Mike Caslin is a graduate of the 1978 TFAS Public Policy + Economics program. He is the founder and CEO of the Global Center for Social Entrepreneurship Network (GCSEN), a nonprofit educational foundation created to drive social entrepreneurship and strengthen local economies.
In this week’s episode, Roger and Mike discuss the real-world results of social entrepreneurship and Mike’s journey to courageous leadership.
The Liberty + Leadership Podcast is hosted by TFAS President Roger Ream and produced by kglobal. If you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at podcast@TFAS.org.
The transcript below is lightly edited for clarity.
Joe Lai [00:00:01] This is Joe Lai. I’m a principal at BGR Government Affairs. I’m a 2001 alumnus of the TFAS Public Policy + Economics Program, and I’m a member of the inaugural class of TFAS Public Policy Fellows in 2007. You’re listening to the Liberty + Leadership Podcast.
Roger Ream [00:00:19] Hello and welcome. I’m Roger Ream and this is the Liberty + Leadership Podcast, a conversation with TFAS alumni who are making a real impact in politics, public policy, government, business, philanthropy, law and the media. Today, it’s my pleasure to welcome Mike Caslin to Liberty and Leadership. Mike is a longtime friend and has held many roles in his expansive career, and we’ll be talking about that today. Among the many roles he’s held is founder and CEO of GCSEN Foundation, a nonprofit educational foundation created to drive social entrepreneurship and strengthen local economies. Through Mike and GCSEN’s work, aspiring social venture founders leverage their passion, find their purpose, and create lasting impact that improves the world around them. Mike has worked in business consulting nonprofits alongside local, state and federal government actors in venture capital, in education, even working here at TFAS as executive director at one point along the way early in his career. Mike was part of the 1978 TFAS Public Policy class, and his career since then has been nothing short of extraordinary. I’m excited to have him here today to dive deeper into how TFAS shaped his work and the lessons he’s learned on liberty and leadership. Mike, thanks for joining me.
Mike Caslin [00:01:49] Roger, thank you so much. I’m humbled and inspired to be here; humbled by the range of graduates you’ve had and inspired by the work you continue to do, because in a very troubled world we have today, this is one of the few windows of goodness and hope that I know exists for real.
Roger Ream [00:02:09] Well, thanks. You know, there’s a never-ending amount of inspiration to be with young people who are the future and who are really driven to make this world a better place. I know you have that opportunity to work with them every day, and I do, too. It makes me an optimist about the future. I hope it does for you.
Mike Caslin [00:02:25] Absolutely. And we can win. We can win the battle of ideas with effective action and practical and experiential education that gives this new generation small wins to lead to big wins over time. I just returned from a Fulbright fellowship, the first for the Fulbright program in the rising field of social entrepreneurship. I really owe it to my grandparents, who a hundred years ago left Ireland, each at 16 with just a bag never to return, sadly, but gave a chance to come to this country and to work our way up in it and to reach back and help people. I’ve always wanted to help people, and I’ve found that business and social entrepreneurship is a great way to help people discover their social entrepreneur within. That’s basically who are you? Why are you here? What do you know now, and how can you act on it, and then what do you need to know? By being a social entrepreneur, you can act on the world to make it better. We have our team colors, orange and green. We Myers-Briggs analysis matched with that. Green is sustainable, strong and enduring. Orange is bold. It’s opportunistic, it’s optimistic and it’s generous. Today, so many things have happened to our newest students coming in that oftentimes, as it relates to being generous, they’ve been isolated, even though they are totally connected via digital media in what I would call non-purpose social media at six hours a day. When we get college students – I’ve taught in higher ed for 14 years, high school in the lowest income, highest crime neighborhoods of the world for 20 years, as well as a self-taught entrepreneur – we get college students now with 10,000 hours of video gaming and 10,000 hours of classroom time. So there’s a whole different mindset and learning set and skill set we have to adapt to. So that’s what we do. We have private sector sponsors that fund us to innovate around practical action based education that students can actually be the next wave of builders not burning stuff down.
Roger Ream [00:04:55] Well, I do want to talk today about the work of GCSEN and the work you’ve done before that’s been global in its impact. But let me go back first to that summer many years ago when you, as someone raised in New York City and went to school in New York, came to do a TFAS program at Georgetown at the time. I know you had siblings who did the program as well ahead of you and after you, I think. Tell me what that was like to take a summer and come down to Washington, D.C.
