The innocence of youth was in full bloom when Alvin Rohrs—then a 25-year-old with little real-world work experience—was asked in 1982 to step in and run Enactus, a fledgling nonprofit. With the boundless enthusiasm of someone just starting out, he eagerly accepted the role of CEO. Says Rohrs with a laugh: “I was young enough to believe I could do anything. I had no idea how hard it would be.”
Started 37 years ago, Enactus gives college students around the world the opportunity to use their entrepreneurial skills to create solutions for problems and issues affecting people in their local communities and beyond. Rohrs mapped out a game plan for Enactus and began steering it toward the future. Luckily, his parents had instilled in him a strong work ethic and the importance of long-term planning.
When Rohrs stepped into the top job at Enactus (until last year it was called Students in Free Enterprise, or SIFE), only 18 U.S. colleges were participating in the program. What struck him immediately, he says, was the need to establish a sustainable and long-term strategy to get Enactus onto more campuses. Within the first month, Rohrs created a two-pronged plan. Part one: identifying what wasn’t working well in the organization; part two: figuring out how he could change it.
Case in point: When the Enactus college teams competed at various events, they spent a lot of time and money building elaborate booths for their presentations. Rohrs discovered that transporting these booths was so expensive that it forced colleges to reduce the number of students who could attend the events.
A more practical and less costly approach for the students, Rohrs reasoned, was to have the judges in one room while the students moved in and out, bringing their slideshow presentations with them. “After one competition without the booths, it was evident that this cut down expenses and made more sense,” he says.
Attracting corporate sponsors was another big challenge. After studying the way successful fundraising was done at other nonprofits, Rohrs came to the conclusion that a different, more pragmatic strategy was needed. “We were a unique creature,” he says. “You tell people you’re from a university trying to raise money, and they know what you are. Tell someone you’re from Enactus, and, well, you’ve got a lot of explaining to do.”
The real solution to the group’s money needs, he decided, was his ability to get senior decision makers within major corporations to see the students in action. “No speech from me, no brochure, no video has as much of an impact as being there and watching these kids explain their projects and discuss the results they’ve achieved,” he says.
That deliberate strategy paid off in 1983 when Rohrs convinced Jack Shewmaker, then vice-chairman of Walmart, to attend an event and shortly thereafter to join the Enactus board. Over the next three years, the number of participating colleges increased from 22 to 65.
Today, with the help of nearly 400 corporate partners, Enactus has expanded to include 62,000 students at 1,600 universities worldwide. Long-term planning remains key to what Rohrs does. “I’ve never been satisfied that we’ve arrived,” he says. “Since the beginning I’ve always felt we can do better, and day by day that’s what we work toward.”