Bryan Perla ‘14 attended Carroll School from 5th to 9th grade. Recently, he sat down with Head of School Renée Greenfield.
Renée: Bryan, thank you for chatting with me today. I noticed that you’re joining me from the Little ELF offices. I’m looking forward to learning more about that part of your story. Before we go there, I would love to hear about your memories of Carroll School.
Bryan: The most tangible memories I have are of the spaces and how much they felt like a home and the unique activities like SPARK—a before school movement program—and Fall Festival. On a bigger scale, I remember the teachers being very patient and understanding. As a young kid, I didn’t realize why those traits are so important. During high school and college is when I figured out that was something special.
I wasn’t the easiest kid to teach. I always wanted to understand the “why” behind everything. I would relentlessly question silent letters in tutoring or dig into understanding math problems.
Renée: Here at Carroll we use “curious” to describe students who seek to understand the system and the why. That’s the dyslexic brain and the unique thinking that we encourage.
Speaking of problem solving, you now describe yourself as an entrepreneur—which has a core competency around curiosity and dreaming. Can you talk about your identity as a dyslexic and who you thought you were going to be in the world after Carroll?
Bryan: I gained so much confidence in dyslexic thinking when I was at Carroll. There was a lot of exposure and learning about people with dyslexia—from both notable people like Albert Einstein to parents and alumni who would visit Carroll on Multiple Intelligences Day.
Through that, I found this niche of questioning things and learning how to make them my own. It was a perfect space for inventing. Growing up, I had all these ideas—constantly asking “How can I make things better?” Can I make a pogo stick with compressed air? Can I make a dry erase marker stick to the whiteboard so it doesn’t roll around on the floor all class? I was always dreaming up solutions to everyday problems.
Carroll gave me the space to explore those questions and ideas. I would go to the Fab Lab (now the Arts & Innovation Center) and 3D print or laser cut my ideas. There, I was not afraid to share my ideas with people. This was a really important lesson for me. Not every idea is a great one. To be able to have that feedback and the confidence to make mistakes was invaluable to helping me become the product designer and entrepreneur I am today.
Renée: This culture of curiosity is still very much present at Carroll today. I often hear our makers’ educator Josh Mulready say to students, “I want you to make mistakes here.” We push students to keep trying and learn how mistakes are the evolution of the greatness to come. Would you agree?
Bryan: Yes, exactly! You have to be in an environment where those mistakes are not only okay but encouraged.
Renée: There is a lot of discussion in the education world that it’s not what a teacher teaches you but how they make you feel as a human. Can you identify any “feelings” you had while at Carroll?
Bryan: Acceptance. Comfort. Patience. It’s rare to find a school where you can walk into a classroom and immediately have your “not understandings” being heard and teachers adjusting the curriculum based on that. It’s a lot different than being asked, “Why aren’t you understanding this book? Everyone else understands.” As a student, it wasn’t my job to figure that out.
At Carroll, the teachers would interact with students. They would walk around the classroom, stand by my desk as I was struggling with a writing assignment. They were engaged and helpful. They weren’t just standing at a whiteboard in front of students, spewing information into a machine.
Renée: It sounds like you felt seen and heard, which is so important for a student’s ability to access learning. So, you left Carroll to go to Winchendon School and then to Stanford University. Can you share your experiences as a dyslexic in those spaces
Bryan: Dyslexia in high school was a little different than it was in college. High school was more traditional learning and applying skills. If I needed extra time on tests because of my dyslexia, I had the self-advocacy skills from Carroll to do that. College was different. My major was Product Design which included classes in math, engineering, industrial design, etc. Thinking outside the box and coming up with creative solutions was essential for success. If you look at product design teams at places like Apple, you’ll find many dyslexic innovators.
Renée: Sounds like you found a career that’s aligned with your dyslexic brain. Can you share with our readers about your business, Little ELF, and how it came about?
Bryan: After Carroll, I went to Winchendon School. There was a program there that allowed students to pursue an interest. For me, that was inventing. Over a 3-week period, I invented the Little ELF (a product that makes cutting gift wrap easy). While at Stanford, I went to market and was invited to present it on the show Shark Tank that same year. I made a business deal with Lori Grenier and ran the business throughout my time at Stanford. When I graduated, I decided to grow the business into a multiproduct company.
Wrapping a present is a mundane task. I wanted to change that experience for people, and not just with the cutting part. Through market research, I heard from people how harrowing it is to keep wrapping tools organized. They’d have tape in a drawer collecting dirt, ribbon unraveled in a closet, bows smushed in a bag, and scissors lost to oblivion. I wanted to consolidate all the supplies in one place, like a toolbox. After many design iterations, we are on our way to launching our next product, the Little ELF Organizer.
Renée: Wow, you’ve been busy since Carroll! What advice do you have for current Carroll students?
Bryan: Share your ideas with people—friends, family, teachers. Build your own confidence but also understand that the more you share and listen to other people’s perspective, the more likely you’ll find creative solutions to problems.
Renée: That’s great advice. Thank you for sharing your story, Bryan. Carroll School looks forward to seeing what the future holds for you and your business.
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