Mike Caslin [00:05:30] Oh absolutely! If I could be vulnerable, I had been a very intense athlete in high school and really was conditionally accepted to Harvard and Yale, but I couldn’t afford it. So I wound up working at a gas station after high school. From there I got a phone call and was given a New York State region scholarship, which I scored on to go to Manhattanville College. I always wanted to compete with the best and it looked a little grim pumping gas during a July summer in New York, but we always felt you can outwork everybody and the only way out is up. My father was in three unions. My mother had to forego college to take care of her mother, who was widowed as an Irish immigrant. All five of us got through college and beyond degrees. It’s a miracle. It’s an American miracle. I became the first self-taught entrepreneur of the family, because we grew up in a culture that’s predominant around the world today. It’s a British English education culture, which is a job culture: be good, do good in school, and someone will give you a job and you’ll get good benefits and then retire. There never was a conversation about entrepreneurship, liberty, passion-driven and purpose-driven work, that you can own your own job as opposed to get a job. So I learned that literally while I had come to The Fund [for American Studies], and on a Saturday found a used book called “The Spirit of Enterprise.”
Roger Ream [00:07:10] By George Gilder?
Mike Caslin [00:07:10] Written by George Gilder, and it singularly affected my life. He was a thinker for the Rockefellers, and he talked about that, that entrepreneurs are the heroes of life because out of uncertainty, chaos and destruction, they create more sustainable pathways in life. It’s a beautiful quote, and I really started to see that this was an opportunity. When I had the opportunity to apply to The Fund [for American Studies], I literally was working two jobs, and tuition, I think, was maybe $400 a year, and that was still a hard stretch. But over that time, getting accepted to [TFAS] was just an amazing thing to hang on, to hope for, and to strive for, to see if I can compete with the best. Certainly the best faculty that [TFAS] got from all over the country for ICPES, the Institute for Comparative Political and Economic Systems. I had two great instructors, Professor Viksnins and Professor Bruce Garin, and ironically from LeMoyne, which ties back, and I boosted my self-confidence and it also taught me how the world works, how people matter, how people make policy. I got a chance to intern for a fairly radical congressman at the time named Jack Kemp. He believed that everyone should have a chance in every community to create a better life. At the time, in the late seventies, he was going against the grain. Number one, he was going against Kenneth Galbraith. Keynesian economics that ruled said that the role of business and small business and entrepreneurship was irrelevant. In the late seventies, it was all global multinationals. Well, Ronald Reagan and the Reagan dream dispelled that and saved the country, in my opinion. I couldn’t afford to come here, even though I got in. When [TFAS] paid for my Amtrak ticket, it was a miracle.
Roger Ream [00:09:17] That was 19…?
Mike Caslin [00:09:21] 1978, yeah. When I went back, my brain was on fire from the [TFAS] experience. I have heard every year since I’ve taught at higher ed from students I teach that their brains are on fire. So it’s totally [TFAS]’s fault for people being ignited. Luckily we still have the torch of freedom and liberty and the logo of TFAS and [inaudible].
Roger Ream [00:09:42] Well, I just I find it – it’s fascinating to think that you had Dr. George Viksnins who taught for us for 34 years. And, you know, he loved to quote Joseph Schumpeter, a Harvard professor who’d reached the conclusion that capitalism wouldn’t survive, was very pessimistic about the future of capitalism. And then to be with Jack Kemp, who just exuded optimism and energy and passion for free enterprise.
Mike Caslin [00:10:05] And inclusions! I mean, it’s just being American – because I’ve worked in China, I’ve been all over the world. I’ve worked in 14 countries. Most of the systems are set up to be highly elitist. You go to one or two schools, if you’re from China and you’re not in the top two schools, you’re screwed. You’re not going anywhere. So it’s a very elite structure. The American system with all of its challenges is still opportunistic and inclusive, more inclusive than almost anywhere else. I got here, I got the chance to mix it up with the best students in the country. I got a chance to see how policy is made and how people behave positively and negatively. I saw that Washington was real and then went back. I was so inspired. I fit two academic years into one. I took eight courses a semester and then literally came to work at The Fund [for American Studies] the following year with Dave Jones. He was just a great inspiration, great motivation, great manager. He really believed in guidance and delegation and accountability. He would give me a list of 22 things to do and 22 cities to fly to. This is when Eastern Airlines existed on a single pass that you can travel to 30 cities in one ticket. I did that for [TFAS]. I was all over the country raising money from visionary sponsors and helping students get a shot.
