Sunday, October 11, 2009

Pittsburgh's Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild Going Global With Social Entrepreneurship Success Story – 100 Replica Centers in U.S. & 100 More Worldwide

By Thomas Buell, Jr.

Bill Strickland hadn’t thought of going global with his successful community arts-education and vocational training program until he met a casually dressed young man after a speech he had just given on the West Coast.

He took the guy’s card, because he’s a courteous man, and went back to his office at Manchester Bidwell Corp., which oversees the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and the Bidwell Training Center on Pittsburgh’s North Side.

Strickland asked one of the “techie kids” around the office if he’d ever heard of a company called eBay and its co-founder, Jeff Skoll. Yes, in fact, he had.

Skoll, who is now worth billions thanks to his involvement in helping create the world’s largest online auction website, hoped Strickland would call him back once he figured out who he was. And Strickland did.

“I called him up and said, “Mr. Skoll, I’ve come to have a much deeper appreciation for who you are, man,’” says Strickland as part of a story that always seems to get a laugh. “He laughed and said ‘I thought you’d figure it out sooner or later.’”

So the two men got together, and the Skoll Foundation awarded Strickland’s organization a grant for half a million dollars because Skoll believed that the program, which takes at-risk kids and gives them hope through the creative arts, and also provides teens and adults with vocational training, could be replicated to work in other cities and in other countries.

That $500,000 was just a down payment. With Skoll’s ongoing support and now friendship, Strickland has launched an ambitious plan to open 200 centers – 100 in the U.S. and 100 more around the world – just like the one on Metropolitan Street, a stone’s throw from where he grew up in one of Pittsburgh’s toughest neighborhoods.

Three more centers already have opened in San Francisco, Cincinnati and Grand Rapids, Mich. Several more are on the drawing board in Canada, Ireland, Israel and Brazil, to name a few.

Already, the new centers have started to show the same results as the Pittsburgh location, which counts its successes in the thousands. More than 80 percent of the participating high schoolers graduate, and 90 percent of them go on to pursue some kind of higher education.

Unlike most public high schools these days, none of the centers has security cameras or metal detectors. In 25 years, they've never needed them, Strickland says. They are clean, open, brightly-lit and filled with state-of-the-art labs, studios, classrooms and performance halls.

“The architecture is very important,” he says. “My feeling is that if you build beautiful buildings you’ll get beautiful people. If you build prisons, you’ll get prisoners.”

Speaking of prisons, Strickland believes that the money his organization receives from a combination of state government, foundations and private donations is a much better use of funds than building correctional facilities.

“It takes a lot of money to keep people in poverty,” he says. “Why not spend that money on making people more productive. I work with people who are liabilities and make them assets to the community.”

As if solving the problems of inner-city America wasn’t enough of a challenge, Strickland, whose work has been the subject of three Harvard Business School cases studies and who recently published a book titled “Make the Impossible Possible,” also is working in Israel to adapt his concept to programs to bring together the Jewish and Arab communities.

“If you give anybody pride in what they can do and a reason to stay on this earth, then you can accomplish anything,” he says. “That’s what our programs are all about.”

Dr. Utz Kűpper from Cologne, Germany, met Strickland recently through a visit arranged by GlobalPittsburgh. Kűpper helped start a program serving similar populations in his country, but was amazed at Strickland's success.

"It is amazing what he has done here," Kűpper said during a tour of the Manchester Bidwell facilities (see photo). "I believe that his program can teach everyone that it is possible to achieve positive results."

Kűpper, a retired urban development specialist, is just one of hundreds of visitors from more than 30 countries who have visited Manchester Bidwell in hopes of reproducing Strickland’s success story around the world. And now, Strickland says he's confident that his model will work anywhere.

“My board tells me that as long as I make the payroll in Pittsburgh,” he says, “I can save the world.”

Spend a little time with Bill Strickland and you’ll believe that he just might.

To learn more about Manchester Bidwell Corp., go to


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