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Why one Harvard MBA is dedicating his career to narrowing the opportunity gap

 

Thirteen years ago, Peter Fortenbaugh, who holds a Harvard MBA and a Princeton bachelor's degree in economics, left the job he had been groomed to do as senior vice president of strategic planning at Exodus Communications and went to work full-time at the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Peninsula as its operations director.

Two years later, he was named the club's executive director, a role he has worked at for eleven years now. He was recently named a "Local Hero" by the Midpeninsula Media Center, an award given to five local residents this year for "outstanding achievement or contribution to the community," according to a video, which can be viewed here.

That step he took thirteen years ago, though it may appear abrupt, was the result of careful reflection, said Mr. Fortenbaugh in an interview. At the time, he hadn't been feeling very inspired by his job and wanted to transition to a more "mission-driven" line of work. Before he dove into the nonprofit sector, though, he had two big questions to answer for himself: what issue did he want to dedicate his career to tackling, and how was he going to do it?

He says he contemplated going to work at a foundation, or getting involved with philanthropy, but through a long series of informational interviews, he realized that the people in the nonprofit world he most looked up to and wanted to be like were nonprofit CEOs. They were, he said, "the guys on the front line making decisions and running companies that were mission-driven."

During this research, he also discovered that "the issue that kept resonating with me was supporting the opportunity gap," he said.

The opportunity gap, he emphasized, was the problem, not the income gap, though the two can be connected, he said. He asserts full faith in capitalism on his LinkedIn page, where he writes, "I'm not striving for full equality; the American system of free enterprise and capitalism mostly works."

However, he explained, as the income gap widens and the middle class dissolves, "People being so squeezed at the lower end, all they can do is survive."

As a result, he said, "The next generation doesn't have nearly enough opportunities. They get behind."

The solution, he believes, is to make sure kids from low-income families are offered the same access to opportunities as their more affluent peers. It's up to them, he said, to make the most of it.

"We're not giving anything to these kids," he said. "(We're) providing them with the circumstances...where they can reach for their potential."

He says his background in business and consulting continue to help him as a nonprofit leader, specifically by looking at things from a "return on investment standpoint."

"It helped me to never be satisfied with what we're doing," he said, "but always thinking: can we do it better?"

Since he began working at the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Peninsula, he said, he has seen big changes in both the quality of the staff that the clubs employs and the role of the organization in the community. Instead of simply being a safe place where kids could go after school, he explained, now it's taken on an expanded role in helping kids succeed in school.

The club has more than 1,800 active members who attend, on average, four days each week, as of a report from August 2015.

The staff has built connections with local schools, he said, and are talking more with principals and teachers. One priority for the club is to improve literacy for younger students. During after school programs, he said, kids are getting extra instruction in literacy, and an extra seven hours of added academic support each day over the summer, when the club hires certified teachers to work with students. As a result, the Boys and Girls Clubs were able to eliminate summer learning loss for their students.

His proudest accomplishment as executive director so far? "Seeing (the students) leave here, go on to have successful lives and become self-sufficient," he said, citing examples of former students who are now in law school, working in high tech, or employed at nonprofits. Some, he said, have returned to work at Boys and Girls Clubs, and are continuing the cycle of preparing today's kids for future success.

"It feels very hopeful to me. I'm an optimist. It's not a charity, what we're doing here," he said.

Comments

10 people like this
Posted by Ram Duriseti
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 30, 2015 at 12:30 pm

Peter, I met you about 12-14 years ago when you first started this job. You saw me running outside your house with my kid in my jogger and you took the time to reach and out invite me on a run. We had a brief stint as running buddies (I don't like running), but you spoke a lot about your excitement in this new job. It's amazing to see that you are still at it. Thank you for your service and your pragmatic solutions oriented message of hope.


4 people like this
Posted by Becky
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jun 26, 2017 at 3:47 pm

Dear Peter,

I just wanted to say that you are a huge inspiration to everyone. What you have done is fantastic and keep on working hard!

Best,

Becky


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