Genius at Work

With his potter’s hands, Bill Strickland is reshaping the business of social change. His Pittsburgh-based program offers a national model for education, training – and hope.

Bill Strickland can tell you when his life began: It was a Wednesday afternoon in September 1963.


And he can tell you how it began: It started with a lump of clay.

Strickland, then a 16-year-old black kid, was bored by school and hemmed in by life in a decaying Pittsburgh neighborhood. He wanted a way out, but he didn’t have a clue about how to find it – until that Wednesday afternoon, when he went wandering through the hallways of his high school. It’s a moment etched so clearly in his memory that, 35 years later, he can still recall the quality of the sunlight streaming in through the school windows. That’s the day he came face to face with hope.

Looking through an open classroom door, Strickland saw something he’d never seen before: a rotating mound of clay being shaped into a vessel by a man absorbed in his work.


“If ever in life there is a clairvoyant experience, I had one that day,” says Strickland, now 51. “I saw a radiant and hopeful image of how the world ought to be. It opened up a portal for me that suggested that there might be a whole range of possibilities and experiences that I had not explored. It was night and day – literally. I saw a line and I thought: This is dark, and this is light. And I need to go where the light is.”

So Strickland walked into the sunlit classroom, introduced himself to ceramics teacher Frank Ross, the man at the potter’s wheel, and said, “I’d like to learn whatever that is.” With Ross as his mentor for nearly 20 years, Strickland not only found the way out – one that led to college – he also found the way in: the path that lets one person make all the difference in the world.

He mastered the art of social entrepreneurship, applying his potter’s hands to reshape the business of social change. As a result, the people who now work with him and come to his programs at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild (MCG) and at the Bidwell Training Center Inc. (BTC) – his Pittsburgh-based organizations for urban change – will tell you that the day Bill Strickland walked into that ceramics classroom was the day that he began reinventing this country’s approach to social entrepreneurship.


For nearly three decades, Strickland has worked at his craft back in the same Pittsburgh neighborhood he grew up in – creating a model for turning people with dead-end lives into productive workers. And it’s working.

In the Manchester neighborhood of Pittsburgh’s North Side, Strickland has forged a series of programs to bring new life to the community. At one end of the lifeline is the MCG, which aims to rescue at-risk school kids by using the arts to teach them life skills. At the other end is the BTC, an innovative partnership with local companies to train displaced adults for real work in real jobs. Since their inception, the two programs have each grown into more than $3 million-a-year operations, with a combined staff of 110 people. Strickland serves as president and CEO, the linchpin that holds all of the parts together.

And there’s more. Like any true entrepreneur, Strickland has filled the space between the two programs with other ventures: a jazz concert hall and an innovative Grammy Award-winning record label. Next year, he plans to roll out the Denali Initiative – a national three-year effort funded by the Kaufmann Foundation to teach nonprofit leaders how to think like entrepreneurs.


The source of it all is Strickland’s single flash of insight on that long-ago Wednesday afternoon. “You start with the perception that the world is an unlimited opportunity,” Strickland says. “Then the question becomes, ‘How are we going to rebuild the planet?'”

The question may seem presumptuous, but plenty of people think that Strickland not only has the right to ask it, but that he has also discovered some of the answers. Although he isn’t dealing in big numbers – his combined programs reach about 400 kids and 475 adults each year – Strickland is dealing in success: For the past five years, 75% to 80% of the high-risk high-school kids who’ve come to his after-school arts program have gone on to college. At the same time, 78% of the adults who graduate from his vocational program find jobs.

Just as impressive as the numbers are Strickland’s supporters and believers. There’s George Bush, who named Strickland to a six-year term on the board of the National Endowment for the Arts. And there’s Hillary Rodham Clinton, who visited Strickland’s center – and then invited Strickland to visit the White House.


There’s the Harvard Business School – which hailed Strickland as a “social entrepreneur.” And there’s the Harvard Graduate School of Education – which invited him to share with its students his lessons on teaching.

There’s San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and jazz musician Herbie Hancock, who teamed up with Strickland to replicate his Pittsburgh program in San Francisco – an undertaking that Strickland hopes will be the first of 100 “franchises” that he plans to set up nationwide over the next 30 years. And there’s the MacArthur Foundation, which awarded Strickland a $295,000 “genius” grant in 1996.

Not bad for a man who, 30 years ago, set out to learn how to throw a pot.


