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Interview Issue

E. Gordon Gee

Quick: Name the most well known university president in existence. Before your brain even begins to form the double Gs, you’ve already constructed a visual... ...the argyle socks, the bowtie, the simple eyeglasses – and the affirmed, affable smile permanently formed on the lips of Elwood Gordon Gee. That mouth has delivered more than a [...]
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Quick: Name the most well known university president in existence.

Before your brain even begins to form the double Gs, you’ve already constructed a visual…

…the argyle socks, the bowtie, the simple eyeglasses – and the affirmed, affable smile permanently formed on the lips of Elwood Gordon Gee.

That mouth has delivered more than a few miscalculated quotes over his three-and-half decades as an administrator, such as “we do not play the Little Sisters of the Poor,” describing his job as directing “the Polish Army,” or “you just can’t trust those damn Catholics on a Thursday or a Friday,” the latter of which was reported by the Associated Press last May from a December 2012 meeting of OSU’s Athletic Council. He resigned from this second stint as the university’s president days later.

Yet, it’s still Gordon’s mouth that is the best tool in his bag. His unmatched ability to engage has enabled him to become one of the most gifted fundraisers in the country – in higher education or anywhere. And often, those he’s offended have become the benefactor of his fundraising, too.

Just days after he accepted the interim presidency at West Virginia (where he started his career as the nation’s youngest president at age 36), Gee closed the oft-revolving door of his office in the new Center for Higher Education Enterprise (where he shares a wing with John Glenn) for an hour with (614). He will return this summer to continue work on the Center.

In an hour, quite a bit gets left on the cutting room floor (his divorce from his second wife, the privatization of several factions of Ohio State, like parking and licensing). In the absence of a complete biography session, what remained was a congenial, confident 69-year-old Gee, unafraid to reflect on his mistakes and eager to embark on a new phase of life. Instead we focused on his “positive midlife crisis,” humor, and his uncompromised sense of self.

We began in the most appropriate way I could think of…

Tell me a joke.
Yeah, I think I’ll wave that one off right now. Maybe towards the end [of the interview], I may have a couple of them.

Does someone have to tell you what ‘retired’ means? I mean, are you aware you’re supposed to–
I tell you, I retired from the presidency, but I didn’t retire from the things I now think are important, which is the whole issue of education institutions in this country, the nature of what universities ought to be doing, my belief in the land-grant mission and reaffirmation of the land-grant institution as a leading force for change in the nation.

I never did have the midlife opportunities, so now I’m having a positive midlife crisis – I’m going back and doing things I wasn’t able to before. I’ve got a great new book on the politics of higher education coming out. All of these strands are coming together. None of these things I could have done while sitting in the president’s chair, because running Ohio State is a massive job. It leaves little for the conceptual nature of what I’m trying to do.

Are you saying that now you feel you have the ability to approach things more from a big picture standpoint, rather than be university-centric?
Right. The thing about Ohio State is it’s a marvelous platform. It’s one of the most accomplished universities in the country, but also it’s a six-billion dollar institution. The day-to-day business doesn’t allow you to step back one step. Besides, when you’re the president of a university, as I’ve discovered, what you say has consequences (laughs).

You get to be Gordon Gee a little bit more than Gordon Gee-comma-president.
Right – Gordon Gee commentator, Gordon Gee thinker…it’s very empowering to have a megaphone again.

Well, that’s exactly why I wanted to sit down with you now.
Now we can have the unvarnished version.

The elephant in the room was addressed early on, although it really isn’t much of an elephant. Across from us in Gee’s office, behind his desk, he’s framed a New York Times story that published his “Top 10 Gaffes.” Owning it, one would say.

