Welcome to The Higher Edge Podcast!
Aug. 30, 2022

The Importance of the Thoughtful Question (featuring David Potash)

Everyone learns differently, but simply asking the right questions can open doors to innovation and growth.

David Potash, President of Wilbur Wright College, City Colleges of Chicago, stresses that real questions are critical to the human educational experience. We can learn from each other by giving people in the higher ed community spaces to collaborate and make better decisions together.

After all, the only bad question is the one that goes unasked.

Join us as we discuss:

- The importance of asking questions and how they shape us (3:31)

- Higher ed’s role in supporting America’s Latino students (20:04)

- How to measure student success beyond job placement (28:26)

Check out these resources we mentioned during the podcast:

- David Potash

- Wilbur Wright College, City Colleges of Chicago

- The Digital Quad

- Excelencia in Education

To hear this interview and many more like it, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or our website or search for The Higher Edge in your favorite podcast player.


[00:00:00] Announcer: Welcome to The Higher Edge, a podcast for the brightest minds in higher education. Hear from the change makers and rulebreakers that are driving meaningful, impactful change for colleges and universities across the country. From improving operations to supporting student success. These are the stories that give you, "The Higher Edge".

[00:00:30] And now your host, Brendan Aldrich. 

[00:00:34] Brendan Aldrich: Hey everyone, I'm Brendan Aldridge and I'm here today with David Potash, president of Wilbur Wright College, which is part of the City Colleges of Chicago, located on the north side of that Great. David, welcome to the show and thanks so much for joining us here on the Higher Edge!

[00:00:48] David Potash: Oh, thank you so much for the invitation, Brendan. It's a delight to be here and to spend time with you 

[00:00:54] Brendan Aldrich: and with you too. You know, David, when I first began working in higher education, I read an article [00:01:00] called The Hardest Job in the World, and it's not what you think it is, and it was about the job of community college.

[00:01:07] Uh, it talked about how, for example, a, a private company ceo E o can tell people where they want to go, but a community college president has to not lead from behind, but be more of a catalyst for change. I mean, does that resonate with your experience? 

[00:01:21] David Potash: I guess it's sort of flattering to be told that you have the hardest job in the world, but I, I don't know if I would necessarily buy into that.

[00:01:28] There's so many more, so many other professions that I think involve. Well, uh, just a whole lot other kinds of measures of difficulty that I, I'd be loath, sort of put myself out there. What I would say is, um, it's extraordinarily gratifying work, Brendan, and it's also pretty complicated work because we're, we're open institutions, which means we're responsive and re accountable to all kinds of different stakeholders, all kinds of different people, which means change is [00:02:00] woven into this kind of, Uh, with that opportunity with change though comes that opportunity of really making a difference.

[00:02:06] And while, uh, it is a lot of work, it's, it's really good work. And I think for speaking for the colleagues that I know, I think we're all very, very, Grateful to be in a position where we think we can do, uh, we can make a difference in the educational world. 

[00:02:21] Brendan Aldrich: When you talk about community colleges being an open institution, you actually reminded me of something I remembered.

[00:02:26] Uh, chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley had said, uh, whose chancellor for the California Community College System, uh, a number of years ago when he was talking about selective enrollment for some colleges, uh, as compared to community college. Mm-hmm. . And he said, we serve the top 100% of student. And I thought that was just a great quote to talk about how accessible community colleges are in comparison.

[00:02:46] I could 

[00:02:46] talk, 

[00:02:47] David Potash: uh, briefly about that because I, I think one of the ways in which, uh, higher education, education, society, sometimes, um, the shortest way of sort of making believe that you have [00:03:00] something special is to deny access, right? When we think of like, where you really wanna go for a restaurant, well, if there's a velvet rope outside, it's gotta be exclusive and it's gotta be better.

[00:03:11] That isn't always the case. I like to think of, uh, community colleges as, uh, democratic institutions, which means that we value every student, and while we may tailor different programs and supports and structures to the needs and wants of each individual student, that doesn't make us any. Less, uh, uh, quality focused.

[00:03:34] It makes us a little more quality focused, just in a different way. We just get there without saying no. I'm sorry you're not on the list. 

