As intolerance and extremism increase, High Resolves teaches high schoolers to rise above.

Laureate
Mehrdad Baghai
Venture
High Resolves
Program
McNulty Prize
Location
Australia
McNULTY PRIZE WINNER

This is part of a series of leadership case studies featuring McNulty Prize Laureates.


“Growing up Baha’i in Iran,” Mehrdad Baghai says, “I had direct experience with fanaticism and hate.” The Baha’is are among the world’s most systematically persecuted faith communities. They see science as being on par with faith, and advocate for racial unity, gender equality and universal education. These are grounds for Baha’is to be considered heretical. “I remember people who would not touch me fearing they would go to hell,” says Mehrdad.


Although his family fled to Canada when Mehrdad was just nine, these childhood experiences and the values espoused by the Baha’i Faith were formative. Why would otherwise smart, well-meaning people hate another group based on their beliefs?

This personal experience of persecution drove his graduate studies at the Harvard Kennedy School, the ideas in his international bestselling book, As One, and his deep fascination with collective action and growth all through his professional life. It also led to the birth of High Resolves, which is founded on the idea that society must focus on educating people in the qualities of good citizenship. 

As a child, Mehrdad’s family fled religious persecution in Iran.

Worked with Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling at Harvard, studying the emergence of cooperation.

Co-led McKinsey’s growth practice, Executive Director of Australia’s national science agency, and co-author of best-sellers on collective action and growth.

Global CEO of High Resolves, which he co-founded in 2005 with his wife, Roya.

Chairman of Alchemy Growth, a boutique strategy firm.

2018 John P. McNulty Prize Winner

Being a good citizen is not intuitive. “When we speak with people who see themselves as global citizens, they frequently refer to some peak experience during their youth that transformed the way they thought about the world,” says Mehrdad. “Our theory of change holds that for personal transformation to be sustained, there need to be an ‘ah-ha’ moment that shifts belief and motivation, which is then hardwired into long-term memory through repeated practice and application over time.” Moral education, Mehrdad believes, is what is required to “immunize” us against the blind prejudice that feeds human unkindness, and leads to human atrocities.

High Resolves enlists the natural passion of young people to make change, through a curriculum designed to build mastery in the core competencies of social justice and citizenship. Interactive, simulation-based workshops provide peak experiences for participants that challenge and shift their existing beliefs about the world, like the High Resolves exercise Find My Peeps, which exposes biases about identity, race and social constructs. These are reinforced and deepened by learning in the classroom, and by real-world applications like social action projects in the students’ communities, or Videos for Change, a televised competition where Australian students bring awareness to an issue through storytelling.

200,000+
High school students engage with High Resolves as of 2018.
350+
Schools in Australia partnering with High Resolves.
50%
Students in Australia High Resolves aspires to reach by 2023.

The story of Mehrdad’s journey from a nine-year old immigrant, to the pinnacles of private-sector success, to High Resolves, a venture which has the potential to change the world, is a powerful one.

Despite those difficult childhood experiences, his family life was solid. “My mother was meticulous,” he says, “incredibly ordered in her thinking and in her approach to service and work, and I think she bred in me and my sisters a conviction about doing things right.”

This conviction bore fruit in Mehrdad’s multiple degrees, always with distinction, culminating in a juris doctor in law. What stands out in hindsight is a period at Harvard Kennedy School during which he worked under Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling to study the emergence of cooperation using simulations. Mehrdad became fascinated by how people learn to hate, and conversely, by what cognitive skills could help protect them from bigotry, prejudice and corrosive ideologies. “I realized these games had power,” Mehrdad says, “we had stumbled upon a modern approach for a moral education.” It was a new idea, but one which resonated: the simulation was ultimately offered at the Business School, Law School and Kennedy School, and incorporated into the curriculum of 120 schools in Ontario. The seed planted at that time has today grown into one of the key building blocks of High Resolves.

After graduation, the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company snapped up the young Mehrdad. Although he laughs about having “disappeared into the corporate vortex” for about 10 years, he is grateful for that period. Co-leading McKinsey’s global growth practice, amongst other things, gave him profound insights. “It’s been central to how we have perceived the possibilities of High Resolves,” he says. 

Growing up, it frightened me to see smart people learn to hate so easily. And that’s what we’ve seen happening now. It’s what inspired me and my wife Roya to found High Resolves - to try to stop the contagion of hate.

Mehrdad Baghai

In 2005, Mehrdad became a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute. For him, the charge put forth by the Fellowship—to create an enduring enterprise that makes a significant difference to society—was a clear call to action. Now, married with a son and living in Sydney, Australia, he was adamant that whatever he built would not be another thing to take him away from his family.

So Mehrdad sat down with his wife, Roya, to explore options. Their thoughts turned to their son’s school in inner Sydney, and what they perceived to be an absence of citizenship training. They recalled the simulations from Mehrdad’s time at Harvard. Would these still be applicable? Their son’s school granted permission to run a pilot. The response was encouraging. It became clear, however, that a comprehensive and contemporary curriculum was needed, and so the two of them decided to create High Resolves. “One school became five,” says Mehrdad; then 15, then 20; some 13 years later, High Resolves is in more than 350 Australian high schools, and has launched in the US, Canada, China and Brazil. 

Naturally, along the way, there have been some of what Mehrdad calls “near-death experiences.”

Initially, High Resolves did not charge schools for the implementation of the program; it was fully funded by Mehrdad and Roya themselves. Later on, some corporate funders joined. “But the more schools we added, the bigger the funding gap became.” By 2011, it became clear that the team had to rethink the paradigm. Mehrdad and Roya devised a payment model which allowed growth to continue, and crisis was averted as additional revenue streams opened up. 

“In terms of software design and user experience, the Composer is revolutionary. If we are being thoughtful about the right organizational structure for this to thrive, it doesn’t really fit in a not-for-profit. It wants to be out there, so in the next months we are considering spinning it out as a for-profit tech venture in Silicon Valley.” This could be a clever way to generate an endowment to sustain and grow High Resolves

We can be as systematic about citizenship education as we are about core subjects. We have no choice but to do just that.

Mehrdad Baghai

Mehrdad and High Resolves have ambitious goals for the next five years: 20 to 30 hubs in the US; 20 more countries working with High Resolves; Videos for Change having a global momentum of its own; and the Composer used in tens of thousands of places.

But what most excites the team is the profound, personal impact the program has on young people. One graduate in Sydney, Annie, the daughter of an immigrant family from China, explains: “I was trying to figure out who I was, what I liked, what I thought was important in society. High Resolves taught me how to approach situations where there's evidence of inequality and that I can, in my own capacity, make a difference.” Annie attributes a shift in her own self-belief, and her pursuit of a career in shaping policy to support those most in need, to her experience with High Resolves.

It’s people like Annie who inspire Mehrdad. “What makes me hopeful,” he says, “is that I can see the change happen with one person. And then, when you see it happen with one, you see it with dozens and hundreds and thousands. I think in some ways what we do at High Resolves is we lift the trajectory of people's lives and point them towards what they were meant to do on this planet.”

view all impact stories