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Jim Ziolkowski: Build On

By Robert Bao

  • Published: 06/24/2013
Jim poses with buildOn urban youths on the rooftop of a community center in the South Bronx of New York City.


          In 1990, he was 23 and had a promising career in corporate finance with GE Capital, Stamford, CT, when he decided to switch gears.  Having been exposed to  extreme poverty when he backpacked around the world to Nepal, India, Thailand, China and the (then) Soviet Union, Jim Ziolkowski, ’89, decided to leave GE to found buildOn, a nonprofit organization that mobilizes urban youths for volunteer work, both in the U.S. and abroad.  “Our mission is to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and low expectations through service and education,” says Ziolkowski, who after two decades has been featured by Anderson Cooper’s talk show on CNN and NBC’s Today Show.  “We’ve had some 25,000 urban youths go through our after-school programs.  We’ve built 500 schools in nine countries, and they have been attended by over 300,000 people.”  Jim started to offer after-school programs on volunteering in places like Detroit, Chicago, Harlem and the South Bronx, “where the kids faced major challenges, ranging from gangs to drugs to dysfunctional schools.”  By involving the children in service programs for their communities, says Jim, many of them improved their academics as well.  “Researchers from Brandeis University did a study and found a causal link,” says Jim.  “Even though we’re not an educational program, the kids who participated in buildOn programs had hope and expectations, and that led them to just show up in school—which is half the battle in some cases.”  A native of Jackson, Jim chose MSU (over the University of Michigan) “because of the business school and also because I liked all the people I met during my visits.”  He says he grew on campus, both academically and socially.  He remembers the first school his team built.  “It was in a small village in Malawi,” he recalls.  “I almost died of Malaria.  But I survived.  When you see the smiles on the faces of the village people when they get a new school, it makes all the work worthwhile.”

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