Let’s go back a little bit. At 36, you were running a university…being honest, were you scared shitless or were you just like, ‘Yep, I’m the guy!’?
People in West Virginia took a great risk in putting a 36-year-old in charge, and now that I am 69, I would never put a 36-year-old in that position – what where they thinking? (laughs) I had to learn on the job and it was frightening. All of a sudden, I realized I was playing on a big stage and I didn’t have the experience or the maturity to do it. It matured me very quickly. You’ll be amused about this – so I’m three or four months into the presidency and these two guys come in. I thought they were really old – they were probably 40 (laughs). One was the chair of English and the other was the dean of the libraries and they said, “You aren’t doing very well.” I said, “Well, tell me about it.” I was really struggling. I asked why. They said, “Well, you don’t look, you don’t act, you don’t talk like a university president. You wear argyle socks, you go out and party with the students, you wear bow ties and khaki pants…

Khaki pants – the nerve.
So I thought yes, that’s right, my idea of a university president is a tall, gray-haired, distinguished-looking guy…so I tried to change for a long time, you know? Three-piece suit, trying to be a little bit more dignified, and two things happened: one, I continued to fail, and second, I was miserable.

So I figured if I’m going to fail at this, I’m going to fail having fun. Thirty-three years later, I’m a university president and those guys are dead (laughs). But there’s a point; that was a great learning experience for me. When I tried to be what other people wanted me to be, I was very uncomfortable and very unsuccessful. I’m a very quirky guy. I kind of view the world through a different telescope than other people do. Sometimes I insert foot in mouth…but humor is the antidote to a lot of things, and certainly I think it is one of the most important components of leadership. I really learned my lesson from that point on, and I have been very much an individual. Sometimes it’s been uncomfortable for me or for other people, but it’s something that’s been very important.

Ironically, many may associate your iconic bowties and socks with exactly how a college president dresses.
(laughs) Yes. I think one of the dangers of academic administration at the leading universities is [that] people become very gray, very non-descript. I joke about the road to becoming a university president now is offending the least amount of people for the longest time (laughs).

Well, now you get to be a university president again, so it seems to be working for you in the long run.
Well maybe I’m the last of the wild men. How does that sound?

I like that. Sounds like a Western.
We could make a movie out of that. You could star, and I can be a horse.

This is what it’s like to interview Gordon Gee. Quirky, as he said.

Clearly humor is a big part of who you are. Where did that come from?
First of all, I grew up in a very small town and I was kind of the ‘geeky kid.’ Therefore, in order to be liked, I had to figure something out; I couldn’t play football or basketball so I had to figure out doing something else that would be a bit endearing.

What’s interesting about you is that you’re both well known for being loose-lipped in public, but also known as a very gifted fundraiser. Do you ever want to scream, ‘Hey, you can’t have one without the other?’
I think that one of the things I have learned over time is when you make a mistake, apologize for it, try to learn from it, and try not to make it again. And I’ve made plenty. I mean, I certainly don’t defend the things that I do which could be offensive. On the other hand, my greatest strength is my ability to make fun of myself. And so, when you’re me, and in that kind of comfort zone, sometimes things do happen. As long as people are forgiving…I will say, for example, both the president of Notre Dame and my friends in the Catholic religion live by Catholicism, so they are very forgiving. And Sister Cecilia, who is the head of the Little Sisters of the Poor, I’m now her chief fundraiser. (laughs)

I feel very comfortable with who I am, which is very important to me. I don’t want to be someone in private that I’m not in public and visa versa. I want to be genuine and I want to be thoughtful and I want to be supportive and I want to be a person of character, but I want to do that on my terms. I don’t want to have someone telling me that this is what I ought to do.

If you’re the same person in public as you are in private, doesn’t that get exhausting?
It can be draining, but it can also be very energizing. My daughter always jokes that my idea of a quiet night at home is to invite 400 people over for dinner (laughs). I think that’s sort of a DNA issue in some ways, and over time, that’s part and parcel of having been a college president for so long. I’ve had my calendar guide me through half-hour meetings for seven days a week, 24 hours a day. You get very comfortable with multi-tasking. But, I take a lot of energy from what I do.

