This election year got me thinking about the “business development” of our country’s people. The President is often referred to as Commander-in-Chief, and rightly so, but not so much as our government’s top executive, despite the economy, job creation and competitiveness being front and center today. How we develop our people from early age to compete is imperative far beyond politics, and the types of things we do as a society to strengthen our place in the world with math, science and tech skills training is critical to that. So what’s a great example of an organization that teaches and enables our most important resource — our youth — to create, invent and innovate in these areas?
MOUSE definitely stands out. A 2010 finalist of the New York Times Company Nonprofit Excellence Awards, MOUSE is a youth development organization that uses technology to inspire and empower underserved kids with skills crucial to personal and professional success. MOUSE drives two key programs: MOUSE Squad, which trains and supports students to manage tech support help desks in their respective schools, and MOUSE Corps, which enables high school students selected from the MOUSE Squad experience to participate in an innovative youth leadership program where students are exposed to career paths via internships, professional shadowships, and get to develop technology projects that address social needs. 42% of MOUSE’s revenue is earned income, proof of their strength at attracting high caliber partners who value, and pay for, their services. All entrepreneurs face the same perpetual need: finding smart, skilled, talented people to help their businesses grow . Where do you find them? Quite often it’s who you know, but only in focus when there’s an immediate need. For MO.com readers, knowing about MOUSE and how they help prepare kids to ultimately become the type of good hires all employers seek, is an avenue worth time and support that can lead to your business — and our country — getting a significant return. Meet Carole Wacey, Executive Director of MOUSE, for the last 9 years and given her background, about as broad a thinker as any entrepreneur I have ever met. I had the chance to visit with Carole at the MOUSE offices to talk about the organization.
Sledge: Carole, thanks for doing this! Let’s start by giving MO.com readers a quick understanding of MOUSE and its origins: What is MOUSE? What does it do?
Carole: MOUSE was started back in ’97; our founder is a man by the name of Andrew Rasiej, and Andrew is an entrepreneur here in New York City who at the time was running a night club (Irving Plaza); ’97 was the height of “Silicon Alley” and its boom here; a lot of people were making a lot of money in the technology space, Andrew had a lot of friends in the space, but he’s running a night club and he thought being really involved in the business investment district was thinking he wanted to be a good neighbor. There was a really well known school across the street from Irving Plaza called Washington Irving and he went into this school and did not see a computer screen anywhere…not in a classroom…not in a principal’s office at a time when technology was really booming, not only in New York City, but across the country. He decided he wanted to bring out some friends to wire the school, it was one of the high need historical schools in the city; he sent out an e-mail to 25 friends and over a 100 people showed up on a Saturday and they wired Washington Irving. So, out of that MOUSE was born, and got started wiring schools, which was a big need, but what he saw then, he and Sarah Holloway, the founding executive director, was that they didn’t need to go school by school to wire them. What they believed and were seeing is that technology is a really valuable, important tool for teaching and learning; that it’s transformative to kids, especially high need, underserved kids who might be in schools where maybe they don’t have the best resources available at their disposal. What we know is that technology can help level that a little bit; there’s a democratization that comes from giving this tool to all kids. At a minimum you want to make sure the pipeline is opened up so that they can get to those resources. We built this program so that kids could actually manage that technology, tapping the greatest resources in schools which is the kids themselves. We’re tapping their excitement around technology, as being a geek has become very cool.
Sledge: How many schools to date have a MOUSE program?
Carole: We are in 400 sites across the country; 140 of them here in New York. People often say to me, “Gosh, you’re such a small organization…how do you do so much and how do you have such an effective program with a staff of ten?” And I always talk about the fact that, not only do we have a staff of 10, but we have a teacher in every site, so, that’s 400 teachers around the country; we also have, on average, about 10 students per school, so when you look at that multiplier effect, my team is much bigger than the 10 of us. Our focus, and part of our success, is that we’re really addressing a big need that exists in the classroom of having the technology up and running, but it’s also about teaching kids to think — how do you solve a problem? And they also get the “soft skills,” from running a help desk in their schools. They have to learn how to communicate, work as a team, manage projects, work with teachers in different ways…we’re flipping what is happening in the classroom, as our students are helping their teachers use technology.. There’s also a cost savings; schools are actually saving money by having this support service within. We developed some financial metrics in partnership with Citi, which sits on our board of directors, and we found on average schools save about $19,000 in technology support costs having a MOUSE program in place.
