July 2013

An Interview With Mark and Becky Levin, Founders of The Possible Project — A World-Class Youth Entrepreneurship Program

Steve Mariotti, Founder of Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), Author of An Entrepreneur’s Manifesto

Education, Entrepreneurship

1. Can you briefly describe your personal and professional background?

Mark Levin is an industry leader with more than 25 years of experience building and operating leading biotech companies. Mark co-founded Third Rock Ventures in 2007 and focuses on the formation, development and business strategy of our portfolio companies, as well as actively identifying and evaluating new investments. Prior to his current endeavors Mark was co-founder of Millennium Pharmaceuticals. Mark served as CEO of Millennium Pharmaceuticals for 12 years. He co-founded a youth-serving nonprofit, The Possible Project, which is based in Cambridge, MA.

Becky Levin founded Levin & Company, an executive search and governance consulting firm, in 1985 to address the emerging life sciences marketplace. The organization has offices throughout the United States including Boston, Philadelphia, Springfield, MO, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Over the years, Becky has served on a number of Boards including The Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare, Partners In Health, and The Possible Project that she co-founded. 2. Where did the concept for The Possible Project come from? The Possible Project (TPP) was born out of an idea that came to us more than 30 years ago, while we were living in San Francisco. Each day we were overcome with the number of disengaged young people who were living on the streets, seemingly without direction and purpose. This scene offered such a stark contrast to the community of entrepreneurs who were leading this vibrant city. At that time, a seed was planted. We vowed that one day we would start a program for at-risk youth that would introduce them to entrepreneurship, and the world of possibilities it offers. 3. Can you describe the founding of The Possible Project and the initial vision? In 2008, we convened a Founding Committee to help us further develop our concept. This Committee consisted of fellow business leaders who, like us, found the general idea of our program — empowering youth through entrepreneurship — to be extremely compelling. The Founding Committee met regularly, conducted site-visits to existing youth business programs, sought out the assistance of non-profit consultants and researchers, and settled on an initial vision. We decided to establish an afterschool program that would serve at-risk high school students in Cambridge, MA. Central to the Founding Committee’s vision were two main program components:

  1. Every student would start and actually run their own entrepreneurial venture, allowing them the creative freedom to launch and operate a business of their choosing; and
  2. Every student would work for one of the organization’s in-house business, granting the opportunity for students to gain experience in a larger, more established business.

After receiving non-profit status, and building out a state-of-the-art 5,000 square foot entrepreneurship center, we launched our first pilot program in 2011.4. How has The Possible Project model developed since your initial vision?

The Possible Project model continues to evolve and improve every day. Our team is dedicated to delivering high quality, evidence-based programming that can best serve the needs of our students. To that end, we regularly conduct research and evaluation to inform our program model. For example, we piloted a 10-week program with students in grades 10-12, and, upon reflection and evaluation of these students, we decided to make a few critical changes. First, we now engage with students earlier and only recruit sophomores, thus creating cohorts that are more or less at the same level of development. Second, our program length was significantly expanded from just 10 weeks to three years (10th-12th grade), which provides youth with a stable source of long-term support while they mature, grow, and explore their future opportunities. Third, this pilot reinforced our choice of depth over breadth. We are able to maintain a low teacher to student ratio (1:8), allowing students to receive individualized guidance and attention.

5. What do you hope to achieve through The Possible Project?

As described in our mission statement, “The Possible Project utilizes entrepreneurship to inspire young people who have untapped potential, empowering them with the skills required to achieve enduring personal and professional success.” We hope that our entrepreneurship program will help to significantly increase students’ business knowledge and skills, while also increasing their confidence, resilience, professionalism, and teamwork skills. Most importantly, our goal is to expose students to the full range of post-secondary possibilities that exist, help them navigate their chosen trajectory, and support them on their path to long-term success.

6. What is the idea behind The Possible Project being a “hybrid” organization (nonprofit meets for-profit)?

The Founding Committee sought to create a hybrid organization that would incorporate characteristics of for-profit businesses inside of a mission-driven non-profit organization. In developing a two-pillar approach, TPP is able to draw on the best aspects of both worlds to offer our students the most comprehensive program possible. Our idea is to teach our students the essential lessons of entrepreneurship through real-world, transactional experiences, within a supportive, education environment. We feel to truly understand business it is essential to do business. Our program accomplishes these goals through both the student-run businesses as well as our student-managed in-house businesses. We offer multiple paths to both participate in business and learn about entrepreneurship. Our hybrid culture is infused throughout the organization and impacts our approach to management, leadership, development as well as programing.

7. Can you briefly describe the program and its components and how they will lead to your anticipated outcomes?

The Possible Project model consists of four, complementary program components, which are designed to elicit and nurture different skills.

  • Entrepreneurship Curriculum – Students learn foundational business and entrepreneurial concepts in a practical, hands-on manner.
  • Student Ventures – Students develop, launch, and operate their own businesses, either individually or in small groups, fostering a host of skills including time management, public speaking, and resilience.
  • In-House Businesses – Students engage in a collaborative work environment, where they experience the multiple facets of TPP’s two established businesses. This component helps to develop and hone students’ teamwork skills and reinforces professional norms and expectations.
  • Pathways Advising – Students receive significant individualized educational and career counseling as they explore and determine their post-secondary pathways.

8. What are your future plans for The Possible Project? Five years from now? Ten years from now? Beyond? Five years from now we plan to expand The Possible Project model, initially in Massachusetts, and then to the Northeast, followed by other U.S. cities. In ten years, TPP will expand internationally, which, of course, will require that we adjust the program model to fit the needs and interests of the chosen communities, as well as necessitate strong partnerships within those communities. As The Possible Project expands, the Cambridge site will serve as the development site, piloting new programs and curricula, developing measurement systems, and cultivating leadership for new sites around the world. In 10 years, TPP hopes to have positively impacted the lives of thousands of young adults around the world.

9. How do you see The Possible Project fitting in to the larger movements of youth development, entrepreneurship education, and youth entrepreneurship?

TPP’s unique hybrid model will allow us to contribute to all three movements. We have the benefit of a diverse team that possesses skills ranging from business and evaluation, to positive youth development and experiential learning, and everything in between. We are already active in the youth, education, and entrepreneurial communities within Greater Boston, and look forward to widening our network as we expand to other cities.

10. How is your staff selected, trained and supported?

TPP looks to bring on the best teaching and support staff available. We hire motivated and passionate individuals who posses an entrepreneurial spirit. As a “high-touch” program it is essential that our staff be as well prepared as possible to accomplish all we set out to do for our students. We look for a blend of skills in education, youth development, and business to support our hybrid organizational model. TPP has a firm commitment to the professional development of our staff, and draw on the best resources available, including from our partner and friend The Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship.

Becky and Mark Levin with students of The Possible Project



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