This is a story about raw love. Tough. Rugged. Unashamed.
I’m at i.c.stars—the premier social incubator in Chicago—and I find myself a bit overwhelmed by it all. I stop in to thank Sandee Kastrul, their President and Co-founder and she pours me some hot coffee.
“I think,” She says, “that at the end of the day, there are three things that you should know about us:
- We’re positioned as an opportunity, not a charity.
- Rather than exploit our interns, we exploit our CIOs.
- We’re funded by the technology industry—not the government.
Those seem to me rather interesting assertions for a social venture. But she goes on to explain:
It’s a Business
“If we were a charity,” She says, “it would ruin the product—destroy the brand. If you say, let’s give these poor kids a chance, give them a job—it’s charity, not business. Their job each day is not just to learn the technology—not just to learn the software—but to change perceptions about what it means to be a young person entering this field without a college degree. To be a person of color. To be someone who’s overcome adversity.
“And so everything is about, not what Johnny WAS, but what Johnny DOES. We never exploit the stories in the past. One person is homeless or 30% of our folks are ex-offenders, or whatever it is—we never discuss that. It’s what Johnny DOES. That’s a very important differentiator.”
I sip my coffee. So that’s why I didn’t hear any personal histories in their introductions. I thought at the time that it was intentional but hadn’t known the reasoning behind it.
Don’t Exploit the Talent
“Another thing is that I would much rather exploit the CIOs than our interns. We have an agreement. We give the CIOs jobs. For instance, at the TechBash event, we make them into celebrity bartenders. We get them to blog and sell sponsorships to all their potential customers. Just to be with the interns for that period of time cost them extra money and the ticket price is already $250. And so they know that they are doing their share and lending their name. That’s hard for the introverted CIOs but they do it.”
That takes me by surprise. “Those C-level bigshots from major corporations are introverts?”
“Oh sure—they’re technology people.”
She makes it sound so plausible, like—Of course, what do you suppose? But now she’s moving on:
“The third thing is our economic engine: We don’t have any government funding. We’re funded by the technology industry. And so this CIO network is what keeps us afloat. We’re able to leverage those relationships.”
“They see it as an investment in their own companies?”
“In talent, yes. And they’re able to grow their leadership. And each of them remembers when they first started out in technology. They all went to boot camps. Whether that was GE or Continental Bank—it’s this idea of an intense experience. When they come to Tea—if that’s their first step—they’re blown away by the reciprocity, by the passion, and they say, ‘I wish my team could do that.’”
“I actually heard one of them say that.”
That gets a big smile from Sandee. “When they ask our interns their questions, they get a real surprise. This is not typical. It’s not like going to business school and saying, ‘Well how did you do this?’ You know—that sort of interview routine. Here, it’s really about having intimacy and building a connection with someone.
“Then the interns become evangelists for the organization. That’s a very important part of changing perceptions. It’s also an important part of building our network. The more CIOs we have that are connected and engaged, the more we’re able to go after service providers, to engage with the organization.”
This I like. She’s talking about building a self-sustaining social venture. “How often do you run these—these crash courses?”
“We typically do two cycles a year. We have capacity for four but it depends on market demand. Say CDW wants to hire 10 QA analysts. That tells us, ‘All right—Jerry get your recruitment engine going again.’”
“Do interns drop out?”
“We fire people.”
I sit up in my chair and almost spill my coffee. “Fire them? After what they went through to get here?”
“One and you go on probation. The second one, you’re let go. It’s the idea of, ‘How do you learn to take care of yourself—to show up on time?’”
I can hardly believe what I’m hearing. After that rigorous selection process, fired for missing a couple days? That’s what I call real tough love.
“What it really does,” She says, “is shine a spotlight on all those things that keep us from being reliable. And I mean substance abuse. Violent relationships. I’ve had boyfriends unplugging alarm clocks so that the woman would be late and lose her position because it was such a threat—she was learning so much—she was speaking differently—he was worried that she was going to outpace him or not need him.
“It’s not easy to come back though. They’ve got to go through an alumni interview. That’s rough. There are 13 things they have to do including a reading list. It’s rigorous. It’s not a free ride. Then the alums decide, ‘No this person shouldn’t represent our brand.’ That’s intense. But it’s important because it’s back to that idea that you’re fighting for something bigger than yourself. Can you really stake that claim?”
This calls for commitment level even higher than I realized and I seriously doubt I could stand up to it myself. Getting in takes a special kind of person. Getting through is even tougher. No wonder Fortune 500 companies are so eager to hire i.c.stars alums.
Growing the Venture
Sandee passes a hand over her brow then changes expression and I sense a change of subject.
“I’m working on expanding to Detroit, Milwaukee, and Denver.” She says. “I have a very interesting process that’s organic. Grass roots.”
“What about growing this one location?”
“We’re looking at expanding the number of interns as well—getting up to about a hundred per year. But local expansion is about partnering with more organizations—it’s more of a channel strategy than trying to bring more people in here. We’re thinking through how we might plug in other organizations that are in the community. We’re exploring the concept of what a partnership would look like because there are certainly tons of opportunities in the market. It could be a primer—before i.c.stars—or a post i.c. stars plugin.
That make a whole lot of sense and it also occurs to me that more than one university graduate programs would be delighted build a program for candidates of this caliber. “So other people see your success—start up similar organizations—and that’s a good thing. I know you turn away people and it breaks your heart. I know you feel that way.”
Before I go, Sandee hands me some brochures—what she calls “propaganda.” But later I read it all and it’s some of the best material I’ve come across. You can download it below.
i.c.stars – www.icstars.org
Sandee Kastrul, President and Co-Founder – sKastrul@icstars.org
Photos credits: i.c.stars.
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