David Burstein: What’s your big idea?
To combat dropout rates, the high murder rate and crime rate, the lack of attendance at public schools by doing something. My idea for that was to give kids a quality place to be safe and to participate in extracurricular activities. So creating a state of the art football field, track, stadium seating and lighting and using sport as an intervention method to combat some of the terrible things that I’ve seen happen to students that I’ve grown really close to.
What was the inspiration behind your idea?
My “ah-ha” moment came when I walked out onto our baseball field my first year after taking over as athletic director at the school. The kids were sitting on cinder block benches set with two-by-fours. Their field wasn’t even lined, it was just big grass lot that had ant hills all over it. They were out there spitting sunflower seeds and making fun of each other. It was really amazing. I thought, wow these kids don’t have much right now, and they’re just enjoying the moment, enjoying what the sport can be and what the sport can be about. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could do this on a bigger level and reach more kids and get more kids involved and get the community involved? That was the moment that I think I learned that sport could be powerful and that doing something bigger then myself could be powerful.
The actual idea for the project didn’t come along until an opportunity presented itself to us. The NFL was offering a grant of up to $200,000 and, being in a situation where we were worried about bouncing checks and we couldn’t even really afford a football, it was an opportunity that was a no-brainer for me. I thought, we can go after family and friends and other people. If we raise $1,000 and can apply for $1,000 [matching funds] well then we’re in a much better situation then we were before. We’ll be able to reach more kids. Maybe one kid won’t go home and or leave school and do something not good. They can stay with us if we can get just a little bit more money and have a little bit bigger reach, and that’s where it started. Now we’re not talking in terms of the one or twos. We’re talking in terms of thousands and being a catalyst for the redevelopment of youth sports and a youth movement in the city. That’s humbling and scary, and it’s also an amazing thing to be working on on a daily basis.
What problem or issue did you first try to answer?
The very first goal was to rejuvenate our sports programs and to get kids to stop doing bad things outside of school. What can we use? Being in the position I was with sports we said we can use sports to lock our kids into healthy lifestyles and to get them come to school to not misbehave and things like that. That was our initial goal: How do we attract kids? Because we don’t have the opportunity to reach kids at the lower levels because there’s no facility. So this idea to build a facility came out of a question, how do we find kids? Now, obviously there are plenty of kids around. But how do we convince them that this is what they should be doing instead of what they already doing or thinking about doing.
What was the first milestone you reached when you knew that it was going to work?
I would say when we got our first $200,000 in 30 days. I don’t know if I’m ever confident in the fact that we’re going to pull this off. I think once we began to really push ourselves to what we can do and people start to buy in financially and with their energy, I thought, “Man, this is legit.” Then in 36 days we raised $338,000, and I thought, okay people buy this, people are agreeing with the fact that this can be something bigger than us.
On the other side, from a micro level, when we looked at the numbers and we saw what was happening at our school that’s when I knew this could be big. When we saw that our student athletes had a 0.5 GPA increase over their non-athletic peers when we saw that they had a 30% decrease in violent behavior at the school. They came to school at 25% greater rate. Then there were all of these things that we started to see: They’re not dropping out. They’re coming to class every day. They’re doing the right thing. This is pretty amazing. Now how can we do this bigger? Once we started seeing those numbers, we though this can work. This can be more than a football field and a track, this can be an intervention tool and can really change dynamic of the city.
How did your goals change over time? And what’s your goal today?
Our goals have always been just to do the most that we can with the resources that we have. I think our goal has changed because we think we can achieve a bigger impact. We went from meeting this initial deadline of $200,000 from the NFL to really setting our eyes on the prize and trying to do something massive which is a $1.85 million facility and that’s what our goal is now. If we can take this outside of our school and begin to impact youth all over the city that are currently not being served, imagine how amazing this is going to be.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Rockland County, New York.
What occupation did your parents have?
My dad was a principal and my mom was a teacher.
What college did you go to? Major/minor?
I went to the University of Georgia and I was a history major.
What’s your favorite specific class or teacher? What was memorable about them?
