William Strickland, CEO Manchester Craftsman Guild

The Johnson Institute for Responsible Leadership honored William E. Strickland with its Exemplary Leader Award at the University Club on March 21.  “Each year we honor a leader in the public sphere who exemplifies the core values of the Johnson Institute—integrity, accountability, vision, and effectiveness in public service,” said Kevin Kearns, Professor and Director of the Johnson Institute.  A selection committee composed of leaders from the nonprofit community and university faculty delineates the criteria for the award each year, and identifies potential recipients.  Previous award winners include an admiral from the U.S. Coast Guard, an FBI agent who was a Time Magazine Person of the Year, and University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg. 

“[The Johnson Institute] decided that our 2014 award would honor a leader who has demonstrated a genuine compassion and empathy for people in need, the ability to harness the best ideas and talent from all three sectors of our economy—Nonprofit, For-Profit, and Government, and a commitment to tangible results and proven outcome, not just lofty rhetoric or vague ideals,” Dr. Kearns stipulated.  Pittsburgh’s very own, Bill Strickland, founder and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corporation was the prefect candidate.  Mr. Strickland has been recognized numerous times by not only leaders from the fields of business, nonprofit, and education, but the Dali Lhama, the President, and the First Lady have shown their admiration for his vision and accomplishments.  

Bill Strickland has spent his life in the neighborhood in which he was born on the north side of Pittsburgh.  He began taking kids off of the street and teaching them pottery.  Though these young people came from impoverished backgrounds and many of them were involved with crime, Mr. Strickland believed that everyone deserved a chance to lead a good life.  “People are born into the world as assets, not liabilities.  It’s all in the way you treat people,” he said.   Founded on this very belief, Mr. Strickland transformed what once was a small pottery studio into today’s Manchester Bidwell Corporation which houses Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild—an art studio for his students— and the Bidwell Training Center, which offers specialized vocational skills for unemployed adults. 

Through the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, Mr. Strickland intends to change performance outcomes of the public school system and instill hope for a better future in those who had resigned themselves to a life of delinquency.  Mr. Strickland sees providing an aesthetically pleasing learning environment as one way of influencing school performance.   He recognized that poverty doesn’t make someone stupid, but it does leave them hopeless.  “[The] worst thing about being poor is what it does to your spirit,” he said.  For this reason, Bidwell was carefully designed to bring in sunlight, and artwork lines every corridor, all “to celebrate life,” he said.   “[If you] build beautiful spaces with motivated faculty…you can teach students anything.” Last year, Mr. Strickland’s program graduated 99% of his students—twice the national average—in a demographic area with a 50% dropout rate.  Companies like ALCOA, Westinghouse, and PPG Industries now directly recruit from Bidwell.  Mr. Strickland’s programs have been so successful not only with career placement, but of fundamentally changing the lives of Pittsburgh’s most marginalized, that Bidwell’s story was made into a documentary, Waiting for Superman, and is now taking part in its fifth Harvard Case Study.  Mr. Strickland now oversees Manchester Bidwell Corporation in Pittsburgh as well as its many subsidiaries throughout the United States, and is looking to expand his model of social entrepreneurship internationally. When speaking of why he chose to dedicate his life to Bidwell, he referred to a lesson he learned in college: “The University of Pittsburgh taught me [that] the world is a place worth living in if you can contribute to it.”

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