This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Vince Bertram, 50, CEO of Project Lead the Way, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides STEM education, curriculum and training to schools, districts and teachers for millions of students across the country, says operating as a mission-driven business is key to having impact.
With $73.2 million in 2017 revenue and programs in 10,500 schools in all 50 states, Project Lead the Way—PLTW—serves millions of kindergarten through 12th-grade students.
Bertram says, “We are a business and if we don’t have a sustainable business model, we can’t provide the service to schools.”
Most of the organization’s revenue comes from fees for service and product sales. PLTW’s online store sells equipment and supplies that teachers and schools can use for teaching science, technology, engineering and math—STEM skills.
In addition, PLTW works with corporations—many of whom are working to grow the qualified workforce—who make grants to the organization, which in turn makes grants to schools of 100% of the corporate donations.
Bertram describes the grantmaking function as a “service for corporations” that want to invest in education. Over the past five years, corporations have provided $91 million in funding through PLTW.
“Other organizations in particular in the nonprofit world will become highly vulnerable because of ebbs and flows in philanthropy and we can avoid that by having a sustainable business model,” Bertram says.
For his part, Bertram says education wasn’t always important to him. He says, both his parents dropped out of high school and he himself was on the verge of doing so after his father left home. “I just didn’t see the relevancy of school. I didn’t understand its long-term implications and the power of education.”
He credits teachers and a principal who influenced him with gaining an understanding of the value of education. It became his overarching passion.
He worries that we don’t give students particularly good advice. “We tell them things like Just follow your dreams and everything will work out. It’s just not reality. It’s irrational. You know the world doesn’t care about their dreams. They care about what they can do and the value they can add.”
“The ideal situation is when we see this convergence of passion and interest and skills so you can actually go out and do the things you want to do and people will actually pay you for it,” he explains.
PLTW provides curriculum along three pathways: engineering, biomedical science and computer science. The organization also teaches educators how to teach this content using problem-based courses.
The process of learning requires students to apply math and science, Bertram says. The challenge is to get students to the point that they can apply knowledge outside the context in which they learned it.
In a recorded interview which you can watch in the player at the top of this article, Bertram and I talked about the importance of building robots and blowing stuff up.
“We can give them things that they really enjoy doing at the same time bring real-world context to it. [We] show them how we implode buildings, how we really create this structure through a mountain, how we build roads and how we take robotics and put that into a manufacturing facility that’s going to be very disruptive to the workforce,” he says.
Kelly Garcia, a PLTW Gateway Teacher at Benton Middle School in La Mirada, California, says she was among the first teachers in the area to be certified and so she’s seen the program’s impact over many years.
“It has been transformative for our district and community as a whole. Many of our students are from low-income families, and they have very little access to information about STEM careers. As a result of the PLTW curriculum, our students not only learn about their career possibilities, but they also are given opportunities to develop the skills necessary to achieve their goals.”
She highlights the success of a first-generation, Latina college student, Celeste, who is now studying environmental engineering at Stanford. “I once asked her how she decided on environmental engineering as a major, and she told me that she remembered the exact moment she made the decision: She said she was in an 8th-grade PLTW class, energy and the environment, building a windmill when she thought ‘I can do this!’”
Martha McCabe, the executive director for Kansas City STEM Alliance, says, “PLTW is a game-changer for so many students.”
Each year, the Kansas City Stem Alliance gathers students from around the city to present their capstone engineering and biomedical sciences projects. “Over 375 students participated in last week’s PLTW Senior Showcase representing 41 high schools and 21 school districts,” she says.
The success can be measured in revenue as well as impact. Over the last seven years, since Bertram took the top job at PLTW, revenue has grown from under $10 million to over $70 million.
Bertram credits a business focus driven by mission for the success. “We absolutely look at this from a business perspective. We take a lot of pride in that but there is a difference in being driven by profit and being driven by mission. And for us, our mission is to ensure that every child has access to this kind of experience.”
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