Our Story


MHA Labs stands for the means and measures of human achievement. Our singular focus is to build and translate the 21st century skills of young people towards personal, community and economic success.

MHA Labs’ long-term vision is to help youth development systems become more effective at producing an equitable pipeline of 21st century college and career ready youth. This vision is not unique to MHA Labs but our pragmatic blend of collective impact, systems engineering and high quality tool design may offer results not realized by other system approaches.


MHA Labs does not focus on developing new policies though we inadvertently create them. We do not require organizations to transact better together, though we often accomplish this.  We do not require organizations to commit to anything, though our commitments are strong.  Instead, our strategic goal is provide every adult working with a young person a set of simple skill-building strategies.

By incrementally adding skills engagement in daily life, we radically increase the number of adults providing 21st century skills learning and feedback. For example, when every teacher in a school adds just one collaborative activity a year, youth experience a multiplier effect of up to 8 collaborative skill-building experiences. When a large entry-level retailer asks supervisors to give regular feedback, 1000’s of employees begin to learn on the job. When a parent closes each day with a positive skills affirmation, children get 365 days of parental inspiration.

This operating strategy is called Radical Incrementalism. This occurs when large numbers of stakeholders change incrementally to produce radical systems level impact. Rather than a small number of stakeholders making radical change to produce incremental isolated impact. Right now, millions of young people are living in crisis and years of isolated, expensive interventions are not yielding results at scale. MHA Labs blend of community organizing with systems engineering may provide a new, more realistic, model for transforming youth outcomes.

Founding Story – From Start-Up to Scale


Issue Organizing Business Models Produce Market Pull

Due to MHA Labs unique founding and issue organizing business model, 100% of scale has been “pulled” into the youth development system rather than pushed upon it. In the summer of 2011, The Chicago Public Schools requested that Leslie Beller, a youth policy strategist at the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, create a work-based learning screening assessment for their 900-person summer internship program. The prototype Employability Assessment was researched, designed and implemented the following fall with over 300 teachers and 16,000 students in 60 schools. Concurrently, other key Chicago program and policy organizations were exploring the shift towards prioritizing 21st century skills in their programming.

Due to this high visibility, within the first year, Leslie Beller fielded adoption requests from After School Matters, The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the District of Columbia Public Schools Office of Career and Technical Education, the City of St. Paul Job Corps, Chicago Department of Family and Support Services and other policy and youth serving organizations. These organizations became early adopters of the Employability Assessment who additionally drew the work into new youth development sectors such as out-of-school time programs offering arts and sports.  Based on this immediate scaled traction, Leslie Beller was asked to serve on a variety of college and career readiness committees at the city, state and national level further showcasing the work.

This early success of the Employability Assessment success closely matched with the goals of a new innovation fund from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation called the New Options Project. This initiative sought to improve outcomes for opportunity youth through the creation of new market tools and services. After a period of exploration and negotiation, Leslie Beller and the Chicago Public Schools became the New Options Project Chicago Zone anchor tasked with reinventing the Employability Assessment into the Human Achievement Toolkit.

To drive reinvention, early adopter partners were invited to become co-creators of the Human Achievement Toolkit.  This group was expanded to include a wide range of representatives from public, private and community organizations who collaborated for 5 months to create the new Toolkit. Representatives also included youth and parents from diverse Chicago communities. This issue-organizing strategy was intentionally used to mitigate future adoption complications typical to top-down reforms which polarize institutions against front-line youth developers. This is a particular concern in the high-stakes field of assessments and program evaluation. By establishing all of our potential users (and detractors) as partners, we had 100% adoption upon the beta release of the tools. As a result, our engagement model eliminated the significant push-pull market tension of tools that are developed in isolation.  After the first implementation in summer and fall 2013, 100% of partners remain committed and are now collaborating to expand and validate the suite of tools MHA Labs is making available for free or at-cost to the national youth development community.

