Stories in Entrepreneurship

Will Kiefer

Founder / Executive Director Bench Mark Program

Will Kiefer head shot.jpg

Will Kiefer is excited about growing Bench Mark Program as a new community gym. Will is fascinated by the concept of what they look like, who goes to a community gym, what it accomplishes. A lot of folks think that a community gym is for poor people, but he has found that most of the participants are everyday workers. Will creates a space where people can connect by working out next to kids who need mentorship. It’s comfortable for everyone, no one feels poor, and everyone walks away meeting people that they probably never would have met before. It’s like the investment banker bench pressing next to an 11th grader who is struggling with third-grade level math.

Born in Gettysburg, PA, Will came to Lancaster in 2010 to attend Franklin and Marshall College where he completed a double-major in Public Health and Spanish. After a few trips abroad to Honduras and Chile (an extended 4-month stay), Will returned to Lancaster in 2014 feeling a need to be connected to my community. Specifically, he wanted to use his energy to create a space where possibility and opportunity would be available to people who wanted to change their circumstances.

In 2014 during his last year of college, Will founded the non-profit organization, Bench Mark Program (BMP) in order to give at-risk youth a chance to spend time in a gym environment around consistent, positive role models. Three years later, Will continues to expend all of his time and energy to push for the use of two gym facilities as resource centers for youth across the city who want to write their own story and create their own program for change that meets their needs. In 2016 Will was honored as the Lancaster Young Professional’s Young Influencer Award. Later that year Will was also recognized by the Central Penn Business Journal as a MidState Millennial in a full story cover piece in their publication. In 2016 Will married his business partner and best friend: Karla Kiefer (who he met at F&M college in 2013).

How did you become an entrepreneur?

As with all good things in life, I kind of fell into “entrepreneurship.” When I started Bench Mark Program (BMP) in 2014 while still at Franklin and Marshall College,  I had never taken a single business-oriented course in school (and I still haven’t). I had no idea that “entrepreneurship” was even a professional designation. I was simply going after the solution to a problem that I thought I could help fix. I figured that if I had the energy and capacity to make a difference in the lives of some struggling teens in Lancaster City, I should do it. I’ve always been motivated by a quote by someone (can’t remember who?) that goes something to the effect of: “we’re all just renters here on Earth and the way that we pay rent is through service to others and lifting up those who are less fortunate than ourselves.” Running BMP as a non-profit organization, and learning the ins-and-outs of business and entrepreneurship has been a completely separate challenge. At my core, my “internal engine” tells me to help others every day in any way that I can. That’s what keeps me going, and at this point, I believe that business is the best avenue that I have to improve the lives of others. So even if I now fall under the category of “entrepreneurs” in business lingo, I still see myself first and foremost as a volunteer and community servant.

What is your vision for the future of your company? Of your community?

My vision for BMP is to redefine the term “community gym.” And my ultimate hope is that this organization can grow well beyond me as a singular individual. One day, after I have established a sustainable, replicable model for the operation of our gym facilities, I hope that community leaders will take the initiative to launch their own BMP gyms in their hometowns. I want to play a role in lessening the day-to-day burdens that we all feel in life through fitness and mentoring (and I mean mentoring for ALL ages). I know that I can’t do that on my own, so I want to create a tool (a community gym model) that others can take and expand well beyond my own personal reach. If I can create a sustainable replicable model and share it with community leaders inside and outside of Lancaster PA, then they can take this new community gym model and customize it to meet the needs of the individuals in their communities.

In my life, the gym has always been a source of refuge where I can connect with friends and get away from the world for a while. My vision for our community is not that everyone starts to workout and get in great shape ( I know that is not realistic ). BUT I believe that in our community we can increase the amount of value that place on time spent at the gym. I want our community to respect the time that people spend at the gym with the understanding that powerful mental and emotional re-charge time is often occurring within the gym setting. For me, and for many others, the gym serves as a stable, dependable “home base” in life. I want more people to recognize that when you have a “home base,” something to work off of and build off of, the outlook on life improves. I’m starting to get at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs here...

What has been the biggest challenge to creating a new venture?

The biggest challenge for me personally in regard to organizational development is patience, plain and simple. Patience is a virtue that has always alluded me, but working on BMP has highlighted the need for me to practice patience, whether I like it or not. I’ve learned that sometimes even delirious amounts of hard work don’t move things forward at the speed that I’d like. Everything takes time, and everything happens at the RIGHT time, whether that’s on my own “mental timeline” or not.

What advice would you give to an earlier version of yourself?

On a similar note to my previous response, I’d remind myself to practice patience. I used to spend an immense amount of time listening to motivational material (youtube, podcast, audiobook) and I still do. But that material got me fired up and got me thinking that everything ahead of me was going to happen now, now, now if I worked hard enough. Hard work is non-negotiable, but the “mental timeline or timetable” has to be adjusted for all of the things that I want to accomplish. I’d remind myself that my hard work will pay off in time, but I have to appreciate every moment on this path in the meantime. It’s the same thing I’m currently telling myself. If I don’t learn to appreciate each moment in this journey of mine and be truly present with the people and things around me, I could get to the end of this journey and be standing all alone. I want to get to the end of my journey and be surrounded by people that I have loved and helped along the way. That’s the goal I’d remind myself of.

Tell me about your biggest surprise or lesson learned as an entrepreneur?

The biggest surprise to me (so far) has been the series of insights into the lives of my BMP students. The adverse childhood experiences that these young women and men have gone through would have crushed me as a young person. Some of my students find a way to remain positive in light of all of their trials and tribulations, while others turn sour and angry. Honestly, I can’t blame them (for becoming angry). The cycle of poverty is real, and it lives right here in our backyard. I have to try to help my students see a path out. As an entrepreneur, as a white, middle-class American male, I realize I have absolutely nothing to complain about.  If my students can persist, persevere, and bounce back in life after being beaten down (literally and metaphorically), then I can do it too, especially with my loving family and privileged (in comparison) background. BMP has humbled me beyond words and shown me that my work has JUST begun. The problem of poverty (and suffering in general) is so much bigger than me and BMP. I’ve learned where I fit into the solution with my own capacity and drive.

What question did I miss? What else should I know about you?

Sometimes I hit a string of days where I want to quit just about every day. If I can’t get a win, and life keeps punching me in the stomach, again and again, I lean on my wife Karla Kiefer. I look to her for inspiration and coaching because she has experienced more hardship in life than I can imagine. She’s originally from Ecuador and Argentina, and she brings to the table a completely different outlook on business. She is a talented leader who does not suffer fools and holds no punches. She speaks the truth, without exception, and she can straighten me out anytime I lose my focus. As an entrepreneur, if you don’t have someone like that in your life, I don’t think you stand a chance.


11/9/17

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