01 Dec 1998

A Journey to Leadership: Luke O'Neill

by Deborah Blagg


Some of the best entrepreneurial ventures begin with a small revelation. For Luke O'Neill (MBA '95), the founder of a unique alternative high school in Massachusetts, that revelation came from an eight-year-old boy named Robert.

As an undergraduate at Georgetown, O'Neill was paired with Robert through a community service mentoring project. At first, O'Neill took his young charge to a succession of museums and sporting events in an attempt to show him a reality outside his troubled neighborhood and family life. "After some weeks of this," relates O'Neill, "on our way up the steps to the Washington Monument, Robert spontaneously jumped on my back with a happy shout, and it dawned on me that what he needed didn't have anything to do with going places. He needed love, honesty, and someone to listen to him and just be with him."

O'Neill brought that insight and a growing desire to help other disenfranchised kids with him when he enrolled at Georgetown Law School, where he began working in the school's Juvenile Justice Clinic. "There is a tremendous need for people to understand how powerless kids can be and how much they need an advocate," he observes. Rather than launch a career in juvenile law, however, O'Neill decided that his efforts would be better spent working with kids before they got into trouble.

He accepted a position in a corporate law firm in Connecticut in 1984 and began doing pro bono juvenile legal work as well as volunteering with the Boys and Girls Clubs in Stamford. "The headquarters was a dilapidated, pest-infested building in the heart of the local projects," he recalls. In 1988, O'Neill left the law firm to devote his full-time energy to mobilizing community support for reestablishing the Stamford facility as an institution that could nurture and assist the city's children.

It was during this time that he became involved with the Outward Bound USA organization, which he saw as an educational resource for the Boys and Girls Clubs. After participating in the program himself, O'Neill was so impressed with its value that he completed training to become an Outward Bound wilderness instructor. "The program uses challenging outdoor experiences to inspire participants to rise above their expectations of themselves," he explains. "Its educational philosophy excels in transforming dispirited, disengaged, despairing young people into confident, resourceful leaders."

The Path to HBS

O'Neill saw in Outward Bound the foundation for the kind of educational experience that could reach kids who weren't making headway in traditional schools. He became a fundraiser for the program and after four years decided he wanted to create a family of high schools based on Outward Bound's educational philosophy. That path brought him to HBS, with the goal of gaining the organizational skills to put his plan into action.

If Georgetown was the catalyst for O'Neill's dream of helping kids before they fall through the cracks in the educational system, Harvard Business School provided him with the managerial know-how and business contacts to begin to turn that dream into a reality. "When I came to Harvard, I was keenly interested in leadership and in what the best companies were doing to make it possible for their employees to succeed," he recalls. "I read every case through that lens." O'Neill also became involved in the School's mentoring program with the Taft Middle School, and as General Academic Council representative for his section, he was a driving force in reshaping the orientation process for entering MBAs.

Among those who helped him at HBS, O'Neill credits Taft program coordinator Professor James I. Cash, Jr., with inspiring him to write a business plan for his proposed school that not only covered all the practical bases but also "was true to my dream." Former HBS Dean John H. McArthur, whom O'Neill met through his involvement with the MBA Program, and John C. Whitehead (MBA 11/ '47), who helped launch the School's Social Enterprise Initiative, provided substantial guidance and support. (Both now serve on O'Neill's school board.)

Then came a frustrating struggle to establish a permanent site ("We couldn't get funding for a building until we had a school," says O'Neill, "but how do you launch a school without a site?"). But last January, Shackleton Schools, Inc. - named for the intrepid Anglo-Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who brought his crew to safety after being stranded on the Antarctic ice cap for over a year - began operation as a school without walls. Nine "at-risk" high school students - some of whom had been referred by theirschool guidance counselors, others who found Shackleton on their own - set forth in two specially equipped vans on a cross-country learning adventure. The school's approach combines academic and experiential learning and involves students in activities as diverse as constructing solar panels, producing maple syrup, and delivering emergency medical care in search-and-rescue situations.

"Our educational goal," says O'Neill, "is to train students to be leaders, educators, community builders, entrepreneurs, and stewards of our environment." Although Shackleton finally acquired a "base camp" in western Massachusetts last summer, O'Neill says the curriculum will remain expedition-based. Long-term plans call for the establishment of sister schools in six other cities around the country, which would exchange students every few months, broadening the opportunities for hands-on, community-based learning. O'Neill and others at the school are at work refining its business and educational model to accommodate this growth.

Still a work in progress, Shackleton must wait for accreditation before its first class can graduate. O'Neill is spending much of his time on funding issues (90 percent of Shackleton's students receive financial aid), but he says he is not overly concerned about the school's financial health. "We have a solid business plan and the people to bring it to life. As long as we can establish a track record of kids impressing employers in internships and going on to college, the money will be there."

The bedrock of Shackleton's educational philosophy is leadership, and when asked about his own evolution as a leader, O'Neill points to the influence of others: his entrepreneurial father; former Georgetown University president, Father Timothy Healy; Outward Bound USA founder Joshua Miner; and John McArthur, to name a few. But even more telling is his mention of Hansel Dwight, an eleven-year-old, learning-disabled boy he met years ago as a Big Brother. "His family had a number of serious problems," O'Neill relates. "It was up to this boy to keep them all together, and somehow he did, all the while developing his own natural talent for baseball.

"Today that young man is playing in the Philadelphia Phillies organization," O'Neill continues, with obvious admiration. "He has been such an inspiration to me. I want to help other kids find that same power within themselves to succeed."


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