I should say so. Otherwise you’d be dead. Or at least sleeping right now.
Well, yeah. Plus, it would be more distressing to not like what you do. And the issue of balance is also important. I tell everyone I’m a workaholic, and people agree with me. But that is neither a mark of greatness nor a badge of courage. I think a lesson for younger people to learn is that they can be much more effective in their professional lives if they take care more time to be effective in their personal lives. We don’t often get that kind of balance. At least I didn’t, anyway, early on…

Can you elaborate? I know you’ve mentioned in other interviews that your daughter had to bear the brunt of that.
With my daughter…I was an absentee father, until after her mother died, I really was. But, after her mother died, I drug her along to a lot of things, which she now views as a privilege. But I think she never really did have real “teenage years.” Obviously, my first wife died of cancer, and I was not the attentive husband that I should have been with my second wife. We got divorced because we were in a polygamous marriage – I was married to the University, and I was married to her – and that put a strain on things. So, on the personal level, I continue to have much to learn, but I do think that a balanced life makes for a better human being.

Talk to me about faith. How has it evolved?
My faith remains very strong. I’m a devout Mormon; I don’t get a chance to attend formal religious ceremonies as much as I would like, with all my travel and obligations, but it really is an important part of my life. To really be engaged in the religion, it really has to engage as a part of one’s lifestyle. As a practice…I drink no alcohol. I drink no coffee…I do drink Diet Dr. Pepper, which I think there is a special dispensation in heaven for that. (laughs)

You live in the Short North now. Are you discovering a whole different life beyond campus now?
I am. I’ve just fallen in love with being in an urban environment; this is something I’ve always wanted to do. Ya know, I’ve lived in university museums for most of my life. It’s such a neat area. As far as Columbus goes, I suspect that are few, if any people, that are bigger cheerleaders for Columbus than I am. I returned because I love Columbus. I think it’s become one of the really remarkable cities in America.

Especially in the last five years…
And, of course, I take full credit for it (laughs). When I came back, it just blossomed! And (614) started to publish, too. I take all the credit.

Ha! This is back to that positive midlife crisis. These aren’t things you got to do when you were between 30 and 40.
It’s been a very affirming time for me. And, the thing I love about Columbus – in addition to just the energy of the place and the great people – is that, sometimes when one goes through a change like I went through, what happens is, when power goes, your friends go. And, in this instance, I’ve just found it to be the opposite case. My relationships with people could not be stronger. I think that’s endemic to the city, to an extent.

You’ve stood out from your peers in a certain way, by the way you embrace athletics. Is that something that has always been with you, even before Ohio State?
Obviously, I never played a thing…look at me (laughs). Maybe checkers…but I think that athletics is a very important component of a university – if we do it well, and we do it right. If we use it to tell the story of the institution, and build spirit…

I think Ohio State does that very well. I think we set a very high standard, if not the gold standard, for the relationship between athletics, academics, the culture of the university, and the people of the state. Sometimes, it’s overpowering. But I’ve yet to be able to entice 100,000 people to watch a chemistry lecture. I can get 100,000 people to come watch a football game, and use that as a storyboard for tying back the issues and opportunities and challenges of the university.

What was your college life like? Have you been to more college parties as a college president or as a college student?
Some people could say I have. I was a serious student. I was a serious student, but I wasn’t a serious University president. (laughs) So there ya go.

Clearly, you’ve embraced the notion of yourself as a personal brand – which as you state is just Gordon being Gordon. Still, that comes with it its own pressures. How do you reflect on that now that you’ve (essentially) retired?
I think a lot about that. The cult of personality can be great, but it can also be very, very detrimental. There’s a fine line in that regard. I don’t sit here and calibrate about it, but I think that the bottom line is that this is who I am. If I had not been blessed to be the president of these magnificent universities, I would still be this way. I think, at least, for me, knowing in my heart that I am genuinely who I am is an important component of who I am.

More important than your legacy?
Absolutely. I think we all start thinking, at my age, about whether you made a difference…but one thing I do know is, I did remain true to me. •

After six months at WVU, Gee will return to his office in Columbus. In the meanwhile, keep up with him at www.facebook.com/gordongee.

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Interview Issue

The Interview: Christina Basham

Mixologist / Entrepreneur Even at a young age, Christina Basham carried with her the ingredients for success in the service industry—a gregarious nature, formidable attention to detail, an amiable personality, and the mouth of a goddamn sailor. Basham gives me the grand tour of the winding Middle West Spirits distillery, detailing the various applications of [...]
Danny Hamen

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Mixologist / Entrepreneur

Even at a young age, Christina Basham carried with her the ingredients for success in the service industry—a gregarious nature, formidable attention to detail, an amiable personality, and the mouth of a goddamn sailor.

