Where It All Began With Suzanne McKechnie Klahr
Suzanne McKechnie Klahr founded the award-winning education organization BUILD.org, which provides real-world entrepreneurial experience that empowers youth from under-resourced communities to excel in education, lead in their communities, and succeed professionally. Serving as CEO for 19 years, she grew BUILD from just four students to now serve thousands of students at over 50 partner high schools in five regions across the U.S.
What do you and your company do?
BUILD is an award winning national education organization. I took the idea from concept to a multi-site organization which had over 100 full-time employees and served as CEO for 19 years.
BUILD’s mission is to provide real-world entrepreneurial experience that empowers youth from under-resourced communities to excel in education, lead in their communities, and succeed professionally. BUILD started with four students and has now served thousands of students at over 50 partner public high schools. BUILD currently operates two San Francisco Bay Area sites and has scaled the model to Washington, DC, Boston, MA, New York City, and Los Angeles.
BUILD is unique in its approach, and BUILD has embedded the program and curriculum into multiple school districts as a credit-bearing elective. After almost 20 years, I am excited to share that I will be changing roles at BUILD. It is clear that to continue the work of BUILD and amplify our message, replicate our model, and use technology to scale our program in new geographies I need to be more external-facing. Our longitudinal data is extraordinary; we are literally leveling the playing field for low-income disengaged students of color who are being left behind through entrepreneurship.
My role for BUILD going forward is as Founder in Residence, serving as BUILD’s chief storyteller, ambassador, fundraiser and champion to amplify our work.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Early in my childhood, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I have always adored animals, but I soon found that I had been imbued with the entrepreneurial spirit. At the age of six, I started a newspaper (Little Apples for Young New Yorkers in New York City) then an earring company called Beaudangles by Suzanne, and then a series of ventures into high school and college.
My mother taught high school in low-income and very diverse Harlem. Many times I would ride the train and go to class with her and would be shocked to see older kids who could not read or write as well as I could. Although at the time I could not articulate it, I knew then there was an advantage I had that they didn’t. Both my young entrepreneurial experiences and being in that classroom has always stayed with me and helped me to develop the idea for BUILD.
What advice would you give to your elementary school self?
I was bullied as a child; a girl named Blake would bite me every day if I did not bring her a dollar. I saw her as tremendous and powerful, but in retrospect, realize she was probably half my size. I always felt like a victim, and frightened, and if I could speak to my elementary school self, I would tell her that all the things that make life challenging for her then are the things that will make her magical as a grown up.
Share a time that you failed at any age, and what you learned from it.
I have failed so many times, and that is where I have learned my greatest lessons. A few failures come to mind, like the time I was a cocktail waitress and the owner of the bar and restaurant told me I was not “smart” enough for the job. The first grading period at Stanford Law School was a stunner as I had always done very well academically, and I just felt average. At BUILD, we grew too fast without having enough funds to sustain the work and we had to cut the budget which was very painful.
Provide one tip for a 10-year-old girl who is opening her first lemonade stand this weekend.
This one is easy for me as I have a nine-year-old daughter who is constantly having lemonade stands.
• Consider doing it with a friend; it can be more fun, and sometimes brainstorming together creates different ideas.
• Do things to draw attention to the lemonade stand. Put up signs or ask your parents to post details about it on social media.
• Consider offering different products. My daughter often picks flowers and sells them, and bakes treats to sell.
• Make your stand fun and approachable. My daughter often plays catchy music that makes walkers and bikers want to stop by.
To learn more about Suzanne and the amazing work being done by BUILD please visit build.org.
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