Since its inception in 1987, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NTFE) has transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people from low-income communities by providing programs that strengthen their desire to stay in school, recognize business opportunities and plan for successful futures.
It is my deepest joy to have founded the organization and believe that, today, its mission is even more vital. NTFE’s CEO, Shawn Osborne brings a refreshing dynamic from his experience in the for-profit sector and the following interview reveals his vision.
Because of my intimate connection with NTFE, I asked E. E. Whiting to conduct this interview. Now a freelance writer, she was an attorney specializing in high-net worth family office management and has experience in both the corporate and the not-for-profit world. She directed the private foundations of numerous corporate leaders. This experience gives her the unique perspective required to explore Shawn’s goals for NTFE.
Shawn K. Osborne joined NFTE as President and CEO mid-year 2014. Prior to this appointment, Mr. Osborne’s career focused on the technology sector, most recently as President and CEO of TechAmerica, the premier international trade association for US technology companies. There he led the company’s turnaround which resulted in a merger with another leading technology association. At TechAmerica, he applied his business skills to influencing public policy and programs focused on education and entrepreneurship, including ConnectED, the White House initiative to improve K-12 education through improved technology, and the JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) Act which encouraged new investors to finance early stage companies.
E.E.Whiting: Your biography states that you and your siblings were brought up by a single mother, a situation similar to what many of the NFTE students face. What did she do for a living and how did your upbringing shape your professional trajectory?
Shawn Osborne: My father left when I was 13 and my mother found herself in one of the worst situations that a woman in the early 1970s could be in: single, unemployed, with three children. I couldn’t appreciate then how she managed to pull it all together but I see now that she used all her skills to get a job and make a home for us. She networked before “networking” was a word and secured a job as a secretary. She persevered though the then common “old boys” attitudes of sexual harassment, the pay inequity and the gender discrimination. All through my childhood, I remember my mother urging me on and being my biggest cheerleader. She was constantly telling me that I could become anything I wanted to be. I see now that she was encouraging me to realize all the things that were being denied her. Her strength of character was what allowed us to prevail as a family and her total confidence in me gave me the belief that I could fight any attempts to pigeonhole me in my career choices.
EEW: What prompted your move from a high-power career in the for-profit world into the not-for-profit arena?
SO: My wife has been active in the not-for-profit world for quite a while and encouraged me to think about applying my leadership skills to a purpose-driven organization. A TechAmerica board member happened to be on NFTE’s board as well and encouraged me to look into its programs. He told me “you’re like one of the kids we serve.” The students that NFTE serves come from under-resourced communities, and I can identify with the transformative power that an entrepreneurial mindset can have when times are tough. While my mother wasn’t an entrepreneur, she absolutely put the entrepreneurial mindset to work to provide for us.
Just recently Mark Zuckerberg spoke to recent graduates about the need to do big things, not just to create progress, but to create purpose. In many ways, this sentiment that he expressed is also what motivated me to get involved with NFTE. I wanted to help make a difference, and NFTE also affords an incredible opportunity to help the young people that we serve to find their own purposes.
This last Christmas, I woke up and had four or five text messages on my phone from NFTE students and alumni, saying Merry Christmas. This, to me, signals that I’m making a difference—that one person or one organization can make a difference.
Also, on a personal note, I love that most of the time I can be in the field with kids and teachers rather than sitting at a desk.
EEW: What do you believe you can accomplish in the not-for-profit sector that you could not before? And why NFTE?
SO: The corporate world is profit driven and can be too singularly focused. The not-for-profit arena appreciates and works with the nuances of daily living, taking account of so much more than the bottom line. The chance to cooperate with other like-minded organizations, rather than compete to the exclusion of everything else, is a hallmark of the not-for-profit sector.
NFTE provides a genuinely transformational opportunity for students. Through learning the entrepreneurial mindset and startup skills, young people in middle-school and high-school come to see themselves as innovators. This class can change how they approach the world and how they see themselves. When we ask students at the end of the year what an entrepreneurial mindset means to them, they say things like “no dream is impossible,” “there’s no cookie-cutter way to success,” “I can create something from nothing,” and they confidently pitch their original business plans to panels of judges and potential investors. And through NFTE, students not only develop an entrepreneurial mindset, but they also learn the hard business skills necessary to launch a new venture. Some of the business launches we’ve seen this year include Tie In, a company aiming to bring more diversity to the tech industry; Spider Lines, stronger, safer power lines made of spider silk (in prototyping phase); and Girls Coloring for Change, coloring books celebrating female role models who have advanced culture.
EEW: What are your near term and long range goals for NFTE?
SO: NFTE has realized that we can deepen our impact by offering a pathway of entrepreneurship courses to students. So we’re creating the NFTE Entrepreneurship Pathway, which will offer a modular suite of courses starting in middle school and going through high school, starting with igniting the imagination and taking students through the journey of creating and refining an original business concept and making the business operational. Students who complete specific Pathway courses and pass certain measures will also have the opportunity to earn an industry-recognized credential.
We are particularly excited about expanding middle-school programming. Middle school is not too early to start familiarizing students with the concepts and tools of entrepreneurship—in fact, more than half of NFTE’s National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge winning companies over the past three years have come from middle-school girls! NFTE recently developed a Startup Tech program that not only teaches students how to build an app but also how to build a company around it.
NFTE’s 2022 goal is to reach 10X the number of young people that we currently serve in the United States. This is only “base camp” on the way to Everest—our ultimate ambition is to reach every young person from an under-resourced community. By the year 2022, we aim to grow by a factor of 10 but only double our operating expenses.
We know how important educators are in achieving these goals, and so NFTE is also creating an Entrepreneurial Teacher Corps that will offer deeper teacher professional development, recognition opportunities, and networking opportunities for teachers.
EEW: What has been your biggest surprise in making the transition? What has been harder than you expected or what has been easier?
SO: I’ll be candid that it has been a culture shock learning how the dynamics of the not-for-profit world work. In my experience of corporate life, things are much more black and white, the bottom line and shareholder value being the sole touchstones. In the nonprofit world, a more collaborative approach is key. When I was a corporate CEO I was able to make unilateral decisions based on experience and business acumen. At NFTE we are shaping young lives, and as such, so many more perspectives need to be considered. The depth and diversity of experience among our boards, our staff, and our volunteers is priceless. I now see myself as leader who moderates ideas as well as demands a solid business foundation to our mission.
And I can’t say this is a total surprise, but I do continue to feel every morning the desire to come in early and get going. I’ve never been happier or more fulfilled in coming to work, thanks to the amazing young people we work with every day and the caring staff I get to collaborate with.
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