My favorite class was not my favorite class at the time, but it was Reconstruction America. It was my favorite class because it was one of the few classes that I’ve ever been in in my life where I’ve really had to push myself to work at it. Not that I’m so smart and I just get good grades. I always thought I was a decent writer until I got into this woman’s class and she said, “You are the worst writer ever,” and began really working with me and pushing me along professionally or, I guess, as a student.
What figures do you most admire? Whose leadership model do you follow?
I’m a big fan of Gary Vaynerchuk. I love the way he approaches things: Don’t apologize, and work harder than everybody else if you believe in what you’re doing. On days where things seem difficult, I remember that the great equalizer in life is that we’re all given 24 hours in day and it’s just a matter of how are you going to separate and rise above the noise. I know that if we were able to get this in front of the right people that what we’re working on is fantastic and amazing, and I can convince people of that. But the people that we’re going after for money or for whatever are being hit up from every different angle. The only thing that’s going to separate us is the hard work that needs to go into it. I’m more than willing and so are people on my team.
Whom do you seek out for advice?
I really do seek a very close board of advisers of people who I try to surround myself with people who just really understand what we’re trying to do and are able to pick me up on the days that we all need picking up. I would love to say I’m this one man wrecking crew but I have my days where things are difficult and it’s great to have professional people who are older to me to surround myself with and say you’re going to be okay. But the biggest people I turn to for advice are kids, the kids that I work with. They ground you. I just went to a conference last week called the Meeting of the Big Minds and it was really cool to be around all these entrepreneurs doing entrepreneurial things. But it’s also great to talk to the kids and say, “Where’re you going this weekend?” “I’m going to this conference called the Meeting of the Big Minds,” and to have the kids go, “Why are you going there?”
How is your life different now than it was before you started this project?
I still go to practice every day from 4-6 p.m., which is great. I still interact with our kids so it’s the same in that regard. But the different part is what’s crazy. I spend my mornings in trailers in an abandoned school and I spend my mid part of my day lobbying for a cause. Sometimes that’s in boardrooms where people are in suits and in the penthouses of office spaces. Sometimes that’s at dinner parties where people have gathered a group of wealthy business individuals for me to pitch. I’ve been asked to advise the mayor on certain issues of recreation, youth, and crime in the city. I remember a year and a half ago when I couldn’t get anybody to take me seriously. I also remember two years ago when I was a classroom teacher and we didn’t have copy paper, and I didn’t have any money, and I couldn’t find anywhere to make copies. But I’ve realized that things are different. I really do work very hard to keep the core of what I came here to do. It’s important to interact with the kids. It’s important to realize what you’re doing on a daily basis.
What excites you or concerns you about your generation?
What excites me is also what scares me. It’s exciting that we think that we can take on key leadership roles at a young age and do all these amazing things. What concerns me is that sometimes it’s a good thing to be in a place and to have to learn from people and to have to slow down. I feel like I’ve talked to a lot of friends who are in the entrepreneurial circle and they say, “I just didn’t like what I was doing so I quit.” I understand that to a certain degree, but there’s some level of respect and humbleness that comes with taking on these big problems.
I worked a job for a year that I didn’t really like, because I wanted to get this particular skill set and I feel like our generation is starting to get away from that a little bit. We start thinking, I have all the things I need, and I can learn on the fly, and if I don’t like what I’m doing I’m just going to leave and do my own thing. It’s exciting that you think you can do that and that we think we can take on the world. But I still think that there’s a place for learning from people who are older than us. Even if you don’t necessarily like what you’re doing on a day to day basis that sometimes it’s beneficial to learn from people who have been down the road even if you don’t like them. So I challenge myself and my generation all the time when I talk to people and friends and also business associates that are around my age to not only surround your board of advisers and your people you trust and love with people who you do love and trust and admire. But also that stubborn son-of-bitch who you don’t like that much who just happens to be really good at what they do.
If you had 60 seconds with President Obama what would you tell him or ask him?
I would like to ask him to focus on the initiative that he talks about that I haven’t seen all that much happening with which is this experience year. I thought it was a great idea about transitioning people into service for a year in between college and high school, maybe between high school and college, and I really want to see a huge focus on that. I would love for that to happen because it’s great to get your hands dirty and say, “Man, I just spent the year doing X, Y, Z, and now I’m going to go back school and learn more about what I just did and that experience.” I think it’s an extremely valuable thing and I hope that we really keep moving in that direction as all the noise happens with health care and all these other things.
