Michael Ioffe published his first book when he was 11. “I was a horrible writer, but all of my classmates were exceptional,” Ioffe, now 18, says. He didn’t write the book, but he compiled a bunch of short stories written by his classmates to raise funding for his Portland, Oregon school, which Ioffe says was under-resourced. How does an 11-year-old publish a book? By using good old-fashioned millennial ingenuity. He Googled it.
Ioffe researched how to self-publish and found an online program that allowed him to do so. “This was at the dawn of self-publishing,” he confirms. One book led to one, then two and three. The self-published books raised awareness and a few hundred dollars, but they also kicked off a fundraising effort that eventually helped the school — Access Academy — open a new building for an alternative learning program.
Through it all, Ioffe learned two crucial things about himself and the world. “I knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” he says. “And I learned that educational resources were super important.”
‘I DECIDED AT AN EARLY AGE TO DO EVERYTHING I COULD WITH THOSE RESOURCES TO HELP OTHER PEOPLE’
Those lessons sent Ioffe down a path that has led to what he calls the largest conversation series in the world — a nonprofit he runs with a team of five other first-year students at Babson College called TILE. Poets&Quants for Undergrads first covered TILE last year, but one year later, the TILE model has exploded. Operating on a budget of $50 a year, the conversation now has more than 240 chapters in 40 countries on six continents. The series has featured multiple CEOs, founders, and an Olympic gold medalist, among many others.
TILE’s model requires donated event space and community leaders willing to give an hour or more of their time. Students around the world can apply by submitting their name and email. Ioffe then makes sure there isn’t already a chapter in the student’s town or city, and he vets the student. Currently there are more than 750,000 chapter leaders, and Ioffe wants to have one million attendees this year.
Ioffe entered Babson last fall as one of the Weissman Scholars, a program that fully funds his tuition and aids in additional expenses used for students to “develop their unique talents and pursue their personal passions,” according to the school’s website. No doubt Ioffe is a unique talent and has a passion that is impacting the lives of many others. As a high school student in Portland and son of refugees from the former Soviet Union, he knew early on the value of resources — both monetary and social. “Even though I didn’t have a ton of resources, I had more than my parents, and so I decided at an early age to do everything I could with those resources to help other people,” Ioffe says, sounding much wiser than his age.
UNLIKE TED TALKS, TILE TALKS ARE INTERACTIVE
One of those resources was access to adult mentors and role models, something Ioffe says is usually exclusive to wealthier families. “When you get a chance to talk with someone you really look up to, it changes your perspective,” he says.
So for his sophomore year, Ioffe decided to give that access to any of his fellow students who wanted it. He walked around Portland, mining for event space that could be donated. He began cold-emailing local entrepreneurs and business leaders. Eventually he piecemealed the first-ever Stumptown Speaker Series in a local theater, which has now blossomed into the TILE conversation series.
Instead of a format like TED Talks, where the audience listens to a speaker, TILE talks are meant to be interactive. Audience members are encouraged to be active participants. Usually the speakers speak for half the time and the rest is open to questions and answers.
‘WE’RE CREATING A SOCIAL UTILITY’
For Ioffe, the rapid growth of TILE has translated to some lofty goals. By the end of this year, he hopes to see 1,000 chapters in 100 countries. To hit the mark, he and his team are translating their 14-page TILE instruction manual into dozens of languages.
Ioffe’s requirements for where the company might scale are broad. “Any city with an event space and someone willing to cold-email speakers could put together a conversation series featuring their city’s most interesting people,” he says.
It doesn’t matter the size of the city, town, or village, Ioffe says, he wants chapters to pop up everywhere. “We’re creating a social utility,” he says. “These are conversations everyone should have access to.”