[00:03:42] Brendan Aldrich: Speaking about getting on the list, I recently started following your blog, the Digital Quad, located for everybody else at www.thedigitalquad.com, and I noticed what I thought was a, a minor theme across several posts where you talked about the importance.

[00:03:58] Questions, whether it was [00:04:00] your thoughts on Val Lu's book, uh, tell me how it ends, or even more specifically in discussing how to Ask Real questions, which was an idea from The Coaching Habit by Michael Stanier. Tell me how this idea of not just asking questions, but good questions or real questions might help shape the way you like to lead or, or just the approach and the way you interact with others.

[00:04:23] David Potash: I guess I'll start by thanking you for reading the blog . Um, my, of course my eldest, she once described it as a, a very time intensive way, an expensive way of me having a conversation with myself cuz I, I don't really do it and expect a whole lot of people to read it. Going to your, your point about questioning, part of the reason I, I do.

[00:04:43] Read and write about What I read and ask questions about what I read is that I think that we, we learn in large part by asking questions. We learn by posing things, pondering things, trying to sort stuff out. [00:05:00] And that usually comes not from directives. From kind of posing to the things that we don't know that we are unsure of.

[00:05:08] And I use the blog space as I do a lot of my day-to-day with my job of really thinking about how do we think about respond or work in a collaborative environment and educational environment, which is right inherently about learning to make things better, better for our students, better for ourselves.

[00:05:30] Books that I like reading and I comment on in the digital quad are mostly. , lightly red. I guess that would be the best way to put it. And, uh, , it's, it's not everybody who sits down and and goes, wow, that's a fascinating book about the value proposition of public education. And in, I'm very, very fortunate in my, in my position, in my role to sort of be able to do certain things, but I've also not afforded many [00:06:00] opportunities to sort of sit around the table quite the same way and say, well, what do you think?

[00:06:07] what do you think is going on here and for leadership? In my role, and I think for leadership in an educational environment while decision making and being, you know, the buck stops here, in that hairs Truman kind of way is, is absolutely essential. There's usually more than one way to affect change, and there's usually multiple voices and the more voices you have around the.

[00:06:32] The better off you're gonna be in terms of your decision making. So that leads me in large part to think quite a bit about questions, questions about intentionality, questions about what we know, what we don't know, questions about how we act, how we bring different people to the table. And I will be the first to admit I don't have it sorted out.

[00:06:52] And the more I read, the more I learn. The more I need to ask questions. 

[00:06:57] Brendan Aldrich: You know, a lot of times when you are earlier in [00:07:00] your career or you're in a role that has less individual authority, you know, sometimes people can feel very trapped, especially if people aren't asking them for their input, their thoughts.

[00:07:10] There's sometimes where they feel like there's more that they can do or that they should do, but that they wouldn't get the approval to do it or people wouldn't care what their thoughts were on it. I think that's a, a great opportunity, the way you talk about asking question. To bring that out because there is that place in the evolution of one's career where you begin to see what's possible ways to serve your constituents that are maybe more innately, if not explicitly part of your job description.

[00:07:35] Does that sound familiar from, from your experience in, in terms of growth in your career and how you make that change? From what my job is to, uh, what I could do, 

[00:07:43] David Potash: it does resonate with me. I think part. Stems in, in, in a certain degree from the language we use. Um, do we think about jobs? Do we think about titles?

[00:07:55] Do we think about responsibilities or do we think about, uh, some [00:08:00] combination thereof? One of my, uh, favorite sort of early leadership business books, and I got this from a, a job coach decades ago, is the first 90 days, a Harvard Business Review, uh, book by Michael Johnson. It's about the, a study he did about, uh, uh, executives going into a new role and it maps out.

[00:08:19] There are some self-reflection, some, some, some tasks, some responsibilities. Underline it all is this idea that, uh, in the first 90 days, you, you have an opportunity to, to understand a new role, to understand a new organization, to set things up in a particular way, that it's gonna increase your, your likelihood of success.

[00:08:37] One of the takeaways from that book that has, has stayed with me is that, in an, in an interesting leadership role, and it's not even necessarily a, a leadership role where you have a cool office or something nice, but basically just where you've got a complicated kind of job, you are going to be interacting with different types of people and different types of functions over the course of the day.

