Laura Tierney, the founder and CEO of The Social Institute (TSI), brought her entrepreneurial spirit, and her strategy for how to use social media and technology in positive ways, to The Frederick Gunn School Speaker Series on February 4. The school partnered with TSI, the leader in engaging student-led lessons related to social-emotional health, social media use, and technology, to bring its #WinAtSocial Program to students starting last month. The program’s unique, gamified social media curriculum – co-created with over 50,000 students at 60 schools nationwide – offers interactive lessons that are scaffolded by grade level and user-friendly for both remote and in-person learning environments.
“It’s about empowering and supporting our students with their digital citizenship and as individuals, but it’s more than that. This programming will be useful when so much of our world is reliant on technology,” said Dean of Students Ashley LeBlanc.
Throughout the winter term, head dorm parents are integrating the TSI curriculum into weekly dorm meetings and facilitating relevant, student-led discussions that encourage students to open up about social-emotional health, social media, and technology. As part of the program, parents also have access to resources to help them continue the conversations at home in alignment with weekly topics, based on TSI’s seven standards:
- Play to your Core
- Protect your privacy like your famous
- Strike a balance
- Find your influencers
- Use your mic for good
- Handle the pressure
According to Tierney, the program encourages students to develop healthy habits around social media, and to think about how they can set themselves up for great opportunities in the future because of the decisions they are making today. “I think it’s time that we flip the script and we focus on the positives, not just the negatives. I think our collective challenge is to think about how we make decisions that actually fuel our health, our happiness, and our future success thanks to social media and technology,” she said.
The gold standard
A graduate of Duke University, Tierney was a four-time All-American, two-time team captain, and Duke Athlete of the Decade for field hockey. She played for the U.S. Junior National Team, representing her country at home and abroad. Within two years of starting The Social Institute, it was touted as the gold standard in the country.
Prior to this, Tierney served as Social Media Director at the award-winning advertising agency McKinney, overseeing social media strategy for the agency’s leading global brands. Before McKinney, Tierney honed her marketing and social media skills as a Social Media Manager at ESPN, helping espnW use social media to inspire millions of women and girls who love sports. During the 10 years she worked in social media, she helped build strategies and campaigns for leading brands including Duke Men’s Basketball, ESPN, Samsung, Coca Cola, Travelocity, Oakley, and Disney. Her work with Duke catapulted the @DukeMBB account to become the most engaging, most followed account in college sports.
Speaking to the FGS community via Zoom, Tierney shared her story and what she has built at TSI, along with key lessons she has learned along the way. She recalled that when she was a student in boarding school, she felt lectured when guest speakers would talk to students about the negative impacts of social media. That experience later inspired her to take a different approach, and prove that social media can be used to help students strengthen their reputation, cultivate their self-esteem, land great internships or jobs, make a positive impact, and more.
“When you’re an entrepreneur and you see that there’s a better way to do something, you get after it. Entrepreneurship is something that is very near and dear to my heart, and I love the idea of swimming upstream, and defying the odds that might be stacked against you,” she said.
“Your comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing grows in it.”
Growing up, Tierney was constantly in competition with her three siblings, and her mother found ways to challenge her, signing her up to play soccer on an all-boys team that she coached, and later, telling her that she was heading to soccer camp, when really, it was a camp for field hockey. “I hated it. I absolutely hated field hockey. I cried for the first week,” she said, but when she got through the fundamentals and finally had the chance to scrimmage, her perspective changed. “That took me on another trajectory. I wouldn’t have been able to compete at Duke, with Team USA. I think it would have put me on a different trajectory for the work I’m doing today.”
Her parents enrolled her in Wyoming Seminary in Pennsylvania, where she found she could push the limits on her interests, both academically and athletically. “When you think about whatever your comfort zone is and those moments when people push you out of it, that’s a good thing. It might sting in the moment,” she said, noting, “We’re definitely all going through that right now when it comes to the pandemic. I think when we look back on this, we’ll be able to speak to a lot of soft skills and life skills that we’ve built over this time.”
“You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Heading to college, Tierney observed that social media channels were being utilized to promote brands, so she began to follow different role models. She remembers thinking, “If I could follow people who I admired, people who I wanted to be like someday, it could help reinforce my values and my goals. And I ended up getting recruited to play at Duke.”
She continued to surround herself and connect with role models from the fields of medicine, marketing and advertising through her college years. “I believe we can’t be what we can’t see, and if we can surround ourselves with positive influences, it only helps us grow and it reinforces our goals and what we care about,” she said.
“Work extremely hard and be good to people.”
After college, Tierney leveraged social media to contact one of her mentors, who helped her land a job at ESPN. She had the chance to work at the X Games and with amazing athletes such as Allyson Felix, Maya Moore, Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan, and decided to pay that experience forward by starting a job shadowing program for students, and hosting a youth field hockey clinic on the ESPN campus.
“My first week on the job, I was managing social media for ESPN and they were like ‘Pelé is coming to the ESPN Zone.’ I got to interview him. You just felt too lucky to have this opportunity,” she said. “I believe you work your tail off and then you pay it forward.”
“Play to your strengths.”
Tierney later returned to New York City and was working full time in social media, when she began to pay attention to the impact that media had on children. She began carving out vacation days to meet with students to understand how they felt about navigating social media and technology. She led brainstorming sessions and discussions, and some schools invited her to speak to students, and parents, but it was the students who sparked her interest. “The students are so ahead of the curve with social media and technology. There’s just some kind of magic at the intersection of students and character and social media and technology, and I love that intersection.”
She ultimately left her job to start her own company. After she successfully pitched a story to The Washington Post, which caught the eye of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, things started to come together. Melinda Gates’ team made Tierney an offer to convert her company to a nonprofit organization, which the foundation would fund. The idea was that Tierney could turn the student-driven discussions she was having into technology, with the potential to scale it to help millions of students. “It sounded certainly incredible, and I was very, very grateful,” Tierney said.
Instead, she and her employees decided to build the technology on their own. As a female entrepreneur leading a technology company, Tierney noted, the odds are stacked against her. But as she said, “I think it’s pretty exciting to play to your strengths, to swim upstream, and defy the odds.”
The 2021 Speaker Series will continue with John Dickerson, a correspondent for 60 Minutes, CBS News Senior Political Analyst and author of “The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency,” who will speak about the American presidency (February 11); Edward Conard, author and businessman, on definitions of conservatism, conservative economic policy and the Republican Party after the Trump presidency (February 25), and Holocaust survivor Judith Altmann (April 1). Events are open to FGS students, faculty, current parents and alumni and will be held via Zoom webinar.