I came across Bill Strickland when I was browsing the TED Talks and was immediately struck by what he had achieved. So I did a search on him and found that he had written a book, ‘Make the Impossible Possible‘, so I sent off for it and I am pleased that I did as Bill’s story is really remarkable and this autobiography is well worth reading.
Bill was born in 1947 and raised in Manchester, Pittsburgh, USA. This was a poor ghetto that was predominately black and he describes it as ‘The streets around me were lined with sad, sagging row houses in various states of collapse, their walls made of grimy, mismatched vinyl siding or bowed-out brick. Paint peeled from the rotting window trim. Torn curtains or shredded plastic blinds hung in many of the windows. Some windows had been busted out and repaired with cardboard and tape. Weeds grew wild in vacant lots, as high as my head, and yards and lots always seemed to be filled with junk – old tires, rusted kitchen appliances, automobile parts, mounds of garbage.’ From the description you can imagine the despair of living in such a place and having to see it day in and day out. Bill describes the type of people that lived there ‘I passed ruined people in my neighbourhood every morning on my way to school. Some use to scare me – the scam artists, the drug dealers, the predators and small time hoods. You had to give them a wide berth or they find a way to get a piece of your life. Others simply saddened me: people who were lost, frightened, hollow and used up.’ Bill’s mother was determined that her family would always act with respect and dignity as she told them ‘Just because we’re poor, we don’t have to live like defeated people’
Bill was cutting classes and was cruising his way at school doing the bare minimum to scrape through, until one morning whilst walking down a school corridor he smelt coffee, so he followed the smell to a classroom where a teacher was working on a potter’s wheel whilst listening to jazz. Bill was intrigued and wandered in to get a closer look and ended up having a go at working the clay. He became hooked and showed up to every class and he was encouraged by his teacher Frank Ross who went out of his way by speaking to the other teachers when he started missing some of their classes because he was hiding out in the art class by telling them ‘This kid’s on fire, and I think he has potential. Can’t you cut him some slack?’ which they did. Bill became more focused, disciplined, optimistic and mature and he was soon asked to exhibit some of his work in a gallery. This was a turning point for him as he was asked to appear as a demonstration artist at the Three Rivers Arts Festival in Pittsburgh where a crowd people soon appeared to watch him work and ask questions and as he puts it ‘These folks, most of them white, saw past all the labels they might have otherwise used to define me: Disadvantaged. Black. Poor. They were seeing me as a person with something unique to offer.’ Bill decided that he wanted to help his community by starting an arts centre so he put a proposal together and it was presented to the bishop of the Episcopalian diocese of Pittsburgh. The bishop thought it was a great idea and to ensure that Bill did everything properly they sent him off to their lawyers who were the most prestigious law firm in the city to learn how to become incorporated. Bill called his centre the Manchester Craftsman Guild, and it wasn’t long before he began to hear from teachers of the public schools and parents of the kids that showed up to the arts centre telling him that the kids were showing signs of improvements in their lives.
It was not long before he took over the Bidwell Training Centre which was used for job training programs in Manchester but did not live up to its expectations. The centre was run down in a seedy part of Manchester where people were doing drugs and gambling. The rooms were cramped, bleak and dingy with windowless classrooms and where vandalism and theft was rampant. Bill got his staff together and told them that they were going to paint the place that weekend and anyone who did not show up would be fired. They thought he was kidding until one staff member did not show and he fired him. Bill made a statement to his staff ‘We aren’t going to live like this or treat our kids in this way anymore.’
There was a fire at the Bidwell Centre which was quickly contained by the fire brigade but when they looked around the building and found that there were no fire escapes, sprinkler systems that were just for show but did not actually work they condemned the building. Bill found a nearby warehouse to rent and moved the centre to it. Bill was now desperate for funding so he kept his eyes peeled for a sign that could help and it came in the form of the new IBM electric typewriter. He needed new typewriters at the school and the sales rep made the case for the electronic versions, so he told him that he would buy them on condition that he met with the regional operations director for IBM. After giving the executive a tour of his centre and talking to him they decided to collaborate on a training program that would turn out typists specifically prepared to master the new machines and the executive Ed Conrad joined Bill on the board of directors. The next big thing that was spotted was that Warner was putting in cable television, so Bill called the executive and after introducing himself asked who was going to build the cable system? The executive told him that they had not figured that bit out yet, so Bill suggested that they collaborate on a training program to train the workforce which was agreed. Although this helped the centre, the future was not really secure as finances were very tight and at one point knew they were going to miss the payroll and so had to let people go. Bill felt a sense of loss and as he puts it ‘How did you let this happen? You’ve been treading water for fifteen years. You let yourself become a miserable grant writer, going door to door with your hat in your hand. You let the powers that be define you, man, you let them decide what is and isn’t possible. You need to stand for something. You need to make a difference to people’s lives.’ At that moment he glanced out of the window at a barren plot of land and was startled by a vision. ‘I saw a sleek, hip, low slung building, earth toned, honeycombed with windows and skylights and bathed in golden light.’ He remembered seeing a similar light before when he had visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s residential masterpiece Fallingwater. He knew that he had to build a centre bathed in that light that he saw in his vision to make a difference in his community.
