Interview by Sarah Shumick
Colin McGinnis, by his own admission, hasn’t had a conventional path through school or career. At just 24, he’s the CEO of South Side Early Learning, an organization dedicated to serving children and families on the South Side of Columbus. Colin brings a refreshing perspective to his role with SSEL, endearingly referring to his students as ‘littles,’ viewing them as little adults whose futures we must protect. While nearly 90% of SSEL families earn less than $40k annually, 95% of SSEL students who attend more than 90 days “meet or exceed developmental milestones within their age group.”
Give us a short overview of South Side Learning Since 1922, the mission of South Side Early Learning (SSEL) has been to ensure every young child benefits from a holistic, high-quality early education in Columbus’ South Side, with a focus on assisting impoverished families. Every day our dedicated teachers and staff are excited to work with 115 of the most energetic and charismatic littles the South Side has to offer. In addition to serving our littles, our team helps SSEL families reach personal and household goals—because we believe if the family as a whole isn’t thriving, the children won’t either.
Tell us what’s innovative about your organization or how you are innovating in the nonprofit space: When I joined SSEL back in August, we were at a turning point in our school’s history. It was the first time SSEL had seen new leadership in decades as the former Executive Director was retiring after 30 years of dedicated service. While SSEL has seen success and growth over those 30 years and its nearly one hundred years of operation in all, there is ample opportunity to expand our mission and service to south side children and families. If there ever would be, I knew now at this point in our history was the time for SSEL—and, truly, all early education providers—to think differently.
So as SSEL looks towards our next one hundred years, our focus is having an even greater impact on our children and families, being a leader in early education workforce development, advocating for Ohio’s children, ensuring fiscal and operational stability, and embedding a spirit of innovation in all that we do. To do so, we are shaking up what it means to be a “pre-school.” We are forming partnerships with researchers and data specialists across the country to incorporate big data to identify the needs of our students. We are expanding our curriculum by bringing in the arts, local musicians, our therapy dogs Bailey and Ivy (my personal favorites), and so much more.
How is your organization making an impact in Columbus? Nearly 95% of our students who attend our school for more than 90 days meet or exceed developmental milestones within their age group. Frankly, I’m not sure I could say anything else that would better highlight the impact we have on our littles and in Columbus’ South Side—and here’s why. I see children as little adults, deserving all the same respect and considerations we would give to anyone who is fully grown. That’s why I refer to our children as “littles.” When you think about children not just as children but as little adults, you think more about their futures. That’s crucial because ages birth to 5 are the most important in human development—what happens during our few years as littles is inseparable from our years as adults.
So even though the great majority of our families are impoverished, with a quarter earning less than $5,000 annually and 90% earning less than $40,000, our littles are entering kindergarten with the same, if not more, knowledge and readiness than their peers. This is a result of SSEL’s focus on holistic, high-quality early education and on helping SSEL families achieve their goals. In addition, the innovative programs and curricula we are bringing to SSEL will only further increase our littles’ opportunities for success in Columbus and beyond. This isn’t just important to our littles and families. Study after study shows that early education programs develop solid foundations for achieving academic, health, social, and physical outcomes benefit the community and economy as a whole.
What makes your organization thrive? Our teachers and staff. I am truly fortunate to work in a school where our teachers have on average 11 years of experience in the classroom and over 450 years combined of early childhood experience. Our teachers are the heartbeat and soul of our organization, and without them SSEL would not have the impact—both on our littles and their families—that we do.
As a leader, how do you come up with innovative ideas, and what helps put those ideas into action? To me, innovation is as simple as asking what the problem is and what we want to accomplish and trusting your intuition as the answer. I think being a truly innovative leader means trusting yourself and believing no idea is too big. I have found my best ideas come from simply brainstorming and musing. Luckily, I have a really great team willing to search for the way forward with me instead of saying “it’s not possible.” By creating an environment where we are willing to take “smart” risks, acknowledging when we need to bring in partners, and making it okay to say “I don’t know,” I think SSEL and all of us can come up with big ideas to tackle Columbus’ toughest social problems.
Take for example our Google Data Solutions for Change project where we are using big data to help Columbus’ smallest learners. When we applied for the project, no one on my team was an expert in data analytics. However, we had an idea and knew that the current system in place was not going to support our goal of providing more effective care and early intervention. With the help of an amazing group of researchers and data specialists through organizations like Columbus Digital Services, and thanks to the Google grant, we intend to build a tool to not only improve our data system, but to help our teachers and family advocates see when a student is not making sufficient academic and developmental progress using data already collected on academic outcomes, attendance, family services provided, and other measures. Using this data our team can then redirect services, lessons, and care to put little back on track!