It is also important to note how positioning the work inside the Chicago Public Schools significantly impacted adoption. There was hesitancy in the New Options Project to engage with the public education system for its obvious weaknesses in serving and valuing opportunity youth. Not typically seen as capable of innovating, public schools were not perceived as New Options candidates for innovation. Though, the actual market dynamics of youth reform greatly benefit from public school partnerships if managed under the right leadership.

First, CPS provided a built in influence strategy. In any youth development system, the public school district serves as the primary policy driver for skills-development reform. Any organization seeking to align to or partner with a school district will adopt the same tools and framework.  Having the Chicago Public Schools be the lead developer and user of record allowed the Employability Assessment and later the Human Achievement Toolkit to scale rapidly as a youth development and school reform tool. This allowed MHA Labs to transcend the status of being just another educational vendor seeking to “sell” into the skills reform market. Additionally, CPS being the third largest U.S. school district, enabled Leslie Beller to access a level of policy reform committees, which went to further spread awareness of the tool.

Second, designing a new tool within the confines of your largest and most operationally complex client forces a high level of user-driven design research and rigor not typically needed for a beta intervention.  MHA Labs never intended to be a boutique intervention and designed for city-wide “pull” adoption from day one. New interventions are typically designed to target a smaller set of willing schools and programs and scale out after 3-4 years. Unfortunately, history shows, that their evidence-based outcomes often do not scale since they are researched under “ideal” not typical conditions. Meeting the needs of CPS teacher ratio of 1 to 150 forced MHA Labs to create a streamlined and easy to use set of standards, tools and assessments. This practicality is now responsible for our widespread adoption across all eight stakeholder groups. A recent tweet from a new user summarized MHA Labs work as “Easy, Accessible and Sharable”.

Finally, to drive a larger social impact, MHA Labs wanted its culturally competent standards to be first to the public school market to mitigate the potential racial and ethnic stratification caused by other frameworks and assessments entering the market. MHA Labs was also adamant about having a tool that could intervene to limit the pipeline of new opportunity youth while also effectively support out-of-school and out-of-work youth. Schools must be part of that equations. Chicago Public Schools has 400,000 students who desperately need a vehicle to build, reinforce and demonstrate their 21st century skill talents. MHA Labs is now engaging the Minneapolis Public School District and has plans to expand to Washington State districts. As a result, entire constellations of MHA Labs partners are working to ensure that young people are engaged in a youth development system that drives 21st century skills development. 

Key Skills Gap Issue

The future for which we are preparing young people is uncertain. In response to this uncertainty, recent decades have seen greater attention paid nationally to higher academic standards for youth through standardized testing, more stringent graduation requirements and an increase in Advanced Placement courses. Amidst this focus on standards, however, emerges a convergence of research that points to a deeper, broader set of skills that underpin success in school as well as life and work. These 21st Century skills – “soft skills” such as perseverance, time management, teamwork and creativity – are applicable to a variety of settings and situations, from school to work to life in general, and are the key to making a marketable employees, successful college graduates, and informed active citizens.

Review the State of Illinois’ Recommended Readiness Framework strongly advocating for a 21st century skills focus » Download Illinois P20 Committee College & Career Readiness Domains

Examine the latest research in easy to read infographics » 

Download CCSR Infographic – Teaching Adolescents To Become Learners

Download National Research Council Infographic – Education for Work and Life

Download Conference Board Infographic – Are They Really Ready to Work

Download Lifespan Development Infographic

Skills Gap Solution

MHA Labs rapidly translates emerging 21st century skills research into easy-to-use frameworks, tools, assessment and instructional strategies. To create a foundation for innovation, MHA Labs first used research to isolate a core set of easy-to-understand 21st century skills and organized them into domains called the Building Blocks. The Six Building Blocks are personal mindset, planning for success, social awareness, verbal communication, collaboration and problem solving. Each building block contains a targeted set of detailed objectives that are intentionally written to serve as both learning objectives and assessment items. This minimizes the loss in translation from teaching to evaluation that often plagues standards frameworks.

