Entrepreneur Mark Scheinberg is the founding president of Goodwin College in East Hartford, CT. He bought what was then Data Institute in 1981 and transformed it from a for-profit business training school into a non-profit college that is focused on training graduated for successful careers.
Innovation Destination: Hartford spoke with President Scheinberg about Goodwin College’s transformation, his role in the Young Presidents’ Organization and how he enjoys giving back to the entrepreneurial community.
IDH: You founded Goodwin College in 1999. How did it evolve from a private career school into a nonprofit, four-year collegiate institution?
SCHEINBERG: I bought what was essentially a training school when I was 24, so I’ve been doing this for almost 35 years. Data Institute was an unusual training school because it worked primarily as a subcontractor for nonprofit agencies. So, although most training schools may be more traditionally “retail” and for-profit, we mostly worked with organizations such as the Urban League of Greater Hartford and the Center for Latino Progress (formerly Connecticut Puerto Rican Forum, Inc.) to help train students going back into the workforce.
We did a lot with people with disabilities as well. We had people in the same classroom from six or eight or 12 different agencies who sometimes fiercely competed with each other. The non-profit world is sometimes much more byzantine than the for-profit world ever thought of being
We continued to grow and expanded statewide. We would always tell our students that this was only a first step, and that they would have to plan to go back to college and finish their degrees to move up in any company. However, in Connecticut, there’s a law that does not allow credits eared at private career schools to be transferred to college. Students who took programs with us would go back to college and have to retake essentially many of the same classes.
So, we decided back in the 1990s that if the best way to serve our students would be to be licensed as a college, we would go ahead and become a college. No one had made this transition in Connecticut in about 40 years. No one even knew how to go about doing the transition, but after about eight years of effort we were finally licensed in 1999.
IDH: Wow, that’s quite a process. You’re obviously deeply committed to promoting students’ careers. How would you say that Goodwin College helps with post-graduate job placement?
SCHEINBERG: It more than helps. We believe that students go to most colleges because they’re planning on starting a career. In any poll that asks college freshman why they’re at school, the very top reason is because they think they’re going to get a good job afterward.
The disconnect is that traditional colleges often do not embrace that outcome as their primary goal. Goodwin College believes that we have a sort of covenant with students is they should expect that what they are learning will get them a job. So if any of our programs have a placement rate that falls off, that program is actually seen as a target to be pruned. We will actually discontinue programs if they’re not getting people jobs.
IDH: It sounds like there’s a unique difference in the Goodwin College students’ mentality versus a traditional college or university.
SCHEINBERG: Even our demographics are different. We have an average age of about 29. About 83% of our students are working while at school. Roughly two thirds of our students have gone to another college first and often failed. About 45% are people of color and more than half are single parents.
So you have a situation where you have people who need extra support to get through school and we provide support and place a very heavy emphasis on ensuring that people are able to be placed and can afford to pay back any debts they may have or ensuring that everything is happening at a living wage.
IDH: So it’s definitely different than the average college experience.
SCHEINBERG: Exactly. It’s very, very different. And, because we came from a private career school history, we actually operate like a business. What I mean by that is that we run three full semesters a year rather than two. We use metrics as you would at a private company to ensure that our faculty and staff are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. We can make logical adjustments in budgets when needed.
IDH: What do you enjoy most about working with students who are so career-driven?
SCHEINBERG: We often call our students the “undiscovered student,” these are people who are often forgotten, these are people who no one’s fighting over, students who will have often failed someplace else and no one wants to take a chance on them. What happens when they come to Goodwin College and when we get them through our program—which we do very well—is transformational.
The stories from our students are just different from those at traditional colleges. I love traditional college for many students—I went to and thoroughly enjoyed my college experience. But this is very different.
Our student’s lives are transformed. They become self-sufficient for the first time. All their dreams about life become possible. It is a very powerful experience for them. Goodwin College faculty will often talk about their jobs as a “mission.” It almost sounds faith-based, but they know what they’re doing with students is unlike anything they’ve ever done before.