Give us a snapshot of your career path—what is your background, and what led you to work in the nonprofit sector? When I was an undergraduate at The Ohio State University, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to research at the Schoenbaum Family Center and the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy. During that time, I remember thinking to myself I wanted to do “this,” but I wasn’t exactly sure what “this” was. That desire led me to graduate school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), where I completed doctoral course work and taught in the psychological studies of education. While teaching at UNL, I soon realized, bluntly, that I did not want to be a professor. While teaching, I was also serving as the Director of Policy, Advocacy, and Research for an organization called Being Black at School, a national nonprofit advocating for equity in the K-12 education system. I found that I was more passionate about making a direct impact through education policy and advocacy at BBAS than I was through teaching early education. Further, knowing the philanthropic spirit of Columbus—and the reality that my husband would be relocating to Columbus after law school—I then started my search for my nonprofit career in Columbus, which led me home to SSEL.
What is the one thing you are most passionate about? Play. At some point after childhood, we are told not to play, as if it is an activity reserved only for littles. When we consider all the benefits of play, we are doing our adult selves a disservice. Through play, children learn about themselves and others, about how things work, and about the world around them. We learn the fundamentals of social interaction—how to approach those different than us, agree upon rules, and share in an experience, no matter our differences. We learn the harder lessons in life through play too—how to approach conflict, how to be rejected from playgroups, and how to lose. These are things we, as adults, could all benefit from. While play may look different as adults than it does as littles, because of its benefits, play isn’t something we should stop doing and enjoying as adults.
Who inspires you? Angela Ahrendts, American businesswoman and former Senior Vice President of Retail at Apple and CEO of Burberry. To me, she embodies what it means to be a leader. She incorporates much needed “human energy” into innovation and business (I HIGHLY recommend her TED Talk.).
How do you stay motivated? What drives you to take things to the next level? The littles. I believe that my work is to empower them with education, opportunity, and with a voice so that SSEL can help make Columbus the best place to live, learn, and grow for our littles and every young child.
What struggles or adversities have you had to overcome to get to where you are today? I am a self-described “recovering imposter.” For the longest time, I really struggled with what is often called imposter syndrome. I believed that there was no way that I deserved or had legitimately achieved any accolades I received. I felt I was not fitting into the “ideal version” of any of my identities and grappled with how I would adjust to who I was and how I presented myself to fit the mold—to be a leader, to have a graduate degree, to identify as LGBT, to work in the nonprofit sector, to be a good spouse, to run an organization, to be a voice in the community, and more. In trying to “be” all of these things, I wasn’t being genuine to myself. I was miserable. Finally, I said enough was enough and decided to be my most authentic self. I put my values—play, justice, and innovation—first, and I accepted that those values are what make me a good leader.
Why do you think people should care about innovative nonprofits? Innovative nonprofits try new things. For some, this can be seen as risky and uncertain. But to solve big problems, we have to be willing to take risks and trust in big ideas. For example, there’s the tale of two Columbuses—the idea that while some are prospering more than ever, there are in turn, portions of our community struggling like they never have before. Solving a problem like this, or like any problem of social or economic inequality, is going to take big ideas, risk, and uncertainty. We need innovative nonprofits, like SSEL, to try new things, expand programs, and integrate technology and entrepreneurial thinking into the human services sector. Non-profits need to be able to think differently about the work they are doing and the sources that are funding them in order to be able to continue to serve with the most effective programming.
As a kid, what did you say you wanted to be when you grew up? A veterinarian at a zoo—specifically one who worked with elephants!
What might others be surprised to know about you? I am 24! My “path” was unconventional through schooling and my career, and I have always been one of the youngest in the room. I am fortunate to have been on teams who have trusted my leadership and have welcomed the fresh perspective and forward-thinking ideas I bring to the table.
How can others in the Columbus community get involved with your organization? We are always looking for volunteers to get involved with SSEL—from reading to our students to helping serve our family-style meals, assisting in the administration office, or even just showing off and teaching your talents to our littles. We have many opportunities at SSEL to help those who would like to volunteer. If you are interested, please visit our site, southsidelearing.org/volunteer or reach out to me directly through email or Twitter!
If someone were to ask you what the “pulse” of Columbus is, what would you tell them? Columbus’ energy. From our longstanding Fortune 500 businesses and young startups, to our thriving nonprofits and world-class educational institutions, and most importantly, to our people who bring these organizations to life, there really seems to be this unique spirit of pride in our city and a drive to always make it better for the future that pulses through all of us. As a community, we aren’t willing to let Columbus fall behind but, rather, that energy empowers us to work together to make our city one of the future—challenging its status as a Midwest city in the so-called “Rust Belt.” Our task now, however, is to make sure that in preparing Columbus as a whole for the future, we don’t leave any one individual in our community behind, from our littles and families at SSEL to every citizen of Columbus.