[00:08:58] And some of those are gonna be [00:09:00] in great shape and they're not gonna need a heck of a lot of attention. You're doing wonderful Brendan. Your company, your section of the company, your team is fantastic. Later on in the day, you might be meeting with somebody else who has lost three people, hasn't quite got their act together, and they're gonna need a whole lot more of attention and a whole lot more of structure.

[00:09:19] No one's job description is gonna be able to explain that wide variation in how you help different functions, how you help different people achieve their success. You gotta figure that out and learn from it. How are you gonna increase student? There is no one way to increase student engagement. There's no way to increase student engagement.

[00:09:40] Even for one student. This might work this month, but next month she might want something different. The interaction, and going back to your earlier question about questions, the, the looking at the data, the paying attention, the listening, that means that you kind of have to keep asking questions and keep poking a little bit if you're gonna achieve those ends.[00:10:00] 

[00:10:00] And over time, That poking and that challenging those boundaries, you get a little better about it. You realize you don't need approval to make that change. What you need is an understanding of what the organization can support, what aligns with an organization's values and how to go forward, and you know what works for that student.

[00:10:19] Those students who sit in the front row and stare at you with those big eyes and take notes doesn't work for those in the back who are leaning back. Somewhat cynical look, and we'll occasionally copy that email and ask you that question back up. So there's no one best way to teach all students. You gotta tailor it a little bit, and you don't necessarily always get the approval or structure to change this assignment or that assignment.

[00:10:45] But the more you pay attention to people, when you ask 'em questions any more, you make that adjustment. . 

[00:10:50] Brendan Aldrich: Well, it's interesting when you talk about, uh, engagement, especially when you talk about in a classroom scenario over the last couple of years, it's been interesting as I've talked with VPs of instruction and [00:11:00] provost at different colleges who have said, you know, there's this entirely different scenario now, especially with some institutions where the camera's not on or not required to be on.

[00:11:09] And uh, I had one, uh, VP of instruction who said this to me who said, it's just when you're in the classroom and you can see when a student feels. What she called uncomfortable in their seats. And, uh, and you can know, okay, let me stop and go back. Let me, let me reengage this in a different way. And then of course, in the pandemic, everybody shifted to virtual learning.

[00:11:28] And without being able to see that, it created a whole new challenge for faculty in terms of how do we, how do we engage with these students and actually know that we're helping the students who need it. 

[00:11:39] David Potash: It's been just an, an unbelievable challenge for faculty, teachers, all the rest and, and I. You know, I'm, I'm no technophobe.

[00:11:50] I, I was involved way back in the nineties with early efforts and online learning, training, all the rest of it. I, I love the innovation. We've gotten so [00:12:00] much better in so many different ways. It's, it's flattened out organizations. It's provided ease of access, all sorts of wonderful things. All that on the positive side of the.

[00:12:12] But you know, one of the things that, that came away that I read about early on is, you know, when people thought Facebook started that, um, you know, we'd just be really, really happy about, uh, seeing people on social media. And then a couple years into it, some smart social scientists found out that what it did is it actually increased travel because you'd see somebody on Facebook like, oh my, , I haven't seen so-and-so in Texas in ages.

[00:12:36] I gotta make a vacation and go to see so-and-so in Texas, uh, there's something parallel I think that happens in the classroom and something parallel that happens with learning. It's, um, it's inherently an uncomfortable process when we learn. We, we, we have to be uncomfortable in many ways for any change to take place, for anything to stick.

[00:12:58] And, uh, someone [00:13:00] who's a good teacher, someone who's a good. Going back to your example has a really good sense of just how much discomfort a student can handle in what format so that they can learn. Good teachers know how much to stretch, how much to challenge, and when to say, here, come back and just hang on the side of the pool.

[00:13:20] And um, that's very, very hard to do even with the best VR sets. 

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[00:14:29] Brendan Aldrich: One of the things that I really enjoyed about working in college systems like, uh, like the California State University or, or even the City Colleges of Chicago or IP Tech, is the community that's involved.

[00:14:41] I probably have never worked with as many mission driven people in any other industry as, as when I began working. Higher education. Just having those people, no matter what their role is, their role could be on the service desk in it. It could be in advising or teaching or enrollment management, but just [00:15:00] everyone really trying to put that thought forward about how, how.