IDH: Have you stayed in touch with successful graduates?
SCHEINBERG: We know where everybody is. There are exceptions; this is a transient population. We’re having trouble finding 20% to 25% of our graduates, but we know where the vast majority of our students are.
IDH: Any success stories you want to share?
SCHEINBERG: Sure. And again, you’re not going to hear the story being a typical one about this person who is now president of a bank. Our students are mostly mid-level people when they finish up but there are great stories.
Ed Casares, the former Fire Chief of Hartford, was one of our criminal justice students, and now sits on our Board of Trustees. James Tillman, who was John Larson’s guest at the State of the Union Address this year, and a 2015 Polaris Award recipient, is one of our graduates. James was wrongly incarcerated for 16 years for a rape he had never committed. His innocence was finally proved through DNA testing. He came out of jail enlightened through religion and committed to the plight of convicts returning into communities. We sponsored him through our Human Services Program. He now works as a forgiveness counselor. He works with inner-city kids all the time. I can give you many more stories there are literally hundreds of them walking through the hallways all the time.
There are things that we’re not. We’re not the traditional school, we don’t have the traditional funding, we don’t have a lot of rich alumni—sometimes I wish we did—but we do amazing things with what we have to work with.
IDH: Tell us about the Young Presidents’ Organization and your involvement.
SCHEINBERG: The Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) is an international organization of presidents up to the age of 50. The graduate organization is called the World Presidents’ Organization. I’ve been very active with them since my early 30s.
Every month you have about 18,000 presidents of large companies all over the world who are meeting in forums. The sole purpose of these forums is not business world-related, they actually act as support groups. You can go through different ideas and try to work things through. They end up being very powerful for presidents of large organizations who are oftentimes isolated.
I ran the YPO forum program for about eight or 10 years and it had great interest to me. There are forums running all over the world. There are forums running across borders in conflict. It’s a very powerful thing. Basically, the major job is to help presidents not only see themselves better but also to think about social enterprise and social responsibility. Presidents think about their larger place in the world and how to leverage their businesses to make a difference to themselves, their families and their communities. That’s been largely what I’ve done with YPO and through that and through this very odd but special thing I have wonderful friends and contacts all over the world.
IDH: What’s the best thing about living and or working in Greater Hartford?
SCHEINBERG: I truly believe that the business community in Hartford is really seeking success for everybody. It’s an interesting place where if someone is trying to do something, and they do it with an open heart, they will get more offers of assistance or actual assistance than almost any place I’ve ever been.
For me this is really important because I’m doing something that is really out of the box. Maybe there are people out there who are saying: What are they really doing? I don’t get it. Is that a community college or what?
There are people who look at us skeptically, as we don’t fit the traditional model. But at the same time you find people who will also take the time to get to know you, take the time to see how they can support you and then follow through with the support. I’m at an age in life where I can mentor other people and I can do for them what others have done for me.
IDH: Let’s talk about your mentoring role.
SCHEINBERG: I will actually meet with company presidents to help them with their financial plans or regular plans, talk about their marketing strategies, talk about local contacts that would be of immediate help to them, and help them along the way.
Again, when you’re doing something like this, when you’re doing something entrepreneurially, it is very isolating. You’re constantly questioning and re-questioning what you’re doing, because by its very definition it’s something that hasn’t been done before. So there are not a lot of places to go for support.
I really treasure the time I spend mentoring. Every time I’m actually doing it, frankly I am getting more out of it than the mentee. But it’s also great to give back.
IDH: I’ve been hearing that a lot the more I speak with entrepreneurs—you’re going at it alone because it hasn’t been done before, but there’s also a really strong community, which is so rewarding to hear.
SCHEINBERG: It really is. I think it’s impressive how well the young entrepreneurs in Connecticut are doing and how well they support each other. Young entrepreneurs can be really good about finding each other and being really supportive.
IDH: In what ways is Goodwin College involved with the Greater Hartford community?
SCHEINBERG: Lots and lots of ways, actually. We see ourselves as a community-based organization even though we are a college, so we act accordingly.