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Strickland implores: ‘Don’t give up on the poor kids’

If you’re a bright, entrepreneurial-minded MBA student with a social conscience, Bill Strickland has a message for you: Come see me about a job.

As the chief executive officer of the Manchester Bidwell Corp., Strickland has made a career by following a simple premise: Treat people with respect, and you’ll reap remarkable results.

“I think people are born into the world as assets, not as liabilities,” Strickland told a packed auditorium during the W.L. Mellon Speaker Series at the Tepper School. “It’s all in the way you treat people that drives performance.”

An author, former jet pilot and product of the Pittsburgh public school system, Strickland is a self-styled salesman with a whopper of a product: the future of the nation. By replicating his model for arts and vocational training in cities across the United States and overseas, Strickland hopes to inspire people the way he has inspired the youth and disenfranchised in Pittsburgh — and, in doing so, save their lives.

“Part of the reason I’m here today is to recruit you guys to help save our country,” Strickland told the MBA students. “What you’re learning at Tepper is part of the strategy to save the country. Your entrepreneurial spirit … is exactly the antidote.”

Inspired by an art teacher at his high school, Strickland opened the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in 1968 to give inner-city students the chance to change their lives through art. He recalled for his audience how he saw that teacher throwing a pot on a wheel in his school’s art room, adding, “it was like magic.”

That same teacher made him complete a college application, and Strickland, who had never even heard of the SATs while he was in high school, was accepted on a probationary basis to the University of Pittsburgh. Today, he is one of its trustees, and also served as a commencement speaker. He also holds 14 honorary PhDs, including one from Carnegie Mellon.

In 1972, Strickland took over the Bidwell Training Center, a vocational training program meant to help displaced steelworkers. He described the building as a crumbling warehouse, where children took bets outside on his first day, trying to guess how long he’d last.

Since that inauspicious beginning, Strickland — who went on a trip to see Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, on a school trip with that same art teacher — has built Manchester Bidwell a headquarters designed by one of Wright’s students, filling the days of his own students with the qualities their lives previously lacked.

“One of the worst parts about being poor is what it does to your spirit,” he says. “Poor people never have a nice day. They also don’t notice that the sun comes up anymore, because they don’t have any reason to look at it. So the whole theory of my center is: If you want to work with people who have been left aside, you have to look like the solution, not the problem.”

To Strickland’s way of thinking, that means a beautiful building filled with sunlight and furnished with cabinets designed by a Japanese artisan who taught at the center before he was launched into his own successful business. It means teaching culinary arts students to prepare gourmet food, then serving it to the rest of the student population. It means buying fresh flowers — or teaching horticultural students to grow award-winning orchids — and displaying them in the building every day.

“You don’t need a task force or a study group to buy flowers for your kids. The children deserve fresh flowers in their life,” he says. “The cost is incidental; the gesture is very significant.”

He counts a Fulbright scholar, a PhD, and an emergency room doctor at UPMC-Presbyterian among his alumni. The music hall at the north end of his building include a studio and its own label, and was the home for singer Nancy Wilson’s last two Grammy Award-winning recordings. And his partners have included the H.J. Heinz Co., Hewlitt-Packard, UPMC, and eBay.

Currently, Strickland is replicating the model for his schools in Cincinnati; San Francisco; and Grand Rapids, Mich., with immediate plans to expand to Cleveland; Columbus; New Orleans; Philadelphia; Minneapolis; Austin, Texas; and New Haven, Conn. Future plans could include sites in Canada, Ireland, Israel, and Japan.

Strickland notes that he is not creating a franchise, but rather, a business model that can adapt to the needs of its particular community. He believes in accountability, and the better-than-90-percent college enrollment rate that he has enjoyed for 17 years has helped bolster his credibility.

The winner of the MacArthur Fellowship, nicknamed the Genius Award, Strickland says he was honored for a simple reason.

“I figured out the cure for spiritual cancer: It’s called sunlight, and good food, and flowers, and environment, and enthusiasm,” he says. “You figure that out, you’ve solved your problem.”

Watch a Q&A with Bill Strickland or his speech to Tepper School Students.

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