[00:15:03] Is what I'm doing going to help support students better or help to promote student success or organizational capability. And is that, I would assume, a message that you are often pro, uh, advancing to your teams that, that this is, we're all part of a machine that's here working to improve efficiency and to serve students.

[00:15:24] Am I off base on that? Yeah, I think you're 

[00:15:26] David Potash: totally correct. I, I would use, uh, family as the metaphor as opposed to machine. That though their, their benefits to machine because families don't necessarily have outcomes and, um, we definitely want outcomes. So we are in many ways, a, a functional machine i'd, I'd hearken back to a little bit of like, you know, I'm a historian that's underlying training.

[00:15:48] The, the two most durable, uh, institutions or structural institutions in sort of human history are, uh, places of. Followed by places of education [00:16:00] and usually higher education. And there are reasons that they are so durable. They're so much special places they have special architecture. We go to them at.

[00:16:10] Unique times where our behavior is somewhat different and they offer us both something that, that, uh, matters to us individually, but they also offer us something that matters to us in terms of a, uh, something that's bigger than ourselves, something that's larger and when it works well, a great sense of community and identity that's very, very different from a job.

[00:16:35] You can say, I work for so-and-so, and we often do, I work for this university, I work for that college. But being part of the college or being part of, uh, a university, I mean even the very language of tenure, right, that came from the Middle Ages, that was a free person who gave up sort of their, uh, part of their freedom in order to pledge a responsibility to a town, to a community.

[00:16:59] When you're, when [00:17:00] you're part. Educational community that's functioning well. You, you access that sense of identity, you access that sense of, um, purpose. And you do it with like-minded souls. When you're part of that community, which you talked about, where you see people who get really, really excited because they graduated, that student got a job, that student's coming back and says, yo, you know what really mattered to me, professor?

[00:17:23] Remember when you told me and you don't, but you sort of say, yo, of course I do. That's a, that's a very, very good way to, to make a living and to, to make a positive difference. I was 

[00:17:35] Brendan Aldrich: thinking, as you were talking about that I, I started my career in higher education with the City Colleges of Chicago, and one thing that people might not know is that when you're an employee of the city colleges or of Chicago, you are an employee of the city.

[00:17:47] and that means that you need to live inside the city, which meant that all of the people that you worked with at all the colleges and the district office were all living down the street from you or a couple of neighborhoods over from you. And it really does create [00:18:00] exactly what you talked about, that feeling of community, knowing that you're all bound into this organization that's really trying to make a, a positive difference.

[00:18:08] And I, I was fascinated by that and that was something that's made an impact on me, even as I've continued to move forward in my. 

[00:18:14] David Potash: It's more than a job. It, it becomes part of a lifestyle, and if you pick the right place and you embrace it, it becomes a part of who you are. 

[00:18:22] Brendan Aldrich: Now moving a little bit from the, the college and the community into some of the other organizations that support higher education.

[00:18:29] Uh, you've been involved with a group called X Education, which is an organization that promotes a, a trust-based approach to Latino student success. and they've recently published a report called Beyond Completion Post-Completion Efforts at Hispanic Serving Institutions, which I thought promoted some really very cool concepts like embracing innovative measures to track post-completion beyond the traditional salary and job placement metrics.

[00:18:53] They talk about looking at social capital. Or economic mobility priced earnings premium and others, [00:19:00] I'd love to hear with your involvement with that group and with groups like that, your thoughts on supporting Latino students and the idea of institutions having a role beyond just degree conferral. I 

[00:19:10] David Potash: have to start with a, a giant shout out to excelia in education.

[00:19:15] I, I, I met Deborah Santiago, one of the co CEOs early. With her and the organization, I have learned so much from them. They have challenged me, supported me, provided information, structure opportunities, a data informed way of, uh, really asking hard questions of. Of academics and institutions and broader structures.

[00:19:41] There are a growing number of HSIs in this country that's a Hispanic serving institutions. They are, um, mostly public institutions, two year and foyer. And as Hispanics are the largest growing demographic, big picture in the us, how higher education in particular [00:20:00] public higher education makes a commitment to these.

[00:20:04] Um, and how we follow through on that promise and how that challenges and upsets and, uh, just makes us rethink a lot of existing higher ed structures. It's, it's, it's extraordinarily important for the students, their families, their communities. It's also standing on a little bit of a, uh, uh, uh, soapbox here.