Basham gives me the grand tour of the winding Middle West Spirits distillery, detailing the various applications of the towering bronze stills that inhabit the prodigious space. Her golden locks flow feverishly down her ‘90s-style, cocktail-peppered shirt as she explains the real difference between regular gin and dry gin while pouring me a 100-proof taster straight from the elephantine still. As the Sales Manager, former Brand Ambassador, and master Mixologist (and I don’t use that term lightly) at Middle West, it’s Basham’s job to know her shit.

Basham has racked up over 15 years of experience in the service industry, from shaking drinks at local dives, managing the beloved but departed Wall Street Bar and Buckeye Bourbon House, and hosting her uniquely inspired craft cocktail pop-ups, to judging prestigious cocktail competitions. A Goliath of her trade who has put in her time and moved up the ranks, Basham’s eyes are now fixed on the position of president of the Columbus chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild.

The relationship between the ingredients in your glass and the person shaking them isn’t always important, but it’s almost always interesting. The folks who expertly distill, produce, blend, pour, and/or create your delicious intoxication juice are more than just faces behind a bar—they are influential figures representing the best our city has to offer.

“I felt like, to the world, I never made a lot of sense. This is a place where I can live in all of my weird, and I was supported. People are into it.”

What experiences helped sharpen your teeth in the industry?

Christina Basham: The answer is twofold—I was 21 when I started working at Applebee’s. I wanted to go back to school, so I started serving, eventually moving behind the bar. I still remember that they made us wear these horrible pink and purple t-shirts that said “Half-and-Half Happy Hour” where half of the letters were garnishes. I just remember thinking, “What did I do…. This is not who I am.” I was a young, queer-identified woman working alongside a lot of people who were, well… not that. And it was very challenging.

What really cut my teeth in the industry was years of working corporate turn and burn and managing a nightclub [Wall Street] that served as the last stop on the train for many people—the people you see at their absolute darkest moments, their most booze-induced moments.
Then I moved to Denver in 2011 for a relationship that didn’t work out. I interviewed for a job for the Edible Beats group. I didn’t have the chops just then. It took four to five months, but I got there. The leveled of curated hospitality in that space and attention to detail was something I had never seen before and I was in love. This is what I was waiting for.

But when I moved back home, I didn’t have the network. Sure, I had the gay kids, the turn-and-burn kids, and the club kids, but I didn’t have the fine dining and craft cocktail kids. I needed to create a secondary network that let me be that part of who I really was.

How did that relationship building begin?

CB: I was working at Barrel 44. At that time, we were voted best cocktail list, and I was so curious because at that time they were still putting club soda in their Old Fashioneds. I remember them looking at me like I’m a crazy person for shaming them because I had come from Wall Street nightclub where I only poured three styles of flavored vodka into a glass.

The turning point was working at the Kitchen at German Village. Anne [Boninsegna] and Jen [Lindsey] very quickly became family to me, two older sisters I never knew I needed. I had access to all of these ingredients I’d never had before, and they just let me do what I wanted.

Over the course of two years, I split my time between selling and organizing events, organizing the bar, and bartending two or three events a week. That’s when I decided to join the US Bartenders Guild.

You decided to throw in the bar towel and start in sales for Middle West Spirits. How do you think they stand out from other distilleries?

CB: We are the first post-prohibition distillery in Ohio. It’s even cooler when you consider prohibition started in Westerville. I think we are honest about what we do. Every drop we make is made here. We source our wheat from Ohio, the same place that Ritz, Pillsbury, and Donatos get their wheat from. It’s funny, nobody who originally invested in the company is from here; they just fell in love with the state and decided to move. There is something great about drinking local— putting money back into the city and the local economy. I don’t think any brand loves the agriculture in this state as much as Middle West.

Columbus has seen a renaissance recently in the way of spirits and cocktails. Why do you think cocktails are an important part of Columbus culture?

