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Steve Jobs's Mac allowed City Year to pursue its dream

Posted by Marjorie Pritchard  October 7, 2011 03:06 PM

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By Michael Brown

When we were starting City Year in 1988, there was this amazing new machine, called the Macintosh computer. It gave us, a small group of idealistic young people with no resources and little real world experience, a powerful tool to pursue our dream to tap the idealism of young adults for a year of service, and launch a model that we hoped would help jump start a larger vision for voluntary national service in America.

That Macintosh computer had 128K of RAM, and no hard drive. You had to load the operating system on one floppy disk and save your document on another one. But it was a piece of magic. Back in those days, the concept of "desktop publishing" was brand new. Publishing a business plan, just a few months before, had meant hiring a professional designer and paying the high costs of off-set printing. That would have been a show stopper for City Year. We were unincorporated, had no bank account, and not a dollar to put in it even if we had.

But we were able to sit around my parents dining room table and bang out a business plan, of sorts, for our passionate belief that young people would want to give a year and change the world. The Macintosh made us look professional on paper, and gave us a shot at getting our ideas in front of people who could fund it and help bring it to life.

What I realize now is that the Mac was more than a machine. It was a beacon that gave us permission to go for it, to pursue our dream.

At the same time, we were inspired by the entrepreneurially founding of Apple itself, and its founders. I remember us thinking that if Steve Jobs and Steve Wosniak could invent the concept of the personal computer in their garage, revolutionize the computer industry, and democratize the awesome potential of technology, maybe our small band of so-called social entrepreneurs, huddled over our Mac at the dining room table, could invent a model for national service that could help unlock the awesome potential of the idealism in the country's young people and perhaps even inspire national legislation to promote the concept of voluntary national service.

Once we got underway, we reached out to Apple Computer’s corporate foundation, and we received a generous grant of Apple computers that fueled the development and operations of our critical start-up years.

Soon we were inspired not just by Steve Job's products and Apple’s entrepreneurial story, but by his ideas.

In founding Apple, Steve Jobs said that his goal was to "change the vector" of the history of computers early enough in its history to bring millions of people under the curve of its empowering effects. One statement summed it all up: "It is better to give 1000 people a small computer than one person a 1000-powered computer, because people are inherently creative."

Even a small nudge, that pushes up the direction of that vector, if it were early enough, he thought, could have a dramatic effect over time. We took from that idea that national service was in its infancy, just starting out, and a small prototype could impact its future. So we concentrated on what we wanted national service to look like if it were large one day -- uniting diverse young people for a common, shared experience in idealism, meeting community needs, supported by private sector matching investment, and offering life changing scholarships for those who served.

In design, Steve Jobs said that you "had to care about the motherboard,'' meaning that it was not enough that the outside of a product was beautifully designed. If you opened up the back of the computer, the motherboard, which only techies would see, it had to be just as beautiful. It too had to inspire; the entire product had to have an integrity of design. We took from that idea that every aspect of our organization should be infused with a civic spirit, and a core theory of citizenship.

When the Macintosh was being produced, Steve Jobs ordered that every machine in the production assembly line be aligned in a row and painted black, so that the process of constructing the Macintosh would have a sense of unity and larger purpose for all to see and experience -- and that no one working on its assembly would feel disconnected from the larger idea they were all working on. The engineers balked at painting such high tech and sensitive machines at all, much less black. But soon there was a line of black assembly machines, producing a machine that would invent the future. And we took from that idea that intentionality mattered – that everything had to be done on purpose and deliberately – and that uniforms could be both meaningful and liberating. A strong, idealistic civic culture grew in our organization, and became ingrained in our DNA.

Perhaps Steve Jobs’ most powerful idea at work at City Year today was his exhortation to "found things right." He said that there is nothing more important than how something gets founded, that if you found it right, a powerful dynamic is set in motion that will play out positively for years to come. Conversely, he warned that the amount of time, energy and resources to fix something that was not founded right was enormous, and expediency will always be paid for many times over. "Found it right" is the mantra of every new project and every new site at City Year, now 23 cities strong.

Thank you Steve Jobs. May you rest in peace. May the revolution of human creativity that you unlocked never cease.

Michael Brown is CEO and co-founder of City Year.

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