30 Sep 2014
Life Lessons on the Open Seas
Casting off a career in finance, Paul Callahan now has the helm of a unique sailing school for people with disabilitiesRe: Bill Ackman (MBA 1992); William Sahlmanby Jill RadskenTopics:
Photo by Mark Alcarez
Paul Callahan (MBA 1992) is the captain of his own fate.
A freak accident at age 21 left him a quadriplegic. That transformative moment led him, ultimately, to take the helm of Sail to Prevail, a nonprofit that helps disabled children and adults to experience the wonder of the open seas.
“Ninety-one percent of the people who go through our program say they have an easier time in their life conquering life’s other challenges,” he says.
Callahan was 41 when he took over Sail to Prevail in 1997—only a few years after he’d had his own first experience in learning to sail. “It was like falling in love, instantly,” he recalls. His passion for the water prompted him to start training to sail competitively—and to leave his job in wealth management at Goldman Sachs in order to skipper his first therapeutic sail, for eight disabled children. Now the program, located in Newport, Rhode Island, and on the island of Nantucket off Massachusetts, serves more than 1,000 children, adults, and veterans every year.
“I’m a firm believer in growing only as fast as you can control the quality of your product,” says Callahan. “We’ve served over 15,000 people—utilizing everything from 20-foot accessible sailboats to a former America’s Cup boat that we adapted—although no one said it could be accomplished.”
A competitive sailor who has raced in the Paralympic Games in Sydney in 2000 and in London in 2012, Callahan takes a measured approach to running Sail to Prevail. “It’s like living in two different worlds. I run a nonprofit, but I apply all for-profit principles to it. Consequently, we achieve great outcomes with very low cost, per participant, for our unique niche—using sailing to overcome any adversity in life,” he says.
Callahan’s education at HBS provided lessons that would become vital to the program’s success, including learning how to think outside the box to solve complex problems, as well as developing strategies for marrying the for-profit and not-for-profit worlds. He cites Professor William Sahlman's principles of “aligned incentives” as an exercise he practices daily.
“If everyone is trying to reach the same goal, but contributing in different ways, or if you’re trying to make a transaction with another company, inevitably the process works,” says Callahan.
That approach plays out every day that Sail to Prevail takes its diverse population on the water. Though the program started by teaching sailing skills to children with spinal cord injuries, it now serves children and adults with a variety of physical and emotional challenges as well as cancer patients and veterans.
“I thought the best path to effective growth is to use one center to serve more disabilities instead of getting spread too thin and possibly losing quality control,” he says. “Similar to the HBS case study method, in life it’s hard to achieve a goal that’s so big, by yourself. Consequently, by bringing people together with similar or complementary disabilities, they will figure out how to achieve goals together.”
Every sail is remarkable, but one stands out for Callahan as particularly extraordinary. It was an occasion when a highly functioning autistic child volunteered to steer the boat with him. “A few minutes later, a non-verbal, very low-functioning autistic child crawled up to the steering wheel and started driving the boat,” Callahan remembered. “I let go and the high-functioning student was teaching the low-functioning child. There was a language there I’ll never understand. They made that unexplainable connection where one could teach the other. If I could do that every day of my life, that would be utopia.”
It’s a world Callahan had never even imagined for himself when he took his first recreational sail with a friend, in 1994. But he fell in love instantly with ocean-based activities, and he discovered he had a passion for sailing.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to represent the USA by continually competing around the world, at the highest level of the sport, so I feel like it’s my obligation to share it with as many disabled people and their families as possible,” he says.
The nonprofit, which originally started in 1982, had ceased operating due to poor management when Callahan became CEO. He left Goldman Sachs, confident “there was something more that I needed to accomplish that couldn’t be done inside a concrete building.”
Today, he operates Sail to Prevail with two full-time and 11 part-time staff. The program is funded by corporations and foundations, but it also relies heavily on the generosity of individual donors, who include section mate Bill Ackman (MBA 1992) whom Callahan describes as “a brilliant, insightful person who cares about achieving extraordinary social outcomes, through effective business models.”
“You’re dealing with very fragile human lives, with untapped potential, so you need to push the envelope as hard as possible to obtain the best benefit for the participant,” Callahan adds. “At the same time, you have to take very responsible risks when doing this, because the outcomes are enormous when they’re achieved; but the risk of not being effective is a missed opportunity. It’s a very wide bandwidth you have to operate in, and it’s a challenging to stay within both ends of that spectrum.”
Class of MBA 1992, Section G