Kellogg World Alumni Magazine, Spring 2002Kellogg School of Management
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John Wood '89
Room to Read's John Wood '89 distributing books to eager readers in Nepal.

Sharing their knowledge
With their passion for social change and entrepreneurial leadership, these alums are transforming lives

By Matt Golosinski

John Wood didn’t go to Nepal looking for a life-changing experience.

The 1989 Kellogg School graduate says he just needed a break from the corporate life at Microsoft, where he had worked for seven years before he started tasting burnout. What began as an exotic vacation put him face-to-face with the most dire poverty he had ever seen.

Trekking through the cold Himalayan mountain passes that took him from one poor, remote village to another, Wood recalled the words of his one-time

Kellogg professor, Gene Lavengood: “To whom much is given, much is expected.” The lesson hit home as he stared into the faces of children who rushed up to him as he entered their communities; children so poor they were beyond asking for money. They just wanted a pencil.

“These people were living on a dollar a day — I was amazed at the lack of resources,” says Wood. “Their schools were just collections of dead branches, sheet metal and dirt floors. What they called ‘libraries’ might have 25 books for more than 200 kids, and the books were cast-offs from trekkers, stuff children would never read.”

Experiences like this forced Wood into a deeper understanding of Lavengood’s adage.

“He wasn’t only talking about sharing material goods, but about an obligation to make a difference using your intelligence to help others,” says Wood, who is today the founder and president of Room To Read, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that advances literacy in Nepal and Vietnam. In two years of existence, Room To Read has built 15 schools, 150 libraries, shipped more than 90,000 books to needy children and established 40 long-term scholarships.

“I get to apply everything I learned at Kellogg to actually build a nonprofit company, running it in a very business-like, goal-oriented, efficient manner,” says Wood.

A “nation of children”
Like Wood, Kevin Marinacci ’96 had his eyes opened to his responsibility to help those less fortunate.

As a Georgetown University student in 1989, Marinacci found himself in a war zone, or among the embers of a war that hadn’t officially been declared dead. He had landed in Nicaragua to spend a year abroad with the school’s volunteer corps. What he discovered was a nation of children — among them nearly 20,000 orphans. Almost half the population was under the age of 14 when the civil war ended, he says.

Marinacci joined a group running an orphanage called Familia Padre Fabretto (FPF), or “Father Fabretto’s Family,” in northern Nicaragua. Named after the charismatic Italian missionary, Father Rafael Fabretto, who began the organization in 1953 and managed it by grit and spit until his death in 1990, FPF served as a true “safe haven” for kids trapped in a violent society, says Marinacci.

“After 20 years of war, the country was in shambles,” says the Kellogg alum, who grew up in Evanston and attended Loyola Academy, where the Jesuits imparted a message similar to Lavengood’s. “Teenagers were drummed into military service, either on the side of the Sandinistas or the contras. To be a kid in Nicaragua then was really bad.”

The son of a retired Amoco executive, Marinacci came from a self-described world of privilege. Though his parents emphasized the value of charitable service, it would have been easy for Marinacci to follow his father’s advice —go to business school and land a corporate job. His Nicaragua stint could have ended as a college experiment.

Instead, the experience changed Marinacci’s life. Today he serves as executive director of the public relations and fundraising arm of FPF, Fabretto Children’s Foundation (FCF). Marinacci has expanded the Evanston-based organization’s mission to include a host of vocational programs serving some 1,200 youth.

Kevin Marinacci '96 with some of the Nicaraguan children his organization serves
Kevin Marinacci '96 with some of the Nicaraguan children his organization serves.

Teachers as leaders
Matt Candler and Mark Medema may not have undergone the dramatic encounters of Wood and Marinacci. Yet they are just as passionate about using their leadership training to give back to the community. Through their roles at San Francisco-based KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), they bring quality education and resources

to disenfranchised middle-school kids in urban areas across America.

Both Candler ’98 and Medema ’95 insist that education, coupled with leadership experience, provides the key to personal development. Candler, KIPP’s vice president of operations, recalls the powerful inspiration of his own teachers.

“I had a history teacher named Joe Tribble in high school, “ says Candler. “I hated history, but soon I was doing two hours of homework a night. This guy invested so much time pushing us to excel. To this day I’ve never worked harder for someone.

“That was the first time I realized you could have an impact on the way people think,” adds Candler, who during his Kellogg career earned one of the school’s “Top Student Awards” and co-founded the Kellogg Education Club. “A lot of that has to do with your own effort and willingness to invest in others.”

This kind of intellectual — and capital — investment is how KIPP aims to “force change in the American public school system from outside that system,” according to Medema, the organization’s director of school implementation. Medema and Candler say that true leaders must take the reins in education, from the schoolhouse up into higher administrative ranks.

Through a year-long program called the Fisher Fellowship, KIPP identifies and invests in exemplary teachers, tagging them as potential leaders who can juggle a variety of roles. KIPP’s teacher-leaders must be capable of functioning as the “CEOs of their own small business” — their school. In addition, they must be “political animals” who engage their local municipality to advance change.

KIPP’s “Five Pillars” for educational excellence include higher expectations, longer school days, and results-oriented programming. At the root of these efforts are the teachers KIPP trains — a project that excites Medema and calls upon his Kellogg leadership training.

Matt Candler '98,  Mark Medema '95 and Andy Schipper  

KIPP's Candler '98 (left) and Medema '95 (right) with Andy Schipper, director of Oakland's OAK College Preparatory School.

“One of the things I learned at Kellogg, in addition to management, was the importance of leadership. My spark comes from training these teachers, who are going to be leaders of other nonprofits,” says Medema, a former urban planner and financier. “What really drives me is watching these young people take risks and go out and start a school, to face challenges that are way over their heads — and beat those challenges.”