“This is my clay”

Bill Strickland’s story starts in the 1950s, when the Manchester community he grew up in was filled with neat row houses and green trees. People in the neighborhood could find good jobs nearby in thriving small businesses and at prosperous industrial firms such as Allis-Chalmers, Steel City Electric, and Midland-Ross Corp.

The neighborhood was culturally rich, a melting pot of roughly 40,000 people. But in the early 1960s, hard times caused many local businesses to shrink or shut down. The character of the community began to change. And Strickland, a teenager, felt his world narrowing.

“I’d watched my neighborhood go from a healthy community to a ghetto. I needed to find a way out,” he says. “But there weren’t many examples of successful people in my community who could serve as role models.” And then came that day in high school when Strickland discovered Frank Ross, ceramics, and the possibility that the world might have something more to offer.


“Mr. Ross brought a kind of gutsy quality to public education that said, ‘Look, there’s nothing wrong with you. There’s a lot wrong with the circumstances that you find yourself in.'” Strickland says. “He said, ‘You have the talent and the resources to take control of your life and to do something more than you’ve done up to this point.’ And I believed him.”

After that first encounter, Strickland devoted his remaining two years in high school to learning everything that Ross could teach him. When he graduated in 1965, Strickland went on to the University of Pittsburgh, entering on probation because he’d neglected his high school academics in favor of ceramics. But he quickly proved himself, landing on the dean’s list by the end of his first year – and winding up on the university’s board of trustees 32 years later.

Even as his world expanded during college, Strickland remained bound to the old neighborhood. Then, in 1968, when the social upheaval and rioting that were rocking the nation reached Manchester, Strickland decided it was time for him to do something to bring hope back to the streets. While still in college, he opened the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, an after-school program to teach neighborhood children the same pottery skills that had originally motivated him. A local Episcopalian church donated space for the program in the basement of a row house.


After college, Strickland continued his work with MCG, building a staff of volunteers, and earning a name for himself as a local activist. He ran the program on an annual budget of less than $50,000, cobbling together funds from small grants, and from contributions by community leaders who had begun to support his work.

Three years later, a second piece of Strickland’s program fell into place: He was asked to take over the Bidwell Training Center, a three-year-old neighborhood vocational-training program. Like MCG, BTC had been started in response to the 1968 riots. But the Presbyterian church that had administered the program had run afoul of the Internal Revenue Service for failing to pay withholding taxes. The options: Shut down the program – or find somebody to take it over and rebuild it.

Strickland was the ideal candidate – and he accepted the challenge. The way he saw it, BTC offered him an opportunity to play out his ideas on a larger stage. On the surface, however, it was an unlikely marriage of programs: arts and kids on the one hand, vocational training and adults on the other. But to Strickland, combining the programs meant he could approach community rebuilding from two directions: by saving troubled kids and getting them on to college; and by reclaiming adults who’d been discarded and giving them the opportunity to make a second start in life.


For the next decade, Strickland worked at both programs, quietly forming his own vision of social change, and attracting people to his cause. By 1983, Strickland was ready to take a new leap, ratcheting up both programs to have more impact and more presence. The move was equal parts vision and audacity: With $112 in the bank, he launched a fund-raising drive to construct an $8 million building on the site of an abandoned industrial park.

What might have been a futile gesture turned into a natural expansion. For years, Strickland had nurtured relationships with business and community leaders; now that work paid off. In three years, he raised enough money from foundations, corporations, and government sources to build a showplace, a center for social innovation that would allow him to demonstrate exactly how his ideas worked – and what they could do.

Designed by a pupil of Frank Lloyd Wright, the 62,000-square-foot, honey-colored brick building houses Strickland’s vision of a thriving community-learning center. Each day, struggling high schoolers and adult vocational students enter a stunning building of arches and circles designed to allow the sun to pour through – the way Strickland remembers the light in Ross’s ceramics studio. “The worst thing about being poor is what it does to your spirit,” says Strickland, “not just your wallet. I wanted to build something that would give the people who come here a vision of what life could be, to create an environment that says that life is good.”


Strickland’s done that – and more. He’s brought all of his talents as an artist to bear to create a template for social change. “The planet’s changing,” says Strickland. “The whole culture, the language, the relationships – it’s all new. The millennium is defining a different kind of artist, a different kind of entrepreneur, a different kind of leader than we’ve known before. This is my clay.”

