Q&A with MBA Alum Ken Barnes: An Unexpected Path to Leading a Nonprofit

Ken Barnes MBA '11, CEO of Options For All

Ken Barnes MBA ’11 took the helm of Options For All, a California-based nonprofit serving adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), in February 2020. Five weeks into his tenure, and with a close eye on health reports from China and elsewhere, Barnes emailed over 400 Options For All employees, asking for their ideas on how they might continue offering services to their clients in a remote setting.

Some brushed off the request, but others chimed in with insights, setting the stage for a transformative period, as Barnes set high standards for the organization and sought to build a culture, in his words, of “a 37-year-old company that innovates like a startup.”

“We changed our service model and came up with ways to continue delivering quality services to our consumers,” he says. “We were one of the first providers in the state to do remote services, then modeled that throughout the state.”

Barnes shared with us the path he took in his career both before his LeBow MBA and after, the impact he’s had in two years as CEO and the upcoming projects he’s most excited about.

Drexel LeBow: Tell us about your career path before your Drexel MBA.

Ken Barnes: I like to say I lived life a bit backwards. After high school, I went to Cal State Sacramento and then worked in advertising sales. I was on the team to build up and kick off realtor.com. We later went public as homestore.com; however, the CEO and CFO later went to prison — a very typical early dot-com experience. I used the stock from that company to start a small business, so I owned and operated a payment-processing and banking services firm for a number of years. Then I sold it and went back to college at 35 years old, after a 15-year gap. Sacramento State wouldn’t have me back, so I took courses at community college and then was admitted to a number of schools, including Columbia in New York City. In 2005, I moved to the east coast and finished my undergrad at age 38, splitting my time between the New York campus and summers in Beijing. I studied political science, as well as foreign affairs and international human rights. Then, I came back to California and started a supply-chain business drawing on my connections in China. My operations later morphed into a business consultancy and communications firm. In the midst of that, I wanted to get my MBA. A few years earlier, my wife at the time was being recruited for a job in Philadelphia and we visited several schools in the city, including Drexel. I had encountered Drexel through a neighbor in China who graduated in 2000 and was always talking about how awesome Drexel was. Later, I received a follow-up call from someone at Drexel who noticed I lived in Sacramento. I learned they had just started a campus there. It was all very fortuitous!

DL: What were the most memorable experiences during your MBA studies?

KB: I loved the experience and getting to know Frank Linnehan, the former dean and director of the Sacramento campus, and professor of management Jonathan Ziegert. I still use the giant textbook and all of my notes from his Organizational Development class today. I also still look things up, including referencing themes and topics to help my company get through COVID. I actually contacted Dean Linnehan not too long ago and said, “I think you owe me a refund — you didn’t cover how to get through a pandemic!”

DL: How did you first encounter Options For All? What went into your decision to volunteer your time with them?

KB: My initial connection with the I/DD community came through my twin brother, Kevin. He lived with cerebral palsy, and passed away in 1999, so a part of my volunteer life has involved helping others who have I/DDs.

When I moved to San Diego for the first time in 2013, I was serving as president of a company that was reorganizing. I told a friend I met at a church I was attending that I wanted a place to volunteer. She was helping raise money for a nonprofit, which turned out to be Options For All. I had recently met my now-wife, Angela, and our second date was an OFA fundraiser at the same wine bar where we had our first date. I’ve often joked that I knew we shared the same values, and I wanted to marry her, when we both won several silent auction items that night.

Later, OFA needed someone to write a business plan for one of the small businesses being created as an opportunity for people with I/DDs to have employment. As a recent MBA graduate, I volunteered to write one after the CEO said they didn’t have anyone on staff that could prepare it. At the time, the company was primarily staffed by nice people who had backgrounds in social work, not in business. My background was as a donor and volunteer, but after writing this business plan for them, I ended up serving on the finance committee and was elected to the board a few years later.

DL: What was your experience with the nonprofit sector before joining OFA? Did you ever see yourself as a nonprofit CEO?

KB: The short answer to that second question is absolutely not! Growing up in Sacramento, the pressure is always to choose a career in state government, but that just wasn’t me. I saw myself working in the private sector and that’s what I did. I was serving on the board of directors at OFA when our CEO of 27 years decided to move on. They were recruiting for the role, and my wife encouraged me to look at it. As a board member I was flying back and forth to help run the company on a volunteer basis, and the more I talked about it, I realized just how much I loved the company.

DL: Tell us about your involvement with LeBow over the years, including your service on the Dean’s Advisory Council.

KB: For me, being involved with Drexel has been a layered experience of relationships that have continued to grow more in depth. Because I attended the Sacramento campus, I didn’t visit the Philadelphia campus until May 2021, but it’s been fun to get to know the Philadelphia side of it from other alumni I’ve met here on the west coast.

