Empowering networks of learners to connect with their passions and build agency to impact their world.

Our History


Building 21 was started by three classmates in the Harvard Doctorate of Education Leadership Program.  Originally the product of their collaboration on a new school design assignment in Professor Richard Elmore’s “Leaders of Learning” course in February of 2012, the concept for Building 21 evolved through a series of meetings, discussions, site visits and learning tours across the country.  Our goal has remained constant since that first day: to develop a new secondary school design that adapts to meet learners where they are, and then helps them to pursue their interests and passions on a pathway to college and career success.  We firmly believe that our design efforts will always be a work in progress, and are therefore committed to an ongoing process of reflection and iteration – a process of continual building.

Our Name

Our name is derived from the famous Building 20 at M.I.T. that was a cradle of innovation and divergent thinking for over 50 years.  A recent New Yorker article described Building 20 this way:

“Building 20 was home to the Laboratory for Nuclear Science, the Linguistics Department, and the machine shop. There was a particle accelerator, the R.O.T.C., a piano repair facility, and a cell-culture lab.

Building 20 became a strange, chaotic domain, full of groups who had been thrown together by chance and who knew little about one another’s work. And yet, by the time it was finally demolished, in 1998, Building 20 had become a legend of innovation, widely regarded as one of the most creative spaces in the world. In the postwar decades, scientists working there pioneered a stunning list of breakthroughs, from advances in high-speed photography to the development of the physics behind microwaves. Building 20 served as an incubator for the Bose Corporation. It gave rise to the first video game and to Chomskyan linguistics.”

Our name speaks to the unlimited capacity for creativity, innovation and self-realization when individuals are free to pursue their passions and interests – a key design tenet of Building 21.  The alteration from “20” to “21” indicates our intention to build off of the inspirational example of Building 20 while also acknowledging the awe-inspiring challenges and opportunities facing our educational system in the 21st century.

Building 20

Building 20, Vassar Street facade, 1997.

Our Advisory Board

Robert Schwartz

Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Co-Head of Pathways to Prosperity Initiative.

Nicholas C. Donohue

President and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

Photo Anagnostopoulos

Former CEO Finance and Operations at Newark Public Schools; Former Deputy Chancellor and COO at New York City Department of Education.

Greg Gunn

Entrepreneur in Residence at City Light Capital; Founder of Wireless Generation.


Christine Sturgis

Founder/Principal at MetisNet; Project Manager for the CompetencyWorks project.

Adam M. Smith

Director of Global Content and Platforms at YouTube [including Education partnerships]; Board member at REDF

Our Investors