Denise Blair—Helping at-risk youth with a new non-profit model for corporate partnerships
Denise Blair, Master of Business Administration, 2010
Based in: Calgary
In 2008, Denise Blair had spent 12 years as executive director of the Calgary Youth Justice Society (CYJS), providing support to at-risk youth and offering them opportunities that would divert them from criminal behaviour. The CYJS was a small organization, and Blair wore a lot of hats in addition to her role as executive director, she was also the charity’s de facto CFO, operations chief, HR manager, marketing lead, and head of strategic planning.
“We tend to deal with what’s in front of us—serving this youth,” she said. “But we don’t take the time or the resources to grow the business. An MBA seemed like a good next step for me.”
Blair attended an information session on Athabasca University’s (AU) Master of Business Administration (MBA) program, which would allow her to develop her business acumen without sacrificing time on the job. The CYJS didn’t have the funds to pay for her degree, but she found out that the school was offering a one-time scholarship reserved for students involved in leadership and community service. She submitted an essay, outlining her career path and her ambitions for her organization, and won the scholarship. It paid for her full tuition.
“We tend to deal with what’s in front of us—serving this youth. But we don’t take the time or the resources to grow the business. An MBA seemed like a good next step for me.”– Denise Blair, MBA graduate
“It was like winning the lottery,” she said. “When I heard the news, I knew I was going to do whatever I could to pay it forward and use my education to benefit the community. This wasn’t just about me and my career.”
People had warned Blair that doing her MBA online could be isolating and might prevent her from building networks. But Blair had no qualms. In fact, she found studying at AU to be just the opposite of isolating. Unlike in her undergrad, where she sat in large lecture halls and didn’t speak to anyone, discussions and group work were built right into the MBA’s curriculum. Blair found that she had access to a more diverse cross-section of students than she would at a traditional university.
“Where do you get access to so many people who have unique and different challenges in one place? The conversations were extremely rich,” she says. One of her classmates was a soldier serving in Afghanistan. Another woman was an Indigenous trapper living in a log cabin in rural Canada.
“Where do you get access to so many people who have unique and different challenges in one place? The conversations were extremely rich.”– Denise Blair, MBA graduate
She wanted to use her degree to improve her community. All of her classes were applicable to the non-profit sector, but the one she found most useful was her marketing course. For one of her assignments, she was tasked with developing a marketing plan. She decided to base her strategy on an idea for a leadership program for vulnerable students she had been mulling over.
Her new business aptitude helped her look at the idea of corporate partnerships in a fresh way. She envisioned a program that would generate a tangible return on investment for companies that got involved with CYJS. In addition to asking for funding, she would ask employees of a corporate partner to volunteer as coaches for the kids.
“We wanted to measure how the employees and workplace would be impacted by this experience,” she says. “We wanted to measure the coaches’ engagement with their corporation and their skills as employees and supervisors, and help build a mentoring culture in the company.”
A few weeks after drawing up the plan for her class, Blair described her idea while networking at an event. The woman she was talking to turned out to work in community investment at a large energy company. That company ended up committing to 3 years of partnership, turning a marketing-class assignment into a fully realized program.
“When I first graduated, I was already equipped with skills and tools for a running start. As the years went on, it evolved into changing the way I thought and who I was as a leader.”– Denise Blair, MBA graduate
Blair graduated from AU in 2010. Her leadership program, called “In the Lead,” has run for about 8 years and mentored hundreds of kids. They’ve worked with 5 corporations and deployed the program in school and community settings. And that original corporate partner is still with them.
“When I first graduated, I was already equipped with skills and tools for a running start,” Blair said. “As the years went on, it evolved into changing the way I thought and who I was as a leader.”
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