CEO Robert Santana uses innovation to support 9,500 members of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Orange Coast.

Creating the next generation of leaders

by TOM BERG

Robert Santana found the Boys & Girls Club by accident, he says.

One day, he walked in to volunteer. Two years later, he was chief executive officer of the Santa Ana club.

In the 12 years since then, he’s turned a single location with 12 employees serving 150 kids into 66 locations – including Irvine – with a staff of 175 employees serving 9,500 kids.

How? By bringing an entrepreneurial vision to the nonprofit world.

“Our kids are flying drones through obstacle courses,” he says. “They’re rock-wall climbing and speaking at Toastmasters and charting their college careers. We’re developing the next generation of leaders, so it’s important that we ensure these kids are well-rounded.”

The focus on creating the next generation of leaders through interesting programs and education is part of the mission of the Boys & Girls Club.

Mentors and role models

One way he’s done that is through the use of mentors.

“I’ve never met a successful person that was self-made,” says Santana, a veteran and former police officer. “Someone helped them find their passion and helped them get up when they stumbled. We provide mentors to make sure every kid feels connected.”

These mentors guide children through activities that include physical fitness, homework assistance, and enrichment programs like computer coding, character building and entrepreneurship.

“Today’s kids are smarter and better equipped than any generation before,” he says. “But they also feel isolated. Our mission is to create these relationships to ensure they’re on the path to success.”

Entrepreneurial spirit

An entrepreneur by nature, Santana held two jobs in high school and started a third – his own car-detailing business. After serving in the U.S. Air Force, he earned degrees in both criminal justice and education.

“My brother, my sister and my wife are all teachers,” he says. “But as an entrepreneur, I was more attracted to the idea that I could teach kids how to shake a hand; how to tie a tie; and why it’s important to hold the door open for someone; you know, how to build confidence in someone.”

His entrepreneurial approach created the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Orange Coast by merging clubs in Irvine, Newport Beach, Orange, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana. Last year, every facility was upgraded.

“A charity mindset sometimes can make you comfortable with keeping the doors open and lights on,” he says. “The way I look at it is, if we believe the mission is important, then we have a responsibility to try to serve more kids.”

Lifelong learners

Step into one of these clubs, and you’ll find kids building robots, programming drones and using 3D printers.

“I look at all that tech and what I see are keys that are unlocking potential,” Santana says. “They’re unlocking kids’ interests in learning. If we make learning fun, it makes kids want to learn more.”

Club mentors use technology to engage kids with things like virtual college tours and robot competitions.

“It sparks their curiosity,” he says. “And curiosity is a superpower.”

He believes that channeling this curiosity will make kids into lifelong learners – a critical skill for finding a job in today’s marketplace.

“The new skill of the 21st century and beyond is this: ‘Can you learn new skills?’ ”

He wants every Boys & Girls Club member to answer yes.