Building business acumen in service to community
MBA grad Denise Blair goes from class assignment to signing corporate partnerships to help at-risk youth in Calgary
Working for a small non-profit often requires a certain amount of flexibility. For Denise Blair of the Calgary Youth Justice Society, that means wearing a lot of hats in addition to her role as executive director: she’s the charity’s de facto CFO, operations chief, HR manager, marketing lead, and head of strategic planning.
“We tend to deal with what’s in front of us—serving youth,” said Blair (Master of Business Administration ’10). “But we don’t take the time or the resources to grow the business.”
Building business acumen without sacrificing work time
After 12 years with the society, which provides support to at-risk youth and offers them opportunities that would divert them from criminal behaviour, Blair decided she needed to build her business acumen. She couldn’t sacrifice time on the job, so that led her to Athabasca University (AU)’s Master of Business Administration program.
The society didn’t have the funds to pay for her degree, but she found out that the school was offering a one-time scholarship reserved for students involved in leadership and community service. She submitted an essay, outlining her career path and her ambitions for her organization, and won the scholarship. It paid for her full tuition.
“It was like winning the lottery,” Blair remembers. “When I heard the news, I knew I was going to do whatever I could to pay it forward and use my education to benefit the community. This wasn’t just about me and my career.”
“I knew I was going to do whatever I could to pay it forward and use my education to benefit the community. This wasn’t just about me and my career.”– Denise Blair
Connecting to a network of peers
People had warned Blair that an online MBA could be isolating and might prevent her from building networks. In actuality, she found studying at AU to be just the opposite of isolating. Unlike in her undergrad, where she sat in large lecture halls and didn’t speak to anyone, discussions and group work were built right into the MBA’s curriculum.
Blair found that she had access to a more diverse cross-section of students than she would at a traditional university. One of her classmates was a soldier serving in Afghanistan. Another woman was an Indigenous trapper living in a log cabin in rural Canada.
“Where do you get access to so many people who have unique and different challenges in one place? The conversations were extremely rich,” she says.
Education in service of community
Blair wanted to use her degree to improve her community. All of her classes were applicable to the non-profit sector, but the one she found most useful was her marketing course. For one of her assignments, she was tasked with developing a marketing plan. She decided to base her strategy on an idea for a leadership program for vulnerable students that she had been mulling over.
Her new business aptitude helped her look at the idea of corporate partnerships in a fresh way. She envisioned a program that would generate a tangible return on investment for companies that got involved with the Calgary Youth Justice Society. In addition to asking for funding, she would ask employees of a corporate partner to volunteer as coaches for the kids.
“We wanted to measure how the employees and workplace would be impacted by this experience,” she says. “We wanted to measure the coaches’ engagement with their corporation and their skills as employees and supervisors, and help build a mentoring culture in the company.”
“When I first graduated, I was already equipped with skills and tools for a running start.”– Denise Blair
From class assignment to corporate partnership
A few weeks after drawing up the plan for her class, Blair described her idea while networking at an event. The woman she was talking to turned out to work in community investment at a large energy company. That company ended up committing to a 3-year partnership, turning a marketing-class assignment into a fully realized program.
Blair graduated from AU in 2010. Her leadership program, called “In the Lead,” has run for over a decade and mentored hundreds of kids. They’ve worked with multiple corporations and deployed the program in school and community settings.
“When I first graduated, I was already equipped with skills and tools for a running start,” Blair said. “As the years went on, it evolved into changing the way I thought and who I was as a leader.”
Open for Alberta
Read more profiles of AU learners and grads in our Open for Alberta series.