Roger Ream [00:11:34] Well, let’s just for a minute talk about David Jones, because as you know, he was a mentor of mine. I met him when I was a student at Vanderbilt University, and he’s the one who encouraged me to apply to TFAS and arranged for me to get a scholarship to be there. He had a profound influence on me. It was extraordinary. I was telling some students yesterday about him and the fact that when you were with him, he made you feel like you were the most important person in his life. As a mentor, as someone who gave out career advice, he really pushed you to be a critical thinker. He was a remarkable man. And I was proud to succeed him as the TFAS president in 1998 after his too early in life death from cancer. But I assume he had a strong influence on you.
Mike Caslin [00:12:21] 100%. He gave me my first shot, you know, obviously. And Dr. Dobriansky and Dr. Judd, the Union Carbide that sponsored me and my sister Mary who had gone here, and my sister Colleen had encouraged me, but you still had to work your own path. He made that happen and gave me a shot to come to Washington and to work at [TFAS] as a program director and executive director. From that I got into an orbit of helping people help themselves through education. Then as I became an entrepreneur, which was different from most other traditional paths, which was primarily union, fire, police, Longshore, Sandhogs, tee fitter or, priest – I didn’t become any of those. I became an entrepreneur. And so that was a bit of a puzzle palace, so that explains some things. I just felt that I wanted to help people, but helping people the way I saw it wasn’t the best way. Helping them the way they see it and helping them act on it is the best way that I’ve found.
Roger Ream [00:13:27] Well, then you went into a career in many different areas. We’ll talk about that. At the end of that, I think everyone listening will understand why, not too many years ago, we presented you our Alumni Achievement Award for the remarkable things you’ve done. Let’s talk about this organization that I’ve always had such respect for that you and your friend Steve Mariotti built up to be a global organization doing good and that is now the network for teaching entrepreneurship. Just a great program. Could you say something about that mission and then how you took it global?
Mike Caslin [00:14:06] Absolutely. I think the perspective is people can either be part of the light or part of the gloom. That’s from Les Miserables, you know, that we’re either wisps in the gloom or flames of light. I had learned the entrepreneurial process on my own, and I had had modest successes. And then I met a teacher in South Bronx, and we basically thought that teaching entrepreneurship to multi-generation welfare or welfare families was a great way to break the cycle of poverty by creating wealth. Now, over time, I learned from our students that there’s an abundance of wealth in even the lowest income communities of all ethnicities. For example, in South Boston, the highest rate of impoverishment is Irish, white Irish. Then you go across the country, and the big thing that I found was business formation rate per ethnic group is key, but no one talks about it. There’s a Dr. Steve Balk and I found his book at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and he basically did the research that said a Native American young adult has a chance of less than one half of 1% to start a business. African-American, about 1.5. Latino American maybe 2-2.5, and Anglo Euro-American about 6 out of 100, and Asian-American about 10 out of 100, and Russian immigrant is about 12 out of 100. As you have that percolation and that multiplier of trade, you have an expansion of value. When you have less of it, it creates this downward cycle. Now we’re talking about hope and future right now in somewhat of a very Don Quixote moment. Goldman Sachs just came out this week and said small business has the lowest optimism rating in 42 years. During COVID 40% of all African-American owned businesses closed permanently. So if you have a 1% formation rate and 40% of that 1% close, you’re talking about a wipeout of any escalation opportunities. So seeing that and then teaching the code of wealth creation that honestly elite business schools teach and wealthy families pass on sometimes, it’s what we tried to codify to bring to the children of the poor to help.
Roger Ream [00:16:47] And how would you see that in those communities among those kids?
Mike Caslin [00:16:51] You’d go to where they are. So we ran programs in un-air conditioned basements of housing projects of New York City Housing Authority. We went into Crenshaw and Compton in L.A. and worked with gang intervention specialists. We went to a place called Robert Taylor Housing Projects in Chicago, which is so terrible that it was ranked the highest teen murder rate in the country. And we found a fascinating insight. It was like, Dr. Dobriansky…
Roger Ream [00:17:29] A long time TFAS professor.
Mike Caslin [00:17:32] …Perspective. Again, this is The Fund for American Studies’ Dr. Judd’s insights, but there was a thing called captive nations.
