If you want to make a real impact, it’s not going to be easy. There is a belief sometimes that the nonprofit sector is more relaxed than the commercial sector. But there are many challenges that are unique to the nonprofit space. If you are serious about the impact you want to make, you will question yourself every single day. You will track and analyze your metrics.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Pablo Listingart.
Pablo is a Training Development Expert and the Founder of ComIT, a nonprofit designed democratize access to free IT training and help job seekers find their place in their local economies.
Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin, can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?
I moved to Canada from Argentina in early 2015 after a successful career working in the IT sector for companies such as Microsoft Corp. and IBM Corp. for over 10 years. Back in South America, I developed a project to help less fortunate, highly talented professionals who were in need of a low-cost training strategy to help them take an active role in their local workforce. After a year of developing that project, I decided to start a nonprofit here in Canada: free IT career training to those who may not be able to afford it otherwise.
Since the first pilot program in 2017, ComIT has now expanded its program nation-wide, helping over 700 people per year. Our program is designed for people who are struggling to overcome employment barriers, offering them full access to a tailored IT education so they can take their rightful role in their local economies.
Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start your non nonprofit?
I consider myself a lucky person; I was able to have access to a quality education from a public university in South America. Even though there are no fees to attend to university, students still have to pay for books, transportation, and food, all while spending many hours on campus.
My parents are from humble origins and I grew up in a low/middle-class neighborhood in Buenos Aires. My parents had to work hard in order for me to have an education and work toward having a better future. I’m grateful for their hard work, and I also know that not everyone is that lucky.
After spending years working in the IT industry, I wanted to give back to my community. I didn’t want to code a website or mobile application that would have a one-time impact. Instead, I thought it would be good to devise a way to teach job seekers everything they would need to know to have an IT profession, the same way I learned carpentry or other trades at secondary school.
Using the knowledge I’d accumulated, and that of the other volunteers that embarked with me in this crazy project, free IT training was born.
Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?
My personal goal was to help a few people find fulfilling jobs, and for my kids to be proud of my work. Having spent 10 years helping people in South America, and an additional 4 years building and expanding programs within Canada, I’m proud to know that I’ve helped over 3,000 people get jobs and change their futures.
For me the impact is not just that the candidate is able to find a job, but also that their families and friends have the chance to see that that with effort, they too can pursue a new career. I want people to know that no goal or ambition is out of their reach. We work with people in remote areas across Canada that haven’t had access to quality education in technology. Now they are able to take classes, learn to code, and understand more about accessing a remote job. At the same time, their communities have the chance to witness that growth as well. To me, social impact means irradicating barriers and changing mindsets, both on the part of the students and also the employers. Nowadays, technology offers a path to enact and actualize that social impact.
Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?
I can share hundreds of stories; it’s hard to pick just one!
Back in December, ComIT announced a new program for Indigenous learners thanks to the support of Google Canada. We’ve been working on expanding our programs so people across the country can have access to IT education, and we are currently in our second phase of operations. We have 22 students who are learning how to code Android Mobile applications with Java. It is a pretty complex topic. One of our students reached out to us this week. He’s been doing manual labor for years, trying to provide for his family. This student shared with us that he is really happy and excited about the course. Quoting him, he said: “It’s the best course I have ever participated in. That says a lot because I’ve been in enough of them. I’m eager to learn what this program can do for me”. Having that feedback from our students, and imagining the impact this person will have in his community, feels to me like the way to make a difference and an impact in this world.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
I always say that the biggest problem we face at ComIT is shifting mindsets. Training people in IT is easy. There are a lot of programs around at different price points (though not too many that are completely free, like ours!). But the difficult part is to convince people who have been struggling for a while that working toward a fulfilling career is completely possible. Many of our students come to us saying that there are not many entry level positions. We help them find those. They tell us that IT is only for people with advanced math skills. We show them that with practice, they can do this as well.
But communicating with employers is equally important. We work a lot on networking with companies and nonprofits. We show them that it is important to hire potential, not just experience. We need to train the talent of the future. It’s not an easy task, but for companies who are willing to take the leap of faith, it can be incredibly fulfilling.
