Risking my ‘school’ for my education

Isabella Grandic
11 min readNov 9, 2022

2 weeks before grade 11, I withdrew from high school.

I had no plan, just a desire for a bolder education. To see and *actually* do things in the world.

I was on a houseboat in Amsterdam, living and working with the daughter of the godfather of lab-grown meat. A year prior, I had no idea what lab-grown meat was.

It inspired me —

— the change a year can bring when you skip 70% of your classes to follow your curiosity.

For me, that looked like being the 15-year-old face of cellular agriculture. The girl who knew the distinguishing biochemical steps of Beyond vs Impossible vs Lab-grown meat products. The girl whose curiosity for the future of food was unbounded, so unbounded she nearly never went to school.

I knew I didn’t want to skip 70% of school anymore. I wanted 100%, at least for a year.

I pressed withdraw.

Days before withdrawing! With the best crew of women in Amsterdam.

My journey to being a grade 11 dropout

In grade 10, I found every (interesting) excuse not to go to school. Like:

  • Volunteering at the Toronto Machine Learning Summit (before I’d ever written a line of code).
  • Shadowing venture capitalists at the Creative Destruction Lab (before I knew what a venture or a capitalist was).
  • Doing a technical deep dive on the barrier of fetal bovine serum for lab-grown meat (before I understood any of the biochemistry around lab-growing meat).

I chased rare experiences whose ROIs (returns on investment) were interesting stories.

Each day I didn’t go to school, I made decisions that developed unique skills/stories/networks. By extension, I made the time I invested in school more valuable and efficient because it had to be. Parkinson’s law.

I condensed my “conventional” time investments (school) into the minimum amount viable to achieve my goals. Then, I maximized the rest as an 80/20 rule meets google calendar fanatic.

An example of my maximizing:

It started with an interest in vouching for sustainable biotechnologies for food! I literally watched a YouTube video that made me enthusiastic!… Then, I channelled my enthusiasm into a habit of article writing.

By writing articles dissecting cellular agriculture, I a) became a better writer, b) became deeply enthusiastic and knowledgeable of cell-grown foods and c) (unintentionally) became a corporate public speaker. From c), I found some of the most inspiring mentors and role models because of these rooms.

The ~timeline:

  1. Wrote 3 technical review articles on the future of cellular agriculture and published them on medium (no one was doing this at the time)
  2. I reached out to all the cell ag people I could find on LinkedIn and sent them my articles.
  3. Wrote 3 more
  4. Engulfed all research papers published in the last 5 years
  5. Wrote 3 more
  6. Did a hackathon project on one of the technical chasms I identified (cost and ethics of fetal bovine serum)
  7. Got invited to speak at the Royal Bank of Canada’s future talks (because I had a portfolio of interesting writing/takes on the future)
  8. That invite turned into one in Vancouver (BC Tech Summit), C2 Montreal, PWC, WNORTH, FITC, bla bla bla Canadian tech ecosystem conferences.
  9. And then I got my big ticket event: speaking at Microsoft’s all hands in Las Vegas. International travel. A free hotel room. A standing ovation :). From this, Vegas became my favourite city in the world. (To be fair, my world at the time = Canadian major cities, Las Vegas, Serbia and Bosnia to see my grandmas and an all-inclusive resort in Cuba my mother got an extremely good deal on)

I created a feedback loop of learning, then translated that knowledge into creations. That let me interface my education with the real world. From there, I built a network, personal confidence and a set of experiences that were not bounded by my school’s budget or the curriculum’s restrictions.

On stage in Copenhagen

Finding belonging through my sporadic learning sprees

I’ve always felt like there was more to the world. School’s culture of early specialization made me feel lost. I didn’t have a family of doctors to aspire to follow or an in to become a teacher. Instead, I had free range: a scary and sobering asset.

So if you’re wondering: the opportunities of the world motivate me.

The We Work office I’d come to everyday in 2019.

“you’re so lucky you went to a school where that was possible”

Actually, I didn’t! None of it was possible because none of it had been done before.

I spent a lot of time in the principal’s office pleading my case as to why my self-designed education was worth skipping my provided education. My argument was that I studied effectively for school (i.e., I got good grades with terrible attendance) and that I was building a life with real momentum outside of school. However, it is understandable that gene-editing Ecoli in my basement didn’t sound like momentum to everyone.