Sledge: You have quite the professional background, you’re a lawyer with extensive expertise, not just in education, but in the areas of technology and interactive media as well. You were Dir. of Interactive Media for Children at the Markle Foundation, as well as, Deputy Dir. of the Office of Education Technology at the US Dept. of Education. You could do anything you want with credentials like those. What brought you to MOUSE?
Carole: MOUSE wasn’t my obvious next choice after Markle. I worked in the private sector before I went to law school. I had an economics degree, came back to New York after graduating; worked on Wall St. at what was then Dean Witter Reynolds (now Morgan Stanley Dean Witter), and I knew I was going to go to law school at some point. I knew the financial services industry was probably not the right place for me, so I went off to law school in Vermont and after law school, it was ’92, the (presidential) campaign was heating up, and I joined Clinton-Gore and ran Chittenden County of the Vermont campaign where 67% of the population lived, so it was an exciting time. After Clinton won, I got the chance to go back to DC to work in government as a political appointee. I had gone to American University undergrad there, and I knew that having my law degree was an important credential for policy work. I spent 7 years in the Clinton Administration working for Dr Linda Roberts as the Deputy Director of the Office of Educational Technology. While working on environmental issues, I saw the potential for long term impact with tech on the world. Technology gives kids a voice! But for me, what was missing in my experience, was I didn’t get to sit down and talk with kids, I was so far removed from the ground in my roles. While at Markle, I learned from a colleague at the US Dept. of Education an advertisement for the executive director role of MOUSE, as Sarah Holloway (Founding Executive Director) was leaving. I met with Sarah, and thought to myself, it would be really important for me to run something, I mean I had run the Clinton-Gore Vermont campaign, but I had a state director above me. I had always been a number 2…never in the leadership role. I know with your audience, being an entrepreneur, you have to be a risk taker and for me, the riskiest move I could ever have made was to come to MOUSE, professionally anyway. And, it’s the best move I have ever made — I’ve been here 9 years. I thought it was a real opportunity for me to have an impact on young people, to grow an organization. There were already great people here, and I knew there would be a lot of flexibility to do things we wanted to do. So I would have never predicted the path to getting here, but it was the absolute right decision.
Sledge: You took over the role of Executive Director from Sarah Holloway, founding executive director of MOUSE in ’03. What did Sarah establish that allowed you to build upon?
Carole: In its early years, MOUSE built a strong reputation. So, when I’d meet with partners and funders, everybody got what we did and the value of it. There was just tremendous opportunity in what we could do. And we have existing partners like UBS, Best Buy and the New York City Council which have come back year after year, and there’s just this great sense of commitment and belief in what we are doing.
Sledge: What’s the biggest challenge you face leading MOUSE? Is it fund raising? Navigating school bureaucracy? What do you consider the main challenge you tackle year in, year out?
Carole: I don’t think there’s one challenge. I think it’s about always remaining optimistic in the face of challenges and keeping the team optimistic. We deal with many school districts and so much of it is tied to politics. The good thing is, I’ve been in politics, so you always know that things are going to change. Change in staff, change in policy, so, you try not to get down about challenges with relationships whether it’s tied to support or funders or desired partnerships. Giving my team the support that they need to really thrive in this environment. The key is really to be flexible, anticipate changes, stay ahead of the curve and always keep the needs of youth at the forefront.
Sledge: I had the privilege of speaking with 3 amazingly smart people in the MOUSE family: Juan Garzon, Leroy Tindi and Zainab Oni. Juan now works in the private sector; Leroy is a sophomore at Ithaca College and Zainab is a 10th grader at a NYC high school. They all pointed out the importance of being inspired by someone who saw something in them; encouraged them to participate in MOUSE, which changed their thinking about what’s possible in life. What’s the key to stewarding the culture that provides MOUSE youth such inspiration?
Carole: When we bring anybody on board, whether a staff member, an intern, a board member, a partner…where we start from is not “What can you do for us,” but rather, “Why are you passionate about what MOUSE does?” When I meet someone new, I have to believe that they are motivated to support our youth. That’s where everything starts from. If we bring somebody on board, I always ask does the story make sense as to why that person is at MOUSE at that point in time? I once interviewed someone who wanted to join our board and made no case as to what his motivation was…he just wanted to join a board. We have an amazing board, there like this other unit where everyone likes and enjoys working with each other; some have become very close friends. I can be at a board meeting, look around the room and can tell you what each of them are doing even though they’re doing multiple things in support of MOUSE, including raising money and writing checks, but, it’s so much more than that. Someone writing a check is really important, but the best partners are the ones who do so much more, to help our kids and get them into great opportunities; get them out there to have access to all kinds of people. My approach is, I feel like we are with these kids for such a short period of time and we want to give them as much as we can, in that little bit of time that we have to work with them. They deserve so much more than MOUSE could ever give them…but we want to give them as much as we possibly can!
