Knowledge Institute CEO Deborah Osgood


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As the economy evolves, says Deborah Osgood, CEO of the Exeter-based Knowledge Institute, self-employment will become an essential way for people to make a living.

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For decades, the Exeter-based Knowledge Institute, co-founded by Dr. Deborah Osgood and her late husband, Dr. Bill Osgood, has worked to help people, start, nurture and grow their entrepreneurial ventures.

But with so many changes to the foundation of the U.S. and global economies, Deb Osgood has added a new focus: self-employment, and she has spent the last several years encouraging institutions and individuals to understand those economic shifts that have become even clearer since the recession. Chief among them, says Osgood, is the transition from top-down job creation to the need for individuals to create their own job.

Q. How do you view the current employment situation?

A. From the small business perspective, small business is getting smaller. And you have all of these individuals now, the contingent workforce, that is being underreported. So you’ve got more larger employers, even smaller employers, hiring individuals on these project bases. Then you have youth unemployment. That’s a global crisis right now. You’ve got a lot of kids graduating college with this debt. Not to mention the skills gap.

The result is that we have this whole population that’s disenfranchised and unable to get work – and by work, I mean well-paying work that will allow them to pay off their debt. But also, you have workers who are choosing not to look for jobs. Sure, some are going on social services, but others are starting their own business. They’re generating income to survive.

Q. It’s small businesses that generate most new jobs, at least that’s what they say.

A. In 2016, a lot of the new jobs were being created not just by the small businesses – which are defined by the federal government, through the Small Business Administration as under 500 employees – but by microenterprises, which are defined as between one and 19 employees. In other words, this whole self-employed arena is growing, but the statistics, in terms of self-employment trends, are for the most part missing all these able-bodied individuals who are choosing not to be in the labor force.

Q. You’ve been working on a book that addresses this issue from a practical perspective.

A. It’s a book about a process that I’ve used for the past 15 years, backing up individuals who have wanted to start a business.

In the last century, if you wanted to start a business, what was the first thing to do? We look at your values, your goal, your skills, your strengths. And then we sit down and define how they create value and commerce. And then we’ll do a business plan. That’s the way they usually would do it – the SBDCs, the universities. It was all about the business plan. Then they came up with business incubators and found out if they put you in a business incubator, a support network, success rates would go up over 87 percent.

Q. And this is a model you used to work with at-risk youth?

A. I kept thinking, you’ve got at-risk youth, you’ve got entrepreneurs – risk-takers. At-risk youth have had to be resourceful to survive. And entrepreneurs are proactively innovative to succeed. So you had the same things going on from the opposite sides of the coin.

So I took this same four-step process – strengths, what your goals and values are, the planning process and a support network – and I started testing it out with at-risk youth to see if it could help them improve graduation rates. I went to different schools, lockdown facilities, where they had these kids who are were at risk of dropping out of school. And we had 100 percent of participants go from not caring about whether they graduated high school to 100 percent of the kids wanting to graduate from high school.

Q. These kids became interested in becoming entrepreneurs?

A. This is where it all comes together. Right now, we still have the federal government talking about job creation, yet there’s evidence all across America, and for youth globally, that it’s about creating your own job. We need a new process to not just address entrepreneurship, which is still how everyone’s approaching it. We need to first come up with something on the front end.

So the Knowledge Institute came up with a process of self-employment that addresses both the self – which is how we each think – and how to leverage your skills and,  I always say, awaken the human spirit enough to give you the drive to create your own job. Because this is a huge paradigm shift we’re going through.

You and I know from last century, that people who start their own business do it as a choice. We’re looking at an economy where it’s not a choice. So how can you help to facilitate the process where these people can have a paradigm shift to understand that this is an opportunity that’s realistic to them and viable?

Q. What’s the initial response by the students?

A. When I go into the classroom and introduce myself, I say, “Do you know what self-employment is?” Some of the kids say no. By the end of the class, I get letters from them. “This day was the most exciting day of my life. I can’t wait to start my own restaurant.” This was a boy with autism. These are the kinds of comments I get from these kids.

A counselor can do it. A teacher can do it. Anyone in a community-based setting. That’s how I engineered it.

Q. So it’s no longer about just starting a business, it’s you.

A. Yes. You’ve got all the other things going on around the world right now that can make us depressed and frustrated, and terrified in fact. So we really need something that awakens the human spirit and is directly correlated to commerce.

Q. Have you heard this discussed in the political arena at all?

A. People know we have a workforce development issue and we do need different skills, but I am not seeing self-employment getting the attention that it needs right now, given the data.

Everyone has a preconceived notion about what it takes to succeed in business, and they’re all operating form last year’s paradigms. Our process actually helps them see it from a totally different perspective, and one where they can get excited and embrace it.

Q. Have you followed these at-risk young people as they moved on?

A. I did on some of them, but it was a qualitative study in an academic environment and it was hard to follow them. One of them, though, I know for sure, went on to be incredibly successful.  She was a young woman, one of four girls abused by the father, who went on to become a lawyer and an advocate for women’s rights.

In the program, we show them to embrace whatever negatives they went through. We tell them that gives you a unique way of looking at the world. She had a unique perspective to bring about positive change in an area that only she knows. Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss.” I say that if you follow what pisses you off, you’ll have more energy to overcome challenges.

Q. Are you working mainly in New Hampshire?

A. Mainly I’ve been working with school districts through Vocational Rehabilitation, but I’ve also been working with economic development agencies out in the Midwest for Native Americans. My drive and Bill’s drive – and what we were both working for – is that this needs to go national. We need this in this country now badly. We’ve done it with Native Americans, Bill very much used the process with veterans. I, through IBM and the World Bank, was doing a lot with women and minorities and youth.

Q. So why isn’t this even more front and center?

A. Self-employment is about self, which is an art, and the science of employment. But I think every bit, from the federal and state level down, from education and our social systems are creating instead very repressed, very uneducated, very under-driven society.

We’ve created a culture of helping us learn what’s wrong with us, instead of what’s right with us. There are statistics that suggest 60 percent of Americans are disabled today. Sixty percent. That’s mental health issues, PTSD, bipolar, learning disabilities, TBI, OCD, ADD, obesity, diabetes. Look at what we’re creating. And it’s the same kind of numbers for youth. We have to teach them it’s not what you can’t do – it’s what you can do. We’ve created a whole environment of negative outcomes for everyone. The teachers don’t like it. The students don’t like it.

Basically what you’re talking about is that we have a society that spends a lot of time people not thinking about themselves except in a negative light. 

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