“Entrepreneurs and artists are interchangeable”

It’s a typical classroom: Computers are lined along one wall, a few dozen institutional chairs with attached desktops are gathered in the center of the room. A bunch of ninth-grade students crack jokes or ask questions as they consider a fable about a cat and a fox.

But there is something just a bit, well, odd in this learning situation. First, there are the questions: One teenage boy asks, “Are we allowed to sew today?” And there are the materials: strips of papier-mache, bits of fabric, and pieces of string scattered everywhere.


The subject is a fable. But the teaching method is pure Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. These students – most of them considered “at risk” by the public school that has sent them here – are making puppets of the two lead characters in the fable. They’ve made papier-mache heads and bodies, and now they’re sewing small costumes by hand.

Their work is the hands-on, creative phase of a lesson that began one month earlier. The Puppet Project, as it’s called, started with a discussion of folktales, focusing on the way that stories can teach morals. The students watched a video of Pinocchio and discussed the story’s lessons. Next they wrote a folktale of their own, with a clearly defined moral. Then they studied the fable of the cat and the fox. And now they’re learning to approach the fable as an artistic endeavor – a hands-on, problem-solving exercise of constructing puppets that they will then use to stage the fable as a play.

This is Bill Strickland’s take on the art of learning. It’s got little to do with tradition, plenty to do with education, and everything to do with art. For three hours a day, these students come from nearby David B. Oliver High School – Strickland’s alma mater – to study at MCG. The medium is art – the teaching staff uses photography, ceramics, painting, and drawing to convey academic subjects. The message is life.


This part of Strickland’s program, called the Arts Collaborative, costs $500,000 a year, an operating budget that is funded by local foundations. Like MCG’s after-school arts program, it builds on mentoring relationships that create educational learning and individual self-knowledge. Unlike that project, which runs as a voluntary arts-education drop-in center, attendance at the Arts Collaborative initiative counts for part of an accredited school day for participating kids from Oliver High School.

So far, it’s working – and working more effectively than Oliver High School. The numbers tell the story: According to an independent consultant’s analysis of the program’s first two years, students in the Arts Collaborative missed far fewer days of class than did their peers at Oliver High School. And their grade-point averages were better – by a half-point for ninth graders and three-quarters of a point for tenth graders.

The use of art to change students’ attitudes is at the heart of Strickland’s vision of education. The goal is not to produce artists. It’s to find an individually tailored approach to learning that will redirect troubled young people, and get them into college and on to productive lives. But Strickland does see a connection between the creativity instilled by a love of the arts, and the skills needed for business success in the new economy.

“Artists are by nature entrepreneurs, they’re just not called that,” Strickland says. “They have the ability to visualize something that doesn’t exist, to look at a canvas and see a painting. Entrepreneurs do that. That’s what makes them different from businesspeople. Businesspeople are essentially administrators. Entrepreneurs are by definition visionaries. Entrepreneurs and artists are interchangeable in many ways. The hip companies know that.”

“There has got to be a deal here”

It’s 4:15 on a foggy, drizzly April afternoon, and inside one of the amphitheater-style classrooms at the Harvard Business School, the subject is Bill Strickland.

There are 145 students in the room – leaders of nonprofit organizations from across America and Europe. They’re here as part of an Executive Education seminar hosted by the school’s Initiative for Social Enterprise. Most of the people in this room have just had their first exposure to Strickland: They have finished reading a 22-page case study; set in 1993, the case lays out the situation that Strickland and his twin programs faced at that time.

Under the gentle prodding of visiting professor John Vogel, the nonprofit leaders voice their opinions of Strickland and his work: “It’s one of the most moving case studies I’ve ever read,” offers one. “He consistently challenged the community to help itself,” says another. “It’s a customer-focused organization,” comments a third.

But they remain divided on the big question raised in the case study: Where should Strickland focus his next efforts? Should he concentrate on fund-raising for BTC, which at the time had a dicey record of getting money from the state government? Should he expand his operation into a real-estate development project? Should his for-profit food-services company – a spin-off of BTC’s culinary training program – make a bid to manage the employee cafeteria at the newly expanded Pittsburgh International Airport? Or should he try to franchise his programs in other cities?

The choices that Strickland faced back in 1993 prompt a heated debate among the students. Everyone has an opinion about which strategic move Strickland should make, but no clear consensus emerges in the room. One thing is clear: Nobody – absolutely nobody – thinks that it makes sense for Strickland to pursue all four options simultaneously.