CB: Cocktails allows creatives to live in a space where they can really shine. You’re giving them a stage to be expressive. That is what is so amazing about food and beverage and hospitality is that people can be who they really are. I love feeling a part of the underdogs, that secret society. Even though there is a bit of a chip on your shoulder, there is something sexy about that, ya know? I felt like, to the world, I never made a lot of sense. This is a place where I can live in all of my weird, and I was supported. People are into it.
Craft cocktails have made us relevant on a national level. People like Annie Williams Pierce and Alex Chin, these people who have competed and done really well. When you compete, you are just a name and a city. It’s not just you.

What is the difference between a good drink and a great drink?

CB: I think the service is the catalyst for the drink. That and intentionality. You can serve a highball cocktail, but if it’s served with intentionality, it’s just different. You can feel it and sense it. There’s just a level of exceptional…. Something that makes it different. Of course when it comes to cocktails, fresh juice over frozen, quality ingredients—you can’t take a great recipe and put a shitty vodka in it, it’s just not going to be the same. People are simplifying nowadays. You don’t get a high five for adding 17 styles of bitters in a cocktail. Nobody cares. It’s booze, it’s not rocket science.

Tell me about Bubbles and Agave.

CB: I’d always hoped for more time to do private cocktail events and at-home cocktail classes. I really love all of that stuff, and I’ve been doing it as a side hustle for years. Once I was able to balance my work life and home life with my job at Middle West, in October I got a surge of energy and said, “I’m gonna do this.” So I filed my LLC and I’m working on getting the website up. Basically I come and do craft cocktail classes—I bring the tools, everything you need. I love empowering people to make the most of their home bar. Going out and dining is amazing, but it’s not the most friendly to your budget. If you can figure out how to make a simple syrup at your house and get really creative, or if you can feel comfortable mixing drinks, it’s an amazing feeling—like knowing that you have secrets in your pocket. If I can send people home with that feeling, well, that is what really really excites me.

Look for Basham’s website, bubblesandagave.com, coming soon!

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Interview Issue

The Interview: Nicole Kraft

Journalist / Teacher / Innovator It’s the day of the interview and I’m scrambling to make sure I’m ready. Is my recorder ready and charged? Yup. Do I have my list of questions? Check. A little mint gum before the interview? It’ll be gone before I start my questions. Extra pens just in case mine [...]
Mitch Hooper

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Journalist / Teacher / Innovator

It’s the day of the interview and I’m scrambling to make sure I’m ready. Is my recorder ready and charged? Yup. Do I have my list of questions? Check. A little mint gum before the interview? It’ll be gone before I start my questions. Extra pens just in case mine dries out? I got ‘em.

A great book about the art of interviewing, Always Get The Name Of The Dog: A Guide To Media Interviewing, once taught me to always show up to an interview at least 10 minutes early. Whether you’re a person who is always late, or just need a few moments to set up, it’s always best to beat your interview subjects to the location. It sets a level of professionalism and lets your subjects know you respect them and their time.

These are all things that you should do in good practice as a writer or journalist. So you can imagine my embarrassment when I arrived to Panera 15 minutes early to find Nicole Kraft, author of said book, sitting at a table, checking emails, sipping coffee, and patiently awaiting my arrival for the interview. But what else would you expect? She quite literally wrote the damn book on interviewing.

“I don’t know who said it, but they said, ‘If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.’ And I’ve never worked a day in my life.”

Giving Kraft the title of just author is not only disingenuous, it’s a disservice. Beyond publishing her digital interviewing book Always Get The Name Of The Dog in 2013 as well as a lengthier and updated print version set to release in January of 2019, Kraft is a communications and journalism professor at Ohio State. As an Apple Distinguished Educator, she spearheaded the arrival of iPads for freshmen on OSU’s campus. She’s the director of the Sports and Society Initiative. She’s an active writer for The Columbus Dispatch and the Associated Press. She specializes in media law and ethics, and she’s a mother and wife. It might seem like Kraft sleeps standing up with her eyes open so she can be ready for the next task to conquer. But to her, the high workload never feels like a chore because she’s able to do the things she wants to do.

“I don’t have any hobbies; everything I do is a hobby in its own way,” Kraft explained as she finished up working on a lesson plan for the Spring semester. “I don’t know who said it, but they said, ‘If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.’ And I’ve never worked a day in my life.”