Roger Ream [00:17:38] Yes.
Mike Caslin [00:17:39] And in that lens, I saw all these deep cycles of poverty and areas of poverty as captive people. The good news was 90% of the people didn’t want to have badness happen. 2% percent are sociopathic that either God or the law have to take care of them, and the other 8% can go either way. That’s kind of what I saw time and again across Europe, in Ballymun Towers and Easterhouse, Scotland, the two most notorious housing projects in all of Europe. I saw it across America and then I saw it throughout India and other low income areas where you have deprivation and lack of knowledge. So the whole thing is if you go back to what is wealth and it’s spiritual, intellectual and material, we always talk about material and we talk about cost of living and kind of cash and non-cash benefits that actually are about $42,000 a year aggregately. No one talks about how you create a company that can get you $50,000 so you don’t have to do that anymore, how you can exit. So this kind of no exit survival strategy was necessary. My grandmother, as a widow with my mother, was on widow’s assistance. I’m not saying don’t help people survive. I’m saying we need to build pathways to survive and then to thrive.
Roger Ream [00:19:05] So when you work with these captive areas and you get to young people there, how do you get them excited or interested or knowing how to go about starting a business or being an entrepreneur?
Mike Caslin [00:19:19] I just got back from a presentation at Georgetown University’s McDonough business school, their premier school. They talk about the importance of reflection and self-knowledge and discernment. So the entrepreneurial process is very inward looking. You can’t do something you don’t believe in and love and are passionate and have purpose for. That’s the reason why 70% of adults hate their jobs is they’re decoupled from their–
Roger Ream [00:19:53] Their passions.
Mike Caslin [00:19:53] And their ‘why.’ So we spend a lot of time on their why. Like, why are things important? What is important to you? We know from entrepreneurial research it takes ten years to get an insight from a business point of view, to percolate, to get setbacks, to keep trying and testing. Every single person has lived experience that could take a pain point in particular, living today is a challenge across all areas, but living with no resources has more challenges. You take those pain points and those scars that young people have suffered and you flip them and say, what have you learned from that and how can you change it? And so there was a young man called Keante and he loved sneakers. To this day, he’s had a company repping and dealing and being the sneaker man. We had a young man, Jimmy Mack, who was a BMX bicycle athlete. He created the first cross-cultural, multicultural BMX racing team. It just goes on and on.
Roger Ream [00:21:03] So these kids actually started their own business through your help?
Mike Caslin [00:21:07] So Nifty reached through a network of 4000 teachers built on a model called Nifty University, replicating The Fund [for American Studies], because I took the idea of the institutes, bringing teachers together, training them, certifying them and supporting them. And we had 4000 teachers across 14 countries that have reached 2 million teenagers that then could each reach another 20 with the law of proximity. You can have a great multiplier.
Roger Ream [00:21:37] So I know you did some other things we hopefully will have time to talk about. But I want to jump ahead now to your current work with GCSEN, because it’s fascinating. It builds on things you’ve been learning both as a self-taught person and as an executive of Nifty. But tell us about the mission of GCSEN. And then I’d like to talk some about social entrepreneurship, which is a type of entrepreneurship which maybe a lot of people aren’t familiar with.
Mike Caslin [00:22:04] So just as we have the experience economy for consumers, we’ve been doing a lot of work on the learning experience and we are in the business, on a great day, of life-changing learning experiences through the use of social entrepreneurship. And social entrepreneurship, we define as an entrepreneur who acts with purpose for a quadruple bottom line: people, profit, planet, place. It’s common sense. It’s really good. It captures the intent of the 17 UN development goals. It captures the intent of this stark, sustainable community chart, which is an 8 by 8, 64 box grid of metrics of a sustainable city or community. It captures CSR, ESG, IDE, MFE, it captures all these late recent conversations. I could never have done that without having the [TFAS] experience, without having those models and inspiration. The mentorship of Walter Judd, who was the chairman, every six months, just blowing my mind with his journey of life. Then by being able to look at a crossroads at different times in my life and choose helping people help themselves versus another path, I was able to then find my entrepreneurial journey, find an entrepreneurial journey to help low income teenagers. Then Harvard Business School found our work case, studied Nifty twice and its growth in scale. Due to a fellowship I got from England with the Norfolk Charitable Trust and the Gordon Cook conversations, which has been going on since Henry VIII time, I was selected to be sent around the world by a philanthropist to observe firsthand why cities are thriving or dying. Unbelievable. 14 cities, 14 weeks, four continents. Just incredible.
