ALUMNI PROFILES • Summer 2001

Using Humor to Build Better Nonprofit Boards

Carol Weisman, M.S.W. '73

After caring for her terminally ill mother in 1994, Carol Weisman decided to go back to work. Since she had never run a company, she only had a vague idea of a business venture. But, with a master's degree in social work from the University's George Warren Brown School of Social Work—and an undergraduate degree in English, German, and speech from the University of Denver—Weisman prided herself on her ability to help others.

While examining her 28-year history of serving on boards of nonprofit organizations—having served on 24, been president of seven, and recruited countless CEOs to help on all—she decided to found Board Builders, Inc. (www.boardbuilders.com).

"My social work background taught me how to work within a community to get results, whether to allow a 16-year-old to die at home from a brain tumor, or make friends with people by writing thank-you notes," she says.

"I like people, and I also consider myself good at getting things done and managing social change," adds Weisman. "I realized what I enjoyed most was working with nonprofit boards because they fit with my experience, and nonprofits offer a great challenge. You have a roomful of intelligent people who must want to be there because they are not getting paid. However, some groups do not use volunteers strategically. They rubber-stamp decisions [already] made or [try to] do everything in the last five minutes of a meeting."

With the blessing of her husband, Frank Robbins, M.D. '77, and two sons, Frank and Jono, she set up shop in a small room off the garage. (She has since moved to a second-floor bedroom.) She named her venture, Board Builders, Inc.; self-published her first book, Secrets of Successful Boards: The Best from the Non-Profit Pros; and began her career as a speaker, trainer, and consultant.

Throughout, her sense of humor has served her well. "Everyone tells me I'm funny. I'm the Bette Midler of the governance circuit," she says. "I can keep 2,000 accountants awake after a 3,000-calorie lunch."

And this comedic approach keeps generating business, with speaking engagements to organizations such as the United Way, the National Mental Health Association, and Easter Seal Society. In addition, her timing has been impeccable—there are more than 1.25 million nonprofit boards in the United States, with more than 40,000 new ones emerging annually.

Weisman helps hundreds of nonprofits build better boards, in both intimate retreats and large venues, by posing the right questions: for example, "Who makes a good board member?" She answers, "You need the right mix—people with a passion for what they do, so they will come even when they are tired. You need people with different talents and backgrounds, so everyone feels safe to speak—and nobody's opinion is more valued." She has shared this knowledge by editing two additional books, Secrets of Successful Fundraising and Build a Better Board in 30 Days.

Although Weisman is extremely busy traveling and lecturing, she still takes time for reflection. Of Washington University, she says it will always hold a special place in her heart. Her late parents, both obstetrician-gynecologists, were on the medical school faculty. Her late father, Sol Weisman, graduated from the University in 1928 and the medical school in 1932, and her late mother, Renate Dohrn, interned at Jewish Hospital.

—Barbara B. Buchholz

 


Building a Bike to Take on the Road (in a suitcase!)

Hugh Kern, B.S. '84

As a software engineer around 1990, Hugh Kern says he became frustrated with the built-in obsolescence of computers. The software he wrote 10 or more years ago, after all, has no use on today's computer platforms.

"A bicycle is a bit different," he says. "You might build a bicycle today that will be around 100 years."

That's why, three years ago, the St. Louis native put his engineering experience to work in an entirely different field. Kern now runs Peregrine Bicycle Works (www.pbwbikes. com) from a workshop in Chico, California, a small town about 3 1/2 hours north of San Francisco. There he designs and handcrafts bicycles that can be folded to fit into a suitcase.

Kern, who still rides the first bike he designed, moved to Chico from Athens, Georgia, last winter because he and his wife, Leigh Ann, wanted to live in a more bike-friendly town with their two young children.

Most days, he works alone in his workshop, though the growing number of orders may soon necessitate hiring additional staff. Clearly, the enjoyment of his new endeavor is a big draw for Kern. "When someone gets a new bicycle, they're really happy," he says.

Though there's a custom element to his bikes—each is made to order according to the customer's own body measurements—Kern says the majority of his customers are not bicycle aficionados. "My target customer is someone who wants a practical bike," he says. "They just want a good bike that fits them well that they can take to any place on the globe."

Some customers actually do take their bikes all around the world—one couple purchased bikes they could stow away on their sailboat during an extended vacation. Others purchase bikes for more routine excursions, like commuting to and from the office.

When Kern designed his first bike using a CAD program, the goal was to strike a balance between performance and foldability. He had done a lot of research—studying the compromises each other model made between performance and foldability. "I looked at the good and the bad features and looked at the state of bicycle technology in general, which has changed a lot in the last 20 years," he explains.

Though Kern's bikes are not inexpensive, ranging from $995 to $2,495, he has developed a loyal following among his customers. He generates awareness by demonstrating the bikes in action at events, such as the annual Bike Ride Across Georgia (BRAG)—a variable bike ride that is generally about 400 miles with a route that changes to go through a different part of Georgia each year.

Because each customer buys direct, customer service is the order of the day. "I have a 'happy-customers-only' policy," Kern says. "I put a lot into a bike."

For some people, it's a simple decision to purchase a PBW folding bike, and they can even submit their body measurements online. Others require much more consultation—Kern recalls e-mailing back and forth about 45 times with one recent customer.

Kern's next big project? He wants to build a bike for his son, Devin—one that can grow as the child matures. Devin's only 2 years old, which means dad has a good year and a half for research and development before the training wheels go on.

—Gretchen Lee, A.B. '86

For more information, please visit PBW Folding Bikes at www.pbwbikes.com.