Frank Britt is the CEO of Penn Foster, a leading career-focused online and hybrid education institution that annually supports over 100,000 active students and 1,000 institutions nationwide. His mission is to create a national movement to better connect education, career pathways and job creation, and to promote debt-free and affordable learning. By utilizing the power of practical education, career training and hands-on mentoring, he has helped improve the lives of everyone from underprivileged children and families, to front-line workers and recent college graduates. His efforts recognize the challenges faced by the 7,000 people that regrettably drop out of high school each day, the 4 million middle-skilled workers seeking employment, 50-70 year olds transitioning careers, and the thousands of veterans focused on establishing new career pathways.
How did you get into the education industry?
In my younger years, I didn’t place a high priority on education. Towards the end of my high school journey, I realized that education needed to serve as the catalyst for my future. I became purposeful in school, and I ended up at Syracuse University against the odds, graduated successfully, and began a career in management consulting. I set out with the goal of becoming a General Manager and it became clear that I could grow beyond that role to running a full enterprise. For me the best place to do that would be in the education sector, as education changed my life trajectory.
Tell us about Penn Foster. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the institution?
Our company was founded in 1890 as America’s first correspondence school with an aim of democratizing access to career-focused education and training. This original idea is even more relevant today given the issues of skills shortages and educational inequity particularly for the at-risk population. We believe talent is equally distributed by zip code, opportunity is not. Our institution seeks to address these issues and sits at the epicenter of the initiative to drive greater access to affordable, debt-free and flexible education.
What strategic partnerships have you implemented that have contributed to Penn Foster’s success?
We recently announced a partnership with America’s Promise, an organization that is dedicated to helping Americans, thinkers and organizations. Its definition of Opportunity Youth is people who are unemployed and don’t have a high school degree. I think America’s Promise and organizations like these are important catalysts for our future. We can play an important role in that ecosystem, and we hope to build on our role as partners to non-profits.
What industry trends are you noticing, and how do you capitalize on them?
The redistribution of opportunity is this country’s leading challenge as there is a stall in upward mobility at every stage of our education pipeline. We need to be far better at redistributing opportunity and giving everyone equal access to participate in the future. What should we do about the fact that 50 percent of urban youth won't graduate from high school? Or, the fact that just 8 percent of kids growing up in the bottom 25 percent of household incomes will get a college degree? Or, jobs created through the second quarter of 2014, paid on average lower than the average wage of jobs from 2007, while the top 20 percent of income households captured 61 percent of total wage gains. Education is primary path to leveling the playing field of opportunity and providing an on-ramp for lower income people who are increasingly being locked out of the future. As a provider of affordable, accessible education, we will work with employers who must play a more active role at the high school level in order to educate their future and current employees.
What you leave behind is not engraved in mountains but woven into the lives of others. I’d like to believe that many people that have worked with me would say as a result they are better versions of themselves, and their trajectory and career ambitions have been lifted. In the end, wealth is a zero sum game, but transferring knowledge and mentoring is a multiplier.
Penn Foster’s motto?
Penn Foster’s motto is to strive to be a student achievement champion. We have built a culture and solution that directly addresses the underlying cause of attrition. Our team and student community become advocates for learners that often have lacked the social lattice that promotes success. We are in the confidence-building business as the cornerstone of enabling better academic outcomes and higher employability.
Your greatest success as CEO of Penn Foster? Most difficult moment—how did you overcome and what did you learn?
Transforming a culture was one of my biggest challenges, but in the end, is one of our greatest successes at Penn Foster. I believe that the source of our competitive advantage is culture. We help people achieve and believe, and we earnestly embrace that that is what we’re supposed to do. We say “we just changed another life” not “we have another enrollment.” When you can embed that mindset into the fabric of a high performance organization, you can transform aspects of an industry – even the $1.3 trillion US education sector.
Your advice to an aspiring entrepreneur?
CEO’s are made, not born. The difference between ordinary and extraordinary entrepreneurs is perseverance and mindset. All early stage companies are trying to create a product or a service to meet a real or unarticulated need. It’s pretty hard to hit that bull’s-eye the first time, and there is a lot of competition and crosswinds. The successful leaders are the ones who persevere, who don’t get it right the first time, but stick with it until they have the right product/market “fit”
How do you motivate your employees?
What we’ve tried to do is generally not the mission of a traditional company. We’re more similar to a nonprofit—we’re trying to embed purpose in all of what we do and create a national movement to empower the 73 million middle class adults with even stronger skills, greater confidence, and better insights on alternative career pathways.
One food left on earth, what would you choose?
I would dig into a pecan pie for both the great taste and because I think it is an underappreciated part of the dessert world. While it’s an iconic item across major holidays, it often takes a backseat among leading pastry chefs.
What literature is on your bed stand?
I’m a bit of an American history guy; I usually have several American history books on the side of my bed at any given time. For example, at home right now is The Fall of the House of Dixie, which is about the Civil War and the revolution in the South. Bunker Hill, which is about a revolution that started in Boston and spread, and about a battle that changed the city and the country. I think that it’s very helpful to understand how leaders and the rank-and-file in their time made choices. There are many commonalities between how leaders in government, military and business make their decisions, albeit different context - but they all share the common narrative of people who took it upon themselves to change the world.
Role model—business and personal?
For me, this has changed with age. These days I’m attracted to role models who are humble and wise as opposed to rich and powerful. In the formative stages of life, my values were influenced by a wise old man who became a surrogate grandfather and in college by a mentor that challenged me to raise my expectations of the possible. These men inculcated principles into my worldview that have stuck with me through adulthood. In both cases their most important lesson was to embrace a mission of living life to help empower other people.
I play ice hockey. It’s one of the places in my life where I am in the bottom 10-20 percent. That sense of personal exposure and uncertainty is a helpful reminder to me of what it feels like to lack control and all the key skills, and it helps keep me grounded and hopefully humble.
Most interesting headline you’ve read this week?
Thomas Friedman wrote a recent article called “The World Is Fast,” in which he outlines three “climate changes” currently happening: digital, ecological and geo-economic. At Penn Foster we are a part of all three of those changes: ecologically, we lower the carbon footprint by training people online. We are digitally powered, and we are part of the geo-economic change as we work towards empowering people to take better charge of their careers.
What’s next for Penn Foster?
Building an equitable human capital pipeline that supports upward mobility and enables more people to participate in the future is the critical challenge facing our country. We’re a 124-year-old company maturing at the exact right moment with the right proposition for employers and students. We aspire to be the leader in creating a movement to improve the lives of the underserved through the power of debt free education.