Roger Ream [00:24:09] Wow. Was this something you did with a group?
Mike Caslin [00:24:11] This is something I did with four other people selected from England, so I was the only Yank. We would leave London and show up in Beijing. Leave Beijing and show up in Johannesburg. Leave. And every place had strengths and gaps. And every place had teenagers. So I was like, Wow. There are low income teenagers around the world and we’re doing something cool and people want to do that. So that’s how this openness to these fellowship opportunities led to the discovery of a market opportunity globally for Nifty. After 20 years and two Harvard case studies, I got started to go on a graduate school business lecture circuit. Spoke with Professor Greg Dees, who founded the Field of Social Entrepreneurship at Harvard. Spoke in his class, spoke at his class when he moved to Stanford, spoke at Babson College, and then was asked to create social entrepreneurship programs for Babson College in 2004, which I did through the founding of GCSEN.
Roger Ream [00:25:13] Just so people understand this concept, social entrepreneurship by definition connected to a not for profit or can you define it, because there are companies that would argue that this people, profit, planet, places, their mission, but they’re for profit, they have a bottom line.
Mike Caslin [00:25:33] I think it’s a false debate. I think they really do. There are 16 forms of legal business structure, and so it’s kind of a false debate. There are nonprofits that are highly profitable. There are for-profits that are not profitable. And there are for-profits and nonprofits that have profit or no profit. So that debate is a specious debate in particular for young people who say, well, I don’t care about money. I just want to help people. Now, Mother Teresa and her organization were quoted as saying, no margin, no mission. So they had to know something about positive cash flow to cover the nuns all over the world doing good work. So this integration, we’re more of a Unitarian approach to this that make your organization, whether it’s a for-profit or nonprofit, more accountable to a higher accountability of four P’s: people, profit — who are you serving as customers? Who are you hiring? What profitability are you generating and how can you sustain that fairly and create that value in exchange of wealth, voluntary trade? And then how can you steward the environment? I think stewardship of the environment is responsible for that. And then most importantly, how can you build the local economy back? And how can you create the local economic multiplier, which is the future of millions of lives, if we don’t figure it out?
Roger Ream [00:27:04] Okay, so I won’t press it any further, but I think I understand it as all entrepreneurship is social.
Mike Caslin [00:27:13] Because they talk to….
Roger Ream [00:27:14] Obviously it’s about added value.
Mike Caslin [00:27:16] Yes. Social entrepreneurship, or when you do social media. That was the first thing, I can do entrepreneurship and media. I’m like okay [inaudible].
Roger Ream [00:27:23] We do entrepreneurship.
Mike Caslin [00:27:24] So the second thing was, well, all entrepreneurs are sociable. They’re very socially oriented. They talk to a lot of people. Well that’s not really where we’re going on this. And it’s really helping the companies of today and tomorrow be more visibly connected to their stewardship of their own ethos, their culture and their impact.
Roger Ream [00:27:50] Well, one person I’ve talked to about this is John Mackey, the founder and CEO of Whole Foods. He wrote a book called “Conscious Capitalism” and turned it into an organization on Conscious Capitalism. I think it captures a lot of this. I don’t recall that they use the word social entrepreneurship, but it’s about the responsibility of a company toward its workers, toward its customers, toward its shareholders and toward the community it operates in. So I think very consistent with the kinds of things you’re talking about and along the lines of this.
Mike Caslin [00:28:20] We have a dense, almost a Hayekian individual method belief that everyone over time, over four or five decades, which most of our students in college today work until they’re almost 75, based upon what’s happening right now, that they’ll probably have 3 to 4 business ventures that they could create should they choose. We just want to give them the choice. But if you don’t know, you have a choice and you’re afraid and that fear is a liar. Fear keeps so many of us in chains to even try. You have fear of failure, fear of success, fear of being different, fear of stepping out from what your parents might want you to do. There are many students who — it’s a seeding process, you don’t know who’s going to become a Mark Levin until Mark Levin becomes Mark Levin. That’s the thing that we have to invest in, or you’ll have the opposite. You’re either going to build stuff up or you’re going to burn stuff down. You’re going to burn stuff down if you don’t understand how hard it was to build stuff up. You don’t understand the value of building stuff up.