When the debate ends, Strickland stands up. In his usual, understated way, he announces, “I’ve got some pictures to show you of what I do for a living.” And then he proceeds to blow everyone in the room away: As Strickland runs through his slide show, it becomes clear that what he did back in 1993 was, in fact, to pursue all four of the case-study options. Simultaneously.

Yes, he concentrated on fund-raising: Through relationships built with Pennsylvania statehouse politicians, Strickland secured a permanent place for BTC as a line item in the state budget, guaranteeing funds of $3.5 million a year.

Yes, he pursued the real-estate development option: He just broke ground on a new project – a 60,000-square-foot office building that will sit across from the existing facility. Part of the space will be used to accommodate expanded training programs for BTC. But the new building will also turn Strickland into a commercial landlord: UPMC Health Systems at the University of Pittsburgh has committed to leasing 30,000 square feet of office space.

As for the bid on the employee cafeteria at the airport, yes, his food-services company made a bid and got the contract. No, it didn’t work out. But he’s continued to build the food services company – which has revenues of about $1.5 million – and this year expects it to show its first profit. What’s more, Strickland is now aiming for a food-services contract with Pennsylvania’s turnpike authority, a deal worth roughly $250 million a year.

And franchising? Yes, that’s going forward as well. In fact, Strickland reports, he has just teamed up with San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and musician Herbie Hancock to build a project in a poor neighborhood on the shores of the San Francisco Bay. If all goes according to plan, the San Francisco program will be up and running in three years.

Strickland winds up his comments by turning the spotlight back onto his peers in the room. “If this country has a future,” he says, “it’s because of you guys. Because of your ability to form visions and to form partnerships. I believe that we can change the United States of America in my lifetime, and I’m not out of my mind. We’ve got to change the way this country sees itself.”

The crowd goes wild. Strickland gets a standing ovation and is soon surrounded by people who want to exchange business cards, learn more, come to visit, change the world. They are believers.

Later, Strickland turns the tables, and offers his views on the challenges facing nonprofits. “Nonprofits have to recognize that they’re businesses, not just causes,” he says. “There’s a way to combine the very best of the not-for-profit, philanthropic world with the very best of the for-profit, enterprising world. This hybrid is the wave of the future for both profit and nonprofit companies.”

It’s a message that Strickland repeats over and over again on his travels, which keep him on the road as many as 12 days a month. It’s a message that is winning over the toughest, most bottom-line-oriented businesspeople, people who are interested in concrete results, not wishful thinking.

Strickland won over Peter Benzing, 69, a decade ago. Benzing had retired as a vice president at Bayer Corp. – the U.S. subsidiary, headquartered in Pittsburgh, of the giant German chemical-pharmaceutical conglomerate – but he had stayed active with the company. When he met Strickland, Benzing’s biggest concern was the need for an educated local workforce that could meet Bayer’s needs.

Benzing recalls his meeting with Strickland. Thirty minutes into the session, Benzing asked whether Strickland could train chemical technicians. “Bill said, ‘I don’t have the slightest idea about how to train somebody for that, but if you’d be willing to help, maybe we could do that at Bidwell too,'” Benzing says. It was a classic Strickland response, going straight to the core of his market-oriented operating philosophy: I’ve got poor people who want to learn how to work. You can’t find people who’ve been trained to do the jobs you’ve got. Let’s do it together.

Benzing was so impressed that he immediately went back to Bayer, got the company to contact other chemical companies nearby, and wound up with a business consortium that partnered with Strickland to create a one-year-long curriculum to train chemical lab technicians. It’s a tough program – many students drop out because of the demanding work. But in 12 months, it turns out trained workers who can compete with college graduates for jobs. More than 100 students have finished BTC’s program; of those, 81% have found jobs in a field where the annual minimum starting salary is between $20,000 and $25,000.

Companies have found there’s another reason why it’s good business to do business with Strickland: It makes them look good. Case in point: the creation of a Grammy Award-winning jazz record label, another Strickland innovation that happened almost by accident. When Strickland brought MCG and BTC under one roof in 1986, he made sure that the blueprint included a 350-seat jazz concert hall. His rationale? He loves jazz.

