

There are so many reasons to feel despair, but I feel so privileged that I get to be around them because they are the hope that I definitely need, and that I think we all need in some ways.” 

Interview and Photography by Jon Bregel via @BaltimoreSmall

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