Interview: Suzanne McKechnie Klahr on social entrepreneurship from high school to law school
After graduating from Stanford Law School, Suzanne McKechnie Klahr created a counseling program and consultancy for adult entrepreneurs in East Palo Alto, one of California’s poorest cities. One day in 1999, four high school sophomores dropped by her office. “We’re sick of school,” they said. “Can you help us start a business and make some money?” Klahr decided to negotiate. She would help, she said, but only if the kids stayed in school.
The students agreed. Out of that interaction grew BUILD, an organization Klahr founded to help high schoolers from low-income backgrounds start businesses, so they could gain the skills and confidence needed to thrive in school and life. BUILD’s four-year curriculum is integrated into high schools in East Palo Alto, Oakland, and Washington, D.C. The organization will serve 600 students this year.
Recently, Dowser sat down with Klahr to talk about BUILD and her new role at her alma mater: teaching the country’s first law school course on social entrepreneurship.
Dowser: How do you see the relationship between your work at BUILD and your role as an educator at Stanford Law School?
Klahr: My work as a social entrepreneur has multiple components. The most important one is working with BUILD to change the face of higher education in the country.
But one of the most important ways to create widespread impact is to engage new people in the social sector. When you think about the caliber of young people at top-tier law schools in this country, and how few of them think they have a space in this sector, it’s really unfortunate. It’s a waste of potential. I want to dig back in and help folks learn the things that I never learned in school.
People often think of the discipline of law as being somewhat rote, involving more straightforward types of thinking and problem-solving that is less entrepreneurial in spirit. What’s your take?
[As a social entrepreneur], I don’t find that I am using many of the skills that I learned in the core courses of law school. But if you look at the best lawyers, and the best trial attorneys out there, they’re incredibly creative.
Being persuasive, getting people to believe something that you know to be true, those are assets that you learn in law school. You also get very good at diagnosing and solving issues. But I do wish there had been more courses to prepare me for the issues of leadership, management and fundraising.
And that’s what you hope to address with the Intro to Social Entrepreneurship course you teach at Stanford Law School, right?
Absolutely. Lawyers had a great deal to offer to the sector, but they often feel limited to drafting articles of incorporation, maybe serving on a board.
I really commend Stanford for moving to a system where law school students can take classes at the business school; they’re investing in clinical education, and bringing in a transactional law clinic to help students think more about how they can lead in the social sector and not just contribute in the typical legal ways.
You said that law school helps you learn how to convince people of things that you know to be true, but aren’t yet accepted as true. How did you convince people that by providing high school students with business training and mentorship, BUILD could turn young people with GPAs under 2.0 into college material?
Obviously it got easier as time went on, because when we started to see student success, people would jump on the bandwagon. But I was very fortunate that I happened to be in school in Silicon Valley, where the power of entrepreneurship and innovation was not foreign to people. There are many very successful folks here who were not academic superstars.
So what was the biggest challenge in selling the program?
Convincing folks I was going to stick with this. It was a different path than it looked like I was going to be on, having come from a private sector and law school background. People had seen my type before.
A type who had been interested in a ‘do gooder’ idea and then abandoned it?
Right. Particularly in the community I was working in, that was so close to a university. A lot of students tested projects in East Palo Alto and won doctorates on the back of the community. People felt that outsiders had offered to help and then left before the solution was ever found—not that I found the solution.
And how did people respond at Stanford?
Folks from the Stanford community might have thought, ‘It’s a phase, a lot of people go through it, you want to give back. But then you’re going to realize what you need to sustain yourself.’ And I feel very blessed that I found that this is what I need to sustain myself.
Respect for the community and for the students’ individual backgrounds is one of BUILD’s core values. What role does that play in your work?
One of the things that I found very quickly working with BUILD was that our students, innately, have so much they bring to the table—we definitely have to foster it and show them possibilities that they have not been exposed to before, but they’re quite exceptional to begin with.
Also, to me it would be presumptuous to go in thinking I’m going to save them, because obviously, doing BUILD is not completely selfless. I get a tremendous amount out of it and I think there would be a lack of integrity for me to say I’m doing good for other people. I feel like, hopefully, this is doing good for society, but it definitely is what I was born to do.
I’ve heard about BUILD’s ‘high touch’ model for student mentorship. What does that entail?
If you want have transformational impact—to take a population of young people who are going to drop out of high school and propel them to college, it’s really hard to do with a drop-in, once a week program. Sometimes I wish we could. It would be much easier to scale, much less expensive. But what we have found is that consistency, being with the students every single day and one night a week, being that ‘high touch, ’ seems to be the inoculation that they really need to be able to change their trajectory.
It also has to do with what I refer to as my axis of absolute authority and unconditional love. We give the kids a ton of nurturing, and a ton of love, and a ton of caring, but we have very high expectations, and a lot of authority.
So high expectations are a key piece of the model, too?
Absolutely. I’ve learned over time that if you coddle our kids too much it cripples them, because the real world’s tough. The real world’s even tougher if you’re a low-income person of color. Early on was I was getting really wrapped up in how hard it was. I phrased questions in terms of if they could succeed. And when we changed our framework to ‘How will they succeed?’ it encouraged much higher expectations. Now the expectation is that they can do this. And maybe no one else believes it. Maybe their schools don’t and their teachers don’t. But if we believe it, we’ve shown that we can get them there.
This interview was edited and condensed.
Photo: Stanford Lawyer