When my school eventually said no-more skipping, I pleaded my case to my mom, and by some stroke of faith, she chose to believe in me.

She called my school with a different excuse for my absense each time I wanted one. Poor Karen at the front desk thought I was dying with all my emergency dentist, family, optometry, ultrasound and radiology appointments.

I learned that when creating something new (like a totally non-understood trajectory for a 15-year-old), it’s a good idea to beg for forgiveness and not ask for permission. Because people won’t get it. If many people do get it, it’s probably not innovative.

Thus, my attendance sunk and my grades stayed high while doing random cool things that year. I studied for my tests on the subway to and from downtown Toronto. I came to school for the evaluations and went to the world for all else.

One morning in the girls’ changing room after gym, two months before the end of school, I had a “crazy thought.”

What if I could end my school year early? (by that point I’d already read through all my math and biology chapters and only had English and gym otherwise).

As a big believer of not-living-your-worst-case-scenario-on-purpose, I immediately trotted down to the principal’s office.

I told her my idea: to freeze my grades and finish grade 10 tomorrow.

She told me she didn’t know what to do with me.

Completely fair.

I was a misfit, not in the drugs way, but perhaps worse. I was challenging the system, her brain-child: the school, and doing things outside of school that didn’t have a nice label like “Deca” or “Debate.” A girl on an unknown path with an unknown outcome: terrifying in a world that places people in boxes. Like Shrödinger’s cats.

I tried to explain to her how machine learning and biotechnology will take over the world in the next ten years, and I wanted to get ahead of the curb.

She told me that she’s never seen a kid quite like me.

Compulsively strange? Can’t have a conversation about the weather but can talk for 3 hours about myosatellite stem cells?

Enthusiastic about learning.

Isn’t it ironic that I would so desperately want to leave the system of school, whose purpose is for young people to learn? Perhaps it’s not irony, but an exposure of the flaws.

We bantered and brainstormed.

My 15-year-old ignorance and optimism for the world eventually got her to exclaim, “what the heck… but I have no idea how to make this happen since you’re a minor but… let’s try.”

We found all the loopholes together. She believed in my education plan.

So no, I didn’t go to a school with a clear-cut program for nerdy rascals or specialized academic attention. I went to a school where my mother had to fake chronic health conditions for me to go do my thing in the world. But in the end, they saw that I wasn’t letting my schooling interfere with my education. So yeah, I am lucky that after many no’s and complaints I got a yes. I made it possible.

This all reminds me of my north start quote, “In order to achieve unconventional success you need to take an unconventional path” 🌞.

Now, to the Netherlands… 🇳🇱

An interview I did with Madelaine Petsch from my Toronto office!!

Going all-out

On the day of my 16th birthday, I hosted Europe’s first alternative protein show with a wonderful organization, Kind Earth Tech. I gave a talk in front of my biggest idols at the time (CEOs of cellular agriculture startups), and afterwards, the CEO of Mosa Meat told me I was inspiring. I am wordless, still.

Randomly, a few days later, I got a call from the director of the program that opened my eyes to innovation and unconventionalism in the first place (The Knowledge Society). He offered me a job helping the startup scale from Toronto to 5 cities in North America. He saw my love of learning and spirit too. I was going to be a Program Success Manager.

I emailed my principal. She connected me to the vice principal because, presumably, she had better problems than my winding road. I told my Vice Principal that I had no plan other than this job but that I still thought it was my best shot at building a life with real impact.

I am sure he thought I was crazy, but crazy in an entertaining way. We worked together to find all the loopholes to get me out of school (believe it or not, the government wants 16-year-olds in school!), and he asked me to email him monthly. I did. From the train from LA to San Diego, once at 2am eating a pretzel in the Munich airport, and occasionally from my office in downtown Toronto, overlooking the CN Tower.

Long-story short it was a transformative year. (e.g., spoke at the world’s largest tech conference, helped manage a program of 500+ students, and developed my passion for women’s health…).

And after it all, I decided I wanted to go back to school, finish grade 12 and go to university. So I taught myself the grade 11 STEM curriculum (physics, math, chemistry, biology) the summer before grade 12 and took challenge exams to get the credits. Grade 12 was during COVID, so I studied my courses mostly online and kept working for TKS, and by this time I had a maternal mortality research group building a project in rural Nigeria.