Roger Ream [00:29:37] Yeah.
Mike Caslin [00:29:38] The other insight, just from conversations with a number of strategic sponsors was this concept that there are 20 million college students in America today across 4000 campuses, 2.5 million are business school students. So it is quite possible that 17.5 million are functionally illiterate, if not antagonistic because they’re illiterate. Then you go around the world, there’s another 4000. So if you look at the resources poured into this elite percentage of population globally, you know, you’re talking less than 2% of the entire 18 to 22 year old population ever get this chance. That gifted population has the least knowledge of how to create a bigger opportunity for everybody.
Roger Ream [00:30:30] So you’ve worked with lots of people at a number of universities. I know you’ve worked with Babson, with Marist, with Wheaton College, LeMoyne. It’s thousands of students at least and you’ve done this internationally, of course, and in other ways, but many of them have gone on to be very successful entrepreneurs, I take it, and created businesses out of your mentoring?
Mike Caslin [00:30:56] Absolutely. Yeah. We do pre- and post-program. In essence, their confidence jumps by 50%, largely because it’s achievement-based self-esteem. They’ve actually gone through a beyond-MBA rigorous business model build and pitch deck and prototype and then market ready prototype. Of our surveys, we find that 90% consider the event, just like [TFAS] was for me, a life changing event. 90% would recommend it to others. Our Net Promoter Score is like positive 9.3. There are companies today with like -9.3. One of the most fascinating things is if you give us 100 college students a normal class with no intervention, you’d have maybe one business without this higher framework. Start one out of 100 today max. We’re finding we get 10 to 15 out of 100 right in college. But the big play we’re finding, 70% of our students want to do a social venture within ten years. Half of that comes true. We’re talking about transformation and especially in communities of need. But, you know, it’s a real farming strategy. I used to think it was more like, as Dr. Judd taught us, if you want to plan for one year, plant corn, if you want to plan for ten years, plant trees, if you want to plan for a lifetime, plant men and women of honor. And so eventually, I came to the realization that we’re kind of bamboo people, farmers. You know, it takes almost seven years to percolate because the students have that from college. The colleges don’t really give them an off ramp to monetize and pay off that debt quick. So they need to get jobs and then they need to work on their social venture. And that’s why we have lifetime alumni support, which almost no university in the world offers. So we have a network of college graduates from across colleges to have some place to come to.
Roger Ream [00:33:02] I should interject here for those who don’t know, Walter Judd was a trustee and regular speaker every summer at our programs. So Mike and I both had the opportunity to hear him as students. But more importantly, he served as a member of Congress from Minnesota, Minneapolis area for over 20 years. And prior to that had been a medical missionary in China at the time the Japanese invaded. Remarkable man, influenced me, influenced you. There’s a great biography of him by Lee Edwards called “Missionary of Freedom,” which perhaps you can still pick up on Amazon. Just a strong believer in freedom and the ability of individuals to run their lives and overcome problems and be successful.
Mike Caslin [00:33:45] For those concerned about our present day and future, he did lecture and this is from 1978. I remember the rise and fall of civilizations.
Roger Ream [00:33:54] Yeah.
Mike Caslin [00:33:55] I just saw a quote yesterday that immediately linked to that where it said, “Nations die by suicide, not by murder.” and so coming back from Ireland after Fulbright, I got a chance to see 800 years of conflict dealt with in some ways and in the last 70 years of the troubles. What I saw was an arduous effort to overcome sectarianism. What I see today in America is political sectarianism at an alarming, accelerating rate. The only way you can engage is through enlightenment and through education that it takes for another academic partner of us is Vassar College, takes a school that’s very social justice oriented with no business department, and help people understand how to use the market to make the world better. That’s powerful stuff, because most come in indifferent, antagonistic and ignorant, and that’s a very bad combination.
Roger Ream [00:35:02] Well congratulations on this Fulbright. Let’s talk a little bit about that. You were selected for this, as you’ve said, to go to the country of your grandparents’ birth.
Mike Caslin [00:35:12] 60 countries on a screen, and I was matched with Ireland.
Roger Ream [00:35:17] Yeah. You traveled all over the country and maybe some of the six counties as well. But talking about entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship.
Mike Caslin [00:35:28] I was based with the Atlantic Technological University of Letterkenny in a county called Donegal. And ironically, that’s where my parents left. I didn’t even know.