Sledge: An organization is only as good as the people who are part of it and one of the things have learned about you is you have an eye for talent. What do you look for in hiring people?
Carole: I think it is part luck, part hard work. Probably anytime anyone leaves, even if it makes sense for them, it’s the hardest thing. We do really create a family here and one of the things that’s a recurring joke, is that nobody ever leaves MOUSE. So for instance you mention Juan Garzon, started as a one of our students in 2000, went through the program, came and spoke at an event, went off to college, came back, MOUSE was his first client when he opened up his business, then we hired him and he’s gone on to other things but he still comes back and he’s been a consultant with us. We have been fortunate to have people who really stay involved–we currently have a former MOUSE Squad member as an intern and another as a consultant on a federal contract. It does take a lot of work to get great talent, but we start with passion, you make sure they have the right skill-set, and the other part is, you have to meet them and chat with them. They have to be able to carry a really good conversation over the phone. You should ask Mike Capobianco (Director of Development) what his interview was like. When hiring this position, I did a 15 minute conversation over the phone to decide if we want to bring a candidate in for an interview. Then I have a 30 minute meeting with them, then I put them through two series of 2 on 1 meetings with different groups of people here, and then whoever makes it through, the prospective candidate has to pitch MOUSE to a group of us. By the time we hire a new staff member, most of the people, will have met them. We’re small enough that we can do that. We also want people with different perspectives. The positions are all that important to us, and you want to like each other…you spend an awful lot of time with the people you’re working with.
Sledge: Let’s talk about “The Wacey Network.” That’s a cool moniker heard while talked with others about you. In speaking with Susan Schwartz your Communications head and Luyen Chou, the longest-serving MOUSE board member and someone I know well, both spoke highly of your networking abilities, a skill which would serve anyone well in life. Share an example of how “Who you know” has been a great benefit to MOUSE?
Carole: When I joined MOUSE in February ’03, I received a phone call from somebody that I had worked with in the Clinton Administration. Laura Bishop, who’s now at Best Buy, called as she heard that I joined MOUSE; told her had just joined and asked how did she hear about it? She said she saw the Chronicle of Philanthropy article I was in, and wanted to introduce me to their foundation team. She tells me she’s head of government relations, and her group shares a suite with their foundation and saw that someone had put a flag on this article about MOUSE. Turns out with the picture of me in that article she tells their foundation people she happens to know me and would like to make an introduction. So Best Buy’s foundation people came out, met with me in a meet and greet so could see our program in action, requested a proposal– and — the next month they sent us a check in September…for $100,000. It was quick. Since then, Best Buy has given us over $1 million and we are currently exploring new national partnership opportunities with them now. They are a great example of a partner who invests in MOUSE, participates in site visits, hosts summer tech camps for our youth and sponsors events. That’s the thing about relationships…you never know the potential until you start a conversation.
Sledge: What would you like to see MOUSE accomplish by the end of 2012?
Carole: As we come to the end of the fiscal year, I want us to have a very sound plan in place for expansion, and I’d love to have some key big partners emerge. For instance at one point we developed a partnership with Microsoft Partners in Learning via a licensing deal where we co-developed a curriculum that they distributed internationally and we raised $500,000 to support our programs. This partnership is a great example of the private and nonprofit working together for the public good. We are really trying to grow our impact, we know our programs are having a positive, lasting impact on our students. To date, MOUSE has been opportunistic–but, we want to transition to being strategic about our growth. Therefore, having a solid plan in place for how we’re going to grow, demonstrating the social return on investment (SROI), conducting outreach with potential investors/partners/affiliates, and having the foundation in place to build a more impactful organization as we head into FY13.
Sledge: Where do you want MOUSE to be in 5 years?
Carole: MOUSE has recently launched a campaign to expand the impact of our programs to many more students across the country. We are looking to grow from 4,000 students today to 40,000 in the next five years, and to build a national infrastructure that will support our continued growth in the future.
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