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Knutsen named director of social innovation and entrepreneurship

Daniel Kington
February 21, 2018

Faith KnutsenFaith Knutsen, previously operations director with TechGROWTH Ohio, has been named to the new position of director of social innovation and entrepreneurship for the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.

Knutsen joined the Voinovich School in 2008 but cites as the basis for her current role her initial career experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in central Africa. There, Knutsen taught beekeeping techniques to young people in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to Knutsen, the most important aspect of her experience was the impact of working with and getting to know people from a different culture.

“One of the big questions about working in the Peace Corps is whether you actually leave something constructive and positive behind, and I would say that I did – but I was only 21 at the time, and I didn’t have much life experience, so there were limits to how much I could offer,” Knutsen said. “Potentially the most important mutual benefit of my time there was the repeated, communal interchange between completely different people who would never otherwise have met. My experience had a huge impact on me, and I hope that my time there also had an impact on the people I was around.”

After three years in the Peace Corps, Knutsen returned home to Athens, Ohio, where she completed a master’s in international development at Ohio University, focusing on Africa. As a result of her internship work at OHIO, Knutsen proceeded into a position in international consulting administration.

“Up to that point, in a way, my career trajectory was entirely based on what I had already experienced,” Knutsen said. However, when family circumstances led her to take a position at her father’s Athens-based company, Sunpower Inc., she began to lose a sense of that trajectory. “I felt a complete disconnect from my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer. That was phase A, and this was phase B,” she said.

Working at Sunpower both gave Knutsen a wide range of new skills and forced her to confront unexpected obstacles.

“Working in a family business is sort of like going to Thanksgiving dinner every day,” Knutsen said. “I didn't enter into to it realizing how difficult working in a family business would be. However, despite its many challenges, my experience at Sunpower allowed me to develop administrative skills and training vital to a growing company.  My perceptions of how organizations operate as well as what small business management is about were hugely informed by my on-the-job training.”

In 2008, after 12 years working as an executive at her family’s business, Knutsen left the company and began work at the Voinovich School. As associate director of operations for TechGROWTH Ohio, Knutsen  supported small businesses throughout the region, a role for which she quickly developed a passion.

“I love the energy that I get working with start-ups,” Knutsen said. “There’s a small team trying to make something work. Everybody commits to the project fully, and the team is constantly taking on new roles or swapping roles, or switching to a new strategic direction.”

Knutsen’s career – both at Sunpower and in the Peace Corps – prepared her for the requirements of her new position.

“The start-up experience that I acquired working at my father’s company in the private sector was a great transition to my position at the Voinovich School,” Knutsen said. “I quickly realized, however, that the things I learned from the Peace Corps about rural engagement, community conversations, and small business in an economically disadvantaged area are absolutely relevant, whether you’re talking about a village in Francophone central Africa or in Appalachian Ohio. My experience in the Peace Corps and my experience at Sunpower left me with the sum of an equation that I didn’t even know I was building, and my position at Ohio University allowed me to apply it.”

Knutsen even had the opportunity to return to sub-Saharan Africa, when she and her colleague Judy Millesen were invited to facilitate a series of leadership development programs through a State Department contract to OHIO’s Scripps School of Journalism under the Young African Leaders Initiative.

“Returning to sub-Saharan Africa after a 25-year hiatus, I found that the children I knew then are now highly socially engaged young citizens who’ve started brilliant careers,” Knutsen said. “These young leaders are powerful, and they all have a social vision about how they want to continue to make their countries better. They’re creating an amazing new world out of the deep, systematic difficulties I saw three decades ago. For me, this experience wasn’t just engaging, it was revelatory.”

Knutsen’s work with start-ups and leadership development gave her a wide array of tools for her current position at the Voinovich School. She now directs the Social Enterprise Ecosystem (SEE) Appalachia project, funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission, bringing venture development services to regional for-profit and nonprofit social enterprises, which combine a market-based approach with a mission for social good. Knutsen also lectures on entrepreneurship and venture development and manages regional pitch competitions at the K-12 and college level.

In a way, Knutsen said, she feels like she has been preparing for this position her entire life. “Even though my father’s business was a for-profit tech firm, the premise of environmental impact and social impact was absolute,” Knutsen said. “The idea that business should be centrally engaged in social and environmental impact was instilled in me from a very young age.”

Although rewarding, Knutsen’s new position has confronted her with a fresh set of challenges.

“Prior to this position, I generally held senior administrative, rather than leadership, roles,” she said. “Being in a leadership position is outside my comfort zone, but it’s also very fulfilling. The capacity to use this platform at the Voinovich School to further the social good of the entire region is both a frightening and a deeply meaningful responsibility.”

Discussing her focus on social enterprises, Knutsen cited a quote from her father, which sums up her approach both personally and professionally: “Always live your life with your great-grandchildren’s benefit in mind.”