Roger Ream [00:35:37] Grandparents? Grandparents, yeah.
Mike Caslin [00:35:39] I didn’t even know that. I was able to see the points of departure, the actual Bridge of Tears, where when the family knew that they couldn’t survive, they put their youngest children on a five day walk to Londonderry to take a boat to America and never see them again. It’s unbelievable. The fact that I can get to that bridge, through the sponsorship of the U.S. Congress and the State Department, and bring American ideas and timeless ideas of enterprise and individual initiative is something that was very humbling and wonderful to do. So Atlantic Technological University was my host. I had a chance to meet with presidents of universities across the country, a 3000 kilometers of jiving six cities Dublin, Galway, Belfast, Letterkenny and Killarney. I covered the whole country and saw great, great prosperity and creation of jobs. The next wave is to create local ownership of that prosperity. Ireland has the top ten and is ranked number ten in the world for education. It has the youngest employment force. Incredible engine. It’s the only English speaking country in the EU now. So there’s a whole bunch of opportunity. The big thing is they have to start local economies again because that could be not good over time. Plus, they also have the unification effort, which is going to be something we’re targeting as well. How do you engage? People have been alienated during these years of sectarianism to engage in a future that’s worth building and working for peacefully.
Roger Ream [00:37:25] Yeah. Well, I want to ask you a little bit, Mike, to reflect based on your career and your experiences on advice you might give to young people today who are growing up obviously in a different world than we grew up in. Challenges are different. Technology has come so far. We’ve had two years of kind of the pandemic, and it’s the lockdowns and the impact that’s had on young people, which I think has been real impacts. But the students coming to our program today versus, I think to some extent when you and I attended, are very serious, very career oriented. They’re here saying they want to kick the tires of different professions to figure out what direction to pursue. What kind of advice would you offer a young person who’s entering the last few years of college and kind of uncertain about what to do with their life ahead of them? Can you offer some advice that’s generally applied?
Mike Caslin [00:38:24] Sure. I think you start with the simple but lifetime challenge of self-knowledge. Who are you really? Who not? Who does somebody else say you are? But who are you really? And why are you here? If you can struggle with that and then start to screen things out, you can get closer to your joy. We call it Get to Wow. Aligning the four spheres of who are you? Who am I? Why am I here? What do I know and what do I need to know? What do I need to go get? And how can I act on it now? The Oxford University School Institute, they just came out with a major study that this generation of college students have the greatest gap between confidence and action. The confidence has gone down and the chasm to action, micro wins, small wins, anything, is very small. So I would say that’s the first thing. Self-knowledge. Ask yourself those questions. We’re happy that we can do a Zoom chat and have a global conversation about this with all the alums. The second is, it’s something I just talked about yesterday for the first time, what color is your shirt today? Now I wore an orange golf shirt that had a GCSEN logo to this conference that I spoke at. I asked myself, why did we pick orange as a foundation? It was because orange means generous, optimistic, opportunistic and bold. What color is your shirt? Most young people have to take at least a portion of the credit or the burden with their choices of how people have spent their time in what I would call non-purpose driven social media. Days. Every day for the last ten years, what color is your shirt this morning? Is it generous? Is it isolated and self-doubting? Is it optimistic or is it pessimistic? Is it opportunity? Are you looking for something to do differently, better? Or is it fatalistic? Is it that you’ve just given up? And then is it bold or is it wounded without permission, without confidence to cross that bridge? That darker shirt or whatever color you want to call that shirt, that’s something that we all have. And you need to really challenge that because most of it is a myth. It’s a collective psychosis of, I think Tucker Carlson called the worst of it narcissistic self-loathing. We’re not happy. We don’t like ourselves, and we don’t know why. And part of it is because we’re not on purpose with how we can make our, how we can do more for others to make the world better and give greater glory to either their own spirit or their God or the divine.
Roger Ream [00:41:39] Well, that has a lot of profound applications. What you just said, I think that alone made our conversation worthwhile today. And you see it not only individually as your own directing force in your life, but as a nation. I think we no longer understand what it is we are. And that’s that sectarian divide. We have debates over our founding. Is it a founding in glory and a belief in liberty for all men are created equal and that we have rights from our creator? Or is it the 1619 narrative that we were founded by people trying to preserve slavery and that we should be embarrassed about our founding and we’re divided over that? We see it collectively as well as individually. I think that’s a great perspective you just offered us.
