MBA diary: Making a difference

Sean Jennings, an Executive MBA student at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has gone back to school, decades after dropping out of college. "I don't need to make any more money; I’m interested in making a difference."

When people ask me why I—a college drop-out turned tech entrepreneur—decided to go back to school to get my Executive MBA, I tell them about my older brother, Michael. On New Year's Eve in 1967, Michael and I both came down with a mysterious virus. We were babies at the time—he was two and I was one. No doctor could figure out the cause of it. Ultimately, I got better. But Michael was brain damaged.

I have always known how fortunate I am. I got to grow up and lead a healthy person’s life. Michael, who has the cognitive function of a toddler, spent his teens and twenties in an institution and now lives in a group home.

From a young age, I felt that my purpose was to take care of my brother. When I got older, I realised that would cost a lot of money. My goal was to attend the best college I could and then pursue the highest-paying career I could tolerate. Getting accepted to MIT on an Air Force scholarship was one of the proudest moments of my life. But two years into college, I got injured. The military released me on honourable medical discharge. I couldn’t afford tuition and didn’t want to take on overwhelming debt, so I dropped out.

I landed a job in Philadelphia as a computer guy. It was the mid-80s and I worked on minicomputers and mainframes. My boss soon saw I could program better than anyone else in the office. My career took off. I spent the next years of my professional life riding the technology waves: identifying trends early and then exploiting gaps in the market. I’ve helped found five start-ups and sold three of them—including a unicorn. In 2015, Virtustream, a company I co-founded in 2009, was sold to Dell EMC for $1.2 billion.

In my career and in my personal life, I’ve had an amazing amount of luck. I don't need to make any more money; I’m more interested in making a difference. I’ve gone back to MIT, to the Sloan School of Management, to chart a path forward. My objective is to round out my technical skills with financial training, broaden my general management skills, and expand my network so that I can find ways to make Michael’s life, and the lives of people like him, better. 

I’m already starting to formulate plans. Here’s one: the non-profits that run group homes tend to be inefficient—but they don’t need to be. Many are local and run just a handful of homes. Each one has an administrative team doing the same, largely redundant work: finance, payroll and human resources, someone managing on-site staffing, someone dealing with compliance, and so on. I want to build a cloud-based platform that offers a co-operative service that allows these organisations to streamline and automate this work. This will reduce costs, including emergency staffing from third parties that often results from poor scheduling.  Then, we can channel the savings into serving the people better as more staff can be freed up to work with the residents directly.  

Next, I am interested in creating new tools and technologies to enhance the well-being of the mentally impaired and their families. For people like Michael, who are unable to reach out, feeling isolated from their families and friends and living away from home is one of the biggest challenges. Current technology doesn’t help. Michael could use an old dial-phone or TV, but he does not have the manual dexterity, patience, or understanding to navigate digital phones or TV remotes.

I envisage a SmartBoard with touchscreen technology and picture buttons that someone like Michael can more easily manipulate. The screen would be able recognise each resident’s face and show pictures of family members or friends who are online and free to talk. That way, Michael or his roommates could initiate a videoconference when they want to talk at will and stay in close touch. This kind of tool would have a dramatic impact on families like ours.

Finally, I want to help improve the quality of life for a broad spectrum of adults with special needs by helping to match them with meaningful jobs. Michael, for example, has part-time jobs delivering meals on wheels and helping with maintenance at a local park. He’s good at his work and he enjoys it—it gives his life meaning and purpose. But such responsibilities are not suitably challenging for higher-functioning adults. Many people with special needs have incredible intellectual capabilities but their social challenges make a public-facing role more difficult. It is a massive problem and, with the rising prevalence of autism, it’s only getting worse. I am not sure yet how we solve it—but it’s an area where I want to focus my energy.

Michael inspired me—a dropout—to return to MIT. The EMBA program and my classmates have reinvigorated my entrepreneurial spirit, passion, and drive to improve the world.


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