A few weeks after his vision he was talking to a leading architect Tasso Katselas about his vision and mentioned Frank Lloyd Wright, to which Tasso showed him a framed photograph of him and Frank Lloyd Wright together, it turned out that he was one of Frank’s students. He produced a model of the building that Bill wanted which Bill then took on visits to corporations to try and raise the five million dollars that would be required to build it. On one occasion he was told ‘Come on Bill, Manchester doesn’t need the Taj Mahal’. Undeterred he continued to try and raise the money, so far each corporation told him that they would give him money towards his building on the condition that he found matching money. Bill had a friend called Diana Jannetta who was chair of the Pennsylvania Arts Council and she believed in Bill’s work so she arranged for him to meet the governor of Pennsylvania Dick Thornburgh in a private meeting. Bill describes the meeting that took place ‘When the door opened and they waived me in, I laid the model on the governor’s desk and let him look it over. He smiled approvingly and asked a few questions, but I sensed that he had already made up his mind. ‘You think you can make this place work’ he asked. ‘Yes Governor,’ I said, ‘I do’. ‘ Then stick out your hand’, he said, ‘you’re going to get your centre.’ They broke ground and started to build the centre in 1984 and began to get noticed by powerful people. One of the most important was John Heinz, a US senator and heir to the Heinz company who told him ‘I like what you are trying to do, and we want to be part of it. As you know we’re trying to improve our minority hiring efforts at Heinz. You can help us a lot if you’d include a food training program at your new facility.’ Bill at first was reluctant as he did not know anything about food, but the senator was persistent ‘What if we kicked in a million dollars and full time services of the head of our research department’ he asked. ‘Well Mr Heinz, ‘ I replied slowly, ‘ it looks like we’re going into the food service business.’ With Heinz help that put a training program together that almost guaranteed that graduates from the centre would get good paying jobs not only as food technicians at Heinz but also as chefs at restaurants throughout the city.
Bill said that he learnt a lot from John Heinz and is thankful that John embraced his vision that so many others had dismissed. The lesson to Bill was ‘Trust your passion, identify your dreams, and find the courage to share them with others, no matter how many times they call you a fool. If your vision has merit, no matter how impossible it may seem, someone will recognise it and help you make it come true.’ A day after the centre opened the pharmaceutical giant Bayer came and visited the centre and said ‘We hear that you’ve been training food technicians for Heinz, we need chemical technicians at Bayer. We would like to work with you on creating a program that would give us the kind of employees we’re looking for.’ This was soon followed up with visits from other labs and chemical companies, then hospitals and were soon training people for highly skilled jobs. This went against the norm where ‘Society has always seen poor folks as a social burden, people in need of charity and assistance. But we showed the poor people to be people of unlimited potential, assets to the community and valued employees to the companies that hired them. When corporations support us now, it wasn’t out of social obligation. It was because our programs worked – for the community and for their own bottom lines. We had found a point where the interest of capitalists and inner-city folks intersected. We had turned conventional attitudes about the poor upside down.’
Bill found ways to pay for his passion to help his community and turn it around and he also used his passion in his personal life as it to help him become a part time commercial pilot by thinking out of the box. After his first ever flight as a passenger he decided that he wanted more of it and so when everyone was scrambling to get their hand luggage and get off the plane Bill hung back then met the pilot and asked him how could he get a job as a pilot. At first they chuckled but then saw he was being serious and told him that it would not be easy but the first thing he needed to do was to get a private pilot’s licence. So Bill found a local flying school and got his licence, now he needed to get his commercial flying licence, the other pilots as the flying school made jokes about it but Bill wasn’t going to let them dampen his spirits. To qualify for his licence he would need to log at least one thousand hours of flying time which he calculate4d would cost $50,000 which he could not afford. As he was driving past an open hangar he saw an aircraft for sale with an asking price of $50,000 ‘It struck me that my flight school might need another plane for training, so I called and asked the owner if he’d be interested in leasing a plane from me. He said he’d be willing if the terms were right. The next day, I took his willingness to the bank – literally. I told the loans officer I wanted to buy an aeroplane, then lease it back to the fight school for a monthly fee that would cover my loan payments. The maths added up, so they loaned me the money.’ Bill obtained his commercial pilot’s licence and went on to fly for Braniff Airlines.
Bill shows through his work that you don’t have to move away from your area to be successful, you need to understand your area and come up with solutions to the local problems. Bill also demonstrates that having a good network is important and that you should be politically neutral as it will open more doors for you. As he puts it, ‘No one accomplishes anything really worthwhile without the help of others. Learning to spot others in life who can help you to achieve your goals is a key component to success. But I’m convinced that knowing how to present yourself in a way that allows them to recognise you is an even more important talent to master.’ Having a dream that you can follow with passion is a must as ‘A successful life can be built – must be built out of the simple and profound experiences and values that make us feel most human and most alive.’ Throughout the book there are lots of golden nuggets that is useful and that you can learn from and apply to your business. Has Bill’s model worked? Well his model is now being exported to towns and cities across the world to help solve local problems. The centre has gone on to host Jazz concerts with the biggest names in Jazz appearing there and has its own record label that has won Grammy Awards, it has opened a large greenhouse which grows orchids and fruit and vegetables which it supplies to local markets and it is going from strength to strength.
To learn more about Bill Strickland you can visit his website: