When we think of innovation in business, oftentimes flashy images come to mind, like jet engines, personal computers and vaccines. But innovation can also occur with far less sizzle and yet massive positive impact. Such is the case with Lee Lonzo's The Kick-Off Program, a mentoring program that helps bewildered freshman get through their first, critically important year of high school. With our educational system under durress and underperforming, we couldn't think of a better target of innovation than what The Kick-Off Program is focused on.
And that's why Lonzo is the winner of our 2008 Home-Based 100’s Most Innovative category.
A life-long educator, Lonzo, was an assistant principal in Carmel, Ind., when he started his business in 2001. After more than 30 years in education, he observed that freshman who had a bad experience within their first few weeks of high school later on had an alarming drop-out rate.
“They’ve already turned off,” he says. “They’re just waiting to drop out. They get behind, they get a couple of bad grades, and they feel lost.”
And, of course, when young people drop out of high school, a chain reaction of life mistakes can take place. Those without high school diplomas are less likely to join the workforce and are more susceptible to crime and other social dilemmas.
So Lonzo came up with a plan: Have upper-class students get involved in the process and mentor their new classmates. Select teachers at the schools train those older students on how to best mentor. Lonzo trains the selected teachers himself.
Fast forward to the present, since the launch seven years ago, and Kick-Off has now mentored 50,000 freshman and trained 10,000 upper-class students as “Kick-Off Mentors.” The number of schools involved has spiked to 230 nationwide, up from 40 just three years ago.
Lonzo credits part of his success to his son Kyle, who is his partner in the business, and convinced him to transition Kick-Off from a part-time vocation only during the summer to full-time enterprise, in January 2007.
“He kept pushing me and pushing me,” Lonzo says of Kyle, who is a former business major from Indiana University and handles Kick-Off’s marketing strategy. “It’s been growing ever since.”
The main reason for its wildfire growth, he says, is that there is such a major need for the service.
Lonzo says that schools, no matter the size or demographics – he’s worked with facilities in suburbs and urban areas, from those with thousands to students others with 20 incoming freshman – can have these problems. Additionally, Kick-Off has been initiated in both private and public schools.
“It was a real epiphany for me,” Lonzo remembers, referring to the sheer diversity of schools that needed his services.
Lonzo pitches Kick-Off – and gets his revenue sources – by hitting the pavement around the country, presenting to school boards, state conferences and other organizations. But he says that one of the most traditional marketing tools for home-based businesses is usually the most effective.
“The best marketing we can do is word of mouth,” he says. “The best marketing tool we have is when someone says, ‘We have this great program. You have to try it.’”
Lonzo worried that one expense he would find in starting Kick-Off was the requirement to pay upper-class students for their time commitment. He was wrong.
“They laughed at me,” Lonzo recalls. “They said, ‘This sounds like fun. We would love to put it on our resume.’ I like to think we’re teaching them the best part of our culture – to give back.”
Torto says he might consider taking his concept abroad one day, but “there are a whole lot of high schools in the U.S. we’d like to get into first.”
Though his concept is unique, Lonzo’s words of wisdom to other would-be startups are similar to the heads of other successful enterprises. He stresses the need to have faith and passion in what you’re doing. Discipline is necessary, too, he says, especially for those who have never worked consistently in an environment by themselves.
“It was a big adjustment for me because I’ve worked around people my whole life,” Lonzo recalls. “There was a big divide between being at work and being at home, and I’ve had to be somewhat regimented.”
Judging by the number of young lives in which he’s made a difference, we believe that however Lonzo figured out that transition, he did it right.