There's not an easy way to describe Jared Aldwin Crooks in a summary phrase or two. That's because he is, and always has been, into everything. He's a rocket scientist. A children's book author. A public policy scholar. A food entrepreneur. A software developer. And more, much more.
Last year Crooks got a master's degree in engineering, plus another one in public policy. He plans to put his three Princeton University diplomas—his undergraduate degree was in astrophysics—to work on improving international science policy. Already, he's spent two years working at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, developing strategy for the space agency. During an internship at the National Academy of Sciences, he put together a conference about how to communicate scientific research. He's also the co-founder of several promising start-ups.
Growing up in arid Fort Worth, Texas, Crooks spent his childhood exploring nature and science. "As a kid, I was immensely curious," he says. "How do radios work, why are ants so organized, what are those bright dots embedded in the black sable blanket of a nighttime sky? I was always asking questions and always trying to figure out the answers by reading."
His parents nourished their son's voracious mind, taking him to the library at odd hours, buying him scientific equipment, sending him to the High School of Medical Professions, where the curriculum is geared toward students interested in becoming doctors.
Meanwhile, Crooks developed an obsession with tornadoes: "I'm positive I read every book I could about tornadoes and asked the library staff to order more." Then, in March 2000, a low-end F3 hit Fort Worth, carving a four-mile path through the city.
"It wasn't a large tornado by any account," Crooks remembers, "but it was special because it was the first one I had ever seen, which was terrifying. It taught me a valuable lesson about the unpredictability of life. No matter how much I had prepared, researched, and studied, there was still a large element of uncertainty in that moment—where would the tornado touch down, how long would it stay, etc. The best we could do was hunker down."
Crooks still thinks about that day all the time. "It gave me license to pursue my interests," he says, "not out of a fear of death or passing time, but out of an immense respect for the role uncertainty plays in our lives. I learned that it can be a useful tool to sharpen awareness and frame decisions to try something new, risky, or just crazy."
One of the many times he's used that license was in 2012 when he and his wife Veneka were trying to launch Nouri Bar, a company that sells organic health bars and donates meals to hungry schoolchildren around the world.
The couple had no idea how to get their product into stores and kept hearing that it would take months or years. One day, after exercising, Crooks decided on a whim to stop by his local Whole Foods. He asked to speak to the "bar guy," so an employee paged the store's purchaser. Crooks didn't have a final product to show, just pictures of the design and a couple of sample bars in clear packaging.
"To his credit," Crooks says, "the purchaser didn't give a side-eye to this guy in gym clothes. Instead, he loved our mission. In three weeks, our bars were on the shelf of our first major store."
One of his newest start-ups, Bodhi Tree Systems, a software company for the health-care industry, launched in 2015. "I think of it as TurboTax for clinical trials," Crooks explains. "We have an opportunity to increase the speed at which new, potentially life-saving drugs can get to patients."
At the moment, Crooks is hard at work on SULTANT, a new venture he founded with another Princeton friend—a digital financial and accounting platform that helps small businesses by using big data to give them strategic recommendations on what to do with their business. "We created SULTANT to primarily help young, first time small business owner from underserved background to translate financial statements," Crooks says.*
Crooks' philosophy is: "Through helping others, we help ourselves." His motivation to help people in need underlies everything he does, including writing The Several Strange Adventures of Max and Ding, which he self-published in 2014.
We'll be publishing profiles of this year's list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of March. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we cover every day at Pacific Standard.
"I had such a powerful and positive experience reading children's books growing up that I wanted to give that experience to some other child," Crooks says. "However, I noticed that there was a void of books with children of color just doing something normal, besides being hyperaware of their race. So I set out to write one that tells a different kind of story—one of adventure, science, imagination, and a love of learning."
Another product Crooks developed for kids are the lushly illustrated BeCards, each one printed with an open-ended question ("When was a time you were scared to do something but kept going?") intended to spark meaningful conversations between children and their caretakers.
"As an innovator creating something new," Crooks says, "you don't have time to wait until something—the time, product, market—is 100 percent ready for you to start. If you ever reach 100 percent, it's likely that the opportune moment to launch has passed. At best, you might have 80 percent. You must become comfortable working with a certain amount of uncertainty."
It's the lesson that tornado taught him, and one he learned as a kid who experimented with absolutely everything. One time, he almost burned down his parents' home while trying to understand the effects of gasoline on Styrofoam.
He earned his childhood nickname, Pyro, for his fascination with fire, the way it starts small and quickly expands to have a life of its own. "Though I no longer play with flames," he says, "I still feel in some way like a pyromaniac, starting projects and companies to create real impact and moving forward to see what happens."
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*Update — March 10, 2016: This article has been updated to include Crooks' latest start-up, SULTANT.