This Building Block framework is then translated into practical tools and trainings. MHA Labs design discipline is simple but not simplistic. Each resource is designed to produce an intentional skill-building relationship – where youth apply skills in context with adult or peer guidance. For certain tools such as assessments, MHA Labs takes extra precaution and provides strict usage agreements. MHA Labs then works with stakeholders in the field to measure efficacy and impact. These design process allows parents, practitioners and employers to immediately and fearlessly address youth skills development.


Youth & Their Peers
Parents & Families
Teacher & Professors
Out-of-School Time Instructors & Program Managers
Counselors & Mentors
College & Career Advisors
College Admissions Officers
Workforce Developers
Employers & Supervisors
Foundation Officers & Policy Makers

Core Values

MHA Labs user-driven approach to research and development drives a culture of adaptability and but three operating principles remain constant.


Young people have a right to aspire along a path of their own making. The future of our citizenry and economy depends on these aspirations – for the dreams of today are the innovations and solutions of tomorrow.


All stakeholders, including youth, peers, parents, educators, counselors, youth workers, employers, and policy makers share a mutual obligation to produce the core building block skills needed for youth success.


Young people exist in a social and economic context where hard work and skills may not be enough.  We must not pathologize these youth as failures but work to remove the structural barriers to their success.

Operating Logic Model

MHA Labs logic model is a blended strategy of collective impact, systems engineering and tool design. 21st Century Skills development requires a comprehensive cradle to career approach where each stakeholder takes responsibility for building 21st century skills aligned to their stage of development.

> Sources

When all youth development stakeholders across cradle to career share common 21st century skills standards

> Inputs

When all stakeholders use 21st century skill aligned practices and programs to increase skills application and performance

> Evidence

When all stakeholders use formative and summative 21st century skill assessment tools to inform skills development

> Outputs

When youth experience increased access to opportunity based on their 21st century skills performance

> Outcomes

Then significantly more youth will meet their educational, career and life milestones


Operating Business Model

MHA Labs has four business units that generate new innovation, impact and revenue. Each revenue stream serves as both a programmatic and economic driver of the others to create a virtuous economic cycle. In its first 12 months of operation, MHA Labs has generated revenue from each unit to prove its business model and create financial sustainability.

Research Clients
Conduct research studies leveraging MHA Labs data and user expertise to produce new insights and validate results. Research revenue sourced from government agencies, foundations, universities, corporations, institutional users and communities.

Design Clients
Design new tools and training leveraging MHA Labs data and user expertise to produce innovation. Revenue sourced from product sales, government agencies, foundations, universities, corporations, institutional users and communities.

Youth Development Clients
Provide supports for program development, organizational development, and professional development. Revenue sourced from contracts with schools, school districts, nonprofit youth development organizations, college preparation organizations, counseling organizations and workforce development agencies. To ensure equity, MHA Labs heavily subsidizes services for youth development partners.

Employer Clients
Provide supports for staff hiring, development and retention as well as internship program design. Revenue sourced from corporate contracts, corporate sponsorships, business association partnerships and government contracts.

New University of Chicago – MHA Labs Impact Research Project: Assessing 21st Century Competencies for Urban Youth

Read more about MHA Labs outcomes research project with Lindsey Richland, University of Chicago Department of Comparative Human Development funded by the Hymen Milgrom Supporting Organization.

This new research-practitioner collaboration will examine 21st Century skills, cognitive and non-cognitive competencies necessary for high quality employment in the 21st century, in urban youth.  The project aims are to better understand 1) the relations between cognitive and non-cognitive competencies and employment trajectories, 2) competency ratings and the context of evaluation, and 3) the role of evaluating competencies on a training program. Specifically, this research project will examine the role of assessing and training 21st Century Skills on ethnically diverse, economically disadvantaged youth’s employment and post-secondary schooling trajectories in the context of a novel internship program providing skills training and corporate IT employment for high school seniors (Genesys Works, http://www.genesysworks.org/twincities/).