I’ve loved the interactions I’ve had with Dean Madan, former Dean and now Provost Paul Jensen, and President John Fry. Provost Jensen is the one who introduced me to Drexel Solutions Institute. I kept the notes from a lunch we had, and I later hired DSI to help develop a new program we are planning to launch at OFA. We’re a year into that project, with another year to go. It’s been neat to go from being someone who heard about Drexel, to a student, to an active alum, and now someone who has Drexel working for my company as a vendor.

DL: Tell us more about OFA’s collaboration with Drexel Solutions Institute.

KB: Right before I started as CEO at OFA, I was flying to San Diego for a board meeting and getting ready for the job. I encountered someone early in the morning, who appeared to have a developmental disability and was going through our recyclables. She appeared to be around 60-ish, her English was heavily accented, she appeared to have a disability. I thought, how was this person here? What led to this? I started asking, what are our service options for older adults? And I quickly learned that there weren’t any — there’s a gap, or a donut hole, because day programs are very physically active, but as one ages and begins to have mobility issues, there’s nowhere for them to go, and often by then their family members have passed on. So, I said, we need to do something about that.

On my third day on the job, I brought a team together and asked for ideas about services for seniors. Through that process I realized we needed some help, and I reached out to DSI and said we want to create a program for aging adults with I/DD. We saw that no research had been done since the late ’60s or early ‘70s and that there hadn’t been a comprehensive R&D on whether it’s possible to arrest cognitive decline, or even to reverse it. I asked, how do we fix this? How do we improve their lives? What are the current 21st-century technologies and approaches that we could take?

DL: Tell us about your advocacy work on behalf of the I/DD community.

KB: At OFA, we currently employ 135 persons with disabilities. It’s a nuanced relationship in that most of them are employees of ours who work at another location or employer in the community. We’ve set our corporate minimum wage at $17, and that includes any persons with disabilities who we place in jobs.

My advocacy around Senate Bill 639 was rooted in what I feel is a human rights violation: being able to legally pay persons with I/DD less than the federal minimum wage. It’s a practice I banished immediately after becoming CEO, and then worked to ban it across the state. To do that, we hired a lobbyist and mounted a campaign where we contacted members of the legislature to explain why this practice should be abolished. Additionally, we worked with others in the industry to build support for the legislation, which narrowly passed out of the State Assembly before making it through the Senate and on to the Governor for signature last fall.

DL: What projects or initiatives coming up at OFA are you most excited about?

KB: First, we’re about a year into the project for older adults, and we’re seeking vendorization — that’s approval from the state for it to be covered by Medicaid — for this program by January 2023. We’re introducing virtual components which can be accessed when someone’s having a bad day, or when they don’t feel well and can’t leave their home. With our new program, we can really bring them an immersive experience, not just through Zoom or FaceTime. All along, we’ve been asking, how can we create these environments and change their lives? I’m excited about it because what we’re learning from this is not just beneficial to adults living with I/DD but to all aging adults in America.

Also, we’re building a new office campus in San Jose, where we will more than double our square footage. We’re also expanding in San Bernardino. Beyond that, I absolutely believe were about to change the face of services for seniors with this work through DSI. I think we’re going to shake things up and people are going to live differently after we get through with this. That’s what gets me excited.

DL: What advice would you have for someone considering LeBow for an MBA, master’s degree or executive program?

KB: I would say, one of the significant values of the LeBow MBA is that it’s practical. As an employer who hires lots of people, I look for candidates who can bring something of value from their educational experience, and I’m not the only one who thinks that way. When you hire someone from LeBow’s graduate programs, you know you’re getting someone who can turn around, use these tools they’ve been building, and execute. If you’re really looking to execute and to move up, I think the LeBow MBA style and cadence really fits.

In This Story

Related Stories

Q&A with Isabelle Shumate, MBA Student Making an Impact in Public Health

Isabelle came to Drexel to pursue a dual degree in business and public health, and she’s found ways to apply new information across these two areas.

Isabelle Shumate, dual MBA and MPH student

Q&A with Rajeev Nunna, Undergraduate Student Speaker for the Class of 2022

A finance major with a post-graduation position lined up at Morgan Stanley, Rajeev has been out front as a leader throughout his time at LeBow.

Rajeev Nunna, Undergraduate Student Speaker for the Class of 2022

Get to Know Brandon Jacob, Career Development Leader for LeBow’s Undergraduates

Jacob brings over ten years of experience in career and residential advising to LeBow.

Brandon Jacob, Assistant Director, Undergraduate Career Services