But Strickland knew nothing about booking concerts, so he hired someone who did: jazz musician and promoter Marty Ashby, 37. Under Ashby’s direction, MCG quickly gained a reputation as a great venue for live music. Although the musicians were just coming to play another gig, they inevitably left impressed by Strickland’s community. “He’s like a Dr. King,” says singer Joe Williams, 79, whose award-winning career has spanned more than 50 years, and who has performed at MCG three times. “I’ve watched Bill’s project grow to become an integral part of the community. And when I say community, I mean the community of the United States.”

Strickland’s team made sure that each live concert was recorded on state-of-the-art equipment, videotaped, and archived. But it wasn’t until 1994, when Strickland and Ashby were at Bayer for discussions about BTC’s training program, that the idea of a record label began to take shape. While touring the company, Strickland asked about one machine in the plant, and was told that it was for making compact discs. Bayer, it turned out, is a leading producer of polycarbonate, the plastic from which CDs are made.

“Bill said, ‘You’ve got the CDs. We’ve got the music. There has got to be a deal here,'” recalls Ashby. Bayer liked the idea so much that it helped broker an extraordinary relationship. Using Bayer’s contacts with Sony, Benzing helped put together a classic Strickland-style hybrid, combining the for-profit and nonprofit worlds.

What ultimately emerged was a five-record deal, with taped live performances provided by MCG; plastic provided by Bayer; pressing done by Sony Disc Manufacturing; and jewel boxes, liner-note production, and printing donated by three other companies. Under the deal, proceeds from the sale of the first 25,000 units of each record go directly to MCG.

It was an inspired move. In 1997, the first record of the deal – the Count Basie Orchestra with the New York Voices – won a Grammy for best performance by a large jazz ensemble. A second release, by Paquito D’Rivera and the United Nations Orchestra, is in the stores and selling briskly, and a third, by Brazilian artist Ivan Lins, has just been released.

As for Bayer and Sony, explains Benzing, the corporations benefit by having their names attached to a socially responsible project. “It’s a big deal when a large company works with an inner-city organization,” he says. “It’s good news, and it fits into Bayer’s philosophy of working with the communities in which we’re located.”

“Welcome to the conversation”

There’s one other thing about the break-the-mold way that Bill Strickland does business: It’s about the payoff. No, Strickland isn’t in this for the money. But he’s also not into being a starving artist. Strickland is looking for something in-between, like his hybrid model of social entrepreneurship. In fact, he’s striving for the one thing that he thinks is missing in the world today: balance. A balance of resources, equity, and opportunity – a socially responsible mind-set that asks the haves in this country, How much is enough?

For Strickland, $125,000 a year is enough – that’s his combined salary for running MCG and BTC. A house in the neighborhood he grew up in, a 1998 Volvo station wagon, a savings account to pay for his daughter’s college education, and a closet full of impeccable suits and pressed shirts – for Strickland, these things are enough.

“I don’t need the money,” he says. “It’s not my thing. Don’t get me wrong – I do like money. But I don’t know that it’s ecologically appropriate to hoard millions and millions of dollars. We don’t need to have so much wealth concentrated in so few hands. Our culture needs to recognize that having $20 million in the bank is not an absolute requirement for being happy. We have got to be more attuned to the idea that the life experience has its own value.”

Strickland speaks with a moral authority that rings true with one particularly unlikely group: young business-school students. After having spent tens of thousands of dollars on a postgraduate education that presumably has them primed for a high-paying job in a high-flying company, business-school grads are probably the least likely group of people to find the nonprofit world attractive.

But they are, in fact, drawn to it – or at least to Strickland’s version of it. And that fact alone may be one of the most important indicators that Strickland’s hybrid approach to business and philanthropy has a future beyond Pittsburgh. At business schools across the country, Strickland finds that each time he lectures, more students are ready to enlist in the cause.

“At the end of the lecture, students are lined up wanting to work for me,” Strickland says. “It’s startling. I have students coming up with tears in their eyes, saying, ‘You are doing what I want to do with my life.’ I say, ‘I thought you were in business school because you wanted to run Xerox.’ And they say, ‘We’re here because we wanted to find an opportunity where life could make some sense. You make sense.’ Then I tell them, ‘We’re going to take all this genius, all your enthusiasm, and see the world as a set of possibilities. This is a new game, and I’m one of the guys who’s right in the middle of it. Welcome to the conversation.'”

Sara Terry ( has written about culture and society for the New York Times Magazine and Rolling Stone. Contact Bill Strickland ( for more information about the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and the Bidwell Training Center.