brian hughes: exploration's first employee

 

Brian Hughes [Senior Faculty '77, Board '04-Present] has made a career of getting in on the ground floor. Some companies he has started himself; with others, he has served as an initial investor. His is a résumé that includes rocket science, women’s fashion design, and the laying of a transatlantic cable wire that broke up AT&T’s telecommunications monopoly.

Brian Hughes It was Hughes’s first start-up, though, that helped him get off the ground just as much as he helped launch it. That first start-up was Exploration Summer Programs.

In December 1976, Arnie Singal, who was Hughes’s academic advisor at MIT, asked Hughes to help him organize the start of a summer learning program. Hughes, a recent graduate with a mechanical engineering major, jumped at the chance. The way Hughes tells it, he saw it as the fast track to padding his résumé for graduate school.

“I wanted to go to business school starting in September,” says Hughes. “So it occurred to me that if I worked for a start-up, I might earn some extra credit. Arnie and I came to an arrangement – there was no money, so I was basically an unpaid intern. That was the deal. Explo picked up the bill and I got experience, and hopefully, I would get into business school.”

As “employee number one,” Hughes’s job description was vague and all-encompassing – basically, “it was whatever it took,” he says.

One of the responsibilities that fell Hughes’s way was finding a viable transportation solution. Says Hughes: “It was one of those things hanging out there: how are we going to get all these kids to Explo?”

The answer came to him one day while he was sitting in acheterdufrance.com traffic. “I got stuck behind this station wagon,” he says, “and on the back it said something like ‘Transportation Solutions’ and a phone number. I realized, ‘Oh my God! There’s a station wagon-based transportation service – that’s just what we need!’”

If getting students to the program was one problem, getting them to agree to come was another altogether. Arnie, his wife Ann (the co-founders of the Program), and Hughes originally targeted for 300 students on the campus of Brandeis University for the inaugural summer. That number proved hard to achieve.

“You can just imagine the sales pitch,” Hughes says, then invokes the tone of a circus gate caller. “‘Imagine, if you will, a phenomenal summer program.’ ‘What was it like last year?’ ‘Well, this is the first year, but trust me, it’s going to be great.’”

As the winter pressed into the spring, finding 300 students looked more and more unreachable, and by the time the summer rolled around, getting half that number became the new target. In the end, “maybe 125” students attended the Program that first summer. “I was feeling like, ‘Wow, we didn’t do that well at all,’” Hughes says.

Then there was the summer program itself. Hughes recalls his first speech to the students – it was a speech on social values and how students should treat each other at the Program. Hughes admits, “We hadn’t really thought about the social aspect.” Nonetheless, there was Hughes, on stage, extemporizing to the students about the values at Exploration.

“I remember giving some talk about, ‘You know how high school is? Well, forget that. Right now, we’re all here together and we’re all going to learn from each other and enjoy each other. And all that high school stuff – forget it. The way we’re going to deal with issues is not with rules, it’s going to be by principles.’”

What's survived through the years at Exploration, Hughes says, is "the basic premise of combining fun and learning – you know, basically, that learning can be a gas."No rules, just principles. It was an exciting, if challenging, philosophy for both the students and faculty. Hughes remembers hiring teachers, telling them only to “come up with a class you’d like to teach” and motivating them with the mantra: “Remember the teacher who turned you on to learning. Do the same for some kid this summer.”

What Explo was left with were instructors teaching courses in nuclear engineering and reactors; the scientific method and extra-sensory perception; and, as was the case with one instructor (Barry Nalebuff, now a professor at Yale), group set theory, an advanced mathematics principle, and unicycling.

“I remember Barry getting us all up on unicycles,” Hughes says. “It was a wonderfully eclectic group of folks.”

In the thirty years since that summer, Explo and its policies have seen a natural progression. Hughes’s ‘no rules, just principles’ philosophy has been revamped (Hughes laughs, “Yeeeah…that’s gone”). The Program, though, still strives to be different than the standard school experience by offering a balance of structure and freedom in an environment filled with choice and diversity.

Throughout the evolution, Hughes says, what has survived is “the basic premise of combining fun and learning – you know, basically, that learning can be a gas, especially if you’re passionate about what you’re learning about.”

Now living in San Antonio and working as the chairman of HBN Shoe, a company that uses biomechanics to make shoes better, Hughes maintains a stake in Explo. In addition to being a member of Exploration’s Board of Directors, his two sons, Richard [Intermediate Student '99-'00, Senior Student '01-'02] and Neil [Junior Student '00-'02, Intermediate Student '03-'04, Senior Student '05], both attended the Programs before going off to college. In fact, Neil decided to head off to college after his second year of high school as a result of his summer at Explo's Senior Program. 

“I now tell the story that Explo is my best start-up ever,” Hughes says. “It’s the only company I’ve been involved in that survived 30 years, grew by a factor of 25, and is in great shape. It’s very cool.”

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