[00:20:21] It's really very important for the country. What's our commitment and why is that happening? So starting with that, with Excelia. , the discussions about post-completion outcomes. Um, we were invited, uh, to take part in that and it was very much an open-ended process. Uh, we've got some really, really smart, talented researchers at Excelencia.

[00:20:44] They brought a number of institutions together and they, they really engaged us in an iterative process where two year and four year institutions, all of us had expressed a commitment to. More and paying more attention to, uh, Latino student success. [00:21:00] What are our obligations? What do we know? What don't we know on?

[00:21:04] What should we know? I'm cautious about using the term should and usually in my arguments, but I think it's in this point, it's, it's applicable as a, a sense of intentionality about the lives of our student. After they leave our campuses. For me personally, one of the things that it, it, it, it did is it, it activated two strands of thought that have been present in my career, one of which went back to the kind of the individual level.

[00:21:28] And I, I learned this, uh, working with some very, very talented people at CUNY about measuring not only completions, but through Baruch and the Zitlin School of Business outcomes for students. Undergraduate and graduate business programs. And that's a, that's a very, very common measure, particularly at the graduate level.

[00:21:46] You go for an mba, a student really wants to know, well, I've spent 18 months, X number of dollars. What's the new job gonna look like? What's the delta between the before and after? Because it's, you know, they're doing the math. It [00:22:00] makes total, total sense. And specialized programs make value promises to students at an individual level.

[00:22:08] You know, we, we have obligations if we're going to take someone's time and their money, but especially their time. That's a commitment we have. We have to follow up. We have to be really certain that if we say you learn A, B, and c, D is gonna be your outcome. And that's something that I think we all of us in higher education can do a better job with.

[00:22:28] And it's. Big issue for all of us in the community college world because so many of the students use us as stepping stones to longer journeys, and we don't have really good data about that. So that's one bucket. The other bucket is really about the public good of higher education. And this is something that there's, there's really good research, but somewhere along the way in the past couple decades, I think that's been lost from the public discourse, the value of a public [00:23:00] education to a community that it serves, and how that can help really the entire community.

[00:23:07] Brendan Aldrich: It just made me think as you were talking, the focus that you talk about, there's so much of a focus on, uh, what job did they get, how much are they making as soon as they get their degree and move beyond. But, uh, as you started to express all the different ways that there is an impact that students are having on our society or the, or on their communities, it made me think of some of the work going on in correctional education.

[00:23:26] where they've shown that education, uh, significantly drops recidivism rates, which isn't necessarily something that you're going to measure with a paycheck or a job title. And in fact, I was, uh, I, I was myself surprised to learn that the, due to some of the difficulties of incarcerated, uh, students and incarcerated peoples in being employed after their release, that one of the number one jobs that they move into is entre.

[00:23:53] Uh, and that's just another example of, I think what you're talking about, that idea that we need to find other ways to measure student success [00:24:00] beyond, uh, what job did they get and, and how much are they making. That's 

[00:24:03] David Potash: a really great point, Brendan. What's the old saying? You know, you, you measure what matters to you and what matters to you.

[00:24:10] It's the thing you wanna measure. Going back to what I said earlier, the many of us in higher education, I think. Too much caught up in a short term economic value proposition that, uh, oh, if I go to college, I will get X job and make X amount of money. Um, I think the pandemic has humbled a lot of us has had, uh, you know, our, every, what is it, every 10 years, the financial crisis or whatever happens, whatever.

[00:24:37] I've not an economist, whatever that cycle may be. It's really, really important to have a good job, to have a career, to be able to, uh, live a, a, a solid middle class lifestyle with healthcare benefits, good school, good communities, all of the rest. I also think that, um, a lot of people really want, [00:25:00] uh, meaning in their lives and they want to contribute.

[00:25:03] And when I talk to students, uh, regardless of the institution, For the vast majority, a real sense of, uh, people wanting to do something that matters with their life. And when a in a higher education system listens to students and provides them an opportunity to do what matters, it's not like everybody wants to become a finance multimillionaire.

[00:25:27] We got lots of people who want to teach. We got lots of people who wanna do social work. We got lots of people who want to be nurses, who want to be that work in in, in criminal justice. Study invertebrates or whatever it might be, and those kinds of things in terms of measuring happiness, that's a, you know, if we care about that, we'll, we'll probably do a better job in figuring out how to measure it and maybe come up with some cool way of showing that, uh, investing in people is really one of the best investments we can make.