Whether you want to call it a labor of love, a hobby, or a job—one thing is for certain—Kraft is a go-getter. From the ripe age of eight, she had already began printing her own local newspaper, “The Bicentennial Times,” that she would hand out to neighbors as she was dressed as Betsy Ross. Once in high school, she said she watched All The President’s Men and was instantly set on becoming an investigative journalist. This flash of insight led her to becoming an editor with her school newspaper, a dream internship with the Philadelphia 76ers, and was eventually what brought her from the West Coast to Columbus.

But the move to Columbus wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Kraft’s husband, Brian, wasn’t too keen on the idea of moving from the West Coast to the East Coast. Initially, Kraft was hoping to land a job in New Jersey with Hoof Beats, which she had read avidly since childhood. She knew she was perfect for the position as she had spent her life around horses. So, she submitted a letter and resume, and took her shot. Unfortunately (or fortunately if you are Brian), a move to New Jersey wasn’t in the cards. But through the application process, Kraft’s name was forwarded along to an editor who found her an associate editor position in good old midwestern Columbus, Ohio.

In Brian’s defense, Nicole wasn’t exactly thrilled about Columbus at first either.

“When I came here for my interview, I flew from the San Francisco Airport—I’m from Napa Valley—into Columbus and the flatness of it…. I cried when I got to the hotel that night,” she recalled. “I called my husband like, ‘It’s so flat here!’ ”

It didn’t help that when the Krafts first moved into Clintonville in 1995, it was still dry. Needless to say, there was some culture shock. But after 24 years in the community, she said she doesn’t see herself anywhere else.

“We swore we’d only be here for two years; that was it. And now I don’t think we’ll ever leave.”

This little anecdote about her career path is another example of an on-brand moment for Kraft. She’s always wanted to do whatever she wants to do, and her way of achieving this goal is relatively simple: put yourself out there.

“I always say yes. I never believe I can’t. And that’s the type of things I tell students all the time: ‘Just say yes. What’s the worst that can happen?”

“I always say yes. I never believe I can’t. And that’s the type of things I tell students all the time: ‘Just say yes. What’s the worst that can happen?’ If I send him a letter and he says no, the worst thing that can happen is he said no,” Kraft explained about the Hoof Beats
application process.

That’s how the process went for her second installment of Always Get The Name Of The Dog, too. The first book was put together after she had been trained on how to use iPads. It was a chance for her to play around with the technology, try something new, and show people how to engage in meaningful one-on-one conversations. The second book, however, materialized simply because she was asked to turn it from a digital book into a print book. Her response? “Yeah, of course. That sounds awesome, I’d love that.”

(Even better: she bought copies for her class so students don’t have to shell money out of pocket to gain access to the information.)

While most of the world looks at mobile devices and social media as a plague that is destroying millennials and other generations alike, Kraft sees them in a different light. Her expertise includes mobile technology and iPad learning, and her classroom model incorporates a little bit of everything. Instead of a roll call attendance policy, students check in using a hashtag via Twitter. If you follow her on Twitter, you’ll often see her retweeting articles posing ethical questions to students, or simply tagging a tweet as #osunewsclass to generate conversation. She also uses a “flipped classroom” where students read and watch videos at home, then come to class to discuss, displacing the lecture time traditionally spent in class.

“When I first started teaching, I didn’t come from academia, so I think that [it’s] different that I came from that real-world setting. I tried to be the professor that I wished I could’ve had, which is somebody who recognizes that the world is important, and that education and the things we do in education have to mirror the world to a degree, and we have to integrate it,” she said.

She’s also a huge advocate of using social media for more than just memes and Tasty cooking videos.

“When we ignore what is real and what’s in front of us—you know the fact is three-quarters of this [Panera] are on social media—that’s where people live, that’s where social networks are made. It’s not called a social network for nothing,” Kraft said, gesturing around the room. “By excluding it from a classroom experience, we’re really cutting students off from a main pathway that they have both to communication and socialization. The other big part is they are going to use it. I have to teach them in my view to use it for good and not evil, and to realize how beneficial it can be for them.”

