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Photo by Tom Witta; Sean Elders

Tom Witta, Star Tribune

On the Job with Sean Elder

  • Article by: LAURA FRENCH Special to the Star Tribune
  • December 3, 2012 - 11:07 PM

The standard image of a business executive is someone sitting behind a massive, polished desk in a windowed office. But Sean Elder, Chief Operating Officer of Hiawatha Academies, reports happily that he doesn't have an office at all. He is in constant motion, meeting with board members, vendors and prospective funders. When he's at one of the two charter schools that his company runs, he camps out at a table in the main office or meets with visitors in a conference room.

Elder earned a Masters Degree in Business Administration (MBA) from the University of St. Thomas. He said that Hiawatha Academies, a network of college-preparatory charter schools, runs on "data-driven decision-making. That's very MBA-ish."

Elder sees himself as part of a generational trend toward using business skills for social good. "I have an entrepreneurial spirit," he said. "I like ambiguity. I like big problems and big questions. Going into corporate America just wasn't a good fit because of the self-awareness piece."

As an undergraduate, Elder majored in the sociology of law at the University of Minnesota, expecting to go to law school. "I took a few lawyers to lunch; everyone should do that when they're choosing a career. I realized that I didn't see the impact of poring over law texts." At the same time, his work as a research assistant heightened his awareness of social justice issues in education.

After graduation, he took a job as an admissions counselor, doing public speaking, recruitment and marketing. "It was fun!" he said. He discovered both a passion for helping kids get into college, and the extent of Minnesota's achievement gap. "There were huge swaths of kids who couldn't get into college. These were kids who had been failed by the system."

He started his job at Hiawatha Academies just a month after completing his MBA in the spring of 2011. Since then, he's already completed a $1.5 million renovation of the second location and is helping to plan a third. "My career has been getting outside my comfort zone," he said.

What does a Chief Operating Officer do?

I block and tackle. I keep the principal from being pulled away from his focus on the students and the teachers. I deal with facilities, finances, strategic planning and a sustainable growth strategy. We are operationally sustainable on our state and federal funding. We fund raise to expand our impact. Funders are investing in our mission.

What are the skills that an MBA provides?

The MBA provided a comfort with the conversations and language of business. I have a breadth of understanding. I chose the University of St. Thomas because they have a nonprofit emphasis within the MBA. St. Thomas offered more opportunity for me to create a path. I did an independent study in Uganda. I helped build a Net Impact chapter on campus and participated in a case competition. My organizational behavior course taught me that being data-driven is critical, but business decisions aren't entirely rational. How do you move and influence folks? I also learned that implementation matters -- policy makes sense.

What are the differences in operating a nonprofit versus a business?

I don't agree with the narrative of "business versus nonprofit." The only difference between the two models is what you can do with surplus revenue. Schools are a human capital business. We need to be results-oriented. That's a business mindset.

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