Bill Strickland: Role model for social entrepreneurship

January 03, 2007

When Warren Buffett augmented the already-formidable coffers of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with a $37 billion endowment in June 2006, the legendary investor joined the ranks of venture philanthropists dubbed 'philanthropreneurs' by the New York Times. The new millennium's technomoguls -- Bill Gates, eBay's Jeffrey Skoll and Pierre Omidyar, AOL's Steve Case -- and entrepreneurial mavericks from the previous generation, including Ted Turner and Sir Richard Branson, are combining for-profit ventures with non-profit social causes to create a hybrid brand of philanthropy.

William E. Strickland, Jr., president and CEO of the Pittsburgh-based non-profit Manchester Bidwell Corporation and its subsidiaries (the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and Bidwell Training Center) might be called the grandfather of the philanthropreneur movement. In the past four decades, Strickland has created an amalgamation of social activism and capitalism that has become a model for corporate/community/philanthropic partnerships. He told his story recently to executives attending the 17th annual Compete Through Service Symposium, sponsored by the Center for Services Leadership in the W. P. Carey School of Business.

Borne out of ashes: the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild

The story of the Manchester Bidwell Corporation is intertwined with Strickland's own. On a September morning in 1963, the 16-year old Strickland was wandering the hallways of his high school in a decaying Pittsburgh neighborhood when the activity inside a quiet classroom caught his eye. Strickland was transfixed by a man who was intently transforming a shapeless mound of wet clay into an urn. Entering the room, Strickland approached the man and said, "I want you to teach me how to do that."


This was Strickland's first encounter with Frank Ross, a ceramics instructor who became Strickland's mentor and friend for the next two decades. Through Ross, Strickland learned about ceramics, jazz, architecture, and most profoundly, what it meant to be treated as a human being. After Strickland earned his diploma, Ross drove him to the University of Pittsburgh to enroll on a probationary basis; he graduated in 1969, cum laude with a degree in American history and foreign relations. 

Strickland was still an undergraduate student in 1968 when, distressed by the race riots that were engulfing the nation, he founded the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild in the basement of a row house donated by a local Episcopal church. The community program was designed to introduce high school students to ceramics as a means of self-discovery and academic improvement.

The Bidwell Training Center, a vocational training facility serving the community, also was founded that year. Four years later Strickland, who had led the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild through a successful launch, was asked to take over leadership of the Bidwelll Center, too. Under his guidance the center became well known for retraining displaced steelworkers for new careers. 

The two are now part of the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, which provides executive leadership and management support to the programs.


Strickland's idea was simple -- to save lives the way Ross saved his. Convincing young people to turn away from the fires raging in the storefronts and join him at the fires of the kiln, Strickland "began saving souls with clay." That first chance encounter with Ross in 1963, Strickland recalled, was an epiphany that continues to shape his character. "I think that what I was able to perceive was to go toward the light … that is where the answer is," he said.



Taking it to the next level


Strickland's next epiphany came in 1982. Fresh out of college, Strickland enrolled in flight school and was soon employed as a commercial pilot. Weekdays, he shepherded his expanding community endeavors while on weekends he piloted Boeing 727s for Braniff International Airways to places like Rio de Janeiro. When the airline declared bankruptcy, Strickland was forced to ponder his future. "It occurred to me that maybe the answer was right in front of my face," he said. "It was the school that I was running."


Strickland vowed "to build one of the best training centers this country has ever seen." He accomplished this by employing the best practices he had learned from his education and flying career, by drawing on the business and community contacts he had developed while running his organization, and by applying the life lessons instilled in him by Ross.

With only $122 in his bank account, he embarked upon a campaign to raise matching funds for a $250,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant. In 1987, following a successful capital campaign, he opened the $7.5 million, 62,000-square-foot Manchester Bidwell facility.



The art of the deal …


Meanwhile, news about Strickland's vision for both Manchester and Bidwell began spreading.


The late U.S. Senator John Heinz was an early supporter, providing $1 million towards construction of the new Bidwell Training Center, contingent on establishing a culinary training program. Set up as a venue to prepare future Heinz workers, the program was patterned after the curriculum of the Culinary Institute of America. The success of that program led to the creation of the for-profit Bidwell Food Services, which provides catering and food services contracts throughout the region.


Word of the culinary program's success brought Robert C. Hannon, president and CEO of Thrift Drug, to Strickland's doorstep. Before long, a pharmaceutical technician program was born.


News of the Heinz and Hannon partnerships then brought Dr. E. Peter Benzing, vice president of Bayer Corporation; the result was establishment in 1990 of Bidwell's chemical laboratory technician program. Recently Bidwell added a horticulture program housed in a 40,000-foot square greenhouse that produces award-winning orchids and fresh tomatoes for distribution through supermarket chains like Giant Eagle and Whole Foods Market.