That being said: it’s not strictly all work and no play for Kraft on social media. Before each semester, she searches her students on social platforms to get a better idea of who they are, while also pointing out that most of the information they post is accessible by anyone, including potential employers. It’s great for feeling out what the class roster will be like, and it does shock students when she pulls out little factoids about them from when they posted a one-off status in high school.

As a former student of Kraft’s classes, I can attest that the lessons she teaches are worth more than their weight in gold. Going into my final semester at Ohio State, I needed an internship in the worst way. Of course, Kraft had an answer. A little magazine published by (614) Media Group (maybe you’ve heard of us?) named 1870 Magazine was looking for student writers for the summer of 2017 and she forwarded my name to the editor. Now it’s 2019, and I’m still using all the tools she gave me to tell stories for (614) and serve as editor-in-chief of 1870 Magazine.

I also remember nearly every fresh writer in her class wanting to feature her and all she does for the university and the city, but those pitches were always met with a stern no. But from hearing her war-like stories, seeing her enthusiasm, and catching her infectious drive, can anyone blame a young writer for wanting to tell Kraft’s story? There’s no question here: she had a story that needed to be told. It just had to be done in the right manner.

Well, Nicole. Life has gone full circle. I’m no longer in your class, but I’m still pitching story ideas to write about you. And this time, I got the green light.

Read samples of Nicole Kraft’s articles about Columbus at nicolekraft.com/archives.

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Interview Issue

The Interview: Carter Stewart

Carter Stewart isn’t your average crimefighter, and he’ll surely shun the description as much as he defies the stereotype. Following a career watching broken systems contribute to incarceration, the former US Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio left government service to become a full-time mentor for the social enterprise sector. Riding a borrowed desk [...]
J.R. McMillan

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Carter Stewart isn’t your average crimefighter, and he’ll surely shun the description as much as he defies the stereotype.
Following a career watching broken systems contribute to incarceration, the former US Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio left government service to become a full-time mentor for the social enterprise sector. Riding a borrowed desk at the Columbus Foundation, he’s a one-man Midwest outpost for the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation. He’s also been recruited and charged with identifying worthy causes and applying Silicon Valley ingenuity to philanthropy-focused businesses—all to the tune of more than $100 million.

Imagine if instead of investing in capes and cowls, Bruce Wayne spent a fortune funding innovative approaches to solving long-standing injustices?

Not exactly cinematic, but far more effective by addressing the underlying circumstances that foster it. The shortage of services, access, and advocacy are all predictable indicators for both victims and perpetrators. Equipped with the insights and instincts of a prosecutor weary of always being on the receiving end of avoidable tragedies, Stewart shares his experience and expertise with fellow do-gooders, guiding them from shaky startups to scalable success.

We first met a few months back at Roosevelt Coffeehouse, itself an anchor for the local social enterprise movement. Overdue for a follow-up cup, we discussed the future of “purpose beyond profits” and why Columbus is the perfect incubator for ideas that really could change the world.

A career in criminal justice isn’t the typical résumé for a social justice champion. You’ve seen the world through an entirely different lens. How has your work as a US Attorney informed your search for solutions through social enterprise?

Carter Stewart: It’s not uncommon to leave law to go into the nonprofit sphere, but it is uncommon to leave prosecution. The only other US attorney I know who has done it is in Pittsburgh. I actually surveyed colleagues at the DOJ to see if anyone else had done this, and he was the only one. My desire to help is based on what I’ve seen as a prosecutor as much as my childhood experiences growing up in the South, in Atlanta. So many of the people my office prosecuted came from broken systems—school systems that weren’t adequate, housing situations that were poor. So many people in state and local jails suffer from mental health issues, addiction issues. I felt that if we could fix those broken systems, it would reduce the number of people who end up in the criminal
justice system.

“Not all tension is bad, and there can be positive creative tension between traditional businesses and social enterprises.”

Social media and social enterprise seem to have come of age at the same time. There’s not a mutual dependency, but an undeniably growing parallel between purpose and purchase. What trends in digital connectivity distinguish successful social enterprises from those that fizzle out?

