Creating Social Value Blog / Social Innovation

Notes from the Case Files: Mission Accomplished

By Jesseca P. Timmons, a case writer in Entrepreneurial Studies and Social Entrepreneurship for The Lewis Institute at Babson College.

After spending six months writing our case on Year Up, I really wanted to be there when Gerald Chertavian attended Ed Marram’s Managing a Growing Business class as a guest speaker. Ed and I were both sure the students would be blown away by Gerald’s story and by the amazing work being done at Year Up, and we were not disappointed.

Before class, Ed talked to the students about the whole concept of working at a non-profit business. Not unexpectedly, there was some joking about the idea—obviously, most people do not attend a top-ranked MBA program intending to take a “low-paying job” when they graduate. A few students did advocate for the non-profit path and took some flak for it. Having (hopefully!) read the case, the class praised the work being done by Year Up, but the attitude in the room was basically, “That’s great, but someone else can go do that—after this, I’m going to make some money.”

After an interesting, but not particularly intense class discussion about the case, Gerald took the floor. A Harvard MBA and successful tech entrepreneur himself, he knew exactly what he was up against in making the case for a nonprofit career. As Gerald discussed in the case, attracting and keeping top-level talent—particularly those with the cultural competency needed at Year Up—is one of the biggest challenges for any non-profit.

Gerald started off acknowledging where the students were at their lives: that probably very few of them intended to take the non-profit path. Then, he described exactly why he had started Year Up: because of this firsthand experience with endemic American poverty. As he listed statistics on American poverty, faces in the room began to change (some, perhaps, registering resistance to yet another “give back” lecture.) Then he cut to the chase:

The problem for all of you—all of you entrepreneurs and future business owners—is that in ten, twenty, thirty years—and I urge you all to look at the numbers!—these problems in society—the opportunity gap, the lack of trained workforce, and all the social ills that come with it, from addiction and violence and crime and high incarceration rate to generational poverty—these problems are increasing at a rate right now that will soon go beyond what the government can actually deal with. These issues will not be non-profit issues or social issues—they will be everyone’s issues, and as business leaders, they will be your issues. There will be no one else to address these issues. The government can’t do it, social services can’t do it. It will be up to you.

At that point, you could have heard a pin drop. The attitude in the room had changed palpably from “Let’s listen to the nice nonprofit guy,” to “Oh my god—he’s right. ” No one had a response to Gerald’s statement—it was obvious he knew what he was talking about.

After that, the group conversation changed. Students asked Gerald seriously about his business model, the program, and his plans to expand.

After class, I walked to my car behind two students from the class.

“Maybe he’s right,” one of them was saying. “Going to work for a non-profit first—an organization like that—that would be amazing. Someone has to do this stuff! ”

“I would consider it, “ said the other student. “I would seriously think about it. I would do something like that for my first job.”

Mission accomplished.