How has technology and social media affected your business?
We’ve been very fortunate to get people around my age into our project because they’re on Twitter and they’re on Facebook and they can see some of these things. We can blast them out in newsletters and we can get people to interact with our videos and our website. They’re cheap, they’re free, and they’re great ways to get the word out about what you’re doing. But we’re at a point right now where we have a great network of people who are young professionals and we really do need more people who are wealthier individuals who can write a check. So it’s helped us to get a good base and we’re trying to constantly analyze how to use it to propel to that older base as well.
What was or what is your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge right now is funding. Funding is scarce. I like the fact that funding is scarce because it forces good ideas to rise to the top and the plus side of that which is the good ideas will get funded eventually. Right now I’m preaching that what I’m working on is going to combat the murder rate in this city, the attendance rate at schools, and all these other things. We’re spending so much money as a city on hiring more police officers and doing this huge national search for a police chief when I feel like we can approach it as community problem. So my biggest challenge is getting people to come to this vision that this can work. I want to say to them, “Here are numbers to show how to work on a micro level now imagine what can happen if we can open this up to everybody and get more people involved.” That’s what my day is, talking to people and trying to get them to understand that this facility and giving kids a place to go they’ll go there and that they won’t do other things while they’re doing it. They’ll have a sense of purpose.
What assets or challenges do you have or face because you’re young?
I think that being a young person with big ideas we don’t have the track record necessarily to show that I’ve worked. If I was 50 and had worked in Sports for 30 years, I’d be able to leverage a lifetime of contacts. But, I literally didn’t have BlackBerry a year ago. I didn’t have a Rolodex a year ago. If you’d asked me to name a contact it would have been my friends and my family. So being young I didn’t have anybody to just call up, but as we’ve grown, we’ve gotten better at that. I didn’t have a wealthy family background or any of that. I just was young and naïve certainly and but also willing. So it’s hurt me in some regards, because people say, “Oh look at this young kid.” I want to say, I might be younger then you but give me 24 hours in a day and I will show you my worth. If I want to get in front of somebody I will bug the hell out of them until I get in front of them. I’ll figure out when someone’s birthday is and send them a flower or a card. I’m going to get meeting if I want a meeting. I think that attitude really helps.
How would the world be different in 10 years if you had your way?
I think that more people would have their hands dirty–not in a bad way, but I think that more people would get into different service involved things. I think our generation is beginning to bridge this gap where we start getting our hands dirty. You’re beginning to see a reflection of that in corporate America. They want to get their employees’ hands dirty. So I think that in the next 10 years our generation will have these experiences and these are going to be the people who are making the decisions, and that’s exciting to me. The fact that someone who did Teach for America or someone who spent a year volunteering abroad is now the head marketer for Coca-Cola is now–they’re taking nontraditional routes but companies are starting to realize that there’s great value in there. I think that that is going to be sweet, to watch that happen because we’re now going to have a value shift.
Parents are going to start encouraging their kids to take on these experiences like they did. My parents–God bless them–didn’t volunteer abroad. They didn’t do serious service work in the states. They were teachers and they did a great job and they impacted so many lives. They didn’t really necessarily see eye to eye with me when I wanted to do some of those things. But when I get to the point where I have children and a lot of people in my generation do those values are beginning to shift and we’re going to see a lot more of people who just care, who just give a crap about what they’re doing and want to find meaning in what they’re doing and that can’t be bad.
David D. Burstein is a young entrepreneur himself, having completed his first documentary 18 in ’08 for which he was awarded a $10,000 grant from Nancy Lublin’s DoSomething.org. He is the Founder & Executive director of the youth voter engagement not for profit, Generation18. His book about the millennial generation will be published by Beacon Press in fall 2011.
David and Fast Company are producing Change Generation, a new series profiling a young generation of change-seekers. We’ll be covering everything from educational activists to champions of political reform, creative entrepreneurs, and outright thrill seekers. We’ll be hosting Q&As as well as video profiles with production partner shatterbox.