I didn’t let my schooling interfere with my education.

I loved my life because it was filled with intellectual challenges and education without (what I felt like was) the exhausting social life of high school. I mean, my high school was literally the place they filmed Mean Girls. I wasn’t exactly popular, especially not with my new-found postpartum hemorrhaging (prevention) conversation interest.

My strange education brought me to a place of pure happiness. Pure self-acceptance.

Berkely, California, 2020: a picture of me with a band I randomly stumbled upon whose music brought me to tears. I was 16 here!

Weird path ya followed Iz. How’s uni?

The reality is that I’m a nerd. A nerd who’s somehow signed a lot of NDAs, who’s been in some of the world’s most innovative rooms, at events with celebrities, and it’s all because I made decisions that went many standard deviations away from the mean.

I have learned to live off of novel, risky decisions. I have found my core eudaimonia there.

Uni, in particular, the fact that I live in a small town whose entire identity (more/less) is the university, has required some recalibration. I find the intellectual portion extremely stimulating; I feel so energized by the technical things I am learning (yay lipid nanoparticles, drug design and the inner workings of pregnancy tests!).

But I struggle where I’ve always struggled: the conversations about the weather, bonding over sports and feeling claustrophobic in a place where people generally follow convention. (Convention, stability, legacy, etc. are not inherently bad things, they are not adjectives that align with the path I want to waddle down).

Specifically, I struggle with people understanding me and my life and ambitions. It can be lonely.

I’ve had to focus on the value of uni education and drop the feathers that don’t matter to me. (i.e., I’m a work-in-progress).

Some great people I stumbled into along the way ❤ (Picture in St.George, Utah)

My Core Lessons from a Self-Designed Education

It has truly been a heck of a ride whose flight is just peeling off the tarmac…a very Ted Lasso way of saying my journey’s just beginning.

While I’ve struggled with community and belonging, I have thrived on my autonomy, passion and experiences. It’s an education I wouldn’t trade for anything because I am proud of what I’ve created (and will create).

Here are the three iron-nickel alloys in my planet of self-designed-education:

  1. I chase things I am under-experienced in but fascinated by. Example: when I was 17, I dissected the ‘gold-standard’ Ph.D. thesis on misoprostol distribution, all 300 pages. It took me three weeks and lots of googling, but I learned more from that experience than from any global studies-related class in school. I created a level of expertise for drug distribution in low-resource areas because of the Ph.D. thesis and accompanying research I dissected. When you do hard things, you lift your bar for what is possible, and you can do even harder things in the future.
  2. Conversations with people are the most valuable learning. Human connection is my education’s single-most leveraging element because people inspire me and have helped me more than Google ever will. Most things in life, the law, business, communication and institutions, are human-created and human-run. Connections go further than knowledge.
  3. I love what I love unapologetically. The journey to a self-designed education can be lonely and daunting; it is essential to remember the love behind it all. For me, the prospect of creating innovation in the world was a deeper love than all the other fears combined.

The particular challenge with self-designed education while pursuing pre-designed education is that their values often clash.

Let’s compare my three above to pre-designed education:

  1. You can only go to things you’re qualified to be in. Classes have prerequisites and entry restrictions (like your grade or major), and it’s hard for hustlers who want to push their bounds to thrive — we can’t get in. You’re constantly at a “level” and trying to make it through the next checkpoint.
  2. Think about lectures, points, memorization and so forth. None of these systems maximize human connections.
  3. School is riddled with a culture of complaining: the curve should have been fairer, the test was not representative to the homework, we have to do this awful assignment. The reality is that we GET to do these things. There are millions of people who would switch lives with us at any moment. We GET to have an education, to be challenged, to learn. I could find more community in school if there was more of a culture of appreciating the learning even when it’s hard.

To the dreamers and rule-breakers who can’t find their groove in the four walls of education: reap what you can. There is value, there is merit, and there’s probably a future best friend somewhere in the crowd. Don’t give up on building an authentic education for yourself because you see no one else doing it. Be the person who inspires others, not the one who has to be inspired.

There’s a lot more to my educational philosophy, but for now, let’s stop here and start crafting.

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Isabella Grandic

Aspiring healthcare infrastructure designer, technologist and scientist.