[00:25:57] Brendan Aldrich: am gonna circle back around a little bit to, to something we talked about in the [00:26:00] very beginning. We talked about the community college president as a catalyst for, for change within a community college and leading your institution into a place where it, it can grow and evolve and adapt. What inspires you, uh, in your role, whether it's work related or not work related, but what inspires you each day as you're moving?

[00:26:21] each day for inspiration. . 

[00:26:25] David Potash: That's a, that's a, that's a, that's a tough one. I, I find sources of inspiration or things that give me energy pretty much every time I slow down and try very hard not to rush to the next meeting or rush to the next email. Um, That I listen and I pay closer attention, and that, that shows up in all manner, ways.

[00:26:51] It shows up when you talk to students and you, you hear about what gets them fired up about class and what gets [00:27:00] them really excited about the next thing they're gonna learn and do. I'm, I'm fortunate enough to, to been doing this long enough that I, I get to interact with a, a number of other folks in higher education.

[00:27:11] I have different perspectives and I hear. All of the innovation and I think, oh, wouldn't that be cool for us to try this? Oh, wouldn't that be good to that? The thing that I guess is, is sort of like, if you want a theme to that or a little bit of a structure that I'm a sucker for democracy with a small d.

[00:27:29] I, I very much have that hardwired into me. And, and that, that means for me that one of the things that I can do in, in a leadership role in higher education, or at least in my college, is try to create spaces where we can bring different people together and let them know that what they have to say matters.

[00:27:52] And we're gonna take it. There are very few students, particularly in public higher education, that have had a clear [00:28:00] path to anything. And, uh, this isn't to, to sort of, um, you know, paint, paint any in heroic colors. That's not how most people think about themselves. If you'd stop and, and listen and provide the support and provide the structure though, find out that, um, it's not.

[00:28:22] For many students to get a college education and to carve a path. There's a lot of hurdles. There are a lot of steps in the way. It's, uh, you know, the old cliche about it taking a village, um, it. It takes a lot of professionals too. , and, and when you listen and create those paths, you know, uh, for all of us, I'm sure too for listening to all the rest of it, it, it wasn't a straight linear path.

[00:28:48] We do a, you know, do some straight line and everything works out. There are all sorts of stuff in the way and we wanna reflect on it at least. Definitely true. For me, it's. advice of [00:29:00] mentors, advice of faculty, advice of family and friends that have sort of re steered things and, uh, reoriented things so that you end up in a place where you can kind of reflect and be pretty grateful.

[00:29:11] Brendan Aldrich: I know I am David. When you talk about advice, that's part of what we're doing with the HigherEd is trying to, to relay the stories and the experiences of people that are in higher education, uh, so that listeners have a chance to kind of learn from that themselves. Is there a piece of advice or something from your own career, your own perspective that you might share with people that could help give them a bit of the higher.

[00:29:34] David Potash: If I could give one piece of advice in that framework, I would strongly encourage the thoughtful question, the carefully considered request. Uh, it more often than not will surprise you that if you pose it, you'll get someone to pay attention to you and listen and get back. If you don't ask, if you don't make that request, you'll never know.

[00:29:59] [00:30:00] Questions and asking are what fuel change and innovation and growth. So keep the questions coming, 

[00:30:08] Brendan Aldrich: David. Great, great insight. Thank you, by the way, thank you so much for coming on to the show and for everybody listening, I know that they can follow your blog@thedigitalquad.com. Are there other ways that people can reach out to you if they'd like to continue the convers.

[00:30:21] David Potash: Absolutely. I'm fairly active on LinkedIn. Easy to find, uh, de Potash, and I would be delighted to hear from 

[00:30:28] Brendan Aldrich: you. That's gonna be it for this episode. Thank you very much everybody, and we'll be talking to you soon. 

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[00:30:39] Leave us a review if you loved the show, and be sure to connect with Brendan on Linked. Know someone who's making big changes at their higher ed institution that belongs on this podcast. Drop us a line at podcasts@thehigheredge.com. The Higher Edge is sponsored by Invoke Learning in partnership with Westport [00:31:00] Studios.

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