Purpose At Work: How The Kauffman Foundation Scales Entrepreneurship and Opportunity

This interview is part of the 2020 Social Innovation Summit series. The Summit is a meeting-place for groundbreaking thought-leaders taking actions to build a better world. Due to COVID-19, this year’s gathering will be held online from June 2nd to June 4th. It will feature panels, workshops and breakout sessions with representatives from companies like Nike, Facebook, Mars and others. For this interview I had the pleasure of speaking with Larry Jacob, VP of Public Affairs for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Simon Mainwaring: How would you describe what’s unique about the Kauffman Foundation?

Larry Jacob: We believe all people — regardless of background — should have the opportunity to learn, to take risks, and to own their success. We have the ability to focus on the future of work and learning simultaneously. Those two sides come together because of our history supporting entrepreneurship and education.

SM: Given these challenges, where are you putting your resources into right now?

LJ: Beyond our immediate relief efforts, one of the big things we’re working on for long-term systems change is called Real World Learning. We’re collaborating with educators, students, families, businesses, industry and entrepreneurs to reimagine high school at scale.

Every high school in our nation has some sort of program to support students to get into the workplace, figure out their career path and their college pathway. Only 10% to 15% of the students take part in those programs. People engaged in this conversation want that to be 90%. The intent is to instill project-based learning, problem solving and the skills that it would take to start your business, be a great employee or succeed in college.

SM: You’re focusing on a couple of regions, right?

LJ: We’re looking at the Kansas City region in Kansas and Missouri to scale Real World Learning. Then we’ll share those lessons nationally. The approach is similar to our other programming like America’s New Business Plan. That is a national policy prescription for how we approach building, starting and growing businesses. It’s focused on helping small businesses and new businesses expand to make more jobs available and support communities through entrepreneurship focused economic development.

SM: The foundation is competing for mind share, resources and partnerships. How do you differentiate?

LJ: As a foundation, we compete differently. Our superpower is pulling everybody into the same room so we can get more information. For us, acceleration is more important than competition. The more people talking about and implementing similar concepts, the faster we’ll accelerate to get to an effective result or learn to improve more quickly.

SM: From a pilot perspective, where are you in the scaling trajectory?

LJ: With Real World Learning, we’re about a year or two into it. Over the next few years we’ll be able to share a lot of lessons learned. Lessons not only about how to meet today’s demands, but think about the next five to ten years as the economy continues to change.

SM: Preparing young people for the marketplace seems like such a big issue. How do you solve for it?

LJ: Part of it is being in the right space at the right time. We’re talking to students. They’re looking for different pathways for their future. When they see their older siblings coming home not having completed that college degree they want to know, ‘Is that right for me?’. We know four-year degrees are important. At the same time, there are other ways people can get an education and be successful. It’s not an either or proposition. There’s a spectrum.

We’re connecting with businesses. We’re connecting with students. We’re connecting with school districts and higher education. That’s what is making the difference in this conversation. Even if you have that four-year degree, you may go back and get a credential to specialize. Even though you specialize in something, you need those essential skills like problem solving and logic that a four-year degree can help with. Those are the types of things we’re seeing in the market.

SM: What trends are you seeing? I think every parent, young person and business owner is asking, ‘What does a job look like these days?’

LJ: Even when the unemployment rate was 3% people were feeling the need to get ahead of the curve. With COVID-19, there’s more urgency. In Kansas and Missouri, less than half of the people who enter college don’t complete at least one year. Something’s not right with the system. We’re not servicing the students. We’re not servicing higher education institutions either. We need to re-align to support people to get into valuable careers or start companies that help themselves and their communities.

SM: That’s a huge non-completion rate. What is causing that?

LJ: That’s across demographics. When looking at first generation students, it’s even higher nationally. There are a few things driving it. One, there’s too much focus on the act of getting into college. Families, students, educators and philanthropy need to focus on completing college. When we focus on college completion as a result, the dialogue with students and parents changes. ‘Is that really what you want? That’s four years of your life. If that’s what you want. We’ll support that. If there’s another pathway or timing isn’t right, how can we help you get that early stage career? How can you get early credentials that can get you into an interesting industry or a jump start in college? How can we do more in high school so you have more awareness of what’s available?’

Part of what we’re talking about is what we call ‘market value assets’ for high school students. When you cross the stage, you’re not just leaving with the diploma. You’re leaving with something on your resume. That could be a curriculum-recognized internship. That could be a project you work on with a company. It could be additional college credits. We want every student in every zip code to be able to engage with these types of opportunities.

SM: How are you collaborating with other institutions?

LJ: There’s multiple components to this. You have to keep the business community engaged. We want them looking at what they need now and what industries will need three or 10 years from now.

We’re working with higher education institutions. This isn’t a competitive piece for them. This is actually something that can get them higher quality students who are ready to finish.

We’re working with superintendents of districts and charter schools on how to rethink high school. Interestingly, those superintendents have come to the table because they’re seeing this need within their own student population.

