From Art to Social Enterprise: Kevin Martin, Business Administration

Experiences – no matter how disparate they may be – can prepare you to take on any challenges you may face.

That’s one of several lessons Kevin Martin, Associate Dean of Management Division and Assistant Professor of Business Administration at New England College, passes along to his students, drawing from his own adventures to show how blending art and business can make a difference.

Martin relies on his undergraduate art school education to illustrate the concept of data visualization, and may talk about his time promoting HIV/AIDS education in Tanzania for a lesson about consumer behavior. Even his homesteading hobby (he raises turkeys, ducks, and rabbits for meat, and has a laying flock of chickens) can become a business lesson.

An admitted “art nerd,” Martin had what would be considered a dream job for an art student: Working at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum in St. Louis, an opportunity to get up close and personal with the creations of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró and other masters of the art world.

As much as he enjoyed his work, Martin realized he wanted to make a difference beyond the art world.

“I could not shake the feeling that my world existed in a bubble, and by my senior year of college I was thinking about how I could impact a broader swath of society,” he said.

While considering applying for the Peace Corps, Martin met a girl named Blair who was working with HIV/AIDS education in Tanzania’s rural villages. “This was in the early 2000s, at the height of the pandemic, and there was an enormous need for accurate and scalable educational models in rural areas. This seemed like the opportunity I was looking for,” he said.

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Two months after graduating with his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Sculpture, he was helping his future bride establish the Tanzanian Educational AIDS Mission (TEAM). The two are now parents to four sons, and recently marked their 13th anniversary.

During their six years abroad, the Martins faced significant challenges operating TEAM with a largely volunteer staff. “While we had many successes, we also had many failures,” he said, and decided to return to the states so he could pursue additional education to “save us the pain of learning from our mistakes.”

After exploring a variety of advanced degrees, he moved to North Carolina to start a Master of Business Administration degree, as his wife wrapped up their work in Tanzania. “I felt an MBA would provide the skill set to manage any program, regardless of mission or structure, allowing for versatility in how I apply the knowledge.”

It was in business school that Martin realized the issues he faced running a nonprofit were not unique, as “organizations across the world were facing the same challenges and experiencing the same failures my wife and I faced managing a nonprofit in East Africa, and that success was not linked to knowing the right answer, but in being able to ask the right questions.

“This is an important lesson that has been a key component of my professional life, and I bring that same hard learned lesson to the classroom to pass on to my students.”

His nonprofit experience has influenced his view of the impacts of both nonprofit and for-profit organizations on the world.

Some of his students have put those principles into action during study abroad excursions to the Meru/Nanyuki region of central Kenya over spring break in 2015 and 2016 as part of his Sustainable Enterprise and Innovation class. Students learned how to build sustainable organizations and develop ways to make a difference in people’s lives.

“I teach an ethos called the Triple Bottom Line, the idea that an organization is not just seeking financial strength, but looking to balance that with environmental sustainability and social equity. This perspective is directly correlated with my experience in the nonprofit and social enterprise sectors,” he said.

Martin discussed how both artists and business people must adopt similar approaches to be successful, and the value of a well-rounded education.

Your undergraduate degree is in art, yet you’re entrenched in NEC’s business program. How have you’ve been able to bridge the two disciplines?

Surprisingly, I have found a lot of crossover between art and business, as both require very similar skill sets in order to be successful: you must be self-motivated, disciplined, comfortable with some risk, adept at marketing ideas, possess clear communication skills and able to function in a resource-constrained environment. Finally, art venerates unorthodox ideas, an approach I have found to be valuable in an age when the rules of business are constantly shifting.

If you were to describe the business and management programs at NEC to prospective students (undergraduate or graduate levels) seeking a degree online, what kind of story would you tell?

We like to say that every student at NEC will be “known” during their time here. This is true for all of our degree programs. The professors are willing to go out of their way to connect with students both in and out of the classroom. During my final hiring interview at NEC a long-time faculty member pulled me aside and asked if I was willing to be a mentor first and a professor second.

That value of mentorship is core to NEC. It is our “special sauce.” In online programs it is particularly difficult to support this value, yet every year at graduation I watch as online faculty and their online students meet for the first time as old friends. So while students can expect to learn core business tenets in a variety of areas, it will be the relationships they build that are the enduring story of their time at NEC.

Do you still maintain your passion for art?

I do, and I continued painting portraits and murals until I became Associate Dean two years ago. Now that passion manifests itself in different ways, and I find creative release through curriculum development and program design.

Tell us more about your homesteading hobby.

This is a shared hobby with my wife, and it often requires the help of our four boys. While in Maine, I had a small farm where I raised cows, pigs, geese, meat and laying chickens, turkeys, ducks, and guinea fowl, and I had two acres of blueberries and a home garden. After moving to New Hampshire last year our current home is a little more suburban, and I so I have had to transition to smaller livestock. I am in the process of constructing a greenhouse and establishing a large vegetable garden and small apple orchard.

What commonalities exist between people who work in creative pursuits and those who work in more technical or business professions?

They are both driven by a greater goal, and achieving that goal requires risk taking and facility in communicating ideas. Whether you are building a sculpture or a business, the process is largely the same: It requires research, prototyping, experimenting and constant assessment. In many ways an entrepreneur is an artist with a different set of tools.

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