How to Create a Name That Sticks: Our Origin Story

People sometimes ask us about where our company name, Equity Schools, came from. I can safely bet you won’t guess the story. Whether or not you find it interesting is something else entirely, but maybe you’ll find it helpful if you’re trying to come up with a name yourself.

Remember 1995? William Jefferson Clinton was halfway through his first term (the Whitewater investigation was winding down; bound to be smooth sailing after that). Martin Perl and Frederick Reines won the Nobel in physics for discovering the tau lepton. DC Comics introduced a new superhero – the “Power of Shazam.” Mississippi finally became the last state to ratify the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. That was 1995.

Also in 1995, some educators asked me how to create a high-quality, college prep high school in a low income community, and make it affordable for anyone. The educators had no funds or property, but they wanted to open it within the next year.

The Power of Shazam! D.C. Comics.

The Power of Shazam! D.C. Comics.

So I invented a high school model to do exactly that, it opened the next year, and now there are 35 such schools in the U.S. with college acceptance rates approaching 99%. Part of the trick involved the students working as interns. (Click here for a brief video, including a report by 60 Minutes).

The reason I mention it here is that while I was developing the model, I had no name for it. But after the first school opened in Chicago (Cristo Rey Jesuit High School), people asked me what I called the model. Around this time I realized that naming an idea can become much easier once it’s been fully fleshed out. Here’s what I came up with.

Finding Inspiration from Three Unlikely Sources

Triborough Bridge NYC

The East River Suspension Bridge, NYC. This is one of the three bridges that make up the Triborough Bridge complex.

Secondly, I had also heard a great story about how John Buck began his career as a Chicago developer. True or not, the story was that he nearly lost everything in his first deal until, lying awake worrying one night, he came up with a bold idea.

He would ask the seller of the property he was buying to become the anchor tenant in his new building; the moral being that sometimes the perfect solution is right in front of you.

First, by chance I had just finished reading a biography of Robert Moses, and I was fascinated by how he had financed so many bridges and tunnels in New York City – literally based on nickels and dimes (ie, tolls).

He was not an especially pleasant man… but using those seemingly small revenue streams to finance something so significant was inventive to say the least.

West Loop of downtown Chicago, one of the John Buck Company’s buildings illuminated at night. 225 W. Washington, Chicago.

George A. Roeper, 1910 – 1992.

Third, I was influenced by George Roeper, a truly great educator who, with his wife Annemarie, fled the Nazis in 1938 and started a school in the U.S. (The Roeper School).

The Roepers were educational pioneers in many ways, but I was focused on just one aspect of their school – every student had a “community duty.” Part of the Roeper philosophy was building a school community; everyone participated. So as I considered how to create a new school from scratch, I thought it would be good for everyone to participate.

But the “Moses Buck Roeper Model” was awkward. Instead, I thought about what these three had in common and how they had brought “investors” to their work.

As I worked on inventing the school model, my goal was for everyone – students, parents, educators, businesses – to make an investment in the school and in the students’ education. To me this meant “equity,” and so I came up with the “Equity School Model.”

After naming the “Equity School Model,” I simply decided to use it for the company name as well.

And there you have it.

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