Mike Caslin [00:42:33] Yeah. Every nation that commits suicide is destroyed by fratricide. That it’s almost… It’s self-inflicting because it’s manipulated. So I would just posit who is informing you, who is using your time every day, and to know that you need to get going now, like this afternoon, and you need to build your capacity. So I went late in life, I think I was in my mid-forties, I went and got my MBA from…
Roger Ream [00:43:08] That’s not late.
Mike Caslin [00:43:10] Well, it kind of was. Everybody else was like 28, but I had been an entrepreneur. I wanted to go back and see what the number one school in the world was doing and get behind the curtain. I wanted to see a faculty. In essence, I took 23 courses. It cost $300,000, two and a half years of my life. But I got the code. They need to get strong and they need to get strong in practical efforts and practice. They need to understand the importance of customers, of valued products and service, of finance, self-financed growth versus this, you know, mirage of DC bubble growth, which we’re seeing the collapse of everything now because it’s not real. And then, team. How do you build a team and a culture? We’re getting to the point where we’re kind of now giving lectures on impact CEO mindset, and it’s like, what is that like? How do you do that? You have to have a clear accountability. The four P’s: people, profit, planet, place; you have to understand your culture. The culture that we have at GCSEN is family and health first.
Roger Ream [00:44:20] Family and health.
Mike Caslin [00:44:22] Family and health first. Personal health and family health first. Whatever happens, it’s personal and family health first, then it’s together help each other succeed. Something very opposite of Lord of the Flies. It’s almost countercultural to say, let me help you succeed today. I mean, it’s weird. It throws people off. But if you get into an abundance mode, guess what? They’ll help you succeed 9 out of ten times. And then the third is get to wow and fix the how fast. You’re not perfect. It never will be. And in this area, in this great gap between confidence to action, the fear of imperfection is almost stultifying. It’s just debilitating. I’ve been coaching a young lady who was bullied in middle school, who got herself through middle school. She developed trichotillomania, which is she removed all the hair in her scalp and eyebrows and really scarred herself, but she got through college. She took our program and she’s starting an anti-bullying program for middle school students, now taking the pain to make a gain, if you will. It’s taken her six years to give herself steps. That’s why you have to be patient with the evolution of each spirit. You just you can’t straight line this stuff. Over time, things will happen. You have faith, hope and love, and charity. You either buy into that or you have a pretty good one way ticket to nihilism and despair. It takes as much work and it’s less fun. Yeah, that’s what I’ve found. It’s like, why not be optimistic? Because being pessimistic takes so much to work too.
Roger Ream [00:46:14] Well, yeah. Well, Mike, thank you so much for sharing at least some of your story with us today. I wish we had time to go into more because you’ve achieved a lot. You’ve helped so many people in your career. It’s great to have a conversation here and remember the people you mentioned, like such as Lev Dobriansky, our early director of our programs at Georgetown; Walter Judd, a great American and a member of our board; Jack Kemp, who’s had a great involvement with this organization during his life and his career and always Mr. Optimism; and Dave Jones, so, and…
Mike Caslin [00:46:49] Then we’ve got to mention Randy Teague, who’s just been like an enduring lighthouse to keep us coming into safe harbor, just to have a home to come back to at TFAS.
Roger Ream [00:46:59] That’s for sure.
Mike Caslin [00:47:00] Keep us off the rocks.
Roger Ream [00:47:02] Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Well, it’s been wonderful. So thanks. Thank you for listening to the Liberty and Leadership Podcast. Please don’t forget to subscribe, download, like or share the show on Apple, Spotify or YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you like this episode, I ask you to rate and review it, and if you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at podcast@TFAS.org. The Liberty and Leadership Podcast is produced at kglobal Studios in Washington, D.C. I’m your host Roger Ream, and until next time, show courage in things large and small.
About the Podcast
TFAS has reached more than 46,000 students and professionals through academic programs, fellowships and seminars. Representing more than 140 countries, TFAS alumni are courageous leaders throughout the world forging careers in politics, government, public policy, business, philanthropy, law and the media.
Join TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 as he reconnects with these outstanding alumni to share experiences, swap career stories, and find out what makes their leadership journey unique. With prominent congressmen, judges and journalists among the mix, each episode is sure to excite your interest in what makes TFAS special.
If you have a comment or question for the show, please email podcast@TFAS.org.
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