… and all that jazz


Expansion of the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild was no less ambitious during this period. The arts programs grew along with the original ceramics classes. For example, photographs were needed to market the student's pottery, and so the Guild's photography program was born. Then, a graphics arts program was developed to effectively catalogue and market the photographic portfolios. Next came the digital imaging program, underwritten by Hewlett-Packard.


The successful mentoring program at the Bidwell Training Center was the blueprint for the artist mentorship programs at MCG: If a photography project was inspired by the works of Gordon Parks, Strickland reasoned, who better to mentor them than Gordon Parks himself?


Jazz, so important to Frank Ross, was incorporated into the grand scheme with construction of a state-of-the-art, 350-seat performance venue. In 1990, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, impressed not only with the venue but with Strickland himself, donated the recording rights from his performance there to establish an ongoing endowment. Gillespie's enthusiasm drew other jazz luminaries including Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, and the Count Basie Orchestra into Strickland's universe.


Around that same time, Strickland learned that corporate partner Bayer Corporation owned the patent on the plastics used to manufacture compact discs. Strickland sensed a deal, and was introduced to Bayer's partner in CD production, the Sony Corporation. The result: the creation of the for-profit, Grammy-winning recording label, MCG Jazz -- its first three production releases underwritten through Strickland's power of persuasion.



Applying the model worldwide


Strickland's skill at expanding upon his original vision has earned him numerous accolades: honorary doctorates, Harvard case studies, seats on the boards of directors of educational and business entities, and awards such as the MacArthur Foundation's Genius Grant.


The recognition has led him in recent years to divide his time between Manchester Bidwell and an extensive travel schedule, as he shares his ideas about community enterprise. He has mapped out a plan to spread the Manchester Bidwell model to 100 cities across North America, followed by 100 locations around the globe.


Just as Strickland made his vision for Manchester Bidwell a reality 20 years earlier, his vision for expanding the model outside of Pittsburgh is starting to flourish as well. In 1999, Strickland met with San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who wanted to replicate the Manchester Bidwell model in the distressed community of Hunters Point. Soon after he mentioned the project in a presentation before Silicon Valley executives.


The day proved serendipitous. An executive for Hewlett-Packard was there -- the same one who would ultimately arrange to equip, set up, and provide training for the Manchester Bidwell digital imaging program. But also in the audience was Jeffrey Skoll, the original president of the e-commerce pioneer eBay. Skoll was promoting his new philanthropic organization, The Skoll Foundation and he was eager to establish collaboration. He introduced himself to Strickland, passing along his card.


A self-described "technophobe," Strickland had to ask his "techies" to explain to him what exactly eBay was. Duly educated, Strickland immediately contacted Skoll. Enthused over the 'scalability' of the Manchester Bidwell model, Skoll committed key funding to get the San Francisco program up and running. The result, opening in 2004, was BAYCAT -- the Bayview Hunter's Point Center for Arts and Technology.


BAYCAT joins the ranks of the Cincinnati Arts & Technology Center that opened in Ohio in 2003 and the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology in fall 2005. Plans for a facility in New Orleans were upset by Hurricane Katrina, but Strickland is confident the Manchester Bidwell model will be incorporated into the rebuilding effort.


Each center that opens is anchored by a combination of community, corporate, and philanthropic sponsors. That, Strickland said, is key to establishing the model. The idea is not to ask for a handout, but to establish a sustainable partnership in the community -- a symbiotic relationship that ends up producing more than it receives.


Strickland adds that the attitude of the major employers located within each center's service area is essential to the success of the Manchester Bidwell model. This attitude, he says, has to do with how a company values its assets: rather than champion the goods or services it produces as its primary asset, Strickland feels that a corporation needs to consider its employees as its prime asset and the community in which it resides as that company's next important asset. Everything that follows, goods and services included, will reap the benefit in a 'pay it forward' fashion.


"Corporate people need to involve themselves with the K through 12 education programs" in that city as well, Strickland said.



Making new friends


The demands that take him away from Pittsburgh can be taxing to the soul, Strickland said, but "if you make friends wherever you go, the next time you go back, you won't be lonely. And my hope is that I've made a couple of friends here today."


Once the extended standing ovation ended, symposium attendees began lining up to speak with Strickland. Watching him interact revealed the secret behind his success. He engaged each person at a personal, unhurried level: "What is your name? What is it that you do? Do you have a card? Please take my card. Tell me who you are, and I can tell you exactly how you can add value to this cause."



The Strickland value system:


  • Everyone has the ability to contribute to society.
  • All people deserve the opportunity to pursue the best life has to offer.
  • A beautiful learning environment actively promotes the self-confidence and self-respect of its trainees and students.
  • An environment infused with arts, culture, innovation, and cutting-edge technology inspires hope and propels people to achieve their full potential.