The other problem we often run into is funding. Many programs are targeted toward securing people jobs, and a lot of resources go toward registered educational institutions like colleges or universities. Last year, the government financially supported internships from varius companies, and we saw a sudden surge in hiring across the IT sector. Companies used that funding to provide a chance to thousands of entry level IT people for 6 months. That was a great government program for the sector, but it fell short in one area: the age limit was 30 years old. Many professionals who are undergoing a career change, or careers, or many skilled immigrants who are looking for work, are between 30 and 40 years old. One program can’t tackle it all, but it’s important that there are a variety of options on the market to meet people at any stage of their career.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
A leader is different from a manager. A manager gets their power from above. A leader gets their power from demonstrated action. A leader is someone who can inspire others to follow a path without depending on their authority or power to enforce it. The leader defines the path by listening to their team members; their work is to remove obstacles and help people achieve their highest potential. That’s not to say a manager can’t be a leader, but leadership isn’t something that is title-dependent; great managers have trained and developed their leadership skills.
In Argentina, we love soccer. A simple example, because he is someone I admire, is Marcelo Bielsa. Many people don’t know who he is, but he is the current coach of Leeds United in England. Bielsa is a quiet person outside the field. He took a team who was 15th in the second league and, keeping almost all of the same players, he raised the team to 10th place in the Premier League within only three years. How? He worked with his players to improve them, to show them they were worthy of investment and development. They went on to beat the current champion at an away game with one less player. Bielsa constantly shifts the focus and praise away from himself and onto the players; they are the ones, he says, who play the game.
A leader is a person who makes others believe they can achieve their goals. Leaders change minds, and understand that their job is to serve others, not to be the star player of the team. I’ve been lucky to have figures like this in my life, and I strive to emulate their impact with the work I do every day.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a non profit”. Please share a story or example for each.
- If you want to make a real impact, it’s not going to be easy. There is a belief sometimes that the nonprofit sector is more relaxed than the commercial sector. But there are many challenges that are unique to the nonprofit space. If you are serious about the impact you want to make, you will question yourself every single day. You will track and analyze your metrics. You will have to find your own weaknesses, be critical, and strive to improve every single day. It requires diligence, commitment, and an unflinching look inward — this is the way all great nonprofits are made.
- We are not here for the money. Every single time I seek new hires for my team, I tell them that it is great to be paid to help others, but your main purpose should be changing the peoples’ lives. And I know it sounds corny, but our primary goal and payment should be the smiles, the thanks, and the knowledge that our work will impact the people we get to interact with on a day to day basis.
- There will be ups and downs. Some weeks are amazing. We receive contacts from companies looking for talent, and we hear from students letting us know they were able to land incredible jobs. Cherish and savor those memories, because there will be other weeks when you spend your time and energy without seeing much reward. Often, there are many more weeks with problems than there are of absolute happiness. You have to learn to value the process, and carry the great results through the harder pockets of time.
- Don’t expect a “thank you” note every time. It would be great to receive the news of people getting jobs and celebrating the help they received. But sometimes we learn that our students have landed great jobs through the grapevine, on LinkedIn or other social media channels. Still, that makes me incredibly happy. Our work is to help others, not to receive “thank you” notes. Always remember why you are doing what you’re doing, and keep your gaze focused on impact rather than reward.
- Check your values every day. This aligns with all the previous items. It is extremely important to check in, both independently and with your team, on a day to day basis. Return to your purpose, and keep an eye out for burnout or exceeding your own limits. Take a look at your day to day actions, and that of your team — the habits we build and the mindset we carry translate into our reality, and all of that needs to align with the organization’s vision in order to enact the greatest amount of change in the right direction.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non profit?
I’ve met many people in my life, and I’m always grateful that many people I respect took take the time to even send me an email!
At this moment of my project, I would love to connect to some of the leadership teams in North America; Prime Minister Trudeau, President Biden, and their ministers. I’d love to share my own views on inclusion, talent development, economic growth in IT, education, and more as it relates to our shared recovery.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?
Lately, I’ve been carrying around a saying that I said for the first time during a webinar: “When there is a need, there is a way.” I found out that if you truly need to change your life, if you truly want to provide for your family, you will do anything and everything. There is always a way. Sometimes we just need someone to point us in the right direction, but it is up to us to make it happen.
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This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!