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In this Q&A, Debate it Forward cofounders Joshua Aaronson, a senior at the College graduating in June, and Leah Shapiro, AB ’18, explain how their venture uses debate to teach students that are frequently overlooked by academically rigorous extracurricular programs critical 21st century skills: analytical reasoning, self-advocacy, and respectful disagreement.  

Q: How did your team come up with the idea for your startup?  

Leah was in the car with her 6-year-old cousin who was throwing a tantrum. In order to distract him and return sanity to the car, she turned to her cousin and said, "We're going to play debate. I'll give you an argument and you'll have to prove me wrong." Leah's cousin was instantly captivated by the opportunity to prove his big cousin wrong, and they ended up playing debate for over an hour with his big sister jumping in as well. Seeing her cousins' enthusiasm as well as their growth in making arguments in that one hour, Leah started thinking, “What if there was a way to make debate programming more accessible and fun? If so, you could bring debate and its cognitive and social benefits to a much broader range of students.” Leah approached Josh with the idea, and Debate it Forward was born.    

Q: What problem does your venture work to solve in society? And can you explain the exact services you offer and to whom?  

Debate it Forward (DIF) is an education nonprofit that uses its pioneering debate curriculum to increase the empathy, self-efficacy, and critical-thinking skills of students overlooked by traditional debate circuits: young students, students of low income, and students with diagnosed learning or developmental differences. Through hiring and training university students, DIF provides its high-quality, low-cost debate curriculum in both school and after-school activities, as well as summer-camp programming. 

DIF sets itself apart from existing debate programs in two ways: by serving students before they enter high school and by embracing a noncompetitive format. Testimonials and feedback from families shows they prefer our collaborative and game-based approach to a competitive forum.   

Q: Who will benefit most from your services?

DIF works with multiple different customer segments, each with a customized marketing strategy. These customer segments include: low-income schools, high-income (often private) schools, special-needs schools, as well as juvenile detention centers. We are projected to serve 700 students by the end of the year.  

Q: Have you already launched a pilot? What are your short- and long-term goals? 

Launched three years ago, Debate it Forward worked as an exclusively after school program. In our first year, we partnered with five schools and served 124 students. Over the last three years, we’ve expanded to 15 schools throughout the Chicagoland area and are serving 700 students this year through a mix of after-school programming, in-school classes, and summer camps.  

In our first year, we hired five University of Chicago students to teach our curriculum with us. This year, we now have 30 college student teachers from the University of Chicago and DePaul University. Over the next few years, we are looking to expand to more schools and areas of Chicago utilizing college campuses as hubs. Our initial expansion sites include: Chicago State, Loyola University Chicago, National Louis University, Northwestern University, and University of Illinois at Chicago.  

Of the nearby elementary and middle schools, 60 percent are public. The other 40 percent of potential partner schools are high-income private schools, parochial schools, or specialty schools for differently-abled students. Examining the next 20 possible regional and national expansion sites, there are an additional 360 prospective partner elementary/middle schools. However, we are not limited to primary schools within a three-mile radius of a campus. Through licensing the curriculum, we will further expand its market from the almost 500 elementary and middle schools in the immediate vicinity of our first 25 expansion college campuses to the 92,000 (22,000 private and 70,000 public) K-8 schools in America.  

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

Debate it Forward has participated in several other UChicago programs, including taking home second place in the 2018 College New Venture Challenge (CNVC) and being selected for the Polsky Center’s 10-week startup summer accelerator program to hone their venture idea. Leah was also a 2018 recipient of the Tarrson Social Venture Fellowship, which provides $25,000 in funding and other support to graduating University of Chicago students and recent alumni who are committed to growing a startup that helps solve a social or environmental problem.  

For more information or ways to get involved, visit the Debate it Forward website or contact the founders at