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Pung Speaker Series: Overcoming fear of failure to change the world

By Vivian Tran, student writer
Monday, February 27, 2023

The Roy S. Pung Executive Speaker Series entered 2023 with more business leaders ready to share their expertise. The latest guest speaker was Jim Ziolkowski (B.A. Financial Administration ’89), founder and CEO of buildOn. Ziolkowski’s passion and engaging storytelling captivated the audience of undergraduate students as he talked about the positive impact his nonprofit organization has made over the last 32 years.

After graduating from the Broad College, Ziolkowski spent a period of time hitchhiking and backpacking around the world and was overwhelmed by the extreme poverty he saw. While hiking the Himalayas in Nepal, he came across a village celebrating the opening of a school they built. Inspired by this and eager to make a social impact through education and service, he left a career in corporate finance to found buildOn.

The public 501(c)(3) nonprofit has built service learning programs that engage students from low-resource high schools to evaluate their communities and find ways to make change through service. So far, buildOn students have contributed more than 2.4 million hours of direct service, addressing their communities’ most critical concerns, including homelessness, environmental stewardship and food insecurity. Through buildOn’s Trek program, U.S. students have also helped build 2,252 schools across the world in eight of the economically poorest countries on the planet. In partnership and solidarity with these communities, buildOn is helping to make lasting progress in the fight for educational justice. There are now more than 297,000 children, parents and grandparents attending buildOn schools that they built.

“Our students have rallied and come together to address issues around their community,” he shared. “We’re not trying to rescue anybody. All we want to do is to put students in the lead so they can break the cycle of poverty and illiteracy through service and education. This is our mission. It has become a movement on a lot of levels.”

Such a philanthropic mission requires immense resilience and dedication. In 2016, buildOn made the decision to not expand to any new countries or U.S. cities in order to strengthen the impact where they had already started.

“The vision is to scale deep instead of scale wide. If we scale deep, then we can make a systemic impact — helping to lift graduation rates in the cities where we work. We will reach a tipping point if we stay focused on these cities. When students join buildOn, they come to school 15 more days per year. We believe we can help raise graduation rates by 50%,” Ziolkowski said.

Behind the scenes of buildOn, fundraising is a crucial component to continuing their initiatives and building sustainable growth. The organization currently has about 930 employees, collaborates with communities in the United States and around the world, and forms corporate partnerships with companies such as Salesforce that help make their ideas come to life. However, Ziolkowski candidly shared how seeking funding and support has not always been easy.

“I was overly confident when I left my finance career to start buildOn. I hadn’t really failed at anything yet. We formed partnerships with NGOs to identify places to build schools and started service programs in high schools, but we couldn’t get any funding. We had a stack of rejection letters at least an inch thick. Most letters were clear about why they were saying no. They told us we didn’t know how to fundraise, didn’t know how to build schools and didn’t know how to run service programs with youth. The truth of it was that they were right. Why would they fund us?” he explained. “I was in a downward spiral and had many sleepless nights. Then at 3:00 a.m. one night, I had an epiphany and realized that I was being paralyzed by my own fear of failure. It was a crucial turning point for me … realizing this fear is going to destroy any possibilities for buildOn. Out of desperation, I picked up the phone to call the CFO of GE Capital.”

After Ziolkowski met with the CFO and was put in front of then-CEO Jack Welsh, GE Capital was one of the first to fund buildOn. Fast forward to 2023, and the Broad Spartan’s nonprofit now has a $22 million budget to invest into its students and communities.

We’re not trying to rescue anybody. All we want to do is to put students in the lead so they can break the cycle of poverty and illiteracy through service and education. This is our mission.
Jim Ziolkowski

Like each Pung speaker, Ziolkowski gave advice to the students, referencing his own risk taking and failures while creating something that seemed impossible.

“I remember very clearly that a very popular professor at Michigan State in a management class said, ‘Do not stop having fun. You’ve got to find what makes you happy, that thing that is exhilarating. Do it every day if you can. Work hard, but keep your balance or else you’ll burn out.’ That was great advice,” he shared. “You’re going to face stresses and pressures, but you have to figure out what your purpose is and what it is that makes you happy. That was a big breakthrough for me. I think I became a more compassionate and patient person and better leader, making better decisions, because I was more balanced.”

Acknowledging his own fear of failure, Ziolkowski said, “Don’t do what I did. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself. Have fun. Keep perspective. Don’t be afraid to fail; it is the best teacher!”

Ziolkowski has always enjoyed coming back to visit his alma mater to connect with Broad’s best and brightest students. In 2018, buildOn partnered with the Full-Time MBA program to give more than 80 students an immersive learning and volunteer opportunity with Detroit high school students. Sharing buildOn with fellow Broad Spartans must surely feel special for this passionate leader.

More information on upcoming events in the 2022–23 Pung Speaker Series, as well as information on past events, is available at the Full-Time MBA program page.

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