CS: I can’t say there’s one pattern, but there is recognition of the importance of social media, especially for start-up organizations that don’t have a big budget and want to spread the word as far and wide as possible. Everyone we fund has to have a website. It sounds obvious, but they have to have something up and running. But we still have some organizations that are spread more by word of mouth. ROX, Ruling Our Experiences, is a good example. It’s a program that teaches girls leadership, entrepreneurship, self-defense, self-awareness. The 20-week program is spread, mostly in-person, by the founder, Dr. Lisa Hinkelman, speaking at conferences to school counselors—who then google it. It’s the second bite at the apple. They hear from her first, then they learn more online and decide it’s something they want to pursue. But our organizations aren’t limited to the US, and some are dependent on social media to work. But where it’s critical for everyone is funders, who are more likely to research an organization before contacting it directly. They don’t want to raise hopes or expectations too early. It’s interwoven and social entrepreneurs recognize that.

There can be friction between traditional nonprofits and social enterprises serving the same cause. Ideally, raising awareness creates a larger pie, and everyone gets a bigger slice. How should social enterprises answer the concern that they’re competing for the same donors and dollars?

CS: There is perspective among some funders that there are too many nonprofits—to solve education, to solve poverty. Instead of creating new ones, we should improve and, perhaps in some cases, combine the ones that we have. There’s a degree of creation exhaustion. I happen to disagree. You need constant creation and rebirth, new ideas cycling in. Traditional nonprofits that have never considered the social enterprise model might feel threatened by that new entity going after the same funding dollars. In an ideal world, the new entity inspires the older entity to change and to grow. I consider the YMCA one of the oldest social enterprises in the country because they have a revenue stream. You pay for membership. So even though most nonprofits haven’t had that revenue stream, social enterprises have been around. It’s just been a small slice. I haven’t heard traditional nonprofits wishing social enterprises would go away as much as how can they be more like them and less dependent on philanthropic capital. And I think social enterprises can learn from nonprofits, their leadership structures and governance models. It’s a dynamic evolution that will hopefully lift everyone up.

Traditional businesses can also feel threatened by social enterprises. We don’t just vote every four years for president and every two years for Congress. We vote every day with our wallets. How to both kinds of businesses build brands that inspire their customers to become agents of change?

CS: That competition should help businesses recognize the importance of having a second bottom line. Maybe not a social mission, but a mindset of corporate citizenship. That’s what drives people to Roosevelt Coffeehouse. They know when they spend money, the company does good things with it. It’s a brand they feel good supporting. Not all tension is bad, and there can be positive creative tension between traditional businesses and social enterprises. Draper Richards Kaplan has someone on staff with whom we connect all of our entrepreneurs, to understand that communications is how you reach people, but branding is more, and an essential part of our process. Some folks come with more savvy than others, but in addition to helping build capacity they’re also building a brand. It’s something you should do in the early stages of your organization, so it becomes ingrained in your DNA.

The Midwest often gets overlooked when it comes to venture capital, despite our academic credibility, technological capacity, and desirable test market demographics. What does the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation see in Columbus that many still miss?

CS: We’re a particular type of donor. Not all donors look for what we look for, most don’t. Most foundations I know won’t fund an organization unless they’ve been around for four or five years. And they don’t always look for organizations with the potential to scale. They look for organizations that are well-run, already likely to survive, and succeeding in their mission. We look for organizations at an earlier stage, those that have finished a pilot and want to go big….We look for ideas that have the potential to disrupt, to change broken systems, and not many funders share that desire. But in Columbus, there’s a hunger for it. Social enterprise is a buzzword, and they’ve been in Columbus for years before I got here. But 75 percent of funding still goes to the East Coast and the West Coast, and that’s a huge oversight. People were looking for mechanisms to get national funding to Central Ohio, to build and scale the organizations that are here and those just getting started. There’s a synergy between governments and businesses, nonprofits and social enterprises. It’s an enthusiasm and pride many on the coasts don’t realize is here. I was once one of those people. I lived in New York and California. It was my wife who decided we were moving to Columbus 13 years ago, and I still tell people it’s the best decision I never made.

For more on social enterprises and the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, visit drkfoundation.org.

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