How Dave Sanders designed ZOOM+ — with a little help from his sons.
In 2003, as our oldest son was about to enter kindergarten, my wife Lisa and I attended an event allowing parents of new students to meet the staff of various schools in the district.
We were so excited to get a sneak preview of our sons’ future education. I decided to ask each school principal one simple question: “What’s the goal?” Naturally, I thought they would respond: “To create the next generation’s poets, senators, physicists and teachers!” But then came the life-changing letdown.
My question flummoxed each person I asked — eyes widened, faces contorted in confusion: “What do you mean by goal?” “Do you mean like to advance to the next grade?”
We left the event that night shaken. Then we began to think crazy thoughts. What if we educated our sons ourselves?
In the coming weeks, we wandered through the education section of Powell’s Books, searching for ideas. We began mapping out a new life where we’d take full responsibility for educating our children, but it wouldn’t be homeschooling — it would be world schooling.
At that time, I had begun dreaming about new models of health care but wasn’t ready for another startup. Lisa loved pediatrics and was ready to reduce her days in the office. In 2004 we sold our Portland home and moved to Gaston, Oregon — and turned our country home into Sanders School. Our sons were just six and four, and we delved right into math, reading, history, science and even Mandarin, thanks to an intrepid tutor.
Was it easy? Hardly. Late-night reviews of our successes and failures helped us course-correct for each following day.
We organized each year around a period in history. When studying the ancient Greeks, we immersed ourselves in the Odyssey as a family, before heading to Greece to walk in the footsteps of Odysseus. The boys were intrigued — would we really travel back to ancient Greece? Success! For the next ten years we picked a theme, studied as a family and travelled back into history. This is how the boys got to know Moses, Michelangelo and Mao.
Although I had never felt more fulfilled in my life, I couldn’t shake the dream of fixing our broken health system. Dr. Albert DiPiero, my longtime business partner, and I began to imagine a new health system designed for people whose needs were unmet by traditional health care. We dreamed of health care “where you want it, when you want, for a fair clear price, that you control in the palm of your hand.” We began to design ZOOM+.
But how would we do this? Making a radical new health system would be difficult under ideal conditions — but part-time from Gaston, which we’d made an internet-free sanctuary, posed challenges. And then it dawned on us: Make ZOOM+ part of Sanders School.
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The kids and I searched for new clinic locations, holding class in local coffee shops and visiting construction sites together. Our family helped set up the first clinics. The process introduced the boys to Portland’s brokers, builders and baristas.
In 2008 we hired a lobbyist to help us modernize health laws. I needed to spend considerable time in Salem. So Sanders School moved to Salem. Legislative hearing sessions doubled as homework sessions. Legislators and lobbyists of all stripes were intrigued, engaging the boys about homework and politics.
When the Governor (former Gov. John Kitzhaber) signed a bill ZOOM+ helped pass, we were invited to join the signing session. He insisted that the boys pose with their feet on his desk. (I have the photo!) This how the boys got to know what it means to be a citizen.
When Lisa and I first decided to start Sanders School, we never imagined that it would become the foundation for ZOOM+. But that’s what happened. Our small startup flourished and took on offices. And just as we had designed our own school curriculum, we created a new way to teach people a new healtcare system, and a new way of working by developing our own glossary, curriculums, classes and teachers– just as we had with our sons’ education.
Sanders School evolved as the boys grew up. Increasingly, the focus was on instilling the courage to chart their own course rather than pursuing the affirmation of others. I am very proud of them. As ZOOM+ grows up, it increasingly faces the same test as the boys. Health care is our nation’s single largest industry. We all know it’s broken. Those who dare to change it do so at great peril. Our success will depend on our courage to challenge the status quo at every turn, through our most critical invention — a change leadership culture.
Schoolwork is the easy part. Redesigning healtcare is the easy part. The real challenge is to build up people and a culture prepared to relentlessly lead change and withstand the forces of status quo. Time will tell if we earn an A.
Dave Sanders is president and CEO of Zoom+.