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IUPUI Magazine

Business Issue, Summer 2007

Serving people

Article by Ric Burrous

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In a Hollywood comedy, a business school graduate is a bottom-line fanatic.

But for John Schaefer, his 2006 degree from IU's Kelley School of Business on the IUPUI campus offers a very different "bottom line": an opportunity to serve.

Just a year after graduation, the slender and energetic Indianapolis native finds himself the director of operations for Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita, applying those Kelley business principles and lessons to the day-to-day business of a major state office.

But Schaefer also finds himself applying something more to his life from his days at IUPUI: a spirit of service and volunteerism that "make me feel that I'm part of something bigger, something special."

It's that business-mentality-with-a-service-twist that put Schaefer on this year's prestigious Indianapolis Business Journal "40 Under 40" list, which spotlights up-and-coming business and civic leaders in Indianapolis.

Passion for volunteerism

Schaefer's passion for volunteerism and service started early, even before he enrolled at IUPUI. But "the campus culture for service really opened my eyes to new ways" to help those around him, he says.

While at IUPUI, he organized the first WRTV-6 Fan Jam, a project that offered concert tickets and free pizza to anyone donating a fan to help Hoosiers in need get through the summer heat. He also founded and continues to lead "Inspire Indiana," a group that helps disadvantaged youths attend college.

"Our goal is to help inspire kids to go to college by giving them a glimpse of a day in the life of an engineer, a teacher, a lawyer," says Schaefer. "It's amazing how often just a little time with someone who already has 'made it' will open the eyes of 16- and 17-year-olds trying to find their way."

Schaefer has found an eager pool of professionals willing to share their time, their insights and their expertise with high school students on the cusp of life choices.

"Most of the people I talk to are willing, even eager, to help, because most of them have someone in their own lives who made that same kind of difference," says Schaefer.

Schaefer's volunteer work had an unexpected side effect: it introduced him to a circle of like-minded souls, several from the political arena. They encouraged him to take his business skills into government, and he wound up with a job in Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita's office working in information technology, a full year before his graduation.

That taste convinced Schaefer - a self-confessed "political junkie" - that working for the state offered a lot of potential: he could use his Kelley training, could work in politics, and could help others.

Hectic schedule

As the director of operations, Schaefer is responsible for everything from staffing to supplies, from mail flow to filing procedures. There "is no 'normal' " day; his schedule is "very fluid, totally dependent on other people's schedules and needs." Even on a slow day, the pace can be hectic; on a busy day, it can feel like being in a New York rush hour - without a car.

On those days, "I start out in a fetal position and end up pretty much the same way," laughs Schaefer, who doesn't mind poking fun at himself, knowing that a sense of humor can be a manager's best tool.

He admits to being a technology junkie, which can be frustrating because government computers notoriously lag behind those in private industry.

"I live on my Blackberry," he sighs. "I used to have it set to both ring and vibrate when I got a call or an email, but I had to change that after the constant vibrations of over 100 emails a day nearly drove me off the road."

In just a few minutes, Schaefer might have a dozen messages necessary to run the day-to-day operations of an office with just over 50 employees in the business services and securities divisions. The state's elections division also falls under the secretary of state's purview, with another set of employees.

Technological tools

Schaefer's love of all things technology-related is slowly reshaping the way the Secretary of State's office functions. For example, he is spearheading efforts to streamline filing systems to be as paper-free as possible, providing savings for the office and quicker turn-around for the Hoosiers who depend on the office for timely business filings.

"I'm Generation Y all the way - I'd have NO paper if I thought I could get away with it," he laughs. But Schaefer is serious in his conviction that a business school background is a valuable tool for those in government.

"I think it would be ideal to have more business majors involved in government life," he says. "The principles we're taught in Kelley are just as valuable in handling the public's business as they are in the private sector. If we can reduce bottlenecks or streamline processes, people can have the paperwork they need to do their jobs or build their dreams."

He takes a cue from Rokita - not to mention his Kelley professors - in relying on research and homework to improve business practices.

"The secretary is really aggressive about learning the 'why' behind the things we do in this office," says Schaefer. "He's encouraged all of us to do a lot of research into our areas, to see what we can learn from other offices and other states. If we can find a way to do our job quicker, cheaper, or more efficiently, and still serve the people who are our customers, that's what he wants us to do."

Still tied to campus

Schaefer is determined to maintain his ties to the campus, first by tapping the pool of IUPUI students interested in internships with the state, and second by indulging his passion for politics as an adjunct teacher of political science.

"I'm constantly on the lookout for interns who want to get a feel for what life is like in government," he says. "I'm always glad to see kids from IUPUI come in the door. I know the power of internships; they're a great first step into a career."

While he is enjoying his stint in government, Schaefer has other career goals in mind, too. His teaching in political science within the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI has whetted one of those: life in the world of politics.

"I've really enjoyed teaching, though I think I need to go back to every teacher I've ever had to apologize for thinking they didn't work too hard," he laughs. "It's really exciting to have a chance to work with young people still finding their identity."

His conservative tendencies haven't always endeared him to fellow faculty members, he admits: "some of them just look at me and kind of shake their heads," he laughs. "But in the classroom, my goal isn't to turn Republicans into Democrats or Democrats into Republicans; it's to turn the apathetic into the engaged!"

It's a strategy that has worked, according to one of his students.

"I'd never voted in Indiana before, but he put voter registration forms and information on Oncourse (the online portal for students' academic work) for his students, and I voted for the first time this year," says Jennifer Emmett. "He is a great teacher, really has a passion for politics."

That passion may manifest itself in written form, too.

"I've threatened to write a textbook for Indiana political science classes. I think I'd call it The Hoosier Way: Who's Who, and What They Do," he laughs.

Whatever he does - whether he "runs for governor or for the door to the private sector" - Schaefer plans to do it in his hometown.

"I was born and raised in Indianapolis, and I love this city," he says. "I could have gone to college somewhere else, but IUPUI was perfect for me because it was in the city. I can't imagine living or working anywhere else, because this city and this state are poised for a really bright future, and I want to be part of it."

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