Students want something different. There’s no federal mandate to do this. There’s no state mandate to do this. This is about what’s in the best interest of the students.

The additional steps are thinking about what the next generation of teachers is going to look like. How do we support the teachers that are in the schools? This is a different model than what they’re doing right now.

SM: What’s the impact of the COVID-19 virus and how have you responded?

LJ: It’s put a bright spotlight on existing inequity. In our school districts, we see more separation between wealthier neighborhoods that can service students at home and those that can’t because of things like lack of wifi, technology or training. Some student populations get most of their food through school. That creates a lot of challenges.

On the workforce side, there’s been conversations about what’s essential. What do we value? How do we better support people in doing what they want? We’re seeing more interest in skilled trades. Those businesses are still flourishing right now. Carpenters and electricians are taking stock of how to market differently. Those careers are still 21st century careers. The plumber of yesterday and the plumber today are two very different things. Technology and people’s needs are changing. We need to broaden the definition of how you create a great living beyond working in tech.

SM: So what is the role of the education institution?

LJ: The institution has a vital role to play. Again, it’s not either or. A liberal arts education is still really valuable. When we survey businesses, they want communication skills, logic, ability to problem solve. These are things embedded in liberal arts. We can over-index in STEM and technology training. It’s important. However, STEM curriculum that is highly relevant today could go away in five years with the next generation of AI. So how do we really train the mind and how do we think more in this end context? We need to push beyond the thought that students need an English course or a Coding course. We need to be thinking about both.

SM: What are students saying about the impact of COVID-19?

LJ: They’re scared. I think any parent that has a child approaching college or graduating college is looking at the current unemployment rate and asking, ‘Where does my child fit in?’. We need to get ahead of this next time and think about work with an entrepreneurial mindset. We need people to think not only about how to get a job but how to make a job. All students should at least ask themselves ‘How can I turn my skills into a company or a career?’ We’ll have a more resilient workforce.

SM: Any learnings to share on how we solve for this?

LJ: One of the foundation’s values is to listen first and as much as possible. We don’t have all the answers. The change process often requires listening to how the world should work.

I think foundations and others in this space tend to rush in with solutions. We’re seeing something that worked in one community and want to run with it. Let’s plug and play it over there. Time and time again, that does not work.

At the foundation we’ve incubated a number of ideas, like KC Scholars. It’s a college completion program and scholarship fund. That took about a year and a half to incubate. We talked with students, parents, higher education, and industry about what a next generation scholarship program would look like. They opened doors to new ideas like adult learner scholarships. There’s a high percentage of adults in our communities who often need just a little bit of money to get those last few credits done. That additional credential can help someone move up the career ladder. When you listen, things like that open up.

That would be my advice. Listen. Understand the problems. Then start to create solutions.

SM: How would you explain the way for-profits and nonprofits need to approach these issues?

LJ: I’ll go back to some words of our founder, Mr Kauffman. ‘All the money in the world can not solve problems, but working together, there’s no problem we cannot solve.’ That sounds simple. Collaboration is hard. So we put it in practice.

With KC Scholars, we worked with 75 different organizations. With Real World Learning, we have about more than two dozen superintendents and charter school leaders engaged in conversation. We created a play book and brought together hundreds of ecosystem-builders who support entrepreneurs and communities across the nation.

The key thing is to bring together people who are doing the work on the ground and learn. Support the things that seem to be working, test them, and continue to learn. Scale is going to look different in every community, but there are lessons to share.

SM: This is a challenging time psychologically, emotionally and financially for everyone out there. What gives you cause for optimism?

LJ: The resiliency of people gives us optimism. We work with a lot of folks who face adversity. We have to remove the barriers for more people, whether they’re a minority entrepreneur, a female entrepreneur or somebody in a rural area. Those are the communities with the most barriers just due to history. Yet there’s still success there.

I’d say it’s a mind shift for a lot of privileged people to think about how they work with those who face artificial barriers. We often think about removing those barriers to fix a given community. It’s about the language we use. It’s a “distressed community.” Well, it wasn’t always distressed. There’s talent there. There are assets there. There are people there making a difference every day. We focus on building those assets. If you just get the roadblocks out of the way, those communities will strengthen.

The idea of success despite all odds gets us out of bed every morning thinking about how we support more people.

Simon Mainwaring: What would your advice be to brands sitting on the sidelines?

Larry Jacob: The business community has a big role to play here. Mr Kauffman has a simple business concept. Treat others as you want it to be treated. Support others by sharing the rewards. Give back. It served him pretty well. If more businesses had that kind of philosophy, they would do better. Companies sitting on the sidelines of their communities are going to lose customers. They’re going to lose revenue. They’re going to lose their brand position. Others are getting into the space more aggressively and understanding that the more you do for your community, the better your company is going to be and the better off we’re all going to be.




Founder/CEO brand consultancy, We First, bestselling author of We First and Lead With We, host of podcast, Lead With We.

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Simon Mainwaring

Simon Mainwaring

Founder/CEO brand consultancy, We First, bestselling author of We First and Lead With We, host of podcast, Lead With We.

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