Beating the odds
These Kellogg alums, in their distinct ways, have taken on an array of managerial challenges facing the nonprofit sector. Issues of fundraising, strategy and organizational design are not unique to nonprofits, but solutions to these hurdles can mean the difference between life and death — and not simply for the company.

For example, one of the most significant initiatives FPF has implemented may also be its most basic: providing a good daily meal to children who would otherwise go hungry. “Our after-school lunch program is essential,” says Marinacci. In his mind, the program is as important as the organization’s more obvious architecture: five children’s homes, a 300-acre farm, a sawmill and forestry projects, and various mechanical shops to teach vocational skills.

Managing these programs requires Marinacci to shift between many roles, from fund raising to program development.

“Nonprofits are like small ventures: you have to wear a lot of hats,” he says. One of those hats includes serving as PR chief to communicate the organization’s mission to others. Marinacci has done that, even enlisting the managerial expertise of his father, Carl, the man who expressed some early reservations about his son’s ambitions.

Today, Carl is the organization’s president.

“It’s funny,” says the younger Marinacci. “My dad first made the trip [to Nicaragua] in 1991. Basically he told me to get on with my life. Not only did I tell him this was my life, but he soon caught the nonprofit bug too, once he saw how much work needed to be done to help these kids.”

John Wood can relate. He too understands the challenge of enlisting others to join the cause, and how to get by with less. For Wood, the transition to Room to Read presented operational hurdles largely absent in his former senior marketing role. For starters, Room To Read didn’t have a $25 million marketing budget to work with, nor did it have the 100-person staff he oversaw at his old employer. Instead, Wood learned the value of “painting an effective vision” to engage the efforts of a legion of volunteers to get the job done.

“Nobody has to do anything for me now,” says Wood, noting that Room To Read only has one other full-time staff member. “Yet, we’ve built this incredible coalition of volunteers who want to do something to help.”

Wood explains how important nonprofit leaders are to the fund-raising process. Proving they can make donors’ contributions stretch further can mean more resources for the organization.

“I’ve really had to deploy my powers of persuasion to show people what we’re able to accomplish — and accomplish by directing more than 95 percent of

our funds right into our programs, by keeping administrative costs very low,” Wood says.

Wood has convinced some fellow Kellogg School grads of Room To Read’s worthiness as a nonprofit investment. Among Wood’s supporters are members of his own Kellogg class. Recently, several 1989 peers pooled their efforts and raised more than $10,000, enough money to launch several new schools in Nepal. Stuart Kerr ’89 helped spearhead the campaign and points to Wood’s character and drive as factors that influence donors.

“I’ve known John a long time and he’s an outstanding guy,” attests Kerr. “I like seeing Kellogg graduates put their minds to use in projects that are about more than just money. John is really one of those guys, and we’re all extremely proud of him.”

Making resources stretch is also one of the perennial challenges for Candler and Medema at KIPP. The organization has had to focus on its urban middle-school niche to avoid what Medema calls a “fund-raising death spiral” that could result if KIPP grew exponentially. Flagship schools were launched in Houston and New York during 1994-1995; three others began last year. This year, the organization will expand into another 10 markets, including Oakland, Denver and Baltimore. Next year, KIPP plans to initiate another 25 schools.

“That’s pretty quick growth,” admits Candler, adding that KIPP will likely need to develop regional offices to complement the national headquarters. “Our business strategy is more complicated than you might think. We spend a lot of time in a community before we’ll recruit someone to run a school there. We need a measure of autonomy to implement our plans, yet we are committed to working with whatever political environment is present in a given community.”

Another challenge for KIPP is being in the public eye. Not only must the organization negotiate with elected officials who come and go, but it must consider its complex customer base: students, teachers, parents, school superintendents. Yet KIPP’s private, nonprofit status affords it a degree of leverage in managing these relationships, says Medema.

“Public corporations, especially those that are traded, have to react to the market immediately,” he notes. “We feel we’re in a position to stick to our beliefs and find the right time that a given market will accept us.”

The Kellogg leadership difference
Pursuing an MBA may not have been an obvious decision for some of these graduates, but all ultimately found their Kellogg education invaluable. Kellogg’s collaborative culture in particular, they say, was integral to their success.

“I was at Georgetown, reading books and playing Frisbee,” says Marinacci, recalling his undergraduate days. “I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I thought I might teach, but had never thought about a career in business.” Carl Marinacci encouraged his son to consider Kellogg, knowing from his tenure at Amoco how demanding for-profit ventures could be to manage; nonprofits, he knew, presented additional challenges that demanded expert business skills.

“I felt very much at home at Kellogg,” says Kevin Marinacci. “The leadership training I received there was very important, and it’s helped me communicate my passion and direction for the organization to our staff.”

For Candler, the decision to attend Kellogg also turned out to be the right one, but initially he considered pursuing graduate studies in education, thinking it more closely aligned with his career aspirations. “I started as a teacher right out of college and worked at the Olympic Committee in Atlanta doing management and operations planning. Then I came to Kellogg with the intent to return to education afterwards,” he says.

“I picked Kellogg because of the promise I got from professors who told me I’d be able to blaze a path through the curriculum based on what my passion was,” Candler explains.

Though these alums have been out of school for years, they retain fond memories of Kellogg School faculty and the inspiration these teachers imparted. Medema remembers Professors Donald Haider, Michael Bakalis and Lynn Martin in particular.

“These people stick in your lives for a very long time after graduation,” Medema says. “So do your classmates. Many of us still have that great Kellogg connection.”

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University