September 12, 2018

Lead(H)er: Marci Cornell-Feist, Founder and CEO of BoardOnTrack

When Marci Cornell-Feist was an undergraduate at Bowdoin, she joined a co-ed fraternity. The organization had a house on campus, and while women were welcome to live there, only two had been brave enough. It didn’t seem right, so she and three others rallied, occupied “the 6-man” (a beloved part of the fraternity) and from that point forward, the house became as co-ed as the fraternity itself.

“That was a bit of foreshadowing of my career journey,” Cornell-Feist said.

There were other signs, too. She didn’t like any of the majors at her liberal arts college and chose to create her own, focusing on Asian languages, religions, and cultures, and driving a Bowdoin-provided van with a few other students almost two hours away to Bates for Japanese classes.

A social entrepreneur before the term was even coined, Cornell-Feist has founded eight startups over the course of her post-college career, the first of which she developed while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand.

There, she went to agricultural school and worked to create a community dairy organization with a Thai entrepreneur who had a strong vision for how the project would take shape.

“We were trying to figure out how to get this project off the ground because Thailand didn’t really have dairy,” Cornell-Feist said. “So we started doing what’s now called product-market fit.”

They built the framework of the organization but debuted their organization first with pigs, and then with fish. By gradually introducing cows, she and her partner were able to successfully implement their vision and ultimately change lives.

Shortly after her time in Thailand, Cornell-Feist completed a one-year master’s degree in education at Harvard, counting the head of aboriginal education in Australia and the second-in-command of education in China as her classmates. The program focused on problem-solving through teamwork and projects, giving her a stronger foundation for the many startups to follow.

Cornell-Feist then returned to Asia—this time to Laos—where she worked to resettle the remaining 40,000 refugees of the Vietnam War.

Marci Cornell-Feist BoardOnTrack

“I believe in the power of the network,” Cornell-Feist said. “Even in communist Laos, which was so isolated, it didn’t even have a bridge to Thailand … people want to learn from each other, and networking and competition can improve performance. You connect, you get better, you see how you compare to others and grow from that. You look around and ask, ‘Hey, what are they doing? Maybe we should do that, too.’”

A convener like Cornell-Feist is continually looking around like this, connecting money and ideas to make things happen. It’s what made her a good consultant when she ran her own consulting business—which was successful enough to make her begin to consider scaling up—but wasn’t quite enough.

“I wasn’t convinced that it was something that would excite me,” she said. "I was working on the business plan, but it wasn’t new—it wasn’t challenging. It was doing good things for people, but it wasn’t making the world better. I had a lot of knowledge that I wanted to package to be useful to the world.”

Cornell-Feist did what she does best and convened a group of current and former clients to form an advisory team that could help her develop her eighth startup. One of the team members, an investor in Runkeeper, suggested a SaaS company that could do for other people what Cornell-Feist had done for this advisor while he chaired a nonprofit board--break problems and plans into small pieces to work them out.

Though she had never thought of herself as a product person, Cornell-Feist decided to move forward with the idea. With the help of her team of strategic advisor, which she said poked holes in her plans to help her develop the best one possible, she created BoardOnTrack. The software she created is designed to provide nonprofit boards with professional development and other data-driven resources, like a peer network and expert coaching, to help them become stronger governing bodies over time. They chose first to focus on the charter public school market.

“Charters are all little startups,” Cornell-Feist said. “It’s all about scaling them and working through their organizational journeys.”

The ability to impact hundreds of little startups brought her the excitement she had been seeking. “I like the creativity and energy,” she said. “There’s nothing more thrilling than pulling something out of thin air.”

She has grown and scaled BoardOnTrack which now serves thousands nationwide.

BoardOnTrack Office Selfie

The Team at BoardOnTrack

Rapid Fire Questions

What do you like to do in your free time?  

I like to travel with my family. We take some unusual trips which involve hiking and being off the grid and it’s always good to spend time together and go do something different.

How do you handle stress?

I try to be very intentional about spending time with my family. On a lot of these trips, we make sure to go off the grid. Last year we did the Tour de Mont Blanc. It’s kind of the European Appalachian Trail—it’s their longest hike. So we took three weeks and started in the French Alps, then went to the Italian Alps and Switzerland and back to France.

I remember when I reread Harry Potter to my kids, Dumbledore has this pensieve thing, where he takes all the marbles out of his brain and lets them float around outside. So that’s what I do. I make a big sheet of paper and some markers and take all the marbles out of my brain. It’s good to go outside or on a plane. I just get it all out once a week, and then again once a quarter, and then I can organize and prioritize it all.

How many cups of coffee do you drink in a day?

I drink way too many, but I’m trying to scale back. Right now it’s a lot of cold brew. I wake up early—I get up at 4 a.m. just to read and exercise and do things that I wouldn’t have time for during the day. I think a lot of entrepreneurs would tell you that they end up needing to wake up earlier and earlier because there’s so much they want to do in a day, and they need to make more time. My husband says that anything I have before 6 a.m. doesn’t count because I’m waking up so early, so I usually have two cups of coffee between 6 and whenever.

What’s your favorite spot in the Boston area?

Easily the Old State House. No matter how you approach it, I think it’s a little perfect, beautiful building. It has such an amazing history, and I always love walking past it.

Aside from family, what would you say is your biggest accomplishment?

Honestly, I would say my whole career journey. I think it’s safe to say that my work has impacted hundreds of thousands of lives thanks to the programs I’ve been a part of. I’m very fortunate to know that I’ve made an impact.

Is this where you saw yourself 10 years ago?

Yes, definitely. Very much so. Things came out the way I wanted—I have a great family and a wonderful husband and a fulfilling career, as well as my own company. I think this checks all the boxes.

What’s your advice for recent college graduates?

You shouldn’t feel obligated to follow a straight line. Trust your instincts, and don’t feel the need to conform. Most people in my class in college went to Wall Street, and I did think, “Oh wow, they’re going to go and make so much money,” but I’m glad I followed my heart.

Also, I would say, especially for women, it’s still shocking now how hard it is to be a female entrepreneur. Even here in our beautiful liberal Boston! The stories I could tell you. I think the current generation underestimates it, so that I would say be aware of that.

Also, a lot of people talk about work/life balance. I think if you want to be a leader in entrepreneurship, you need to take risks and work hard, and you can’t have it all in balance. Even when it comes to my family, I intentionally miss some things so that I can focus on others. Balance isn’t always possible, and it’s essential for leaders to know that.

Samantha Costanzo Carleton is a Contributor to VentureFizz. You can follow her on Twitter @smcstnz.